Adventures in Ethics and Science

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Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.
by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
Basic Books
2009

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.

* * * * *

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.)

Stay tuned.

Comments

  1. #1 Onkel Bob
    July 11, 2009

    Interesting take on the subject. As the significant other of a scientist, I advise her how to make her science more accessible to other scientists. After reading critiques from her grant submissions, it is apparent that even scientists do not always understand other scientists. So making something as complex and nuanced as science clear to the lay public requires a special talent. To place yourself in the shoes of the reader is an especially difficult ability to cultivate.

    Runaway italics! It appears the closing tag for Unscientific America is missing.

  2. #2 Russell
    July 11, 2009

    ..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.

    It seems to me you’re putting the economic cart in front of the cultural horse. People put the time and effort and resources into the things they think important or interesting. There is an entire communications industry devoted to inspirational literature. There are TV shows and magazines devoted to recreational fishing. Capitalism doesn’t “squeeze out space” for these, but caters to them. Let’s not get started on spectator sport.

    While far less than spectator sports, there also are considerable resources put into science communication. Anyone who desires can easily find information at every level from grade school to current research on topics from parasite evolution to qubits. If there is a popular tension with science in America, it reflects cultural issues, not a lack of resource devoted to science communication.

  3. #3 steve s
    July 11, 2009

    I think this post is a bit exaggerated. The multi-billion dollar scientific enterprise I’m familiar with can surely withstand a few misportrayals by hollywood.

  4. #4 tcmJOE
    July 11, 2009

    “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?”

    YES!

  5. #5 Kurt
    July 11, 2009

    Particulars? I can give you a few particulars. It’s true that the members of the public that matter from a public policy standpoint–voting adults–are for the most part already done with the educational system. They get their science information mostly from the news media, and the news media have done a poor job reporting on scientific matters.

    The reason this is so serious is that the public will be voting, directly or indirectly, on issues such as global warming, energy policy, reproductive policy, and science funding in general, for which a knowledge of the underlying science is crucial for making wise decisions. Making poor decisions on these matters will directly affect the quality of life for future generations.

    Here’s my suggestion for what to do about it. Leaving the responsibility on journalists isn’t right, and it doesn’t work anyway. Even a university’s PR department can’t be trusted to get the facts right in their press releases. It’s up to the scientists themselves to devote some time and effort into spreading the word about their research. And I mean this in a very literal sense: grant proposals should specify that a certain portion of the budget go to public outreach. Universities should encourage their researchers to spend a certain proportion of their time in public outreach, and then back them by making sure they have the time and resources available to do this.

    Now, scientists cannot do this on their own initiative. Funding agencies have to adopt policies to encourage or even demand that some modest portion of research budgets go to outreach efforts, and universities need to adopt similar policies. This won’t happen until people at the highest levels of administration–university presidents and heads of government agencies, etc.–come to the realization of how serious this issue is.

    How did we get into this situation? Although I’m sure there are many contributing causes, I can think of two things that I feel are the most important. First, over time we have become more and more dependent upon technology, and the science underlying it, for our way of life. Things have gotten enormously more complex over the last couple of generations, but it’s happened gradually enough that people have been caught unawares. Our expectations of what we ought to know in order to be able to function as thinking citizens has not kept pace.

    Second, a substantial portion of the public is skeptical about science because of deliberate propaganda against science by religious fundamentalists and political ideologues. This is something that Mooney and Kirshenbaum and other people in the “accomodationist” camp seem to be in denial about. I often see conversations on this topic centering around evolution, but evolution is a complete red herring. Any particular scientific concept can be rationalized within a religious doctrine with enough creativity, and people are great at compartmentalizing the parts they can’t rationalize. No, it’s the enterprise of science itself that can’t be reconciled with religion. Fundamentalists understand this (although they don’t make the ultimate logical conclusion), so their criticisms of evolution eventually spread out to the other sciences as well.

    There is no pleasant solution to this particular part of the problem of increasing the acceptance and understanding of science in the general public. We are at a cultural crossroads, and there is going to be a lot of outcry from religious leaders of all types as they lose ground to nonbelievers. But trying to accommodate religious belief where it doesn’t fit is only going to drag out this process and make it more painful in the long run.

