Today's Washington Post warns us that the United States is at risk of falling behind the rest of the world in the hard sciences:
Yet the reports from the National Science Foundation and elsewhere indicate that the decline is not only relative. It is also absolute: American science is growing weaker, although not across the board. The boom in research and funding for the biological sciences -- including genetics and molecular biology -- has been matched by a decline in funding for, and interest in, physics and math. Because the decline has multiple sources, the solutions will have to be multiple. Poor teaching, and especially poor high school math teaching, bears part of the blame. Even in an era of heavy testing, the standards for high school math are very low. The American Diploma Project pointed out that few states even require the basic Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra II sequence needed just for many entry-level jobs, let alone for higher education.(Apparently we leave no child behind if kids can add, but don't leave any children behind if they can't do algebra?)
The collapse of science in public education in the United States is not a new phenomenon. Sometimes, as with evolution, it is part of a deliberate effort by pressure groups to strip science out of the classroom. Sometimes, as with the math example presented in the Post, it is a matter of student interest (making the "tough" classes elective) coupled with an institutional desire to save money (nobody takes the "tough" classes, so they can be cut from the curriculum).
In the past week, I have seen two movies which reminded me of the state of science in America. The first, "Super Size Me", highlights the issues of nutrition and obesity in this "fast food era". The film does raise some valid scientific points, but the central experiment (the filmmaker's undertaking a decidedly unhealthy "McDonalds-only" diet) is nonscientific, and many of its broad assertions represent the filmmaker's opinions as opposed to the result of scientific or social research. The film suggests, for example, that fast food is the only major change in our nation's diet, because the other factors (home cooked meals, neighborhood restaurants) have existed for centuries - but overlooks the fact that in the modern era the portion size at most restaurants has been significantly increased, that even "home cooked meals" now often rely heavily on high-calorie packaged and prepared foods, and that (in contrast with most of human history) red meat is now both abundantly available and affordable, and is made a part of a typical meal in portions which would astonish our ancestors. Many of its points are valid, and the film has a significant impact, but the nonscientific approach to the issue may serve to diminish even its most valid points in the eyes of skeptics.
The second film, "The Day After Tomorrow", starts out as a decent action pic - a bit slower than most of its genre, as its action relies on bad weather as opposed to car chases and shootouts - but decent nonetheless. Then it becomes an adventure story. Finally, it culminates with heavy-handed environmental moralizing which is exceeded perhaps only by the Steven Seagal voiceover in "On Deadly Ground". Actually, it is perhaps more comparable to the moralizing at the end of "The China Syndrome", but you get the idea.
It is a bit like watching "Get Smart" in reverse. Rather than Smart's, "This place is surrounded by 5,000 agents... would you believe 30 agents and a K9 unit... would you believe three old ladies with umbrellas", we get "Global warming could plunge us into an ice age in perhaps 1,000 years; no, make that six or seven months; no, make that by the end of the week; actually, supercooled air from freakish storms will instantly freeze people into human popsicles as fast as a dip into liquid nitrogen." Granted, it is hard to make an apocalyptic action picture based upon actual scientific knowledge of the behavior of storms, but as one reviewer put it, the director's prior work, "Independence Day", is more scientifically plausible.
I don't want to draw too many conclusions from those two examples. Even with the sermonizing, it isn't reasonable to expect Hollywood to put hard science before box office bucks. And "Super Size Me" makes many valid points about the state of the world's nutrition, while being far more watchable (albeit sometimes queasily watchable) than many "traditional" documentaries (which, for that matter, are not necessarily better rooted in hard science). But I wonder if movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" ultimately trivialize the subjects they supposedly treat seriously, making it even harder to teach the real science.