The science blogosphere has been buzzing about Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, the new book by former SciBlings Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. For whatever reason everyone else seems to have received their review copies before I did, and I did not want to weigh in until I had read the book.

That has now happened, so I offer my review. There is too much to address in one post, so I will do three. In the first I will adress what I take to be the broad themes of the book. In the second I will specifically address Chapter Eight, which addresses the “New Atheists” and is, regrettably, wall-to-wall nonsense. In the third I will pick up a few odds and ends, certain discordant notes in the book which, while not really central to the book’s main arguments, were nonetheless quite annoying.

I realize that many others have already reviewed the book, and that in certain places I will be repeating points already raised by others. There is just too much out there at this point to go tracing through it all, trying to determine who first raised what issue. So I will review the book in a vacuum as it were, and simply tell you what I think.

Short review: Mixed, but generally negative. Much of the book is very superficial and I don’t think their proposed solutions are practical.

Now for the longer review:

What does it mean to say that America is scientifically illiterate? One possibility is that Americans just do not know enough scientific facts, like, say, that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. There is little question that America is scientifically illiterate in that sense, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide several reasons for thinking this is not the main problem (p. 14).

I agree that this sort of scientific ignorance is more the symptom than the disease. Furthermore it is not so much ignorance per se that is the problem, but the lack of awareness of one’s own ignorance.

I would add, though, that scientists have actually been very good at addressing this aspect of the issue. There is a steady stream of popular-level science literature in virtually every discipline. The web is teeming with resources for anyone wishing to inform themselves on the basic facts of science. Magazines like Seed and Scientific American are also readily available. It has never been easier to inform yourself quickly about the state of play in science. Anyone motivated to learn the basics of science can do so quickly and painlessly, and this is because many professional scientists have gone to great lengths to make it so.

Another possibility is that Americans are unduly hostile to scientists themselves, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum cite polling data to show this is not so. Actually, scientists are generally held in high regard by the public. (p. 19)

But if we are not worried that Americans don’t know enough facts, and if Americans generally hold favorable views of scientists, then what exactly is the problem?

And anyway, we don’t need average citizens to become robotic memorizers of scientific facts or regular readers of the technical scientific literature. Rather, we 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. That would be a scientific America, and its citizens would be as scientifically literate as anyone could reasonably hope for. We will never have a nation that is fully composed of PhD’s. (Italics in original). (p. 18)

Really? That’s the problem? People do not recognize that science has a critical role to play in setting the agenda and determining sound policy? I’m not so sure. Let’s consider some specifics.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum write:

It’s a stunning contradiction when you think about it. The United States features a massive infrastructure for science, supported by well over $100 billion annually in federal funding and sporting a vast network of government laboratories and agencies, the finest universities in the world, and innovative corporations that conduct extensive research…. And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles. A distressingly large number of Americans refuse to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of the origin of our species and the diversity of life on Earth. An influential sector of the populace is in dangerous retreat from the standard use of childhood vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest and most successful advances… The nation itself has become politically divided over the nature of reality, such that college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and is caused by human activities. (p. 3)

There is nothing either stunning or contradictory in any of that. There is no contradiction in saying that Americans are mostly favorable towards science, but also go South on a few specific issues.

Hostility toward evolution is not the result of some all-encompassing antipathy toward science. It is the result of certain very bad religious ideas that too often go unchallenged. Hostility toward global warming is not the result primarily of scientific ignorance. It is that there are powerful interests heavily invested in the status quo, coupled with the basic inertia that makes people reluctant to make major changes to their way of life.

Hostility toward vaccinations does stem largely from ignorance, but anti-vaccers are strongly aided in their views by an unscrupulous media (both traditional and new) that is willing to present uncritically the crassest sort of sensationalist quackery.

The point is that in those areas where we can say that scientific ignorance is leading people towards bad decisions and bad public policy it is because there are powerful social forces working very hard to make sure people remain ignorant. These forces, especially religion, the insatiable quest for short-term profit and ratings, and a basic social ethic that is geared largely towards relentless consumption, are far more prominent in the United States than in Europe. That is why we have these problems in greater profusion here than they do there.

Which means that the solution, to the extent that there is one, is to fight those social forces. Easier said than done.

M&K are very taken with the idea that the current low regard for science is a big come down from the status scientists enjoyed in the wake of WWII and through the space race of the sixties. But surely the differences are not hard to spot. In the wake of WWII the contributions scientists had made were obvious to all. Scientists invented the bomb, thereby ending WWII. Scientists gave us the technology that allowed us to reestablish our scientific prominence in the wake of Sputnik. In both cases scientists were responsible for inventing things that were obviously related to issues of national security and confidence.

