Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the post where I reviewed it, I promised I’d have more to say about Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. As it turns out, I have a lot more to say — so much that I’m breaking it up into three posts so I can keep my trains of thought from colliding. I’m going to start here with a post about the public’s end of the scientist-public communication project. Next, I’ll respond to some of the claims the book seems to be making about the new media landscape (including the blogosphere). Finally, I’ll take up the much discussed issue of the book’s treatment of the science-religion culture wars.

Never fear, I’ll intersperse these posts with some that have nothing to do with the book, or the framing wars. Also, there will be new sprog art.

One of the tensions I noticed within Unscientific America has to do with who bears responsibility for the American public’s disengagement with science. Do we blame scientists who have been so immersed in doing science that they haven’t made much conscious effort to communicate with members of society at large? Wretched science teachers? The American people themselves for being too dumb or lazy or easily distracted to “get” science and why they should care?

For the most part, Mooney and Kirshenbaum really do make an effort to avoid playing the blame game here. Granted, the path they favor moving forward is one where scientists assume additional duties meant to improve the public’s scientific literacy and engagement, but they seem also to assume (probably correctly) that a good proportion of the book’s readers will be scientists, or people training to be scientists, or people managing environments where science is conducted. So I don’t think it’s problematic that they focus on what scientists can do to improve the public’s engagement with science.

However, I do think that scientists’ options — and their likelihood of success — need to be understood in the context of the kind of civil society we have (and the kind of civil society we may want) in the U.S. at the present moment in history. To paraphrase a former government official, you come to the communicative table with the public you have, not necessarily the public you want. And while the very act of communication can help shift that public to a different position, there are strategies we might imagine deploying to move the public that have the potential to undercut some of the features of the public sphere that American value most.

What does the American public want from science and scientists? How well do scientists meet these desires?

To the extent that members of the public understand that their tax dollars fund scientific research, many of them want scientists to make good use of that funding to produce a body of reliable knowledge. Folks also want that knowledge to be available to them (since, after all, they funded it), and for the body of knowledge scientist build to be relevant to the problems we face, individually or collectively. Thus, the public wants scientists to figure out how to grow the crops that will nourish us, how to make the cars that will get us where we want to go without gobbling fuel sources we don’t control (and without polluting our air and water), how to treat diseases that afflict us, and how to make the damn digital TV stations come in clearly.

Obviously, different people will assign different priorities to the various problems science might tackle.

We’ve discussed the public’s interest in research before. For the most part, the public seems content if scientists are tackling some of the issues that the public rates as important, if scientists are making progress with them, if scientists are sharing that progress with the public (and not charging the public more to benefit from knowledge whose production they’ve already subsidized), and if scientists aren’t caught screwing up (e.g., by indulging in scientific misconduct) on the public’s dime. But as far as publicly funded research goes, the transaction between taxpayer and scientist often amounts to putting up money and waiting for a finished result. The process by which science generates the results is very much a black-box for your typical taxpayer. As long as she knows how to use the results that are produced, she doesn’t feel the need to be engaged with the scientific methodology.

And folks can be a science-friendly as scientifically literate as you like and still have different ideas about how they’d like their tax dollars to be spent.

As a matter of fact, public opinions about the proper use of tax dollars — even very well informed opinions on this question — may present an immediate impediment to some of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s specific recommendations about what scientists should be doing. In advocating that scientist become politicallly involved, they write:

Political engagement, many scientists fear, can damage one’s reputation. And of course it can also detract heavily from the time spent on research. (58)

This is a serious issue for federally funded scientists. Do the taxpayers want to fund advocacy as well as knowledge production? Maybe my hunch is colored by the stinginess of the California taxpayer, but I’m betting the answer is “no”. The public wants the scientists to produce a reliable body of relevant knowledge. Then, the public and its representative can figure out the political costs and benefits of responding to that knowledge in various ways.

What does the American public expect from science education?

