bioephemera

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.

Comments

  1. #1 eNeMeE
    August 6, 2009

    The mass media is shirking its duty to inform the public about science

    It is, in the sense that if it it chooses to report on scientific issues it has a duty to report them correctly. It does and it fails.

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    August 6, 2009

    fair enough – that is true. ;) But I don’t think mass media has a “duty” to report on science in the first place, if they don’t think the niche audience (us) is worth it. . . unfortunately.

  3. #3 eNeMeE
    August 6, 2009

    I agree with that, with journalism as a profit-based enterprise, but I’m tempted to think that simply stopping the mis-reporting of science would go a long way towards fixing things.

    On the other hand, that heads a little into is-ought territory: the public does need to know about scientific issues and journalists have a priviledged position based on the assumption that they ought to inform people of issues of import.

  4. #4 Sarah
    August 6, 2009

    “…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.”

    This begins to touch on the heart problem. We don’t necessarily need Carl Sagans. We just need clear communicators. Communication within the physical sciences and electrical engineering fields (the two I’m most familiar with) is so full of jargon and technical wankery that I can barely understand a modern paper, even though it’s supposedly in my field. Reading papers often feels like trying to comprehend the results of an Obfuscated C Code contest. I’ve been doing a lit review for my Master’s project, which has involved reading through papers stretching back to the mid ’60s. The early ones were no less technical, but they were comprehensible. The newest ones, I feel like the authors are trying to sound smart by making the paper unintelligible.

    I’m not your typical Electrical Engineering grad student. I got my undergrad degree in Physics at a small liberal arts college. When I write a paper, I ask myself if my smart-but-no-science-since-high-school English major friend can follow the thought process in it, though the technical details will likely ellude her. If the paper confuses her so much she can’t ask a single question, I’m doing something wrong. How can scientists expect to have their work reported on correctly if other scientists can’t understand their papers, much less journalists?

  5. #5 David Bruggeman
    August 6, 2009

    I’d be happy with fewer of the scientists covered in this video

  6. #6 Ian Musgrave
    August 6, 2009

    Jessica wrote:I think the book’s ambiguous on Pluto; I’m not sure whether Chris & Sheril would actually go that far.

    Then how do you explain them writing this?

    Why suddenly kick Pluto out of the planet fraternity after letting it stay in for nearly a century, ever since its 1930 discovery? “No do-overs,” wrote one cartoonist….. how could this planetary crackup happen in the first place? Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such an outcry from the public? Did they simply not care? Was the Pluto decision really scientifically necessary?

    What’s more, Chris & Sheril misrepresented the entire Pluto issue. This was not a sudden issue, it it had been developing for over 10 years due to a series of high profile discoveries that were covered in the traditional press. The issue was finally forced to a head by the discovery of Eris, a world larger than Pluto. Both the discovery and the reason it was important to Pluto’s planethood were widely circulated in traditional and online media. The IAU and astronomers generally put a lot of effort into telling the public about the issues involved (including articles in an obscure paper called the New York Times) there were newspaper articles, TV interviews with major national and international stations, live TV coverage, webpages and various online materials all devoted to the Pluto issue.

    The astronomers did care what the public thought, and it is hard to see how they could have done more to alert and educate the public about the issue and the forthcoming vote, short of standing on street corners and handing out flyers (and we all know how well that works). Indeed, the Pluto issue would have made a great case study as to why scientists efforts at science communication fail. But Chris and Sheril make it look like the astronomers did nothing.

  7. #7 Lab Rat
    August 7, 2009

    I certainly agree about the point of teaching science in a wider context. Attending history and philosophy of science lectures in second year was one of the best choices i made, just put everything nicely in context.

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    August 7, 2009

    Ian, I acknowledged in the review that some people – you are obviously one of them – really dislike the book’s treatment of the Pluto episode. But when I read the chapter, conscious of those criticisms, I saw Chris and Sheril raising a lot of provocative questions. I didn’t see them being prescriptive – certainly not as overtly prescriptive as they are in other parts of the book. But it would be nice to have a long case study on this that goes into all the nuances. Why don’t you consider writing one? Unscientific America is much too brief to get into any of these issues deeply, and Pluto is not the only topic they skim over.