Now suppose that those scientists held in such high regard in the fifties and sixties had started telling people their way of life is unsustainable, and that major changes would have to be made lest there be an environmental catastrophe several decades down the road. Would the American public of the time have been any more ready to hear that message than the public is today? I doubt it.

M&K pay lip service to these social forces, but they are far more interested in blaming scientists themselves for America’s scientific malaise. It seems we are not doing enough community outreach.

Towards that end they make a variety of suggestions for making scientists into better communicators; have them take courses in communication, make them see popularization as part of their job, that sort of thing. I am all in favor of making scientists into better communicators and making popularization a more valued activity, but I think that M&K do not really understand very much about academic culture.

They are very taken with the idea that academics are chronically opposed to popularization, seeing it as beneath them and an affront to scientific objectivity. Their poster child for this attitude is Carl Sagan, who suffered the double horror of being turned down for tenure at Harvard and of later being denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Now, I am as much a Sagan fan as anyone, but M&K really do not do justice to the story. Yes, Sagan, was turned down for tenure at Harvard. But recall that this was in the late sixties, very early in his career; Cosmos was still more than a decade away. I’m guessing that what Harvard saw on Sagan’s CV was a decent but non-spectacular record of research that was rapidly falling by the wayside in favor of popularization efforts of unclear effectiveness.

Sagan was then almost immediately snapped up by Cornell, where he was given an endowed chair. So even if you feel Harvard was short-sighted or had the wrong priorities, it would still be the case that their views were not representative of all of academe, or even of all the Ivy League.

As for the NAS, that too was a difficult situation. We should keep in mind that induction into the NAS is intended to honor really substantial accomplishments in scientific research. Sagan had certainly done some good research, but it is not so clear that someone with his record without the popularization would have been inducted. The NAS does have a mechanism for honoring great contributions to advancing science among the public. It is called the Public Welfare Medal, and the NAS awarded it to Sagan in 1994. I am not aware of any controversy surrounding Stephen Jay Gould’s induction into the NAS despite his fame as a popularizer, because he had a first-rate research record.

My point is not that it was necessarily right to keep Sagan out of the NAS, just that the situation was far more complicated than what Mooney and Kirshenbaum present. To say that Sagan was “persecuted” (p. 77) for his work as a popularizer is a considerable oversimplification. Most of us would welcome the sort of persecution that leads to an endowed chair at Cornell.

They also seem to think that academe is governed entirely by the top research schools. The fact is, though, that once you get below the top thirty or so research schools attitudes tend to change dramatically. There are far more academics working at schools like mine, teaching institutions that also do research, than there are at the top schools, which are research institutions that also teach. And I really don’t think you will find much hostility to popularization once you get below the top schools. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The issue is not that academe is characterized by a hostility to popularization and outreach. The issue is that most of us don’t have opportunities for serious outreach, and do not know how to create those opportunities. Many of us write popular books and articles when we can, which is good but hardly the stuff of social revolutions. But what is the good of training people in communication skills if they never have the chance to address more than small groups of people at a time? Sure, it would be nice to have armies of telegenic scientists who could go on cable chat shows and reduce difficult scientific issues to sound bites. But why cultivate such skills when most of us will never, ever, be on television?

M&K also have some more ambitious ideas in that regard, such as fostering collaborations with Hollywood or running for public office. I’m all for it. To pick one example, I think Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey who holds a PhD in physics, is a hero. I wish we had a thousand more just like him. The fact remains, though, that people who take their science degrees and go into politics or media are not making their livings as scientists. They are doing different jobs. Valuable, crucial, often under-valued jobs, but different nonetheless. This leads me to my final point.

The final chapter describes the awesome challenges facing someone striving to make a career as an academic scientist. Life in graduate school is grueling and poverty-stricken. If you get through it you can expect to bounce around post-docs for a while, making very little money at an age where people are often trying to start families. The competition for tenure-track jobs is fierce in the best of times, and it has been a while since we have seen the best of times.

M&K conclude from this that something is wrong with graduate education:

So isn’t the solution obvious? On the one hand, we need to relieve pressure on the scientific pipeline, create more opportunities for younger scientists, liberate postdocs from holding patterns, and train newly minted scientists to better compete in an uncertain job market. On the other hand, we need to encourage the scientific community to engage in more outreach and produce scientists who are more interdisciplinary and savvy about politics, culture, and the media.

