Jim Holt has an interesting piece about Americans and science in this weekend's NY Times Magazine. He's commenting on this interesting paradox:
"By many measures, this nation leads the world in scientific research, even if our dominance has been slipping of late. Oddly though, Americans on the whole so not seem to care greatly for science."
Holt writes about various reasons people might have for being uncomfortable with science - conflict with religious views, the difficulty of some scientific concepts, how many of the foundational theories contradict common sense (ie, quantum mechanics), the idea that 'cold' scientific explanations suck the meaning out of nature.
In spite of this ambivalence, a sidebar in the article shows that shows 42% of the public has a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, while only 24% have great confidence in organized religion and only 22% have great confidence in the executive branch of the Federal Government (survey from Jan. 2005).
Holt is touching on an interesting topic - science makes a lot of people nervous, but on the other hand scientists hold great public trust, and continue to produce technological breakthroughs that change our lives. The implications of science may be disturbing for some ideas most of us hold dear, while on the other hand, there has to be something to this science business, since science has a "spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command" (Holt quoting Richard Dawkins).
Does this explain the public's ambivalence towards science? The fruits of scientific progress are undeniable, yet this progress is based on esoteric theories that are difficult to understand, and which seem to leave no room for God or morals.
I'm convinced that if we take away some of the mystery and incomprehensibility through better science literacy, most people will realize that there is plenty of room in a scientific world to keep those things that they find most meaningful in life.