As an educator (as well as a member of the community), I worry sometimes that the public doesn’t have well-developed expectations here — or that these expectations frequently turn on a very narrow conception of self-interest (of the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and I have no intention of paying any more taxes so you can get yours” variety). But assuming that not every member of the public has decided to abandon public education in favor of privatizing the schools, various members of the public might expect science education to deliver:

  1. enough that our kids can master the relevant science content to pass the high-stakes tests (in order to advance to the next grade level and to help the school avoid getting dinged under No Child Left Behind and losing the funds it needs to educate the kids).
  2. enough for our kids to understand the facts they need to know about our world and how it works (i.e., scientific results).
  3. enough so our kids understand what they need to know about how science asks questions about the world and works to build good answers to these questions (i.e., science as a process with a distinctive methodology).
  4. enough so our kids can be critical consumers of information claimed to be backed by science, so they won’t fall prey to hucksters.
  5. enough so our kids could pursue further education and careers in science if they so choose.

I’m going to pause here to note some textual evidence that Mooney and Kirshenbaum may not find expectation #4 to be a realistic one:

Is the goal to have a public that can dig into complicated scientific disputes and determine who is right or wrong? If so, then let’s remember that many anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers are scientists themselves, couching their claims in sophisticated scientific language and regularly citing published articles in the peer-reviewed literature. (14)

I’ll return to this quotation when I talk about Unscientific America‘s treatment of the science-religion culture wars.

Of course, a person’s own relationship with science will exert a significant influence on what he expects scientific education to deliver. (This is probably why I’d expect, in addition to these five, that successful science education helps students understand what is fascinating — and deeply satisfying — about the scientific approach to building knowledge about the world. We philosophers frequently find recreational thinking to be rewarding in its own right.) And in the current apocalyptic school budget landscape, state and local school boards are having to make nearly impossible choices about which of our essential educational priorities must be sacrificed just to keep the lights on.

Art, music, physical education, and school libraries have gotten the ax in many school districts. Science education (which seems to require highly trained teachers and special facilities and materials) hang on by a thread. Even people who value scientific education may judge, in such trying times, that sacrificing science instruction would be less harmful to students than sacrificing reading, writing, and mathematics.

What does the American public expect from leisure time (assuming that any remains after one has seen to the task of scratching out a living and taking care of family obligations and such)? For some people, leisure time provides the opportunity to think about science, to learn new things and consider the ways science might enrich our lives and shape our future. But for many people, leisure time is a space in which they get to think about what they want to think about, and do the stuff they want to do. Maybe that stuff will be edifying, but maybe it will be unabashedly escapist.

Science may be good for us to understand, even rewarding to think about if we’re willing to devote the energy, but if it’s not perceived as engaging, fun, or worth the effort, the public has plenty of other things to do.

This last point is one I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum accept — it is certainly implicit in the calls for scientists to take on more responsibility for meeting the public where they are and appealing to their preexisting interests in efforts to communicate science to them. But there’s another issue that we need to keep in mind: A person’s engagement with science does not necessarily trump all her other interests in the public or private sphere. What this means is that no matter how well scientists communicate with the public about science, no matter how appealingly they package scientific information or the rationale for pursuing more scientific knowledge, members of the public may still make decisions other than the ones scientists want them to make. And, this decision-making need not be premised on poor understanding of scientific results or methodologies; it may just come down to different priorities. Among other things, this means that one can appreciate science and still believe that other programs ought to be funded first. One can value science while still preferring an X-files episode or a Britney Spears concert to NOVA. One can support science generally while still having deep doubts that stem cell research will accomplish all that its boosters promise. One can believe the scientific data on climate change and still want to maximize the profits on one’s oil and coal holdings.

In other words, getting more public understanding of, and engagement with, science doesn’t automatically provide scientists with armies of unquestioning supporters. Indeed, a more informed and engaged public might well demand more from scientists in terms of information about what they’re doing and why. While still leaving it to the scientists to actually do the science, an engaged public would have more basis for coming to informed opinions and for question the scientists’ own assumptions (e.g., about desirable applications of scientific knowledge, or about which scientific problems ought to be tackled first). (Personally, I think this situation would be worth the extra burden of communication and question-answering for scientists, but since I work at the periphery of the tribe of science, I’m not likely to experience the biggest impacts of a newly involved public.)