These goals ought to be one and the same. Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and get into better touch with our culture — while pointing out in passing that having more diverse skills can only help them navigate today’s job market, and may even be the real key to preserving U. S. competitiveness. (p. 123-124).

Looks good on paper (though I’m not sure if communication skills are really the difference between employment and unemployment, except in the obvious sense that good communication skills are helpful in a job interview). But M&K never ask the next question. Why do we do it? After all, the grim statistics are not being hidden or concealed from anyone.

We do it because we can’t imagine doing anything else. Because we really love our subjects and want to make a contribution, even if just a very small one. Because there is a satisfaction to being part of a community of scholars that can not be obtained in any other line of work. Because the job of a tenured professor is about as close to “Do whatever you want and we’ll pay you for it,” as you ever find in life. That’s why we do it. In short, we do it because we really want to teach and do research in the subjects we love, and we are willing to make sacrifices and take risks to make it in our field.

The school part of graduate school is awful. You spend years taking grueling courses, doing an endless succession of problem sets, taking the highest-stress exams you will ever take in your life, and flailing around trying to get a research program going. Even with all of this training you are keenly aware of just how little you know coming out of graduate school. And now here come Mooney and Kirshenbaum to say that you have fundamentally misperceived the nature of your future career, and that you now have to learn a whole other set of skills that will prepare you for your role as a popularizer and not as a researcher. Don’t be surprised if you have trouble finding takers.

If the solution to America’s science woes involves fundamentally changing the nature of graduate school and pushing budding young scientists into politics or media then I think we are in trouble. The sort of people with the skills, drive, and temperament to make it through graduate school are also frequently not the sort of people with much interest in or skills for transmitting science to large audiences.

When I started this review I said my opinion was mixed but largely negative. So far I have only been negative. Let me finish by saying that I do think there are portions of the book that are good, particularly the more historical sections. And even though I am generally disappointed in the book (and frankly horrified by the New Atheist chapter, as I shall describe in the next post), I do still think the book is worth reading. I have met both Chris and Sheril, and, my current disagreements with them notwithstanding, I think they are both serious, thoughtful people whose view is worth considering. The book addresses issues that anyone interested in science should care about, even if you end up, like me, disappointed in the substance of what they produced.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    July 27, 2009

    Isaac Asimov, indefatigable popularizer, left the active teaching faculty of Boston University because his superiors in the administration couldn’t stand him, and the feeling was mutual. He had tenure, though, so they couldn’t take away his title. . . and a later, more genial administration promoted him to full professor. Apparently, once a couple officious jerks were out of the way, having the Great Explainer affiliated with your university was a good thing.

    I think we can add “full professor of biochemistry, a closet full of honorary doctorates and an apartment overlooking Central Park” to the ways in which it’d be rather nice to be persecuted.

    As I’ve said somewhere before in one of the ceaseless threads about Unscientific America, every single job I’ve had in academic-land has involved some component of public outreach. I’ve been paid to build websites explaining the work of my research group to general passers-by, to teach classes to management types who hadn’t seen a logarithm since high school, and even to add footnotes to Wikipedia articles. When I worked on an NSF-funded project, I was told that such outreach activities would earn us brownie points towards grant renewal.

    So, while I don’t doubt there are scientists who snort with disdain at the thought of dealing with the unwashed rubes — there are pricks in science, as in all walks of life — the attitude is not endemic.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    July 27, 2009

    Now suppose that those scientists held in such high regard in the fifties and sixties had started telling people their way of life is unsustainable, and that major changes would have to be made lest there be an environmental catastrophe several decades down the road. Would the American public of the time have been any more ready to hear that message than the public is today?

    To continue with my Asimovian theme, during the days of the Space Race, Isaac himself had to deal with people who didn’t want school biology textbooks to mention evolution or general science guides for the adult public to discuss overpopulation. He was told, point-blank, that schoolbooks which used the E-word would sell poorly, particularly in Texas, a large market which had (and has) great sway over the national textbook industry. After several go-arounds, the publisher had someone else remove the evolution material, and Asimov had them remove his name from the books.

    And this during the days of Gemini and Apollo!

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 27, 2009

    Isaac Asimov is my hero when it comes to science writing. I even named my cat after him. Thanks for the great comments, Blake.

  4. #4 Sili
    July 27, 2009

    It’s disturbing to see even more evidence that M&K have done little-to-no research and are apparently writing based on their gut instincts.

