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)

And later

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).

Okay, enough.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    August 7, 2009

    Thanks Jason. I have read all three parts of your review and you told us a lot.

    I agree with you that this is an important topic but disagree that this is worth obtaining to read. Maybe down the road I will check it out from the library, but for now I will rely on “The Age of American Unreason” By Susan Jacoby as a better source of what is happening in the US.

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    August 7, 2009

    I’m guessing that they won’t link to this portion of the review.

    2¢ says that Kwok shows up in comment #4.

  3. #3 Jim
    August 7, 2009

    This is one of the more substantive and better reviews I’ve read of the book. It’s easy to pick on Chapter Eight, as it seems so clearly wrongheaded, but it is more important to note the actual lack of real substance in the book, including the background that would have indicated deeper work. I think the charge you levy of against them of “M and K are trying to fit things into a narrative rather than really get their hands dirty going after the real problems,” really nails my concerns.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    August 7, 2009

    Thank you, Jason! I actually spent all day writing up a spate of longer posts about U.A., but when it seemed I was spending more time responding to the book than I did reading it I had a feeling I was doing it wrong. Plus, the in-depth analysis you and other bloggers have provided allowed me to keep things short. In the end, though, the deciding factor was my wife telling me to stop wasting time on reviewing the book (she didn’t like it either) so I could come watch the Colbert Report.

  5. #5 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    Jason,

    I concur with your assessment of the “Pluto affair”. But I am surprised you did not mention too how much Sheril and Chris seem fixated with Carl Sagan, as though he was the most important science popularizer of all time (Certainly when he was at the height of his fame, he had competition from the likes of Loren Eliseley, Sylvia Earle, Lewis Thomas, and, of course, Stephen Jay Gould, who I would contend was the more important science popularizer of the two.).

    Ultimately we should have some kind of Science Debate between presidential candidates since science and technology issues are among the most important ones facing our present and future economic survival. Moreover, I don’t think that you would see opinion split evenly along Democratic / Republican lines since there are many Democrats who are evolution denialists (One noteworthy example is Arkansas US senator Mark Pryor.) and more than a few Republicans who accept the validity of evolution as science, starting with Federal Judge John Jones (who presided over the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial), National Review commentator John Derbyshire, and Washington Post columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will (Will’s ridiculous denial of anthropogenic global warming should not obscure the fact that he was among the first conservatives and Republicans to stress the importance of Judge Jones’s Dover trial ruling, why it was legally valid, and why it demonstrated convincingly that Intelligent Design creationism was pseudoscientific religious nonsense.). And then of course, there is conservative biologist Paul Gross, who co-wrote with philosopher Barbara Forrest, “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”.

  6. #6 RBH
    August 7, 2009

    Jason, you wrote

    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.

    Um, don’t you understand? That’s framing: construct a narrative (never mind whether it’s accurate).

  7. #7 NJ
    August 7, 2009

    @2:

    2¢ says that Kwok shows up in comment #4.

    @5:

    Posted by: John Kwok

    Missed it by that much!

  8. #8 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ NJ –

    Since I call myself “Ken Miller’s pit bull”, I felt compelled to post, especially when I’ve written a rather lukewarm review of UA over at Amazon which agrees with much, if not all of Jason’s commentary (I’ll let you guess where we differ.).

    Did you decide to read what I wrote, or are you just more interested in chiming in with Science Pundit’s inane observation as to when I would be posting?

  9. #9 Wes
    August 7, 2009

    Excellent review, Jason.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 8, 2009

    RBH –

    I had exactly that thought as I was reading the book! Much of it read like it was coming straight out of a communications manual. Reduce everything to a simple narrative, don’t get bogged down with details…

    Laelaps –

    Glad you liked the post. Sounds like your wife has her priorities in order.

  11. #11 JoshS
    August 8, 2009

    Since I call myself “Ken Miller’s pit bull”, I felt compelled to post

    Jesus fucking Christ. Will no one deliver us from you? Please, for the love of all that’s good, Shut. Up. Kwok.

  12. #12 Laurel Kornfeld
    August 8, 2009

    A significant number of amateur astronomers, professional astronomers, and members of the general public were and continue to be outraged over the Pluto debacle. That is why the Pluto T-shirts are still selling well three years later.
    There is a clear scientific argument for distinguishing objects in hydrostatic equilibrium as planets. Yes, this would include many new icy bodies, but these bodies differ from most asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects in that they are large enough to be pulled into a round shape by their own gravity. Public anger over the decision resulted from the fact that four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists, adopted a terribly flawed definition that hundreds of other professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons rejected in a formal petition. The IAU created a definition that makes little sense and then expects the world to blindly follow because they issued an edict. That is not science; it’s dogma. The alternative is to take more time, especially in light of the fact that New Horizons will provide us with a host of data in 2015, keep discussions open to include non-IAU members, and let a consensus evolve over time rather than impose what was clearly a political decision and deny that any other views exist.

  13. #13 csrster
    August 8, 2009

    “Public anger over the decision resulted from the fact that four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists, adopted a terribly flawed definition that hundreds of other professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons rejected in a formal petition.”