    Sarah, I agree completely with your sentiment about clear, quality writing, and with the trend over time towards worse and worse writing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found a paper’s discussion section so ambiguous or unclear, I have to go to the figures and reverse-engineer the author’s conclusions to grasp how they got there (not a bad exercise, but what’s the point of the text, then?!) However, as a fellow liberal arts college graduate with a BA in English, I have to note that jargon and obfuscation are not just the purview of physical scientists. Lit crit scholars are just as guilty, as are social scientists. . . which is how Sokal got his hoax paper published in a cultural studies journal:

    “In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”

    mmmmmkay. ;)

  9. #9 Laurel Kornfeld
    August 7, 2009

    Ian, I strongly disagree with your statement that the IAU put a lot of thought into public outreach on its Pluto decision. The IAU did not even put any advance notice of the replacement resolution, rushed through by the dynamicists on the last day of the conference, to its own members! Many who remained for the vote on the last day of the General Assembly (424 out of an original 2,500 who atteneded) only saw the resolution for the first time that morning. The IAU botched the process internally, and the public recognized this for the sham it was. To this day, the IAU continues to ignore input from some of the leading planetary scientists in the world on the issue of planet definition to the point of denying that any controversy still exists. This only serves to alienate the public, who can tell that at least in this issue, scientific decisions are being made based on politics rather than on science. What message did this send to the public? The answer is that science is based on decrees from on high rather than through organic, sometimes messy debate processes.

    I agree that the media is a major problem regarding scientific literacy, and this can be traced to the media consolidations that have been going on for the last 20+ years. A few large corporations basically own most of the main media outlets, and all report pretty much the same thing. They have cut coverage of matters of substance, not just science, but in depth policy analysis and investigative journalism and have substitued these with nonsensical “celebrity gossip.” That is why so many people know who Britney Spears is dating but cannot explain why we have seasons. It’s not clear that this “celebrity” focus that blurs information with entertainment actually is more profitable than seriousl journalism. The real issue is structural, the economic monopoly of a few companies, a phenomenon occuring throughout the US, likely the result of 30 years of deregulation begun by Ronald Reagan.

  10. #10 David Bruggeman
    August 7, 2009

    As someone who saw the whole IAU debate from reading the press, I have to say that I did not see the process as a sham, nor as a decree from on high, but the result of some pretty messy political wrangling. The coverage I read indicated that at one point the broader planet category would take the day, but it ultimately did not.

    And then, like most of the public, I moved on. Which really made me wonder why Chris and Sheril went with the Pluto example, because by the time October 2006 rolled around, this wasn’t an issue for anyone outside of the field. Which made it about as effective an example of the scientific community somehow ‘botching’ public outreach as any other scientific event communicated to the public. As a case of something that makes people think they don’t get scientists, I’d be surprised if this was very high on anybody’s list.

    All that said, it does seem like IAU is avoiding revisiting the question because they don’t want the hassle. That’s a lousy reason, but not relevant to the public engagement issue – at least to me.

  11. #11 BioinfoTools
    August 8, 2009

    I agree with the writing quality issue that Sarah raised. Perhaps the space allocations are another element to this? As well as being asked to write clearly, scientists are asked to write very compactly and fit large amounts of work into a small number of pages. I find (anecdotally!) that journals that have more liberal page limits tend to have more readable articles, perhaps because once people are under less pressure to squeeze their three years work into the allotted six pages or whatever they feel more able to give the background and thinking behind their work, with the result that the paper is more easily understood. Generally speaking, I would rather read a longer manuscript that I understand, than a short one that I have riddle out the meaning of. Here’s hoping that the on-line journals ease this pressure a little!

  12. #12 Ian Musgrave
    August 9, 2009

    Jessica wrote: But when I read the chapter, conscious of those criticisms, I saw Chris and Sheril raising a lot of provocative questions. I didn’t see them being prescriptive…

    Don’t you feel the least bit uncomfortable that Chris and Sheril completely misrepresented the incident?
    The provoactive questions they raise are nonsensical as the astronomers were doing excatly what Chris and Sheril say scientists should be doing, getting the message out, making sure that the message was in terms non-experts could use (the “plasticine ball” models in the live TV broadcast and web vidoes were based on the idea of keep it simple stupid). As I said astronomers, both IAU and non-IAU, were doing everything to publicise what was going on short of handing out leaflets on street corners. Yet Chris and Sheril portray the astronomers as doing nothing. If they can’t get that simple incident right, how do you feel about the veracity of the rest of the book.