  5. #5 Peggy
    July 27, 2009

    Now suppose that those scientists held in such high regard in the fifties and sixties had started telling people their way of life is unsustainable, and that major changes would have to be made lest there be an environmental catastrophe several decades down the road. Would the American public of the time have been any more ready to hear that message than the public is today? I doubt it.

    Yes, exactly.

    And I don’t think it’s incidental that Sagan was an astronomer. It’s easy to generate interest in exploring the cosmos, especially when you have lots of pretty pictures to illustrate. And, importantly I think, people can be fascinated by planets and stars and not have their way of life challenged. And I’ve noticed that many creationists enjoy astronomy too – they just look at the majesty of the heavens and ignore the evolution of stars.

  6. #6 Sigmund
    July 27, 2009

    And to continue the Carl Sagan theme, lets pose the question about his communicative ability in a slightly different manner.
    How exactly is Sagan known to the general population?
    While I am sad to think that to most he is probably an unknown at this stage those that do remember him probably fall into two major camps. First the science geeks (all of us reading now) who have probably read some of his books as well as know him from his astronomy career and TV appearances. Second, those that know him primarily from his TV show ‘Cosmos’.
    I strongly suspect that this latter group contains by far the larger number of people and indeed probably led some of that number down the path into becoming the sort of science geeks who would buy Sagan’s books.
    In other words Sagans primary fame as a communicator has come out of the TV series ‘Cosmos’.
    Perhaps it behoves us to look a little closer at the genesis of this series itself.
    The writing of the Cosmos was done by Sagan and his mistress and later wife, Ann Druyan and the astronomer Steven Soter (currently better known as the scientist that devised the ‘planetary discriminant’ equation, one of the factors that was used recently to demote Pluto to dwarf-planet status). That the series got made at all, however, was the result of rather different and most decidedly non American factors. It was based on the earlier Richard Attenborough commisioned BBC shows ‘The Ascent of Man’ and ‘Civilization’, was co-produced by the BBC and was even directed by Adrian Malone, director of The Ascent of Man.
    It is interesting to wonder exactly how well Sagan would be remembered today as a great communicator without the hindsight of ‘Cosmos’ and all its ungodly foreign influence.

  7. #7 Matt Penfold
    July 27, 2009

    Sigmund,

    Minor correction, but it was David, not Richard Attenborough who commisioned “The Ascent of Man” and “Civilisation” when he was Controller of BBC2.

  8. #8 Sigmund
    July 27, 2009

    Ooops!
    Quite right Matt. Richard was the older brother who commisioned velociraptors to chase his grand-kids around his theme park kitchen.

  9. #9 Dan
    July 27, 2009

    The point is that in those areas where we can say that scientific ignorance is leading people towards bad decisions and bad public policy it is because there are powerful social forces working very hard to make sure people remain ignorant. These forces, especially religion, the insatiable quest for short-term profit and ratings, and a basic social ethic that is geared largely towards relentless consumption, are far more prominent in the United States than in Europe. That is why we have these problems in greater profusion here than they do there.

    Absolutely. Living in Southern Europe (Cyprus), I’m seeing that first hand. Cypriot acceptance of evolution is pitifully low, only just above that of the US. Yet, there is no hostility towards evolution, suggesting common-place ignorance. On a personal note, my wife (also now a PhD-holding biologist, of Cypriot citizenship) comments that she’d never even heard of Charles Darwin until she went to the US for her Bachelor’s, and while I’m atheist, she’s strongly Greek Orthodox, and yet she has no ideological opposition to evolution.

    Similarly, there is no hostility towards climate science, the IPCC reports, or similar findings about the robustness of evidence for anthropogenic global warming.

    Here, students who start studying biology and learn of evolution, or learn of global warming, learn about those topics in the same way that I as an American learned about topics like chemistry and the Periodic Table.

    I wish M&K had thought more about these aspects before writing their book. Yes, outreach is good in general. But lack of outreach is not the problem.

  10. #10 Knockgoats
    July 27, 2009

    I’ll admit I haven’t read the book – and am unlikely to do so, having a backlog of books I really want to read. However, I’ve read a number of reviews, and a load of comments, including comments by the authors. What stands out, and is implicit in what Jason says above, is M&K’s apparent failure to do any comparative analysis – the core method of social science. I diagnose a severe case of OWHITUSAC (Only What Happens In The USA Counts) syndrome!

