The Cricket: It's not easy standing up for science

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The 1956 B-movie "The Mole People" had one of the strangest, most pedantic introductions in movie history: a USC professor sitting behind a desk, talking about the technological marvels that had allowed mankind to venture into space — but not yet tackle the frontier of the world beneath our feet.

The professor, Frank C. Baxter, was an old hand at this. (He was the "Dr. Research" character in a series of specials made by the Bell System in the '50s. These educational films like "Hemo the Magnificent" and "The Unchained Goddess" were still circulating in the '70s when I was in elementary school.) And even though he was an English professor, he carried the intelligent air of a scientific expert.

When I came across "The Mole People" on TV the other night, it got me thinking: Would "Dr. Research" be considered an authoritative figure these days? Or would he be rejected as an elitist egghead?

It sometimes feels as if we are living in an age of the anti-intellectual, a time when actually knowing a lot about a particular subject is viewed with suspicion or derision.

To cite some recent examples:

• It was considered headline news this week when Bill Nye, aka "Bill Nye the Science Guy," said in an interview and in a YouTube video that the Earth has been scientifically proven to be 4.5 billion years old — and that teaching otherwise, as people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible do, will harm American scientific progress.

"If we raise a generation of students who don't believe in the process of science, who think everything that we've come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you're not going to continue to innovate," Nye told The Associated Press this week.

• Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican running for that state's U.S. Senate seat, caused a national uproar when he told a St. Louis TV interviewer that women who suffered "legitimate rape" could not get pregnant, because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Doctors called Akin's claim untrue, noting that some 32,000 pregnancies in the United Sates are caused every year by rape.

• While campaigning for president earlier this year, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum decried President Barack Obama's efforts to make it possible for anyone to attend college, saying of Obama, "What a snob!"

• Many Republicans — led by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe — have declared human-caused global warming a hoax, in spite of the cascades of scientific evidence that it's real and that human beings cause it. (The award-winning documentary "Chasing Ice," due in theaters this fall, makes a stunning visual presentation of time-lapse images of receding glaciers around the world.) Inhofe's evidence includes a handful of climate-change deniers, the Bible, and bullying rhetoric that compares environmentalists to the Nazis.

The deepening divide over global warming can show up in even the most innocuous places.

A few months back, when Salt Lake City's Clark Planetarium screened the IMAX documentary "To the Arctic," which features astonishing nature footage of polar bears trying to survive on increasingly difficult terrain, the narrator made note that the polar bears' problems were being caused by global warming.

At that moment, Seth Jarvis, the planetarium's director, tensed up a bit. "We're going to catch hell for that," Jarvis told me, adding that he would get complaints from patrons who share Inhofe's opinion that global warning isn't real.

No one is immune from anti-scientific impulses — not The Salt Lake Tribune (which publishes horoscopes every day), and not a place for science like the Clark Planetarium.

One of the films now showing at the planetarium's Hansen Star Theater is "Mayan Prophecies," which begins with a look at the mythology that the Mayan calendar foretells the end of the world this December.

The film, produced by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, starts with the damage caused by Hurricane Gilbert on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1988 — and suggests that the Mayans predicted such events.

On the last page of the Dresden Codex, one of the few surviving Mayan books, "a cosmic monster gushes water from its mouth and from sky glyphs on its body," the narrator intones. "Is this the disaster Mayan astronomers saw in the heavens long ago? Or is there apocalypse still in our future?"

But as the film goes deeper, it explains how Mayan culture developed its astronomy — and built pyramids aligned the setting sun at the summer and winter solstices, as a way to monitor seasons and predict the rains. It also argues that the end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012, is more of a reset button, something that's ultimately as much a non-event as Y2K was.

So, under cover of superstition, the Clark Planetarium sneaks some legitimate science into the lesson. That's so smart it's cool.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form, at Follow him on Twitter: @moviecricket. Or follow him on Facebook at Email him at