    Again, the astronomers did exactly what Chris and Sheril recommend, yet it didn’t work. What should they have done?

  13. #13 Jessica Palmer
    August 9, 2009

    Ian, I am not an astronomer, so I was an observer at a distance on the Pluto thing. But personally, yes, I saw incidents where members of the astronomy community were completely dismissive of the public’s interest in Pluto – downright insulting blog posts, and the like. Other members of the astronomy community acted differently – it’s not like “astronomers” are a monolithic cult – but the public perception of how “astronomers” acted is going to be less nuanced than the actual breakdown in actions, isn’t it? If Chris and Sheril are painting the situation black, it sure seems you’re trying to paint it white. Neither “astronomers did nothing at all” nor “astronomers did everything they could” is an accurate portrayal. So no, I didn’t feel Chris and Sheril “completely misrepresented” the incident – I felt they portrayed it from their own perspective as outside observers.

    Again, I suggest you write up your own perspective on the incident as a blog post or something. Mainly because I don’t think attacking my personal opinion about the book in the comments section on my blog is the most effective way for you to convince me, or anyone else, of your position. I read the book, I have a different opinion of it than you do, I explained why in the post. Enough said, really. Cheers.

  14. #14 Ian Musgrave
    August 10, 2009

    Jennifer wrote: “But personally, yes, I saw incidents where members of the astronomy community were completely dismissive of the public’s interest in Pluto – downright insulting blog posts, and the like.”

    Example URL please. I was there (well, not there, but I was blogging the lead up to the Pluto decision and it’s aftermath, so I was looking at multiple postings on the internet, and following the astronomy discussion groups, and I never saw anything like that). Sure, it’s the internet, and I sure somewhere some astronomer was dismissive, but you can find unpleasnat peopel in any debate of substance. People like Dave Jewitt, Neil De Grasse Tyson and Mike Brown (not to mention my mate Stuart at astronomy blog, the Bad Astronomer, Tom and so on), were very busy rationally explaining why the decision was made.

    Again, Chris and Sheril specifically lay the blame on the the IAU. But the actual history of what the IAU did is surely more important that the claim that somewhere, an astronomer was dismissive to a blogger.

    You can find my take on it here, complete with links to what the IAU and other people actually did http://astroblogger.blogspot.com/2009/07/unscientific-america-and-case-of-pluto.html

  15. #15 windy
    August 11, 2009

    Again, I suggest you write up your own perspective on the incident as a blog post or something.

    Ian has a post on it.

  16. #16 Jessica Palmer
    August 11, 2009

    Super. Thanks for the link, Windy. That’s very helpful.

  17. #17 Ian Musgrave
    August 11, 2009

    Jessica said “Super. Thanks for the link, Windy. That’s very helpful.”

    Eh? What happened to my comment that had that self same link? Last I saw it was being held for moderation.

  18. #18 Jessica Palmer
    August 12, 2009

    For whatever reason, Ian, Scienceblogs’ filter flagged your comment as spam. Since you alerted me that it never appeared, I went and dug it out of the trash and it’s here now.

    It’s helpful to let me know if you post a comment with a link and it doesn’t appear within a day – I try to check the spam filter every day or two, but I don’t always have time.

  19. #19 Jessica Palmer
    August 12, 2009

    Ian asked: “Example URL please.”

    In a word, no. Why not? A) I don’t have time to go trawling through the web for links to pages I viewed several years ago, and B) I don’t want to single out any particular blogger out as a bad actor in this, because I don’t think it’s that simple (see my previous comment about black and white). Oh, and C) – I am not that interested. I’m not unaware that the tone of your comment implies that you’re going to interpret my refusal to provide a URL as proof that I’m *lying* about seeing such incidents – as if I have any motivation to lie about it, since I have no dog in this fight.

    Frankly, this kind of comment-debate is the thing I like least about blogging. I reviewed a book of which astronomy was just one part. When I wrote the review, I made a point to acknowledge the criticism of astronomers like you, Ian. But in the end, my opinion of the book happens to differ from yours. That’s it.

    You disagree. That’s fine. But why on earth do you think I’d be interested in having a protracted comment discussion in which you denigrate my opinions, question the veracity of my experiences, and imply that I’m censoring you because your comment got caught in the spam filter? I do try to engage commenters, but in situations like this, it’s a complete waste of my time – and when it comes from another blogger like you, it really makes me wonder why I bother blogging in the first place. Seriously.