    So, do other rich countries have similar levels of public antiscience attitudes, or (as seems likely from causal observation), lower ones? If the latter, do they follow the recommendations M&K make? If so, I certainly haven’t noticed it in the UK. Jason mentions a number of factors distinguishing the US from European countries. One he does not mention, but which it would be interesting to investigate, is the level of economic inequality. I’m currently reading Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why more Equal Societies Almost always Do Better. They show, from the results of many published studies, that levels of income inequality in rich countries correlate negatively with many social goods, including educational achievement (more unequal countries, and more unequal states within the USA, doing worse).

  11. #11 bric
    July 27, 2009

    I think media exposure, and especially TV and radio, is the key. We are fortunate to have a lot of representation of science and nature (mainly the latter it’s true) on the BBC in the UK, and other channels such as Channel 4 also contribute. I don’t imagine any of the US networks can rival something like this http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/ (actually less in the summer schedules) or this http://www.bbc.co.uk/darwin/ – a new season of Darwin programming begins in November.

    All of the BBC science podcasts are worth following btw

  12. #12 Sara
    July 27, 2009

    For all the fuss that M&K make about communication? They themselves fail at it terribly. Reading this post http://tinyurl.com/lk8569 felt like a trainwreck: with the xenoblogophobic “hur, hur, our commenters are better than the Pharyngula sheeple, hur, hur!” attitude, and the arrogant assumption that if somebody disagrees with them, it must be because the blogosphere either quivers in fear before or is secretly controlled by PZ Myers. Whut?
    I hoped for an interesting discussion, especially because it’s not often that you can talk to an author of a book shortly after it’s been released, but what we’ve seen so far can only be described as farce.

    Also, this?

    Towards that end they make a variety of suggestions for making scientists into better communicators; have them take courses in communication, make them see popularization as part of their job, that sort of thing. I am all in favor of making scientists into better communicators and making popularization a more valued activity, but I think that M&K do not really understand very much about academic culture.

    precisely. Also, no matter how many times a scientist using too much jargon appears on the telly, there aren’t really that many appearances of scientists in television at all. Nor are there many opportunities for them to appear. In the end, it’s the university’s PR division that makes the press releases, usually, and it’s the science journalists who then pick up the releases and turn them into drivel, or an MMR scare, or a “Twitter makes you evil!” instant tabloid bestseller. Scientists can hardly be blamed for that.

  13. #13 SLC
    July 27, 2009

    Re Sara

    For all the fuss that M&K make about communication? They themselves fail at it terribly. Reading this post ttp://tinyurl.com/lk8569 felt like a trainwreck: with the xenoblogophobic “hur, hur, our commenters are better than the Pharyngula sheeple, hur, hur!” attitude, and the arrogant assumption that if somebody disagrees with them, it must be because the blogosphere either quivers in fear before or is secretly controlled by PZ Myers.

    Considering that two of their most stalwart defenders are John Kwok and Anthony McCarthy, neither of whom has both oars in the water, I would say that their attitude here is poorly supported.

  14. #14 BaldApe
    July 27, 2009

    Thank you very much for this highly informative review. I learned much more from your analysis than from the previous reviews I have seen.

    In particular, I was struck by the idea that we can streamline the process by which graduate students become qualified for scarce jobs in science. Does that really make it easier for anyone?

    A principal I worked with years ago said that in a way it was a good thing that public school teachers were underpaid, since that means nobody goes into teaching for the money. I’m not so sure I agree, but still, we want scientists to do what they do because they are highly motivated to solve the puzzles of the world, not because it was an easy path or a big money-maker.

  15. #15 Ophelia Benson
    July 27, 2009

    “I have met both Chris and Sheril, and, my current disagreements with them notwithstanding, I think they are both serious, thoughtful people whose view is worth considering.”

    I’ve met Chris (very briefly) and I used to think that about him, at least (not knowing Sheril’s work). But if they really are serious and thoughtful, it is very hard to understand why they so adamantly refuse to engage with objections and questions.

    They could have had a real ‘communication’ opportunity with all this – they could have educated us, explained what we have misunderstood about their book, expanded on any points that needed expanding on, even perhaps admitted mistakes – but they’ve done none of that. It’s been stonewall all the way, except for the lengthy posts devoted to fighting with PZ some more. I agree that they’re serious in some sense, but I find it impossible at this point to agree that they’re thoughtful – that seems to me to be exactly what they are not. If only they were.

  16. #16 Marcel Kincaid
    July 27, 2009

    they are both serious, thoughtful people whose view is worth considering

    They were, but they have made such jackasses of themselves that few of us will be inclined to view them that way in the future.

