Big Science

What’s that? Some of you are unfamiliar with the phrase “Big Science,” so freely tossed about by creationists like Ben Stein? Here’s what it means:

Coo coo it’s cold outside.
Coo coo it’s cold outside.
Ooo coo coo.
Don’t forget your mittens.
Hey Pal!
How do I get to town from here?
And he said “Well just take a right where they’re going to build that new shopping mall, go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway, take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can’t miss it.”
And I said “This must be the place.”
Ooo coo coo.
Golden cities.
Golden towns.
Golden cities.
Golden towns.
And long cars in long lines and great big signs and they all say “Hallelujah.
Every man for himself.”
Ooo coo coo.
Golden cities.
Golden towns.
Thanks for the ride.
Big Science.
Big Science.
You know.
I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs?
Ooo coo coo.
Here’s a man who lives a life of danger. Everywhere he goes he
stays – a stranger.
Howdy stranger.
Mind if I smoke?
And he said “Every man, every man for himself. Every man, every man for himself.
All in favor say aye.”
Big Science.
Big Science.
Hey Professor!
Could you turn out the lights?
Let’s roll the film.
Big Science.
Every man, every man for himself.
Big Science.

I hope that clears everything up.


  1. dave says

    I think it’s blaming the “depersonalizaton” and “coldness” of our society on big science. Big business would be a better target.

  2. Raynfala says

    Hmmmm, that sounds a bit like Laurie Anderson. Seems like her style, too.

    ‘Scuse me a second…

    [Googles lyrics]

    Yup, that was her. I think many of you will remember her from this one.

    That Laurie is one unique cookie.

  3. DrFrank says

    And here I thought that this was the official theme song for big science. It’s a lot more upbeat, to be sure!
    Damn, I get the message “This video is not available in your country” :(

    I’m in the UK, not China, so that seems a little random.

  4. Jason Failes says

    Weird, gg, it says it’s “not available in your country”, of all weird errors.

    Does anyone know why this would be? (I’m from Canada, hopefully gg will post where s/he is coming from…)

  5. Marco says

    Unfair! Laurie Anderson… I like her music.

    This is a coïncidence, I very much doubt that she would have anything to do with Ben Stein, quite the contrary.

    This is art, people, like Klimt. You don’t have to like it.

  6. says

    You know what’s bigger than Big Science?

    Big Ignorance: the organised forces for medieval stupidity who would have us all living some distorted 1950s Betty Crocker version of biblical puritanism, in which the Bible is the ineffable word of God–except for the parts Jesus got wrong, like that shit about it being good to be poor.

    This is what the moderates don’t understand, and this is what we’ve failed to make them aware of: the Fundies for Foolishness aren’t some rag-tag mob of wingnuts on the fringes of society: they’re pervasive, they’re well-funded, they’re occasionally marketing-savvy, and they’re well-respresented in government.

    It’s time to call a spade a spade: in debates and discussions with these people, we need to start referring to them as ‘Big Ignorance’ so that the audience sees that people like Wells and Behe and Dembski and Stein aren’t fervently believing underdogs but the point of a wedge that is rich, politically powerful, and disturbingly dangerous in intent.

  7. Jason Failes says

    “Here’s another version that will hopefully work…”

    Damn, it doesn’t, same error. Can anyone describe it? What could they possibly have done to get yanked in the UK and Canada?

  8. Abby Normal says

    Lets see how big a fool I can make of myself. Here are my guesses as to the meanings.

    The directions: Science indecipherable to those outside it and it’s just a bunch of theories

    Hallelujah repeated throughout: It’s a type of religion

    Golden cities, Golden towns: It promotes focus on this life instead of the next, promising heaven on earth

    The mountain: Science doesn’t create nature, implying something else did. (Particularly big guess on this one.)

    The stranger and repeated “Every man for himself”: Science denies morality and interpersonal bonds, teaching everyone just strives to be fittest.

    The film: Expelled will reveal the truth.

    I have no idea about the yodeling. That’s just weird.

    My reply: I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob

  9. Dave Macleod says

    I’m in Canada, and I got the video no prob. What I don’t get, though, is what it’s supposed to mean.

  10. says

    Jason: How very odd! It’s the video to the New York Dolls ‘Dance Like a Monkey’ song. The joke probably hasn’t been worth the effort required to view it!

    Here’s the URL, just in case something weird happened in the linking:

    Marco wrote: “This is art, people, like Klimt. You don’t have to like it.”