On the other hand, it might turn out that some large proportion of the public’s engagement with, or disengagement from, science is driven by matters of taste. Mooney and Kirshenbaum write:

Members of the public aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled with science; the refusal to tailor such information to their needs virtually ensures it won’t be received or accepted. (17)

The salient question here is what the needs of the public are. Whatever these needs are, can they be met by accurate information about the world? If not, then science might just be the wrong place to look to address such needs. And to what extent is the public’s interest in science (or anything else) driven by (perceived) needs rather than by wants? Do scientists get to tell us what we need to get out of engagement with them, or do we get to assess our own needs?

There are people who don’t care for sports, either as participants or spectators. There are people who don’t participate in or even follow politics because they don’t like politics. There are people who despise broccoli. Even if it would be to their benefit to participate in a sport, or pay attention to politics, or eat broccoli, if they don’t want to do it, they can find ways to avoid doing it.

If engagement with science works the same way, we may have to be content with leading the horses to the most refreshing, appealing water we can provide and then letting them do what they’re going to do.

Perhaps Unscientific America is just arguing that we ought to check on the appeal of the water rather than presumptively writing off the horses — that is, that the scientific community can do a better job of making science relevant and engaging to a broader swath of people. I’m inclined to think that’s probably true. But letting those people have their agency in accepting or declining what scientists offer them is important. If science is part of America’s marketplace of ideas, we expect that the consumers in this marketplace will be allowed to exercise choice among the competing options. The American public values autonomy. You might not agree with all of my choices, but they are mine (just as your choices are yours).

I suspect that the value we place on freely choosing our ends might account for some piece of the resistance to the “framing” strategy for communication, at least if it’s taken to involving telling the public what it wants to hear to bring them to the side of science. If framing were a way to market science such that the intended segment of the audience could not resist it, this would be uncomfortably close to turning science communicators into evil ad execs, tugging at just the right emotional levers to get their desired result. This is not all that far removed from the Hollywood movie mad scientist armed with a mind-control device. But while scientists appreciate the power that scientific knowledge gives them, by and large scientists would much rather persuade the public to accept a certain way of thinking than to force this way of thinking upon them.

These points might be summarized as I did about a year ago (in a post trying to draw some lessons from the framing wars):

1. Successful communication does not automatically bring with it successful persuasion.
You can understand what I’m saying perfectly well and still disagree with me. That’s how it goes.

2. Confusing what you know and what you value can only lead to headaches.
Sure, what you know can influence the ends you regard as valuable (not to mention the ends you regard as attainable), and your knowledge may shape your strategies for seeking your chosen ends. But the facts don’t speak for themselves. The facts alone cannot tell you what to do.

Doing stuff, obviously, can be useful, even fun. So having interests and values, as well as facts, is not a pathological condition for a human to be in.

What does all this have to do with Unscientific America? The book rests pretty solidly on the premise that scientists could do a better job of communicating with the public, and that such improved communication would do much to improve the odds that scientists could persuade the public that the pursuit of science is a societal good, that scientific information ought to play an important role in informing policy decisions, and so forth. I’m willing to accept the premise that scientists could communicate with the public more frequently, more clearly, and in a way that addresses the public’s interests more directly. But I think it’s reasonable to ask how much movement we can expect in what the public values in response to such improvements in communication.

Maybe the movement would be significant, but maybe it would be relatively small. If the latter, I can imagine the gnashing at teeth, especially if significant efforts have been devoted to retooling the scientific job description and scaring up resources to train a cadre of science communicators.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry to hard about the outcomes. Maybe a better informed and engaged public is always preferable to a less informed and engaged public. But I reckon if the arguments for making broad communication, public outreach, and political lobbying part of the scientist’s professional responsibilities are framed in terms of how it will improve the public’s response to policy initiatives or requests for funding, you’d better have very good, evidence-based reasons to expect those outcomes.


  1. #1 Scrabcake
    July 14, 2009

    Thanks for posting these. They are the best and most thoughtful postings on the book so far and represent a well-thought-out rebuttal.

  2. #2 Christina Pikas
    July 14, 2009

    Thank you. Yes. I think we all fall into the trap: well if they just knew what I know or saw what I see, then they would agree! I tried to make a version of part of this point on my blog, but didn’t quite get there.