  17. Quite. Especially in light of their latest, which I hadn’t seen when I wrote the above comment.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/07/27/some-more-words-to-the-new-atheist-blogosphere-on-unscientific-america/

    One sentence in particular jumped out at me –

    “For several months, Chris tried to engage in a civil debate with Dr. Coyne about the merits of “accommodationism.””

    That is not what happened. Chris made some unsupported assertions and some bizarre criticisms (which seemed to amount to saying Jerry Coyne was ‘uncivil’ because he reviewed books by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson for The New Republic), and then stonewalled all objections and questions. I asked him several times – it felt like several hundred – what exactly he would have Jerry Coyne do in order to meet his (Chris’s) definition of civility – refuse to review books on ‘science and faith’ by theistic scientists because to do so would be uncivil? Or what? But Chris has still, to this day, not answered that question – or if he has he’s kept it a dark secret.

    Thoughtful. If only they were.

  18. #18 Geoff
    July 27, 2009

    I agree with Ophelia. I think they’re too bitter and have too much resentment involved to offer a deeper and more reasoned approach to the problem. If they had at least offered more open discourse instead of talking from both sides of their mouths since publication, I would have considered buying the book instead of taking it out from the library and flipping through it in an hour.

  19. #19 eric
    July 27, 2009

    Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and get into better touch with our culture…

    While we’re at it, why not arm them with business management skills and patent law training? If communication is really high on your priority list, why not teach them all to speak Mandarin? That way they can communicate with an extra two billion people.

    The answer is the same: graduate training in the sciences must give priority to those core skills and training which will create good scientists. I haven’t read the book but from the reviews it appears that M&K naively ignore the opportunity cost of their pet reform.

  20. #20 Michael Fugate
    July 27, 2009

    One big problem is a general reluctance to change. Consider all of the people who did nothing about digital conversion until their television sets went blank. A letter to the editor in my local newspaper claimed AGW was a scam by Al Gore to gain more control over our lives. I see rants about plant name changes on a native plant listserve or in seed catalogs as if scientists alter names just to inconvenience people.
    The problem is perpetuated by the media with their she said-he said style – presenting two sides to every issue. Or reasoning through anecdote instead of statistics- “my uncle smoked for 60 years and lived to be 95.”
    Perhaps if every teacher started the day with an article or advertisement and students worked through the claims and researched the evidence, we might get somewhere. Corporations would no doubt put a stop to this as children became wise to their scams.

  21. #21 Notagod
    July 27, 2009

    I would like to know how M&K determined that it is a problem with scientists as opposed to a general problem with how the United States is currently culturally and socially structured.

  22. #22 Joshua Zelinsky
    July 27, 2009

    They aren’t so far off in regards to the Sagan matter in that many people were unhappy with his popularization which was seen often as amounting to more or less self-promotion. Keay Davidson’s biography of Sagan discusses this in some detail.

  23. #23 John Kwok
    July 27, 2009

    Jason,

    Of the negative reviews I have read so far, yours is the most thoughtful and well-written. I am in the midst of reading “Unscientific America” now, and I have to agree with you that I am especially stunned by how superficial parts of it seem (I will withhold further comment until I post my review over at Amazon.). But I think it was silly of them to mention “Pluto” (Chris, you had other, better examples to draw upon your prior work on climatological research.) and I am quite perplexed with their obsession with Carl Sagan (I would have used Stephen Jay Gould as a much better example to illustrate their point.).

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  24. #24 eric
    July 27, 2009

    I have not read the book, as of yet, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

    I am a science teacher at the secondary level. I have to believe that one way to really improve the literacy of the American public would be to provide teachers more support, more opportunities to learn in the summer, and provide them with resources to make science more “popular” with school children. Get Americans when they are young, and you have them forever. One thing I can say, as a HS Principal now, is that there is VERY LITTLE emphasis on science education by the state or federal government. They spend lip service, but most of the funds injected into schools got the Math and English – both very important to science education, but very little funding specifically for science education. How to improve school science programs would require me to leave a 5 or 6 page post, at minimum, so I will stop here with this general statement.

  25. #25 SLC
    July 27, 2009

    Oh boy, the Bobbsey twins most stalwart defender, Mr. Kwok, is less then thrilled with their book. They are in big trouble, although I suspect they will cry all the way to the bank.

  26. #26 Physicalist
    July 27, 2009

    Very well put, Jason. Great post.

    (And it’s also extremely civil of you to be reviewing their book, when Mooney never offered the courtesy of a reply after you corrected his misunderstanding about methodological and philosophical naturalism. What was that, almost two months ago now?)