    Silly man! Don’t you realize that Pharyngulites are the ultimate deciders of what is and is not fine art? :)

  11. Forrest Prince says

    I sure could be wrong, but I think PZ’s point was that just as this video says nothing explanatory whatsoever about the term “big science” (the video is an art piece, fer cryin out loud), neither does Stein’s invoking of the term have any intellectual substance either. It’s just a strawman Stein likes to set up for the sole purpose of appearing able to strike it down and so claim to have “won” the argument at hand.

    In other words, every time Ben Stein opens his mouth and says “big science” he has, once again, actually said nothing at all.

  12. ildi says

    Laurie Anderson! Takes me back to my grad school days.

    O Superman… (here come the planes)

  13. Tulse says

    Abby, I think you’re being way too analytical. Laurie Anderson’s stuff is, at least to me, more about connotation and atmosphere rather than specific symbolism. (I could be wrong, of course.)

    And just to be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with Expelled, since the album Big Science came out in 1982.

  14. dead santa says

    I guess you have to be of a “certain age” to know Laurie Anderson. She is more of a performance artist than a musician, and her music reflects that. In honor of PZ’s birthday (not his 92nd, I think), here is more lyrics from the album Big Science:

    It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds.
    And they had all arrived at the same building
    at more or less the same time.
    And they were all free. And they were all
    asking themselves the same question:
    What is behind that curtain?

    You were born. And so you’re free. So happy birthday.

    lyrics by Laurie Anderson

  15. jeh says

    This “big science” canard is a new line of attack. It would be interesting to figure out where that is coming from (apart from notion of the poor little underdog IDists). Sounds like some new talking point that is being trotted out.

    Big scary science–it just might save your life someday, Ben.

  16. True Bob says

    I guess you have to be of a “certain age” to know Laurie Anderson.

    And that age is…45. Well, for me.

    I haven’t seen one of her performances in years, but I’d love to again.

  17. student_b says

    This video is not available in your country.

    What the hell?

    Do I have to get a proxy for that? Not really worth making the effort… but wtf?

  18. jeh says

    Aha, here’s an example of a title of a creationist book easily found on the web:

    “Big God vs. Big Science” Description: Confused by the old vs. young earth debate? This new book uncovers scientific flaws behind the old earth hypothesis, such as the distance of the stars, the speed of light and the dating of fossils by rock layers. Written as a rebuttal to the teachings by Hugh Ross. Amply illustrated. 108 pages.

    Wow, and internecine warfare to boot. Hugh Ross as heretic.

  19. Sastra says

    My “take?”

    The song has nothing to do or say about ‘science’ at all. The original words in the chorus were “Big Signs.” Not Big Science. That was the first title.

    As the song was being rehearsed, at some point someone said “sounds like you’re saying “big SCIENCE.” And everyone laughed, and Laurie Anderson said “hey, I’m gonna keep that. It’s kind of thought-provoking.”

    Read it (or listen to it) again. It seems to be talking about billboards and buildings and advertising encroaching on nature. At one point she even refers to “great big signs.” “Big Signs” as a title would fit. Our impact on the environment, signs that we’ve been there, or will be there. The later change to the word “science” was a bit of artistic whimsy. You could use either word, sounds the same.

    Just my guess, but it seems a likely possibility.

  20. fardels bear says

    Laurie Anderson is a performance artist. “Big Science” is, of course, a common term used to describe large-scale scientific projects, particularly in the postwar US. It has nothing to do with Stein’s use of the term.

    One of the biggest of the big science sponsors was/is NASA. And Laurie Anderson was the only Artist-in-Residence NASA ever had:

    So she can hardly be lumped with BS and his “critique” of big science.

  21. AlanWCan says

    “Science”–or rather the misperception of what that means–has been the fall guy for a while for people disillusioned and/or disenfranchised by faceless, impersonal, (corporate) modernity. Really, even Laurie’s bitching about a new shopping mall, freeway, sports center, and drive-in bank; what does any ofthat have to do with science? You could maybe make a case fro engineering, but really, those are all commercial trappings. She could of course have complained about wher ehey’re going to build the new collider or genome sequencing centre or smallpox research lab. What does a shopping mall have to do with science? I live in a beautiful place, surrounded by kooks like this–vaccination deniers (they’re out to get us), homeopaths (who apparently aren’t out to get us…and no-one mentons they sell small bottles of water for $50), contrails loons (see, more evidence, they’re out to get us).
    we need to focus on the good stuff and get people to stop associating science with nukes (and apparently shopping malls). It’s an uphill struggle.

  22. Greco says

    The video has apparently been blocked for anyone outside the United States. The copyright brigade strikes again.