  3. #3 mezzobuff
    July 14, 2009

    Thank you so much for these posts! I look forward to the next one…

  4. #4 J-Dog
    July 14, 2009

    Thanks for the outstanding thoughtful post. You should be like a teacher or something…:)

  5. #5 Rev Matt
    July 14, 2009

    I don’t know that I’d classify it as a rebuttal so much as a critique in the best sense of the word: Noting both the good and bad in the work it is addressing and expanding on the place of it in the overall culture.

  6. #6 Shay
    July 14, 2009

    Assign at least some blame to those who have encouraged the dumbing down of public school curricula over the years; the parents.

    Science is too hard and we wouldn’t want our darlings to fail at anything, would we?

    (snark inspired by spousal unit’s job as middle school science teacher).

  7. #7 Gaythia
    July 14, 2009

    Somewhere on the blog postings about Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book, “Unscientific American”, a contributor mentioned a book by Carl Sagan: “The Demon Haunted World”; which sounded interesting. Having now completed the “Unscientific American” book, I am now reading this one. Sagan talks about how the values of science and democracy are concordant, and even indistinguishable. Both require the free exchange of ideas, and demand reason and rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Sagan is saying that science isn’t just a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking and that these tough habits of thought are necessary if we are to solve the serious problems that face us.

    Sagan wrote this book in 1996 and is talking about scientific illiteracy and specific issues such as global warming. And of course what have we done in the intervening years? Which brings us to the current book by Mooney and Kirshenbaum. What can we do to help the public see science as relevant and engaging? And more importantly, how can we facilitate an understanding of science as a method of skeptical analysis of the evidence which leads to better decision making?

    I believe that part of the problem with current efforts at communicating science is that they are often isolated, marketing based efforts in the form: Hey look at me, I have just discovered the greatest (whatever) in the world! Fund me (or buy my product)! And then, a short time later, headlines say different “scientists” refute the first one and promote something else instead. This obviously leads to cynicism. And ultimately, this hurts science funding overall.

    Maybe what is needed is more of a united front at a higher level than the individual scientist in the laboratory. Scientists themselves could get back to their labwork, and focus on what they know, if they supported scientific agencies that actively promoted your points 2, 3, and 4 but also tied in with the goals of our democratic society. This puts science not in opposition to other funding goals but joined alongside them. This also should make Chris Mooney happy because it would require the efforts of good science communicators such as journalists.

    We can’t actually have a civilized society if people consistently forgo what is edifying and focus instead on what is unabashedly escapist. Unless we really do want to limit ourselves to just scratching out a living. Since you are also in California, I have to assume that you really are worried about the outcomes.

  8. #8 Coriolis
    July 14, 2009

    You sort of touch on what seems to me like the an unspoken issue in nearly all these discussions – that perhaps the real problem isn’t with the communication of science, but with the quality of the science itself. You don’t need to be a great communicator to make people care about the first landing on the Moon. It’s also not exactly hard to impress people with nuclear power, although in a somewhat different way. Similarly if today we found a new PV cell that was a cheaper source of energy then coal, or we finally had working fusion, or found a cure for a debilitating disease I imagine that would make quite a splash. To put it crudely, perhaps instead of more marketing, we need a better product to sell.

  9. #9 Physicalist
    July 14, 2009

    I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about a rather obvious factor affecting the science-public relation: nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

    I take it that it’s something of a truism that science (especially physics) was showered with money and prestige after WWII because scientists were viewed as having won the war by building the bomb. Nobody wanted to reign in research that might supply even more power on the international stage.

    The Cold War, obviously continued this trend: we couldn’t fall behind the commies, so we had to take science seriously. This is the “golden age” of science acceptance that (I gather from Dr. F-R’s review) Mooney and Kirshenbaum are pining for. People were less willing to attack science because science was keeping the country safe.

    With the end of the Cold War, more people are less inclined to see science as a military necessity, and with this, they’re more willing to dismiss science when it sits uncomfortably with their political or religious views.

    So, what do people want from science? National security. You want funding for science? Tell them they’ve got to foot the bill for research to combat germ warfare.

