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.