  6. #6 Noumena
    July 12, 2009

    I think it’s important to distinguish four issues which, while related, are not problematic in the same way, nor in need of the same sort of solution — `outreach’ might help with some of these issues, but not others. I suspect that a lot of the vagueness and unclarity in both Unscientific America and the comment thread thus far are due to the lack of a clear set of questions or problems.

    First, the economics of science. Who decides who gets the valuable resources — time, money, lab space, press releases, etc. — and who gets control over the results of scientific research? Should private companies be the major beneficiaries of research that is largely funded by public money? On what basis are these decisions made?

    Second, science policy, and the public accountability of science. Who decides what kinds of research should be done, what the standards are for good research, what research is reasonably safe and valuable? And, again, on what basis are those decisions made? Should science policy decisions be made by the political apparatus? The market? Random citizens pulled in off the street? Scientists and only scientists? Given that science should be more accountable to `the public’, is the problem simply that most of `the public’ are ignorant of and apathetic about science?

    Third, the role of science in public policy. Where’s the happy medium between a Leninist scientific technocracy and science as just one more side in the culture wars? How should scientists and their research be consulted in formulating, say, energy policy, or farm policy? And which scientists? Should chiropractors be allowed or even encouraged to get involved in health care policy? Whose evidence counts in evidence-based medicine?

    Fourth, the cultural image of scientists. How do the media portray scientists? What are the common stereotypes about scientists? Do non-scientists feel that scientists are remote or disconnected from their lives and concerns?

    I’m inclined to think this last is the least important of the four issues I’ve identified, by far. The other three — what we might call the political economy of science — is much more important. But I’m writing my dissertation on the first two issues, so perhaps I’m biased.

  7. #7 Christina Pikas
    July 12, 2009

    It sounds like they didn’t read the decades of research on communicating science with the public and public understanding of science. It’s interesting how they want people who have a science background to give up doing science to become specialists in communicating with the public. I know of lots of people like this. Many large science projects have dedicated outreach or public affairs professionals who not only have a background in science (probably just at the undergrad) but have an in-depth understanding of how people learn, what teachers need to incorporate into lesson plans, and how to communicate with the public. Furthermore, the research shows that the primary things that do get communicated are the “awesome” and “important” (Fahnestock among others)… oh, I’m too disappointed and frustrated to continue. I’ll circle back to the fact that from this review it’s clear that the authors are not familiar with any of the science communication literature, which means that they’re doomed to repeat what’s been discredited since the 70s & 80s
    oh, and P.S. – lifelong learning has to be important, otherwise adults’ understanding would be based on the year they graduated! Hardly literate – think of what has changed in the world since you graduated high school.

  8. #8 Sven DiMilo
    July 12, 2009

    Speaking as someone seemingly permanently embedded in the bog of pre-tenure academic science, I too find suggestions such as “we need to re-tool the academic pipeline to emphasize communication” almost charmingly naive.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    July 12, 2009

    From an academic point of view, most universities have general education requirements which require non-science majors to take courses in science areas. These classes are considered very important by the university in that that is where the majority of student credit hours are generated. I suppose I have had several thousand students in general education biology courses. If I was successful in communicating science to these students, then I made a considerable societal contribution.

    In the first lecture I showed a slide show about my research. I wanted the students to understand that I was a working biologist, a teacher different, in all probablity, from those they had know previously. My goal was that students should come to think biology is both interesting and important.

    So I think the first thing we need to do better is the job of helping the music majors know something about science and thus appreciate it.

    I got into ichthyology through the aquarium hobby, and have maintained connection throuout my career. So I have spoken to a number of aquarium society functions, publiished articles in aquarium magazines, have been on TV a couple of times, and have spoken to groups like boy scouts, etc.

    I hope we all do science because it is neat and interesting. If that is the case, we should desire to share our enthusiasm with others.

  10. #10 mediajackal
    July 12, 2009

    “We,” in this context, is everybody — including the millions of Americans who believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis, but I’ll wait for that post, too.