  27. #27 mk
    July 27, 2009

    Kwok is desperate to be taken seriously. I suspect he is simply acknowledging the obvious. He’s hitched his wagon to the wrong horse. All serious academics and scientists basically agree… Kwok’s latest obsessions, the Colgate twins, are lightweights.

  28. #28 Stefan
    July 28, 2009

    On the Carl Sagan subject – a little gem outside the “Cosmos” subject, to remind many who he was: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9KT4M7kiSw

  29. #29 BioinfoTools
    July 28, 2009

    BaldApe,

    I can’t speak for others, but I suspect many would point more to the difficulty getting funded, rather than the size of the salary itself. (Although no-one would complain about a better salary, for sure!) I, for one, would be quite happy to get funded for my “pet” research projects without the need for some massive pay check; getting the funding, though, is mission and a half.

  30. #30 BioinfoTools
    July 28, 2009

    Eric,

    I’m under the impression that high school teaching does not require university-level qualifications in the subject area being taught (I’m still learning on this in fits and starts, so by all means correct me; I write this without mentioning science as I suspect this is true for non-science areas, too). If this is the case, this, surely, is an obvious flaw and one that could be worked on in a pragmatic way.

    Your suggestion of on-going learning for science teachers, as a regular part of their career, is a good one I think. Science hardly stands still over time, certainly not for the length of decent teaching career.

  31. #31 Colonel Kilgore
    July 28, 2009

    I love the smell of atheists bashing each other in the morning!

  32. #32 Sara
    July 28, 2009

    SLC

    Yes, and the fact that Kwok supported them should have been the first warning sign for M&K, were they not as disconnected from reality as they are.

    Knockgoats

    So, do other rich countries have similar levels of public antiscience attitudes, or (as seems likely from causal observation), lower ones? If the latter, do they follow the recommendations M&K make? If so, I certainly haven’t noticed it in the UK. Jason mentions a number of factors distinguishing the US from European countries. One he does not mention, but which it would be interesting to investigate, is the level of economic inequality. I’m currently reading Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why more Equal Societies Almost always Do Better. They show, from the results of many published studies, that levels of income inequality in rich countries correlate negatively with many social goods, including educational achievement (more unequal countries, and more unequal states within the USA, doing worse).

    That’s an excellent pont! I’m adding the book to my queue anyway :)

  33. #33 Woody Tanaka
    July 28, 2009

    The one thing that many people forget, about the popularity of Cosmos, was its timing. It aired for the first time smack dab in the middle of the highpoint of the Voyager program and we were getting good images from the outer planets for the first time, and discovering their moons and peculiarities. Close up images from Jupiter and Saturn (and beyond in this post-Hubble world) may seem mundane today, but in 1979-1981, it was astounding to see. I remember watching coverage on PBS of the images as they came in to JPL, and being rivited to them when they were published in Time and Newsweek. I wonder if Cosmos would have been as popular if it came out, say, in 1974 or 1986…

  34. #34 Peter Beattie
    July 28, 2009

    [X-posted from the Intersection, since it doesn’t seem likely to get a meaningful response over there.]

    Just to pick out one central sentence from Jason’s review:

    M&K pay lip service to these social forces, but they are far more interested in blaming scientists themselves for America’s scientific malaise.

    The first part was first mentioned, I think, in Janet Stemwedel’s first post on UA; M&K never addressed the issue. The second part is, of course, exactly what PZ and Jerry Coyne have said. In other words, it is exactly what M&K have repeatedly accused PZ and Jerry of horribly misrepresenting. So what, really is the difference? Is it that they know Jason personally and not PZ, or does it only seem to pay dividends in publicity to antagonize the owner of the most popular science-related blog on the interwebs? Any other plausible explanations?

  35. #35 Christophe Thill
    July 28, 2009

    Jason, I haven’t read M&K’s book, but it seems to me that you, not they, should have written it. What you say is pertinent and well analyzed. It doesn’t seem to me that the same can be said about them.

  36. #36 Matt Penfold
    July 28, 2009

    “Any other plausible explanations?”

    They are not very good at what they do ?

  37. #37 Peter Beattie
    July 28, 2009

    » Matt Penfold:
    They are not very good at what they do?

