The initial reviews of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future produced a small blogospheric kerfuffle last month. But I think Unscientific America has much more constructive and useful things to offer than provoking more arguments, and there are a lot of reviews focusing on the positives. This surprisingly short but wide-ranging book is a nutshell primer on science policy and communication issues, perfect for dissatisfied lab rats who want to engage in advocacy but don’t have communications or policy training outside their scientific specialty. And the people who should really read it aren’t science bloggers, but grad students – as many of them as possible.
Most of Unscientific America focuses on portrayals of science in the media, and how shifts in media, culture, and entertainment are influencing the public perception of science. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know this is a topic in which I’m very interested. But I also feel that this conversation too rarely gets past the stage of “Oh noes! The public is scientifically illiterate! That’s bad! And it’s getting worse!” For example, a month ago I participated in a discussion group with about a dozen PhDs in various sciences. Everyone in the group had been working in Washington, DC, with a birds-eye view of science policy in action. The topic? Strategies to communicate scientific topics to the public. Here were the group’s conclusions – mainly driven by two or three vocal individuals, as these activities so often are:
1. The mass media is shirking its duty to inform the public about science.
2. This trend is getting worse, and the public is increasingly less informed about science.
3. The scientific community must step in and communicate science to the public.
What do you think of these conclusions? (No, we never even got to strategies to fix the problem).
I’ll be honest – I was pretty disappointed in the conversation, in part because just a day before, a Pew/AAAS survey found this:
a new survey from the Pew Research Center, conducted in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), shows that a large majority of scientists (85%) consider the public’s lack of scientific knowledge to be a major problem. A similar percentage of scientists (83%) characterize television news coverage of science as “only fair” or “poor,” with newspaper coverage receiving the same low ratings by a smaller majority of scientists (63%). Also, 21% of scientists identified public communication or education as a significant scientific failure of the past 20 years. (source)
In other words, our focus group of science PhDs thought exactly what scientists (at least the AAAS members) nationwide thought, which is that there is a huge knowledge gap between the general public and scientists. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Scientists are constantly lamenting public scientific illiteracy. But it did surprise me that a group of scientists who came to DC specifically to work on policy issues would come up with the same lament as a nationwide sampling of scientists working in labs – and then no solutions? Are scientists really that homogeneous? Isn’t that just weird?
The fact is, most of us were trained to think the same way – that is, not at all – about issues like science communication. When I was in graduate school, I had no conception of the broader social context in which science operated – I was taught nothing of science policy, history of science, philosophy of science, or journalism and media. I could get away with this blanket ignorance because graduate school rewards one thing: depth of work on one’s thesis project. I kept my head down in the lab and slogged through, like many others. Along the way I got involved in science journalism, stumbled across C.P. Snow, found the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators – but all on my own. It wasn’t until I started teaching and creating my own syllabi that I had the freedom or motivation to really dig into science’s social context. And it certainly wasn’t until I got to DC that I began to understand how these issues interact with politics on a national scale – and to change my mind about the facile assumptions I had as a graduate student – like the assumption that better K-12 education will solve all our problems (it would be nice if it could).
Personally, I am not convinced that (1) The mass media is shirking its duty to inform the public about science. I don’t deny that science journalism is eroding fast. But do media outlets have a duty to inform the public about science? Publishing is a profit-making industry, and if media outlets see science as a losing proposition in an increasingly fragmented market, isn’t that lamentable new reality something we have to deal with constructively, instead of trying to rebuild or shore up an outdated media status quo?
When it comes to (2), This trend is getting worse, and the public is increasingly less informed about science, I’m not convinced of that either. Many indicators have scientific illiteracy holding fairly steady. Plus, it’s hard to compare audiences in the 1950s with audiences today: people are interested in and engaged with different aspects of science and technology today than they were during the Cold War. We use computers, GPS and cell phones; we watch movies and television shows with heavy scientific content, like CSI and Mythbusters. My late grandmother somehow learned to sketch DNA before she died – perhaps from Jeopardy!. Is science literacy worse now today than fifty years ago, or just different? I don’t know. But what I will grant is that the average person’s comfort with science is increasingly outpaced by the applications of science in our daily lives, and that much of the public’s informal scientific education comes from inaccurate sources, like entertainment programming and biased websites.
As for (3), I largely agree. Being a good public communicator is not a prerequisite for being a good scientist: there are many excellent scientists who hole up in their labs and only communicate with their peers in jargon. But that’s not healthy for the field as a whole – we need more Carl Sagans. But where exactly are they going to come from?
That’s where Unscientific America comes in. I think this book, or one like it, should be required reading for science graduate students. It offers a whirlwind tour of science policy and communication touchstones: Vannevar Bush, C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, the merits of applied science vs. pure research, Alan Sokal and the Science Wars, E.O. Wilson’s ambitious but flawed Consilience, Cosmos and the rise of popular science journalism, the recent purge of science coverage from mainstream outlets, the OTA, the so-called “deficit model” of science communications, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, PhD pipeline statistics, the rise of science blogging, Crackergate, ScienceDebate2008. Whew.