    The emphasis needs to be on showing the public why science matters, how science is done and what science has done for them lately.

    For many people, a scientist is NOT “a person in (their) neighborhood.” Scientists are perceived as aloof, remote, detached. Most aren’t, of course, but enough are that the “nerds in white coats” image encompasses all.

    Kurt’s summary of how we got here (@5) is painfully accurate. But, by identifying the problem, he’s brought us that much closer to a solution.

    On other posts I’ve read scientists boasting about snubbing reporters. That attitude has to change — as does the attitude from reporters that confrontational journalism is the only approach.

    To understand the depth and breadth of that problem, read “Idiot America: How Stupidity Has Become a Virtue in The Land of The Free” by Charles Pierce. His theory is that three premises govern Idiot America: 1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units; 2) Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough and 3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.”

    If we’re going to get out of this with a civilization worth passing along, we have to address those premises.

  11. #11 Scicurious
    July 13, 2009

    Really good review, Janet! This raised all sorts of points that Sci did not consider. And it’s true, you need to find a way to make outreach count, and REALLY count. Because right now grad students know on which side their bread is buttered, and it’s not the side involving teaching classes and promoting science outreach. Those things are considered a distraction from the real work at hand.

  12. #12 Kate
    July 13, 2009

    Fantastic and thoughtful post, Dr. Free-Ride. I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t really comment on Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s book, but I appreciate your focus on what is possible in our capitalist society and determining concrete steps towards change. I am hoping that this recession gives us a chance to critically re-evaluate our collapsing society, and perhaps move towards a model that places value not only on things that generate financial profit, but generate good knowledge for the world.

    And steve s, as someone who teaches large non-major science lecture courses at a public university, I would say Hollywood (and MSM, and religious) misportrayals have done a lot to harm student willingness to learn science, to be engaged with science, and to trust science. I have huge barriers to even getting them to listen, no matter how charismatic I am, how interesting or relevant the topic. There is a lot we educators can do, and I am working to improve things, but it would be nice if I didn’t have to do so much work to get past their resentment and mistrust. Throw in a healthy number of students who are in my class as non-majors fulfilling a requirement because they had early learning experiences that made them feel bad about their abilities in math and science, and you have a recipe for disaster.

    For me, the issue is that those of us who are scientists and do feel as though we have some stake in how our society values science tend to educate individuals who have already been through at least twelve years of schooling, at least eighteen years of other experiences (watching movies, going to certain churches [not all] that are anti-evolution or anti-science, etc) already built up. So we’re not impacting individuals at an age where we can make a difference, and Dr. Free-Ride makes the valid point that asking us to add early science education (or general public science communication) to our mission could seriously hinder chances at tenure, not to mention the actual research many of us became academics to do.

    I wish I were offering concrete solutions here. I guess for now, my job is to keep doing what I’m doing — try to make science accessible, interesting and not scary to non-majors — and hope that those students, many of whom are majoring in education — will go on to present science as benign, complex, and a useful and valuable way of providing knowledge through observation and experimentation.

  13. #13 MyaR
    July 13, 2009

    Thanks for this review. I’ve been reading various reviews and blog comment sections on those reviews, but didn’t feel like I’d really gotten what was actually in the book. I think your very thoughtful review has pinpointed why — there doesn’t seem to be much there there.

    However, I do plan to stop by the Big Bookstore on my way home and peruse the book itself over a nice caffeinated beverage.

  14. #14 Rev Matt
    July 13, 2009

    Very very nice review, and substantive observations on the main thesis of the book. I’m still interested in reading it for myself and the points you raise I’ll be considering when I do.

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned so far is what would seem to me to be essential reading on the topic before delving into Unscientific America and that is Richard Hofstader’s still relevant 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

  15. #15 eyrie
    July 13, 2009

    A lot of good points well made in both the post and comments. Nouema in particular hits the nail on the head. As long as who pays and who decides what in science remains so mysterious to the general public, why should people engage with it? (one could parallel this with the current worries about people being apathetic about voting…)

    I know it isn’t because people in general – even the un- and undereducated – aren’t interested in science and what scientists are doing, especially when it affects their daily lives or captures their imagination. And it is possible to explain most of this without recourse to higher maths. (Although I do agree that lack of maths or the fear of maths is a big gap in most people’s education – but not so much in how it relates to science, as in people’s ability to think clearly and control their own their own lives.)

