Time to wrap up my discussion of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America. In Part One I focused on the main themes of the book, arguing that it was superficial in its analysis of the issues and that its proposed solutions are impractical and unlikely to be effective. In Part Two I focused specifically on Chapter Eight of the book, which argued against the activites of the New Atheists. I argued that M and K’s treatment of the arguments was inadequate, and manifested on a small scale problems that afflicted most of the book.
In this final part of the review I wanted to pck up a few odds and ends that left a sour taste in my mouth. By themselves they are not so important, but there are enough of them that I feel they are worth commenting on.
We begin with the Pluto affair.
I’m sure you recall that a few years ago Pluto was demoted from a planet to a mere dwarf planet. There were a variety of reasons for this, which need not detain us here. As M and K tell the story, the outcry that arose over Pluto’s status was emblematic of the disconnect between scientists and the public.
The Pluto saga, which captured vastly more attention than most science news stories ever do and deeply engaged many members of the public, utterly explodes this conceit. There isn’t any obvious “true” or “false” answer to the question of whether Pluto is a planet, and people certainly weren’t ignorant about it. Rather, they were outraged by the sudden, top-down, seemingly arbitrary change by the science world, and they weren’t necessarily wrong to have that reaction. (p. 16)
That’s an odd paragraph. First, the question of whether Pluto is a planet is going to depend on precisely what you mean by “planet.” The point the Pluto demoters were making was that it is difficult to find a definition of the term that includes Pluto but which excludes a great many other small, orbiting chunks of ice that no one would want to call planets. They were not being arbitrary, quite the contrary. It was the prior system, in which Pluto was a planet but other, comparable bodies were not, that was arbitrary.
Next, I think it is pretty much a sure thing that most people were ignorant of the details of the Pluto dispute.
Then there is the part about people not being necessarily wrong to object to the “top-down” way in which Pluto’s status was changed. But what was the alternative? A national vote on Pluto’s status?
And then there’s the idea that any significant number of people were “outraged” by the change. I don’t believe it. M and K mention some T-shirt slogans at the start of the chapter. I think it’s safe to say that if you are wearing a T-shirt that says, “Dear Earth: You suck! Love, Pluto,” you are more bemused than outraged.
The biggest problem with this section, however, is that I do not understand what M and K wanted scientists to do differently in this case. How would communications-savvy scientists have handled the situation? Was the furor, such as it was, over Pluto the result of scientists not being sympathetic to the feelings of the public? Or was it just that the feelings of the public were entirely irrelevant to the discussion? I honestly do not know what lesson I am supposed to learn from this incident.
Then there is M and K’s strange antipathy towards people like Paul Gross, Norman Levitt and Alan Sokal, leading players in the great Science Wars. Recall that certain left-wing academics in the humanities had taken to saying some very silly things about science. Surprisingly, as ignorant and misinformed as these people were, they rose to levels of great prominence in their fields. Dismayed, a handful of scientists fought back by writing books and, most famously, by hoaxing the leading journal promoting this nonsense.
Seems straightforward enough, but the way M and K tell the story this was an example of scientists picking a silly and unnecessary fight while being oblivious to the vastly greater threats massing at the door. They wrie
The first major fusillade in the so-called Science Wars came in 1994 with a book by biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Normal Levitt entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science, a full-scale attack on academic “po-mos” that didn’t mind engaging in a little ridicule now and again. (p. 45)
The great problem with the Science Wars wasn’t that they were ineffective but that they were ultimately irrleveant. The influence of post-structuralism within the academic realm peaked in the 1990’s and has been declining since — not because of Alan Sokal or Higher Superstition but because that is the way academic trends work. …But all the energy spent fighting the Science Wars distracted from the real enemy at the gate — the dumbing down of American culture. (p. 48)
One of my high-school history teachers used to complain that students had a tendency to think that the mere passage of time was all by itself a force for social change. That’s how this last paragraph looks to me. “That is the way that academic trends work,” they intone, apparently thinking they have just explained something. I have no idea what that phrase means. In the present case the assertion seems especially dubious. The Sokal hoax almost certainly had something to do with the waning fortunes of the po-mos (or whatever you want to call them.) A well-publicized humiliation of that magnitude is not easliy shrugged off. It sure seems like M and K’s period of decline for post-modernism corresponds well with the timing of the Sokal hoax.
