Nicholas Kristof had a column today (available on one of those private, subscription-only web sites here) with the title "The Hubris of the Humanities". It's a C.P. Snow-style "Two Cultures" lament, but at least it's one from the non-science side of the gap:
"In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people."
As someone who couldn't decide for a while between a humanities major and a science one as an undergraduate, I have to agree. I finally decided that it was going to be a lot easier to have a library in my basement than a lab. It also dawned on me, slowly, that many English majors had an entirely different approach to literature than I did, and that I wouldn't be very happy over there at all. And while graduate school in chemistry was often unpleasant, graduate school in English would have finished me off for sure.
I recall one day in my junior-year biochemistry class, with the professor telling us that we would be expected to have the whole citric acid pathway memorized for the test on Monday (great lamentation). Then I went straight to my Southern Literature class, where the professor came down hard on us by reminding us that we had to have finished the required William Faulkner reading by Monday, too. Groans from the English majors ensued, but I felt like yelling at them. "Look, you dolts", I wanted to say, "people read Faulkner for fun. No one memorizes the citric acid cycle because they enjoy it!" Of course, that's a major reason why many more people are familiar with Faulkner, isn't it? But not everyone likes "As I Lay Dying" (I do!), and not all parts of a science education have to be tedious.
This is a fundamental problem that my industry has. We're capable of making our own bad PR, of course, but even under blameless conditions we're doing something that most people don't understand very well and didn't enjoy having to try. So when we tell them it's hard, they think "Well, sure, of course it's hard. Tell me something I didn't know." And when we try to explain why there isn't a cure yet for (your least favorite disease here), it's hard to do so in terms that someone without a science background can really appreciate.
And that's one reason why the more irritating conspiracy theories still circulate. You know, the ones about how we pharma types really do have cures but we just aren't selling them (yet). Or how we caused those diseases in the first place, just so we could sell more drugs - I always take that one really well. Or how there are simple, cheap, safe herbal remedies for just about everything, only we Evil Pharma Overlords won't let them on the market. And so on, and so on. I've been arguing recently by e-mail with one of the "drug companies do nothing but rip off NIH" crowd, and it isn't easy. The guy has no idea of what he's talking about, or what I'm talking about, and it would take a fair amount of (unwanted) education to convince him.
But that's one of the things I try to do here - no, not convince idiots, I mean provide some education for those who might be interested. I think that the broad concepts of drug discovery (or pretty much any scientific field) can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person. They have to be explained the right way, of course, because the sad corollary to that statement is that there is no field of knowledge that can't be rendered incomprhensible. And still, even if it's done well, there are gaps. If someone lacks experience in research, there are things that have to be taken on trust.
For example: no, we don't have a machine that'll immediately print out the structure of any unknown compound you stick into it, no matter that such a device makes occasional appearances in movies and on TV. There are a lot of good reasons why that gizmo isn't available yet, and I could probably explain most of them to an interested lay party, given enough time. (For that, you could also read "given enough blog posts".) But in explaining drug discovery as a whole, it's easier to stipulate (in this case) that some time and effort has to go into make sure that the compounds you're looking at are really the ones you think you're looking at. Keep in mind that we scientists have to do the same thing if we're talking with someone in a scientific field that we don't know much about.
So, what to do? Science isn't getting any less important. I really don't think anyone can be considered well-educated without a grasp of the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, and biology. It's not as painful as it might sound. I appreciate the way that Arts and Letters Daily works in some links to science-overview articles - that kind of thing is bound to help. I wish that attitude were more widely shared, and I'm glad that Kristof made his point where he did.
Postscript: I should mention that Kristof goes on to talk about the consequences of scientific ignorance, but he makes the kind of mistake one makes after being marinated in the New York Timesfor years:
"It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution."
Which is a bizarre thing to say, on several levels. For one thing, hostility to science doesn't come merely from "the right". I'd say that science is equally admired (or used as a whipping boy) by both sides of the political spectrum. And if Kristof thinks that the Europeans can't be scared of scientific innovations, he must have somehow missed the long, loud upheavals about genetically engineered organisms and food over there. The European public cedes second place to no one in their fear of engineered food, and they don't mind going completely past any rational arguments to maintain their lead.