    I’m sure Hollywood and the tabloid media don’t help either, but it is my observation that most people only have direct contact with scientists during some sort of contest between themselves and the state, ie in court, as various kinds of building, h&s and farm inspectors – or when they are sick. The scientist is the expert they can’t afford to pay to testify on their behalf, or to cure their illness. Scientists can address this without necessarily having to learn how to write good English or study marketing strategies. Groups like the American Federation of Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists seem good places to start combatting this image, since what causes the public to disengage is not so much lack of understanding the ‘facts’, but lack of trust in scientists’ own independence from either commercial or personal interest.

    What scientists could be do tomorrow (notwithstanding other work pressures) is get themselves involved in their local communities and put their expertise at the service of their neighbours, in whatever democratic orgs or structures exist. There’s always some issue around which could do with someone trained in both designing experiments and looking at the results. It would be easy enough to make a couple hours of this a month a requirement for most post-grads, and a few might even catch the public service bug for life. This would also be a fairly painless way to train students in conveying scientific ideas to the ‘general’ public and give the public a chance to question scientists’ assumptions face to face at the same time. It doesn’t matter if there’s a scientist living down the street if he or she only ever talks to professional peers.

    And another thing. Most science media (tabloid and serious) and education (formal and informal) is about asserting ‘truths’ rather than assessing evidence, and therefore contributes nothing towards helping people find their own ground in science. Religion is not the problem here, but scientists presenting like priests when they do ‘talk to the public’ through journalism or TV. Take physics, for example. While theorists these days congratulate themselves on their theories being ‘counter-intuitive’, and only really understandable through esoteric maths – not to mention the very idea that the universe blew out of a singularity – is it any wonder that many people give Bible stories more or equal weight? They’re a lot more thrilling, and just as plausible as dark matter or the several hundred permutations of string theory.

    The ernest and sometimes angry biologists arguing for evolution are wasting their breath as long as physics remains stuck between quantum theory and Einstein… I’ll stop with that before I start ranting off-topic.

    Have to say that the review was good enough that I don’t feel the need to even look at the book. This kind of wailing about public ignorance without looking at fundamental issues in science – like who pays and why, which anyone can understand – has been around for a good thirty years. Sounds like a book borne out of a dinner party conversation, superficial and ahistorical.

  16. #16 David
    July 13, 2009

    excellent post. I also haven’t read the book (I wait for the used paperbacks, not being made of money).

    I do drug development research for a pharmaceutical company. The industry’s ability to communicate risk to patients is limited. A recent FDA public hearing focused on death due to liver failure from misuse of acetaminophen. This major problem (approx 100 deaths per year in the US) results from patients not knowing that there’s a risk despite clear prominent warnings and not being aware of the acetaminophen content of their medicines. This communication failure occurs despite it being a simple, clearcut issue affecting a commonly used drug.

    So I would say that clear communication of science is a life or death issue.

  17. #17 Anna Haynes
    July 14, 2009

    > “I’m still waiting for a clear statement of what precisely is at risk due to this gap, especially to the non-scientist”

    How about the future of civilization? (see Krugman; “At this point, the central forecast of leading climate models — not the worst-case scenario but the most likely outcome — is utter catastrophe”)

    Sowing disinformation here has been extremely effective – maybe not where you are, but out here in the boondocks our local newspaper is _still_ running columns by global warming denialists – and it has the effect of confusing open-minded nonscientists into inaction, or ineffectual, tend-your-own-garden action.

    In this review, there’s no mention of agnotology. No mention of climate change, except from one commenter. No mention of what we went through in the case of tobacco, no mention of the denial industry.

    Let’s acknowledge the elephant, folks; we can’t make progress cleaning the room until we deign to acknowledge, and figure out how to counter, the hulk that’s burying it in manure.