  10. #10 ponderingfool
    July 14, 2009

    The Cold War, obviously continued this trend: we couldn’t fall behind the commies, so we had to take science seriously. This is the “golden age” of science acceptance that (I gather from Dr. F-R’s review) Mooney and Kirshenbaum are pining for. People were less willing to attack science because science was keeping the country safe.
    Of course anti-Communism rhetoric also did damage to science as well, evolution was equated with Communism (as were atheists). Much of the Cold War race was also centered around getting technology to beat the enemy.

  11. #11 Arj
    July 14, 2009

    I don’t hold out a lot of hope for “the public” — these are the same folks who voted, well 50% of them, for Bush/Cheney twice (TWICE, mind you, they learned nothing in 4 years!). Seriously, it is starting with new generations coming up, and at the earliest educational levels, that science literacy needs to commence… and FAST.

  12. #12 BioinfoTools
    July 15, 2009

    Could I add one more element? I sometimes get the feeling that one thing the public wants to do with scientists is to place, or shift, the burden of some decisions to scientists, whilst at the very same time wanting to be able to withdraw from what they get back if they don’t like it. This may seem contradictory, but I don’t think I’m saying this wrongly. (Feel free to put me right, of course.)

    @7: This short post nicely excerpts a comment that says something similar to Sagan’s “way of thinking” comment:

    @8: I know what you’re saying, but some (most) excellent science is well buried from the public eye just by the nature of the subject. It’s part of the problem in that most research results have an no immediate impact on the consumer; they don’t “sell themselves” as you are saying. It’s not they’re bad science, it’s just the nature of the beast.

    Shifting slightly off topic, I am (still) stunned to learn that—apparently—there is no requirement for teachers to have degree-level science education in order to teach high school science in the USA. I’m still not quite trusting that’s true, because it seems so wrong to me. I gather there is no national (minimum) curriculum either. I realise communication is the issue on topic here, but I worry about this apparent lack of standards.

  13. #13 Onkel Bob
    July 15, 2009

    Shifting slightly off topic, I am (still) stunned to learn that—apparently—there is no requirement for teachers to have degree-level science education in order to teach high school science in the USA. I’m still not quite trusting that’s true, because it seems so wrong to me. I gather there is no national (minimum) curriculum either. I realise communication is the issue on topic here, but I worry about this apparent lack of standards.

    I attempted to make the transition from business sector to teaching. I applied for and was accepted to a teaching fellows program. Although they knew my professional and academic history (20+ years applied engineering – RF communications and computer technology in the former, a B.A. in Art History, M.A. in Interdisciplinary) I was accepted only if I agreed to teach General Science or Biology. Now, general science wouldn’t be a problem, but biology is a stretch. Nevertheless, I took the California Subject Examination for Teachers set and passed them. It was three tests, two general science (118 & 119) and one biology (120) that I took in three hours (You are allotted three hours if you take one, two, or three tests.) That the state felt I was qualified to teach this subject as a result of that examination set was frightening. Unfortunately for me and fortunately for my prospective students, I washed out because of classroom management skills.
    Back on topic, I still think that putting the onus solely on the science professionals to communicate is a plan doomed to failure. We have this program already in place in the political sphere. Voters don’t make an effort to investigate, they rely on others to explain things to them. The result is we have a despicable collection of pander bears leading us. But then again we this is a nation of idiots who look to fools to guidance.
    I’d prefer the nation not receive what they want nor what they need, I would give them what they deserve; and I think they deserve a few good plagues to reduce the population by 50-90%. At least that will alleviate the critical mass of stupid we form which we currently suffer.

  14. #14 ponderingfool
    July 15, 2009

    these are the same folks who voted, well 50% of them, for Bush/Cheney twice (TWICE, mind you, they learned nothing in 4 years!). Seriously, it is starting with new generations coming up, and at the earliest educational levels, that science literacy needs to commence… and FAST.
    Well to be fair that is 50% of those registered voters who voted. Not all Americans who can are registered and not all those registered do vote.

  15. #15 becca
    July 15, 2009

    “But while scientists appreciate the power that scientific knowledge gives them, by and large scientists would much rather persuade the public to accept a certain way of thinking than to force this way of thinking upon them.”
    Oh? Darn. I’ll have to stop working on the mind control device then.

    So, given that we can’t judge whether science communication is effective by whether the public agrees with scientists about priorities, how do we determine how good/bad scientific communication with the public really is? How would we know if it’s getting better?

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