by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

Science is one of the most misunderstood professions in America.  There are several reasons for this:

1. No one really understands the science itself.  Science is hard and unless someone is a dedicated science enthusiast (nerd), they're not going to take the time to understand the subtleties of emerging scientific discoveries. This leads to a lot of sketchy reporting on science by the media (see my favorite comic on this topic) and complete misinterpretation by a large part of society.

2. Science is not a serious focus in American public schools.  Since it's hard to test science on standardized tests, it's not tested. Since "No Child Left Behind," the focus on standardized test results has left serious scientific education in the dust.  Moreover, serious scientific education is time consuming and difficult.  It requires giving students freedom to test theories, play with experiments, use critical thinking skills that are difficult to both teach and develop, and is often expensive.

3. No one knows how scientific research is done.  We don't really use the scientific method you learned in 7th grade science (if you learned it at all...).  You think a topic is interesting/problematic/could cure cancer/is generally cool, you do a literature search to see if other people have had the same thoughts and then you design an experiment/model/equation/computer program to test it out.  Next comes some stabbing around in the dark, formulation of ideas, writing of papers, peer review, and general discussion of the topic in your field. It's a messy and highly iterative process that most people don't ever get to experience.

4. No one knows who does scientific research.  There are two issues here.  First, the American media/public/zeitgeist has such a disdain for the "elites" that they don't care who does science because they must be overly-educated jackasses whose mission it is to subjugate the "average American" with their liberal policies and scientific "baloney" (see: reaction to pretty much anything climate scientists say, those guys have it rough).  Second, most of the scientific workforce is invisible.  I guess this is where I come in, I'm a 5th year PhD student at a Tier 1 research university studying fundamental fluid mechanics in Aerospace Engineering.  I'm not sure the "average American" knows what a graduate student does, how much we work, how little we get paid, but how badly we must love science (or whatever you're studying) to make it through this and come out with a PhD on the other end.  We have no crazy liberal agenda, we are some of the hardest working Americans who are the constantly running engine of scientific research.  Sure, our advisers get to go on the Today show or testify before Congress or write books, but we're the ones in the background doing the daily science, training to become professors/researchers/professionals someday.

People's eyes glaze over when my peers and I talk about what we do because we're mired in the details of scientific enterprise, but without people like us, the overly-educated "elites" who do science, the 21st Century way of life would be just a dream.  And if you don't like us and think we're a bunch of commies trying to trample on "real America," I'd like your cellphone and everything you own with Velcro back, because those were our ideas that you obviously don't appreciate.

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