  20. #20 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 13, 2009

    You disagree. That’s fine. But why on earth do you think I’d be interested in having a protracted comment discussion in which you denigrate my opinions, question the veracity of my experiences, and imply that I’m censoring you because your comment got caught in the spam filter?

    Because this is a CRUCUIAL DEBATE and INTELLECTUAL HONESTY DEMANDS you must PROVE you are CORRECT or else you are TEH SUXX0RZ!!!11!!1ELEVNTEEN!!11!!

    If you censor this comment it PROVES I am CORRECT and that you are AFRAID to engage me in DEBATE!!!11!!111

  21. #21 Ian Musgrave
    August 13, 2009

    Jennifer wrote: “For whatever reason, Ian, Scienceblogs’ filter flagged your comment as spam.” It’s the internet, weird stuff happens on the internet. At least the internet gremlins didn’t send it to byte heaven.

    Jennifer wrote:I don’t have time to go trawling through the web for links to pages I viewed several years ago
    It’s a pain, I know, because I did exactly this prior to writing my blog post on Pluto and “Unscientific America”. As a neuroscientist (well neuropharmacologist) I know how treacherous memory can be, and I needed to check if my memories of the events were correct. It was slightly easier for me as I had blogged the issue, so I had a bunch of pre-existing links to follow, but still, I made the effort to check out what really happened around then. The posts on the Planetary society and Bad Astronomy pages are particularly interesting. Lots of robust discussion but no dismissive comments (well none I found dismissive anyway). There is even a video link to Colbert getting Neil DeGrasse Tyson to apologise for demoting Pluto.

    Jennifer wrote:I’m not unaware that the tone of your comment implies that you’re going to interpret my refusal to provide a URL as proof that I’m *lying* about seeing such incidents Eh What? I don’t think you are lying, and I said so in my original post. At the worst we have a Rashomon type difference of memories, or just read different web sites (It’s the internet after all). The important issue in the context of Chris and Sheril’s claims is did this happen before or after the vote, was it a comment to a post and was it an astronomer of standing rather than a grumpy amateur know-it-all like myself?

    Remember the context is Chris and Sheril’s claims that the astronomical community did no or little community education and outreach before the Pluto vote. An astronomer being grumpy afterwards isn’t evidence for Chris and Sheril’s positions.

    Jennifer wrote:But why on earth do you think I’d be interested in having a protracted comment discussion in which you denigrate my opinions…Because sometimes the issues at hand are important. I’ve been called a murderer by creationists, a shill for big Pharma by anti-vaxers and HIV-deniers and a liar by global warming deniers (although I’m very, very small fry and don’t have the dedicated whackaloons the PZ Myers and Orac have) but I’ve kept on (yes, this is evidence I’m basically stupid).

    And the issue isn’t over a matter of opinion. Again, while this whole thing seems trivial it has several important ramifications. Chris and Sheril claim that astronomers did no (or virtually no) public outreach. Yet there is abundant evidence that the Astronomers did (web pages, newspaper articles, TV interviews etc.). If Chris and Sheril’s characterisation of this is incorrect, what does that say for veracity the other incidents they report. Also, Chris and Sheril make a strong claim that we should spend more time learning to be media savvy (I’ve done my Universities media course, like they suggest). In the Pluto affair, astronomers followed what Chris and Sheril suggested. Yet despite media savvy astronomers, articles in the New York times, television interviews and press-friendly press releases, the astronomical community failed. What does this suggest about Chris and Sheril’s prescriptions for better science literacy?

    Call me old fashioned, but I do have a belief that reportage should address the facts, Chris and Sheril’s opening section, short as it is, just doesn’t do this, and obscures an event that is at odds with their core thesis. This is not a good thing.

    (Sorry this comment is long, also, I should have replied earlier but work, the Perseids and work in stuff for Science Week kept me busy)

  22. #22 Jessica Palmer
    August 13, 2009

    Thanks Ian for this further clarification of your opinions. One point: my name is Jessica, not Jennifer. Just FYI.

  23. #23 Ian Musgrave
    August 15, 2009

    That….is just plain embarrassing, sorry Jessica. My sons are frustrated by my name blindness, the plaintive cry of “DAD that’s NOT my name” can be heard often.