I’ll be clear: none of these things is covered in sufficient detail to satisfy. Reading Unscientific America is kind of like speed-dating at a science policy happy hour: a lot of elevator pitches about interesting issues, but when you’re done, you don’t feel like you really know anything (or anyone!) in depth. Nevertheless, the overall landscape comes through – a landscape in which scientists think like scientists are trained to think, and thus often fail to foresee public responses or relate to the audiences they are trying to reach. The blogosphere discusses many of these issues constantly, but piecemeal; the book pulls them all into focus at once, albeit briefly. It whets the appetite for deeper investigation.
Now, let me make the necessary disclaimer, which some commenters are going to as usual ignore. I don’t agree with everything in Unscientific America. The book rings all the usual alarms, from the familiar “science literacy is declining! oh noes!” warning to the whole “What happened to the Golden Age of science policy, when politicians listened to the scientists!?” lament. (I’m not convinced there really was a Golden Age of science policy in DC – perhaps because I’m not a physicist. Physicists still get all the respect.) Another thing I don’t love is the reiteration of political themes from Chris’ previous book, The Republican War on Science, in which he does some good reporting but also makes some pretty broad generalizations. Personally, I think the “War on Science” rhetoric helped make science policy, especially the OTA issue, more politicized than it was before. So I could do with a little less partisan blame, and more of the even-handed critique Unscientific America gives to ScienceDebate08 – in which McCain, Clinton and Obama all let political calculations derail any chance of debating science policy. Sometimes politicians are just being politicians.
But these are minor quibbles with the book – minor disagreements I’d expect to have with any qualified writer or blogger. Many smart, motivated, well-intentioned people out there differ on how to approach science policy, science advocacy, and science communication (see Janet’s excellent series of reviews of Unscientific America for more on this). I don’t agree completely with either Chris or PZ Myers; but then, I rarely agree completely with anyone. (I also wish this book spent a little less time on the New Atheists). And I don’t think it’s realistic or necessary for all of us to agree. I certainly don’t think young scientists are going to be brainwashed by Unscientific America into conforming to a particular strategy. Instead, they’ll see that political activities by scientists are received with both positive and negative spin by the public, politicians, and the scientific community itself. Carl Sagan was dissed by Harvard University and his peers in the National Academies for being a media darling. Pluto’s demotion from planetary status generated a nostalgia-driven public backlash. ScienceDebate08 couldn’t get off the ground. Crackergate crashed PZ’s email for weeks. Why did these things happen? What should scientists do in these situations?
I’ve seen the book criticized for implying that scientists should let PR concerns drive scientific decisions – specifically, that Pluto should have remained a planet to avoid upsetting folks in the heartland. I think the book’s ambiguous on Pluto; I’m not sure whether Chris & Sheril would actually go that far. If they would, I disagree. I don’t think the decision on Pluto’s status should have been based on PR strategy. But I do think the fallout from the decision – online campaigns encouraging people to vote to override the astronomical community – publicized some mistaken, problematic ideas: first, that the categorization of Pluto was “science” (it was nomenclature) and secondly that the public has a right to input into scientific discourse, like voting on American Idol. Uh, no. But the scientific community has to deal with these misconceptions when they gain traction, as they did with Pluto.
In my experience, scientists are really smart people. Most want the public to understand and appreciate what they do. Many (though not all) are dedicated to using science to help society, and are terribly frustrated when they see useful scientific data ignored, or overridden by political concerns. Scientists have a great deal of goodwill and enthusiasm to get out there and solve these problems – that’s why my peers were in DC in the first place. And there is a great diversity of opinions among scientists on how to communicate, negotiate, and engage the public, the media, and politicians. Unfortunately, Unscientific America is not a cookbook with recipes to fix all these challenges – would that it were! It also doesn’t offer much new information for those scientist-activists already fighting the good fight in DC or in the blogosphere, who already have their own strategies mapped out. And it’s unlikely to interest the lay public, who will probably view a bunch of scientists navel-gazing in anguish about public neglect of science as the most boring thing, ev-ah. But for young scientists interested in getting out of the lab and putting their science to work in the real world, this book is a great introduction to some truly valuable history and context that we just don’t get in graduate school – information I had to pick up casually over the years (you can definitely tell that one of the authors, Sheril, spent a year as a Sea Grant fellow in Congress). And it’s a quick read – you could finish the whole thing while running a manual sequencing gel (that’s a quaint little procedure we did back in the old days, kiddies), and still have time to Google some of the authors mentioned in passing. I got some good reading ideas out of it myself – but first, to finish this review.
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Thumbs up. Definitely. I highly recommend Unscientific America for all the grad students and postdocs out there. If you are intrigued by advocacy, politics, media, and policy, this book won’t convince you to do anything specific, but it will give you a little context, a toolkit of concepts and background, as you strike out on your own. The blogosphere is awesome, Wikipedia is invaluable, but I’m still a believer in the power of a good book – and I think this is a good book, whether or not you agree with its authors.