  23. Tulse says

    Laurie is fabulous, and a lot of her stuff has science/technological themes. And anyone who has seen her performances knows she’s hugely into technology in producing her live shows.

  24. dead santa says


    Are you saying that this song was not perfectly designed from the beginning? Some sort of chance was involved? HERESY!

  25. Strakh says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! A Laurie Anderson break in the middle of the day is always welcome!

    The LP cover art for the album of the same name, which this song is on, is really cool too. Laurie stands in a starkly lit gray room wearing a white shirt with a white tie, all under a white sport coat. She’s wearing hugely oversized glasses that are solid white and obviously opaque. Her arms are stretched before her as if she cannot see. It is, as Sastra points out in #27, her way of being “thought-provoking.”

    Another good album of hers is “The Ugly One With The Jewels.” She has a great piece on that one about Andy Kaufman that is just a hoot.

    I had the great good fortune to see her perform at the Guthrie Center at a small, intimate stage. She was very delightful to watch and interact with as she shared her art with us. Her work is whimsical, humorous and always interesting. She’s a real talent and her art is worth exploring.

    As with all art, either you get it or you don’t.

  26. Lurky says

    Just going to pop out of my hiding place for a moment to address the “This video is not available in your country” -problem. There’s an easy way to bypass the restriction:

    original link:
    replace like this:

    (replace watch?= with v/ )

    Aight, back to my lurking!

  27. says

    I love Laurie Anderson! That totally rocks! “I can see two tiny pictures of myself, and there’s one in each of Ben Stein’s eyes. And they’re doing everything I’m doing– only less intelligently.”

  28. Becca says

    Wow, my mom has played that (and the rest of the album) ever since I was a kid. I’m totally used to it, but I can see where it would freak some people out…

  29. Ralph says

    I guess this poem is about ubran sprawl.

    Wait a minuet! Doesn’t this guy have an ivy league education in economics? Doesn’t he realize that urban sprawl isn’t the result of a scientific conclusion or “big science” (whatever the hell that is), rather it’s a consequence of rich people attempting to increase their wealth? Of course it’s possible that Stein actually does know this and he’s just being disingenuous…again.

  30. ennui says

    Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense are my two favorite examples of late 80’s performance art/concert film. But they are not just some Blue Man Group eye candy; they are rife with social commentary, and well worth your time IMO. Check ’em out.

  31. Holydust says

    Guys, read all the comments… it’s already been made clear that this song and its meaning, as well as its performer, have no connection or alliance with Ben Stein whatsoever…

    Poor chick’s getting a bad rap today because people can’t take the time to read. :D

  32. says

    Laurie Anderson is wonderful. If you ever have a chance to see a live show, they are immensely entertaining. She has a great sense of humor and a very innovative take on media.

    “Big Science” according to Stein and according to Anderson have only a little overlap in the Venn diagram of things.

    What they have in common is a kind of cultural touchstone. The term “Big Science” has a wide array of connotations. While Anderson riffs on Big Science as a concept, Stein seems to use it selectively as a tarring brush. (By contrast,I doubt he has much of a problem with weapons development.) The term “big science” was probably successfully market-tested as a pejorative. So that’s what he’s using.

    Anderson has a fascination with technology and the military-industrial complex. Her performances create a dream-like atmosphere and play-up the contradictions of modern technological living.

    I anticipate “Expelled” will not be so thought-provoking.

  33. says

    Janine #40,
    Thanks for that link. I enjoyed it very much.

    To the other folks thanks for all the links to the Laurie Anderson stuff. Even though I was pretty much alive in the 1980s I don’t ever remember hearing any of those songs or seeing any of her videos. I DO like her stuff.


  34. Kseniya says

    Big Ignorance

    Brownian, I believe you are (once again) on to something, errr, BIG.

    Bonus Funtime: “Big” and “Pig” can we swapped in and out without radically altering the meaning or undermining the usefulness of the phrase. :-D

  35. Kseniya says

    I’ll have to check out the Anderson woman. Until today, I knew exactly nothing about her.

    While Anderson riffs on Big Science as a concept, Stein seems to use it selectively as a tarring brush. (By contrast,I doubt he has much of a problem with weapons development.) The term “big science” was probably successfully market-tested as a pejorative. So that’s what he’s using.

    Right! Just as “Democrat Party” was market-tested as a pejorative.

    Stein’s politics put him squarely on the side of Big Business (and by extension, Big Oil, Big Pharmaceuticals, and other Big Bad Wolves) – though not, of course, Big Government. (Just Big Deficits.) Why “Big Science” is such an evil, well, I just don’t know. Perhaps I am one of its Little Victims.

