Monday, March 28, 2011

Elitism and Pseudoscience in NASA/TREK

Within “NASA/TREK”, Constance Penley heaps harsh criticism on members of the ‘elitist’ scientific establishment. She believes scientific elites to be sadly removed from the public desire for scientific and technological knowledge, too wrapped up in their preconceived notions of mass culture to engage with the masses on productive or amicable terms. Her examples of scientific elitism, however, end up undermining her arguments about the public thirst for science: “popular science”, as Penley deploys the term, becomes a means of excusing the rampant scientific illiteracy that IS present in our society.

Penley spends much of the introduction castigating Carl Sagan for starting from the assumption that “most citizens are shamefully ignorant of scientific issues.” (5) Sagan criticizes popular science fiction shows, such as Star Trek and the X-Files, believing that these productions fool viewers into accepting pseudoscience by “eschewing the most elementary scientific facts.”(5) Penley then states that “Entertainment, for Sagan, is the opposite of enlightenment”: however, Sagan made a name for himself by producing a TV miniseries (Cosmos) and novel (Contact) that enjoyed widespread appeal. Sagan’s works became successful by marrying easily accessible narrative to scientifically sound theoretical underpinning: he, if anything, completely undermined any existing entertainment/enlightenment dichotomy, proving that science fiction can be fun without engaging in the radical misrepresentation of science as fact.

Penley remarks that “Penley does not seem to recognize that ‘precious facet’ as what he earlier called the natural appetite for science.” (7) ‘Science’, as we commonly understand it, involves a respect for empirical proof and logical structure: popular culture, as described in NASA/TREK, does not seem to be interested in science, but rather in the fantastical aura that some aspects of science have maintained. Sagan doesn’t deny that science and science fiction possess a socially significant magnetism: he objects to situations where the fancies of science fiction help to deceive in matters where truth and clarity are essential.

We live in an age where scientific and technological literacy is a crucial part of becoming an informed and productive citizen. The mitigation of global climate change and implementation of alternative energy infrastructures, stem cell research and HIV prevention: these movements, among others, are essential to the continued well-being of our people and planet, but have been delayed and undermined by the irresponsible decisions of electorates and officials that are woefully scientifically ignorant. Heaping lavish praise on pseudoscience implicitly encourages society to retreat within politically and socially neutered fantasy, rather than critically engaging with the realities of science and its effect upon the world. Sagan is clearly deeply concerned with the potential danger of widespread scientific ignorance. This concern is not the result of latent elitism, but of the desire for widespread scientific literacy, or “popular science” in its original sense.


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