    Yeah, I kind of came to that conclusion over at M&K’s blog a while ago. I was just trying to be a little more charitable for a change. ;>

  38. #38 John Kwok
    July 28, 2009

    Hi all,

    I’m not looking for favors from Jason. I prefer calling things as I see them, and I really, really want to like “Unscientific America”. But so far, only one chapter of Chris and Sheril’s book has impressed me (And no, I’m not referring to the now infamous “Chapter Eight”, since I haven’t really read it yet.).

    Respectfully yours,

    John Kwok

  39. #39 Kristine
    July 28, 2009

    The issue is not that academe is characterized by a hostility to popularization and outreach. The issue is that most of us don’t have opportunities for serious outreach, and do not know how to create those opportunities. Many of us write popular books and articles when we can, which is good but hardly the stuff of social revolutions. But what is the good of training people in communication skills if they never have the chance to address more than small groups of people at a time? Sure, it would be nice to have armies of telegenic scientists who could go on cable chat shows and reduce difficult scientific issues to sound bites. But why cultivate such skills when most of us will never, ever, be on television?

    Jason, do you envision some kind of collaboration, then, between scientists and other professionals, such as writers, librarians, marketing reps, and other communications people (even artists) as being a more productive solution? There are writers out there who want to break into science writing yet don’t have a degree in science; and notwithstanding the consensus of the speakers in the session on science librarianship that I attended at the recent ALA conference, I don’t foresee a lot of professional scientists becoming librarians. Writers, archivists, and librarians are natural interdisciplinary professions. Librarians especially are charged with teaching information literacy; can we form some sort of cooperative venture?

    In addition, I would love to see more science exhibitions in museums targeted toward adults, not just kids, because I think there’s somewhat of a mental age barrier being created, with parents going to the science or natural history museum only because of their children.

    In fact, university libraries are now holding orientations for students’ parents, because the current generation tends to call home first about Freshman paper assignments. (Quite a difference from when I was in college.) The idea here is that the parent will be informed enough to suggest the library to their child. Should science departments hold similar orientations with parents? Just an idea.

  40. #40 Kevin (NYC)
    July 28, 2009

    Posted by: John Kwok | July 28, 2009 11:45 AM

    what happened to the 24 rule? why is this person still posting here?

  41. #41 truthspeaker
    July 28, 2009

    In addition, I would love to see more science exhibitions in museums targeted toward adults, not just kids, because I think there’s somewhat of a mental age barrier being created, with parents going to the science or natural history museum only because of their children.

    Word. I find the same thing on science TV and radio programs. They’re almost all for kids, and not even that good for kids – lots of gee whiz but little substance.

  42. #42 BMKMD
    July 30, 2009

    Knowledge talks, Wisdom listens.

    The communication which is seen as missing is a two way street. When one listens to creationists and ID folk, some seem to understand evolution and global warming, understand the scientific method. (I wish I had the reference on this.) A majority of evolution deniers can cite scientific justifications for eveluation. They just don’t use it. They aren’t interested in it.

    Scientists can talk until the cows come home, and people with a vested interest, a non-scientific interest, a non-rational interest in not accepting reality, are going to just keep on denying reality.

    Scientists are not guilty of too little outreach to the non-believers. This part of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s ideas is blaming the victims.

    Mooney and Kirshenbaum are talking, but they aren’t listening.

    Not listening to scientists who try to teach rational thinking and the scientific method to non-believers of Science.

    Not listening to science non-believers, to hear that they don’t care about science when it threatens their religious beliefs.

    Information outreach is doomed to failure without listening to the people who fail to get “converted” by it. Its not a science education issue.

    This is a social, political, religious problem. It is not an outreach, education-of-science issue.

  43. #43 Collin Brendemuehl
    July 31, 2009

    Sounds like a fascinating book.
    I wonder if the concerns about science run parallel to the other social concerns we face (infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, and other moral matters). Now that we have fully exited the “modern” postivist era that saw its boom in the 19th c. (evidenced by the rise of Marxism, Darwinism, and liberal societies and governments), one must ask where progress can occur when there is no common mindset that promotes progress. John Gray (author of Black Mass) had it in the palm of his hand and let it go — progress only happens when there is an eschatological positivism. This need to ahve a broad social consensus, not merely ecclesiastical, educational, governmental — not in an institution but in the public heart, the conscience.

  44. #44 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 16, 2009

    @ Colin:

    Evolution isn’t a philosophy (“Darwinism”), it is known and acclaimed as the basis of biology. Natural science is still positivist, as it must: without testability a theory has no meaning. That philosophers of science believe otherwise is their loss.

    And the woo of eschatology? Please, it is well known and verified that science doesn’t contain teleology of any kind.

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