There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the ongoing tragedy of BP’s Gulf oil disaster. But one of the more subtle ones may be that many of us are more science illiterate than we realized. And I’m not talking just about the average high school graduate here, but about people who are otherwise considered pretty technically savvy, albeit in different fields.
Almost since the start of the spill, there has been widespread incredulity that no one knows how to cap a well under a mile of ocean. At first, I thought this was just people trying to incorrectly scale up small problems. If a pipe bursts in my basement, it may be messy, but it doesn’t take me six months to fix. Why is this so much harder?
But now I’m thinking it may be something a little different. The remake of The A-Team is hitting theaters this weekend and it brings back fond memories. The TV show was an enjoyable romp. The heroes always won, no one you cared about got hurt, and everything was tied up nicely in just under an hour. This formula has played out numerous times on the small and the big screens. From Rambo to Walker, Texas Ranger, good guys with mad fighting skills succeed against unimaginable odds. Yet despite these fictional phenoms, the average person seems to get that there is no real life Rambo to send into Afghanistan and solve the Taliban problem by Tuesday. In the real world, violent situations are way messier and intractable. The good guys don’t always win, and people you care about do get hurt.
Fictional science has many of the same type of over the top heroes as the fictional military. From MacGyver to Dr. Rodney McKay (Stargate Atlantis), from Gil Grissom (CSI) to David Levinson (Independence Day), the plucky scientist was always able to pull a plausible solution out in the nick of time and implement it just before it all goes to hell. But I’m wondering if the average person is as easily able to distinguish the science from the fiction. MacGyver is just as fictional as Rambo, yet the public is increasingly frustrated that we haven’t yet sent MacGyver to the Gulf to plug the pipe.
In the real world, science and engineering can be every bit as messy and intractable as military problems. Inventions rarely work the first time, and solving a previously unsolved problem almost never happens on a deadline. On the one hand, I suppose it’s kind of cool that people have such faith in technology to be able to instantly solve any problem. But it seems that faith has created an expectation that no flesh and blood techie is going to be able to live up to.