  36. Kseniya says

    Oops, that came out sounding weird. I meant to say, “I’ll have to check out this Anderson woman .” Sheesh.

    (100th note to self: “Proofread.”)

  37. kvinther says

    MACH 20
    by Laurie Anderson

    Ladies and gentlemen, what you are observing here are magnified examples or facsimiles of human sperm.
    Generation after generation of these tiny creatures have sacrificed themselves in their persistent, often futile, attempt to transport the basic male genetic code. But where is this information coming from? They have no eyes. No ears.
    Yet some of them already know that they will be bald.
    Over half of them will end up as women.

    Four hundred million living creatures, all knowing precisely the same thing–carbon copies of each other in a Kamikaze race against the clock.
    Some of you may be surprised to learn that if a sperm were the size of a salmon it would be swimming its seven-inch journey at 500 miles per hour.
    If a sperm were the size of a whale, however, it would be traveling at 15,000 miles per hour, or Mach 20. Now imagine, if you will, four hundred million blind and desperate sperm whales departing from the Pacific coast of North America swimming at 15,000 mph and arriving in Japanese coastal waters in just under 45 minutes.
    How would they be received?
    Would they realize that they were carrying information, a message?
    Would there be room for so many millions?
    Would they know that they had been sent for a purpose?

  38. Abby Normal says

    I’m disappointed in you Pharyngulites. I figured at least one of the old timers out there would catch that irony of quoting “I am the Walrus” in a post about dissecting the meaning of a song.

    As the story goes Lennon wrote the song when he found out that the English master at his old grade schools required his class to analyze Beatles lyrics. Upon completing the song Lennon is said to have remarked, “Let the fuckers work that one out.”

    And yea, Laurie Anderson is great. I think I first encountered her when I was going through my Allen Ginsberg / Karen Finley phase in high school. Lets see that would be back in 19… oh my!

  39. Ichthyic says

    I hope that clears everything up.

    that IS the key sentence in PZ’s post.

    the correct response is:

    yup. clear as mud.

    take and apply to those trying to use a term (“big science”) that has absolutely no applicability anywhere in reality (what else is new?).

    the credulous will make their own implications, and define the phrase based on their own irrational fears, and proceed to project those fears onto imaginary “big scientists” that don’t exist.

    It’s exactly WHY the term is not ever defined to begin with. Creationists LOVE to invent non-defined terms (so do politicians) that can then be left up to the target audience to define for themselves, based on the overall gist of the message being delivered to them.

    so, if the general message is “scientists are evil”, then “big science” can mean “corporate greed” to one group, and “darwinist consipiracy” to another, and “philosophical materialist” to yet another.

    think of how the rethuglicans have changed the meaning of the word “liberal” over the last 40 years, and you’ll find the parallels.

  40. defectiverobot says

    “Big Ignorance?”


    “Big Stupid” rolls off the tongue better.

    By way, anyone ever point out Ben Stein’s initials?

  41. defectiverobot says

    Of course, I guess we need to be careful with that, “Big Science” has the same initials…

  42. BglBttr says

    Holy cow, Ben Stein (ab)uses Laurie Anderson. The sinner dogs are out again, they’re gonna burn down the library of Alexandria _again_. And people don’t know her – but instead remember those guys who were in it for a pool?!

    Those buddhists have it all wrong, this is the wheel of filth.

    Get ‘United States live 1-4’ it’ll work on Stein et al like in ‘Mars Attacks’.

  43. Cynthia says

    Despite Ben Stein’s extreme aversion to Big Science, something tells me that he’d have an awfully hard time living without shopping malls, freeways, and especially drive-in banks.

  44. says

    Big Science is a great album, top 10 I’ve heard in the last year. She’s kind of a genius. If you can handle the Talking Heads, you will enjoy Laurie Anderson.

  45. LisaJ says

    All I’m gonna say is that song totally cleared it all up for me :) Makes perfect sense.

  46. says

    I’m 32, I know Laurie Anderson, so what? I’m also an artist, so?
    Weird comments about age and art, it’s all besides the point innit?
    Go Laurie! by the way, say hi to Lou.

  47. Leni says

    I just noticed a few days ago that Laurie is on tour right now.

    I’ve never listed to much of her music, but she is a weirdo and I like her for that.

  48. MandyDax says

    This is one of my favorite bits of Laurie’s. It’s from “The Ouija Board” off of (I think) The Ugly One with the Jewels.

    My first life was as a raccoon. “And then you were a cow. And then you were a bird. And then you were a hat,” spelled the Ouija.

