“…Cells Shaped Like a Cross”
Jul. 20, 2010 — Some months ago I was sitting in a diner in Tucumcari, N.M., a small, shabby eatery on the western edge of town. Like many of the businesses on this lonely stretch of highway – what was once known as the Mother Road, the old Route 66 – the diner had surely seen better days. Still, it provided me with a plateful of corned beef hash and endless refills of my cup of coffee, really all I could have asked for on that particular morning.
The breakfast crowd was out in force, and I took the last available table. So when a couple of gentlemen entered the diner maybe five minutes after I got there, I gestured for them to join me. The two – a jocular fellow in a black cowboy hat and his taller, more taciturn friend – sat down and ordered, and by and by the former struck up a conversation. He was a hoot, that one, spinning tales of local cops and UFOs and telling jokes about as bawdy as they come.
After a while he asked me what I do. “I write about science,” I said. “Biomedical imaging, that sort of thing.” It was my standard response to questions about my job.
My new friend leaned forward and said, in a tone that fell somewhere between conspiratorial and accusatory, “Hey, I read the other day that, using imaging, researchers found the most basic of cells, the glue that holds life together. And you know what? The cells were shaped like a cross.”
At first I wasn’t entirely sure of his meaning, so I smiled and said something noncommittal about the terrific advances in the field. But then the other fellow – the taciturn one – spoke up. He said, slowly, deliberately: “It really makes you think about the religion vs. science question, doesn’t it?”
* * *
The tension between religion and science has existed for centuries, probably since the first time a caveman fired up a Bunsen burner to separate salt from water. In recent decades, however, it has grown ever more politicized and institutionalized. So much so that we now see among huge swaths of the population a mistrust of science generally – not just of particular areas of study that might challenge, for example, religious views about the origins of man.
It’s not a matter of ignorance, as I’m sure many would like to believe; my tablemates in Tucumcari clearly weren’t dummies. And that’s what worries me. We live in such a hyperpartisan, politically charged age that many people will accept the party line eagerly and uncritically. Thus, if politicians on the right seek to undermine and even delegitimize the efforts of the research community – a project Chris Mooney suggests is well under way; see his The Republican War on Science – folks will almost reflexively come to view those efforts as inherently suspect. (This obviously cuts both ways: Those on the left are often happy to accept fallacies about conservatives and the conservative movement.)
Or maybe I’m just cynical in my old age. What do you think? Is there a general mistrust of science in the US? If so, how might it impact the research community?
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