Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.
by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
In this book, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum set out to alert us to a problem, and they gesture in the direction of a solution to that problem. Despite the subtitle of the book, their target is not really scientific illiteracy — they are not arguing that producing generations of Americans who can do better on tests of general scientific knowledge will fully address the problem that worries them. Rather, the issue they want to tackle is the American public’s broad disengagement with scientific knowledge and with the people and processes that build it.
Such disengagement displays itself in many ways, from Hollywood portrayals of scientists (as nerds, jerks, or evil masterminds), to shrinking coverage of scientific topics by the mainstream media, to calculations by political candidates that participating in public debates about science and policy would be dangerous rather than beneficial. Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest that even if scientists are aware of this public disengagement with science, they seem to feel no urgency to do anything about it — or, perhaps, to be taking action, but in directions that are ineffective or even counterproductive.
Throughout the book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum point to the post-World War II era in the U.S. as one where science and scientists were closer to their rightful place in society. Yet I struggled to get clear on exactly what the pro-science utopia to which they wish to return looks like — and especially, to get clear on which members of society ought to want this restoration. For example, they write:
[W]e need a nation in which science has far more prominence in politics and the media, far more relevance to the life of every American, far more intersections with other walks of life, and ultimately, far more influence where it truly matters — namely, in setting the agenda for the future as far out as we can possibly glimpse it. (18)
Who’s this “we”? For whom would this rise of scientific influence and esteem be desirable, and what benefits would it bring? If it’s just a matter of setting up a situation where scientists can get the funding they want, when they want it and without a fight, from the public, it’s not obvious that anyone but scientists should be bothered to work toward this “scientific America”. If the benefits expected to accrue are supposed to be broader, it would be helpful if Mooney and Kirshenbaum spelled out exactly what they are and why they matter.
Indeed, from what they write later, it’s hard not to think that the main beneficiaries of the scientific America Mooney and Kirshenbaum desire would be scientists:
[S]cientists, and the people who care about their work, know best what is being missed, why it matters, and indeed, how the science-society gap places our entire future at risk. Moreover, they have the talent, the knowledge, and in many cases the resources to turn things around. (132)
I’m still waiting for a clear statement of what precisely is at risk due to this gap, especially to the non-scientist. Also, what kinds of resources are we talking about here? Time, money, cool equipment, respect-commanding white lab coats?
Most of all, we need science to reestablish its core relevance to American life, to enjoy the standing and visibility it had in the late 1950s and early 1960s (with full accommodation of the lessons learned since then). Otherwise, we’ll simply repeat the cycle of ongoing scientific research that few people understand, interrupted by occasional public shock and outrage, and then followed in turn by more societal slumber once everyone forgets — the politicians most of all — what the scientists are up to. (130)
There is the suggestion here of non-scientists nodding along, pleased that the scientists are hard at work on something important, but mostly content to stay out of their hair so they can get the scientific job done. Yet the emphasis seems to be on helping the public see that scientists are trustworthy, maybe even cool, rather than on helping non-scientists build a good working understanding of scientific methodologies for problem solving, or a toolbox for evaluating the credibility of claims put forward as scientific ones, or on strategies for noticing when science touches other issues non-scientists might care about (like health care decisions or the long-term livability of our planet).
Combating scientific illiteracy and alienation from scientists primarily with education, then, is a losing strategy:
[T]o look to education alone as the silver bullet is to write off as unreachable anyone who has already graduated from the formal educational system. That includes vast stretches of the population, including most voters, our political and cultural leaders, and the gatekeepers of the media.
The most troubling problem with the standard “scientific illiteracy” argument, however, is this: It has the effect, intended or otherwise, of exempting the smart people — the scientists — from any responsibility for ensuring that our society really does take their knowledge seriously and uses it wisely. (16)
First, I think this assumes a pretty narrow understanding of education as only happening in classrooms. (For what it’s worth, many of us who teach in classrooms constantly push our own students to understand that learning can strike anytime, anywhere, even when a classroom or textbook is nowhere to be seen.) Education can happen in newspapers or magazines, through broadcast media, in parks and museums, in community events, in parents’ interactions with their kids’ formal schooling, and in informal interactions between friends and neighbors.
After all, a scientist is a person in your neighborhood.
Second, my reaction to the scientific illiteracy argument is just the opposite: if there’s a problem with the public’s understanding of and appreciation for science, who else but the scientists (and the other scientifically literate) could we expect to have the knowledge to transmit to those who aren’t getting it? If the “smart people” aren’t the ones who are supposed to tackle the problem of better educating the populace — through schooling and other avenues — then who is? The “smart people” are decidedly on the hook.
Of course, if the problem is really not that the public can’t learn, but rather that it won’t learn, better education may not be the answer. But better outreach (which Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend) seems equally prone to failure. Tying folks down and treating them to the “why science is awesome and important” spiel does not strike me as a great strategy for mending the rift Mooney and Kirshenbaum see in American society. If science is one of many societal goods, and if members of society are permitted to exercise their autonomy in choosing which goods to value and pursue, there is always the possibility for people to opt out of science.
This worry notwithstanding, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that conditions are such that mainstream news and entertainment will tend to deepen public alienation from science. Public interest in science coverage is not enough (at least in the eyes of the bean-counters) to warrant science sections in the newspapers or science units in television newsrooms (and with less science coverage through these channels, the public will likely lose its taste for regular science news going forward). Meanwhile, the movie-going public is sufficiently entertained by villainous scientists and speculative scenarios that may depart significantly from the rules of our universe as science understands them.
The point, after all, is not to educate, but to sell lots of tickets.