    You do see this, right?

  18. #18 BillCinSD
    July 14, 2009

    National Science Foundation grants, require outreach as part of the proposal. It’s true that the better the research idea is the more this is kind of winked at, but it is a requirement and for some types of grants, such as Career proposals, research experience for undergraduates, absolutely essential.

    I find most non-scientists I interact with to be very interested in science and research, but generally don’t think they can or will understand what I am doing, so trying not to come off as arrogant and talking down to the is critical.

  19. #19 BioinfoTools
    July 15, 2009

    I like you picking up the “race to the bottom” aspect of “extreme capitalism” and it’s role. It would be interesting, then, to compare the experience in countries with a less capitalistic history (or present).

    Thanks for pointing out that researchers already have enough roles and the practical aspects of altering them. It’s too often left out. Elsewhere I’ve pointed out that a change in the attitudes to “alternative science careers” in academia might help (e.g. http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2009/07/mixed_messages.php)

    @2: It seems to be that it’s not that there a communications (etc.) industry that Janet is referring to, but the nature of it.

    @5: A portion of grants isn’t a bad idea, but you need to sell it to the power-that-be as Janet was saying. I suspect that it’s better delivered to departments, as those on smaller grants probably would never be able to afford to carry this extra item. (There is also a tendency for funding agencies—at least in my country—to trim the grant budgets, and for smaller grants in particular communication would be one of the first items to go since it wouldn’t be “core” work.)

    @7: Reminds me that one of the things I try to say to students is that the most important thing you learn as a student is how to learn independently so that you can take on and learn new things later in life.

    @8: Agreed.

    @15: While the point about the community involvement is well-taken, most researchers are pretty busy people. In my (limited) experience, there are some types of researchers who are already quite involved this way but they tend to be related to their expertise, e.g. ecologists for environmental issues, specific disabilities for those studying them, etc.

    @18: Interesting, news to me. Are they required to demonstrate this, or is this more by way of hand waving?

  20. #20 anonymous
    July 18, 2009

    Brilliant review. What you say here, I think, is key:

    “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.”

    I also appreciate the fact that you actually deal with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s ideas rather than, like so many, attacking them as people. It also helps that you actually read the book. Best review I’ve read so far.

  21. #21 Hap
    July 21, 2009

    It isn’t just papers in the middle of nowhere – the New York Post ran an editorial claiming that since the warmest year was 1998 and it’s been cooler(!?!) since while CO2 concentrations have increased, global warming is a myth. At least it’s consistent with their undying insistence on truth. ()

    I am cynical that education will be effective in making science less alienated from the population as a whole because I think that science (like at least some economists) wants to tell people things they do not want to hear, because the actions that are directly impled by those facts will cause lots of pain and likely decrease our ability to do the tings we wish to do. Politics from (at least) Reagan onward has been dominated by those willing to tell people that they can have everything they want and not have to pay for it – those with less pleasant news have not been treated well. Perhaps the current administration will be different, but I don’t see much evidence that we are willing to accept the costs of the fixing we need to do (lots of debt, costs of global warming and health care legislation). Capitalism is in some ways the cure (you can only get what you can pay for – so long as you include all of the costs of something in what you pay) and in others the problem (“we get what we want by taking it from others however we can, and the others don’t matter” is not a philosophy likely to lead to a civilization able to be preserved or worth preserving). As long as we listen to people because they tell us what we want to hear and not what we need to hear, we will be a danger to ourselves and others, and methods starting with facts we wish to ignore and using logic that leads us where we don’t wish to go will be unpopular.

  22. #22 Hap
    July 21, 2009

    I drpped a {snicker} at the end of the first paragraph above, because angle brackets are HTML. Oops.

  23. #23 tim sabore
    September 2, 2009

    Are we suggesting a new career: PR scientist. An agent that is a salesman, a cheerleader with all the facts that can guide the non-scientific community along the path of informed decisions? What do we call them? How about the Administration. (You could only hope they would be distracted long enough to forget about trying to get more work out of the hired help for less money).