And then there’s this strange idea that Higher Superstition was the first fusillade in the debate. Not so. I’m sorry to be childish, but they started it! Gross and Levitt were happily minding their own business when a certain subset of the humanities started launching their spectacularly misinformed broadsides against science. That was the first fusillade. And did Gross and Levitt survey the American landscape, and decide that this was the most pressing problem facing American science? Of course not. It’s just that this was one that they were well-placed to address, and which was mostly being ignored by other scientists.
Let me remind you that Gross and Levitt, along with Martin Lewis, subsequently edited a conference proceedings called The Flight From Science and Reason which addressed a great many areas of American society that were threatened by scientific illiteracy. Indeed, that volume’s contributors did a far better and more careful job of analyzing the problem than did M and K. Sure looks to me like they were aware of the broader issues.
Once again M and K are trying to fit things into a narrative rather than really get their hands dirty going after the real problems. Their story is that scientists, through their general tone-deafness towards the society around them, are seriously exacerbating the problem of science illiteracy. Sure, a certain subset of the humanities was making a good living telling lies about science, but it’s the scientists who engaged them who were the real problem. Yes, many people hold religious views that leave them unwilling to listen to contrary ideas, but it’s the scientists who challenge those views who are at fault. Harvard rejected Carl Sagan’s application for tenure, this is evidence of academe’s hostile view towards science popularization (and never mind what Sagan’s enodwed chair at Cornell is evidence of).
The final example is M and K’s endorsement of the idea of a televised Presidential science debate. They think this is a great idea, and a fine way of putting scientific issues before the public. I disagree. Frankly, I think it is a terrible idea.
I have many reasons for thinking that, but the main one is that I think it would be bad for the Democrats. Do you remember Rick Warren’s little confab during the 2008 Presidential campaign? Remember how awkward and uncomfrotable it was for Obama? McCain could happily go out on stage and throw the fire-breathers all the red meat they wanted. I believe in life! I believe in family! I oppose gay rights! Rah!! Meanwhile, Obama had to squirm the whole time while he tried desperately to put a happy face on his vastly more sensible, but politically less inspiring, answers.
You would see the same thing with a science debate. The Republicans have the easier message to sell. Democrats want to lower your standard of living by giving credence to paranoid left-wing hoax science on global warming! Evolution is controversial and we should teach all sides! Technology and innovation come as the result of getting the government off the backs of hard-working Americans! Do you want to be the Democrat standing on a stage with your more dour and serious message? Please.
The basic American political reality is simple. If you want good science to be part of the decision making process, you vote for Democrats and hope for the best. You know the Republicans are only going to give you ersatz, ideologically-driven, right-wing think-tank science. At least with the Democrats there is hope (often forlorn, I admit).
I concluded my first post on this subject by saying that for all of my criticisms of the book, I sitll think it is worth reading and thinking about. I stand by that judgment. I have been a bit dismayed by the personal attacks levelled at Mooney and Kirshenbaum from sources I normally respect and admire. I have received some comments and some e-mail from people who seem annoyed that I have been content to restrict my criticisms to the book itself, as opposed to Mooney and Kirshenbaum personally. What can I say? I think they wrote a disappointing book. That’s not a crime.
I have also noticed that opinion has varied widely on the book. SciBling Josh Rosenau wrote a glowing review. I am baffled by his opinion (I frankly found his review more informative than the book itself) but he is someone whose opinion I take very seriously, especially on issues such as these. (Josh is the Public Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education, and is therefore very close to the ground on a lot of these issues.) On the other hand, SciBling Brian Switek ably describes in one short post the same reservations it took me three posts to express. If you have a subscription, you should also check out Jerry Coyne’s review for Science. Highly negative, but also substantive.
At any rate, this is an important book on an important topic. Go read it for yourself and decide what you think.