It struck me, while reading this book, that the root problem here is no fundamental flaw in the American character, but a capitalist system that squeezes out spaces for things that are not expected to sell widely for the lowest costs to produce. Science is brimming with complexities. Explaining it, understanding it, takes time and effort. But if the news media and Hollywood (and politics, too) are harbingers of doom for a scientific America, it makes it seem just as likely to me that a long term solution will involve replacing extreme capitalism with something different. Show me the alternative and the plan to implement it, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and help.
Of course, Mooney and Kirshenbaum take as given that extreme capitalism is an immovable object in this system. Meanwhile, they take aim at another element of the system with a fair bit of inertia: the job description of the scientist. Scientists, they argue, should see public outreach, communication of science to a variety of non-scientific audience, and even political engagement, as part of what they’re supposed to be doing as scientists:
We must rally toward a single goal: Without sacrificing the growth of knowledge or scientific innovation, we must invest in a sweeping project to make science relevant to the whole of American’s citizenry. … [W]hat we need — and currently lack — is the systematic acceptance of the idea that these actions are integral parts of the job description of scientists themselves. Not just their delegates, or surrogates, in the media or the classrooms. (130)
Let us pause for the already overburdened scientists in the audience to take a deep breath.
In addition to the research, the grant writing, the manuscript drafting, the student training, the classroom teaching, the paper and grant refereeing, and the always rewarding committee work, academic scientists should be working hard to communicate with the public, to generate their own science news for public distribution, to advise filmmakers, and to get politically active.
(To be fair, Mooney and Kirshenbaum actually seem to be suggesting more of a division of labor within the scientific community — rather than making all the researchers be communicators, some scientists in a department could focus on research and others on communication. But there are significant challenges in making an arrangement like this work, including but not limited to issues of fair evaluation of work that a department is not used to evaluating. The challenges experienced within departments that include traditional chemists and those whose research focuses on chemical education, for example, might be instructive in coming up with something like a blueprint to diversify science departments in the ways Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest.)
Throwing these additional communication, outreach, and lobbying tasks on every scientist’s shoulders seems a little nuts (unless we can give them each eight more hours per day to accomplish these additional tasks). And if you really wanted it to happen, this would require changing the official standards against which the job performance of scientists is judged (e.g., in their tenure and promotion cases). Making such changes — not only in official policies but in the work cultures that implement them — would require significant effort, coordination of a lot of decision makers, and probably resources (like funding and release time). At universities like mine, not only would such changes require large-scale buy-in from departments and administrators at all levels, but they would require a change in faculty contracts (which would need to be approved by the university, the faculty union, and perhaps even the state legislature).
None of this is to say that it would be a bad idea to recognize communication with and outreach to those beyond the tribe of science as a meaningful activity for a scientist. But if is to have a chance of being so recognized in any official way, someone needs to frame a clear argument identifying the benefits of doing it (and the costs of failing to) so as to make it a no-brainer for deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors, legislatures, governors, and unions. I believe such an argument could be made, but I couldn’t find it in this book.
Until activities like public outreach are recognized as part of the official job description, however, participating in those activities is likely to be viewed as time spent doing something other than research, grant writing, and publishing in the peer-reviewed literature — the stuff that really counts. For a scientist who is still moving up the food chain, there is always a whiff of danger in straying too far from the official duties. Given that research and publications are what tends to bring in the outside research funding (which universities have come to depend upon to run research programs), this is what universities will reward, and this is what academic scientists who want to keep their jobs will have to make the most visible part of their professional activities.
The reward structure is science will not be changed from below. Those who have established themselves, who wield the power in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions, who allocate resources and make policy within academic science, are the ones who might be able to change the system to reward other kinds of scientific work. So while there might be a mood at the scientific grassroots level to engage the public, it won’t be viewed as a central part of the job until enough of the folks higher in the science hierarchy understand such engagement to be in the best interests of the scientific community and of the institutions in which they practice science.
And unless there are scientific careers somewhere — whether in academia or elsewhere — where communication of various sorts with non-scientists are rewarded, it’s not clear to me that adding communications coursework to the standard scientific training will have much practical impact. Graduate students have been in school long enough to grasp a thing or two about effective strategies for academic success. If it ain’t assessed, they won’t learn it. If it takes time and it doesn’t count toward their career advancement, they’ll bet that it’s dangerous to be noticed doing it, and they’ll view any course teaching them how to do it as wasted time.
What I found simultaneously engaging and frustrating about Unscientific America is that I share Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s hunch that things would be better if the American public were less alienated from science and scientists, and that engagement with people outside the tribe of science might be very productive for scientists and for the non-scientists with whom they engage, but I wanted to see the particulars. How exactly are members of the public losing out in their isolation from the inner workings of scientific reasoning? In the political arena, is it enough for science to have a seat at the table, and if the authors are arguing for more, on what basis would that be a good thing for scientists and non-scientists in the polity? Given the realities of economic pressures on scientific institutions, as well as on the media and Hollywood, where is the detailed argument that a cadre of scientist-communicators would be in the interests of the scientific community and the broader society?
I believe these arguments can be made — indeed, that it may be very important that they be made soon — but I found Unscientific America didn’t make them, at least not in the polished form that would be needed to move provosts, agency heads, or CEOs to action. I’m hopeful, though, that this book will get people talking and thinking about these issues. A serious dialogue across scientific and non-scientific segments of the U.S. population about the place of science may help us come up with answers to the questions Unscientific America raises — and with an action-plan for achieving a science-engaged future that benefits us all.
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I’m saving my comments about the book’s take on the blogosphere and on the science-religion culture wars for a later post. (I’m still working out what I think about how these portions of the book fit in with, or distract from, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s main thrust as I understand it.)