A Matter of Facts

Reporter Steve Marsh talks to the director of the Science Museum of Minnesota about why Americans don’t trust science.

Eric Jolly

Eric Jolly is in his office scrambling around with a copper tube, a magnet, and metallic tape. “We’re going to have a science moment here,” he says, playfully. Jolly, who has been the director of the Science Museum of Minnesota since 2004, has a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Oklahoma. President Obama just appointed him to the National Museum and Library Services Board. After having some fun with magnetic fields, he was ready for some serious science talk.

Are we approaching an era when science will be held in esteem again? Or will America always be culturally skeptical about scientific and intellectual elites? We’ve got to dispel the rumors that science is a part of the elites. Science belongs to everyone and everything. I want to democratize science, to make science a part of everyday life and experience.

Where do you think this skepticism about science comes from? In calculus, we call it a local minima, where you’re having a dip but you know you’re going to go back up again.

Obama mentioned neuroscience and neuropharmacology in his State of the Union address. But science has been disparaged for a long stretch. Science has been disparaged, unfairly so, by people who know the conclusion they want and seek the facts that would conveniently support it. Good science doesn’t do that. Good science doesn’t always offer definitive answers. Good science tells you the best that we know. Good science revises itself.

Can you name names? It happens on each side of the issue. There are people who take a little science and triangulate way too far out with the simplifications, and there are people who find those on the fringe to support their perspective even though it’s not being mainstream science. Science isn’t right or left. As Moynihan said famously long ago, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.”

Yeah, but he was a liberal Democrat. He was an intellectual and a thinker, and I think that belongs both to the liberal and conservative camps. What I’m saying is: We must train people to discern the better parts of science.

I walked through BodyWorlds, and seeing how your body will break down biologically—actually being confronted with the tissues themselves—I thought, “This is why there’s a resistance to science in this country: It’s depressing.” Science does cause us to confront reality. It doesn’t allow us to live in our fantasy. But science also allows us to dream of something beyond today’s reality.

True. The way in which we get there, the things that we can do to modify, the reasons we’re living longer, and the quality of life is also in BodyWorlds. You see these wonderful implants and modifications, whether it’s a hip implant or a knee replacement or a pacemaker, and you begin to realize that we can alleviate pain. We cannot simply lengthen life, but lengthen the quality of life. With science, you can dream of something better than today.

Right. You started our conversation by talking about is there an elite practice of science? And in the 1950s, we put science after Sputnik.

The best and the brightest scenario. We put lab coats on scientists and we put them on a platform to be elevated. That separated people from science. And when you needed a small cabal of scientists to advance our science and keep us in the space rays, that may have worked. But today everyone needs access to science. And so historically, science could be elitist. It could be the domain of a special few. Today, we all do science. We carry around in our pockets iPhones with more computing power than existed in the entire world in the early ’70s. That’s stunning.

But now the watchwords of the education system seem to be the “achievement gap.” What about making sure that our most brilliant people become scientists? Yes. But the thing you don’t hear people talking about, that I wish they would, is the aspiration gap. That desire to be a scientist. The cool factor about it.

I see the bolo tie and I see some of the Native American trappings in your office. Where did you grow up? How did you aspire to be a scientist? I’ve always been intensely curious, and I grew up between two cultures, between Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

What did your parents do? My father was a Cherokee and he worked in a factory. My dad shoveled sand. My mom was in Rhode Island. She worked as a screenprinter. They sent me back and forth as a kid. They believed something that later became a catch phrase for me: that education is a liberating force of human development and it can take you anywhere.

Education can sometimes be seen as an oppressing agent or somebody else’s program. That’s why my best work is when I can teach kids to appropriate it for themselves. To make it their own. I used to give a talk called “Steal Your Education.” It was about understanding just where you can get control of your world without anyone looking.

Sounds subversive. I’ll weave a basket and talk about how I learned to weave a basket from my grandmother. Every basket weaver has deep intuitive understanding of math and science, but no one ever told them the terms. Understanding the different kind of stress that comes from bending the reed, knowing the elastic limit of your material and when it would break. If you understand the type of stress in the elastic limit, you understand Hooke’s law.

They understand Hooke’s law of elasticity; they’ve just never heard of it. I finished a degree in physics before I realized my greatest physics teacher was my grandmother. And then I understood that all the knowledge was already there.