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A leading astronomer says the rise of the nerds will save us from political attacks on science

Charles Cherney/AP Images for Boys & Girls Clubs of America
The kids are all right.
By Corinne Purtill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Seth Shostak knows there’s a current of suspicion and hostility toward science in public discourse today. As senior astronomer at the SETI Institute—the California non-profit dedicated to the search for intelligent life in the universe—he is also better acquainted than most with the depths of public ignorance about science and its aims. (Shostak gets a lot of calls and emails from people offering half-baked theories involving aliens and pyramids.)

But in a recent essay, Shostak explained why he still feels optimistic about the future, despite the resistance of many in the US to scientific conclusions on things like climate change, vaccines, and evolution. He writes:

I derive the greatest encouragement from the way science is seen by our culture. Being a nerd is now a compliment, and not—as it once was—a one-way ticket to social ostracism. STEM education is valued by parents and sought for their children. TV shows and movies—which once portrayed the scientifically adept with derision—now frequently make them the heroes.
The attack on science, insofar as such aggression is real, should be resisted. But it seems to me, when I look at the prestigious role models that scientists—despite their complicated jobs—have become, I figure that “the kids will be alright.” The offensive against science is one attack that can be repulsed. I’m counting on the youth.

So far, the youth are pulling through. The prevalence of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering increased from 2004 to 2014, according to a 2015 report from the National Student Clearinghouse. (Men still earn far more of them; there remains a lot of work to do on gender parity in STEM fields.)

And yes, nerds are awesome. Nerds invent stuff. They solve problems. They play David Bowie covers in space. If that’s the future ahead of us, Shostak is right—there is a lot to look forward to.

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