    We said “a hat?” We couldn’t figure it out. Finally we guessed that the feathers from the bird had been made into a hat. “Is this true?”

    “Yes,” spelled the Ouija. “Hat counts as half life.”

    “And then?”

    “Hundreds and hundreds of rabbis.”

    Now this is apparently my first life as a woman, which would explain quite a few things…

  49. Jewel says

    Laurie Anderson is fabulous! I got to see one of her performances many many years ago and would love to see her perform again.

  50. says

    I very much doubt that she would have anything to do with Ben Stein, quite the contrary.

    That may very well be the case. There’s a bit in “Stories From the Nerve Bible” where she mentions an exhibit of art by women. Her contribution was a sort of sound lens, a big round lens filled with water or something that refracted sound in odd ways. One reviewer wrote that this was a piece that could only have been designed by a woman, because it was round and curved and therefore feminine. Anderson’s comment was no, if a man had designed it it would still be curved, because otherwise it wouldn’t work.

    For all that she’s a crazy artist and everything, she does seem to have her head screwed on where it matters. Unfortunately, I’ve been rather disappointed with her later work, but that’s a matter of taste.

  51. chuckgoecke says

    I also love Laurie. Her whole point is…. that sometimes there is no point. Like when Stan on South Park finally realizes to Token(I think it was Stan) that he’ll never know what its like to be Black. She makes great original use of words, music, sounds and melodies in an interplay that is unique, interesting, and pleasing to my ear. You may not like it, but it does produce an emotional response, and it is, thus worthwhile art.

  52. ksenko says

    Sometimes there’s no point? You mean, like… sometimes stuff just happens? By chance? Without a Plan? Without a Grand Design?

    Awww c’mon… y’all are funnin’ me now, aintcha?

  53. Kseniya says

    Oooh. Ok. Whoa. I just watched the “Oh Superman” and “Mach 20” YouTubes. Then I watched “The National Anthem” video.


    So “Oh Superman” was sort of her… hit? It works for me. The video was ok. The music was cool. Chilly, even. In just the right way. So hold me mom. In your long arms. In your automatic arms. In your electronic arms. Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.

    Hmmm. This kinda makes me want to weep like a lost child. Is that good?

    I can’t believe my dad has never mentioned her. He must know of her. He must.

  54. you must be trippin' says

    Dunno. Sounds like someone put some pot in your birthday cake. Or LSD in your drink…

  55. Kseniya says

    Nope. No drugs. No chemical imbalance.

    I guess you haven’t heard “Oh Superman”, then. ;-)

  56. Josh Hayes says

    It’s funny how memories sometimes leap out and mug you. This song, this album, is one. Maybe it’s because I was in grad school at the time and hence was drinking a lot, but the sound of this album sticks in my (admittedly aural-centric) head even more than most.

    “It’s a sky-blue sky.
    Satellites are out tonight.”

  57. DanioPhD says

    I’m a Laurie fan from way back–I’ve seen her in concert twice and she puts on an amazing, interactive, thought-provoking performance.

    As long as we’re all linkin’ to that pro-homo video site, you might also enjoy ‘Beautiful Red Dress’

    “I’ve got a beautiful red dress
    And you’d look really good
    Standing beside it”

  58. Roger Scott says

    The lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the mood of the piece was wonderful. I listened to it about 5 times in a row; quite enchanting. Music is the highest art form. At least for this little black duck.

  59. Tulse says

    This kinda makes me want to weep like a lost child. Is that good?

    I have a similar reaction to that song, and generally a pretty emotional reaction to her work. I suppose that’s a bit odd, since her stuff is on the surface very chilly and formal and technology-heavy, but I find it really does move me.

    Hearing this music . . . made me envy Lou Reed.


  60. says

    Laurie Anderson brought her Homeland tour to Australia late last year. I was able to be at her Sydney concert in October. A definite highlight of the year. And the year before that, there was the Richard Thompson concert. I still remember the first time I saw her, also at the Sydney Opera House, probably in the late 1980s(?) following her ‘O Superman’ hit. Some of the things that make the struggle to live a worthwhile one, I remind myself.

    Alas, like others, those particular YouTube bits “are not available in your country”. Luckily, there are others of her works that are available there. Thanks for reminding me.

  61. George D says

    “I guess you have to be of a “certain age” to know Laurie Anderson.”

    I’m 22. I think that going out with Lou Reed means that she remains heard of by people my age. “Oh Superman” is still a pretty popular song in certain circles.

    Anyway, great to see her mentioned on Pharyngula!