    True enough. Here in Denmark there were riots by pro-hydrostatic-equilibrium groups. The Malaysian Minister of Science was forced to resign when an old email of his discussing orbital eccentricities was published. Questions were asked in the Burkina Faso Constituent Assembly.

  14. #14 BioinfoTools
    August 8, 2009

    Laelaps/Brian,

    Sounds like your wife is a good editor! We all need one of those! :-)

    (On a related note, elsewhere I’ve wondered aloud if the standard of editing was an issue for UA as a loose thought. As I don’t have access to the book I’m in no position to judge first-hand, but as a “food for learning” exercise I’d be interested in others comments, especially from anyone who are editors.)

  15. #15 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    Laurel,

    While I remain an agnostic with respect to Pluto, I believe that there were some sound scientific reasons for demoting its status. Isn’t IAU meeting now, and that one of its issues will be revisiting that status?

    Regards,

    John

  16. #16 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    BioinfoTools,

    I think yours is the first serious comment on this very issue which I have encountered. Without disclosing my own sources, who must remain confidential, I know of others who share that concern, with respect to this book’s editing.

    Sincerely yours,

    John

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    August 8, 2009

    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.

    I feel like I’ve seen this point made before. Hmmm.

    Why did you write a book on this and not on more serious issues? Is postmodernism such a great danger to civilization? First of all, this is an odd question. Suppose someone discovers documents relevant to the history of Napoleon and writes a book about it. Would anyone ask him whether he thinks this is a more appropriate topic than World War II? His answer, and ours, would be that an author writes on a subject under two conditions: that he is competent and that he is able to contribute something original. His subject will not, unless he is particularly lucky, coincide with the most important problem in the world.

    Of course we do not think that postmodernism is a great danger to civilization. Viewed on a global scale, it is a rather marginal phenomenon, and there are far more dangerous forms of irrationalism—religious fundamentalism, for instance.

    Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense (1998).

  18. #18 SC (Salty Current)
    August 8, 2009

    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.

    Well, Gross and Levitt aside, Sokal is himself a left-wing academic, and his motives were political. As he says in “Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword” (and in almost or exactly the same words in FN:

    But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be “true”, why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don’t aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.3)

    But my main concern isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse — and more generally a penchant for subjectivism — which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left.4 Alan Ryan said it well:

    It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth … Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you’ve had it. … But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.5

    Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm has decried

    the rise of “postmodernist” intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all “facts” claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental.6

    (Hobsbawm goes on to show how rigorous historical work can refute the fictions propounded by reactionary nationalists in India, Israel, the Balkans and elsewhere.) And finally Stanislav Andreski:

    So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.7

    M&K’s take appears odd at first, given the piece Mooney co-authored with Sokal in 2007:

    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/mooney-sokal.html

    But given what Sokal had to say about religion while touring last year promoting his recent book

    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/sense_about_science_PUBL.pdf

    it makes sense.

    I would love to hear Sokal’s thoughts on UA.

  19. #19 Muzz
    August 8, 2009

    I find it odd that they didn’t know Post Structuralism’s wane was in part due to humanities departments being decimated in the wake of the culture war on “political correctness”. Perhaps it’s of no concern to their point. I always thought it indicative of how vulnerable education is to political whims and made for some strange bedfellows. Science took its fair share of lumps here as well, with the trend to economic rationalism and ‘vocational education’ turning institutions into MBA factories. Obscure strands of biology and natural history are hard to justify as money spinners.

    The US higher education system, particularly the bigger and older schools, is probably more immune to that sort of thing but in Australia it was very obvious.

  20. #20 SLC
    August 8, 2009

    I have not yet read the book but it seems to me that most of the reviews agree that it is disappointing, especially in comparison to Mr. Mooneys’ first two efforts, “The Rethuglican War on Science”, and “Storm World”. It appears that Mr. Mooney is still too much under the spell of nitwit Nisbet of framing infamy. Perhaps the authors were under a deadline and were forced to submit what appears to be an unfinished manuscript. However, if the book eventually comes out in paperback, that might be an opportunity to make some revisions in response to the criticisms that have been raised.

  21. #21 Craig B
    August 8, 2009

    Jason, thank you for the excellent review. I commented a couple of weeks ago on the Intersection about some of what I find disturbing about M&K’s work, particularly their lack of knowledge of the front lines of dealing with fundamentalists, but I want to follow up here on what you say about humanities departments, since I’m probably the rare lit Ph.D. here.

    I was in grad school in the late ’80s and finished in ’91. This was the height of the academic culture wars, and some of what M&K say about scientists was in fact true of the Humanities in those days. For instance, most conservatives attacking academics for disrespecting the canon of American literature spoke on AM radio and wrote in mainstream publications. Most academic (and leftist) responses were in academic journals; most were written in reprehensible, incomprehensible jargon to boot. Within the humanities, that was the battle; science was hardly noticed. The Sokal hoax was great and it did embarrass some people, but the “cultural construction” mentality persisted well after that (let me mention, too, that the cultural construction of many things is a great insight, but the lack of understanding of objective reality was its weakness).

    I had a front row seat on all this because my dissertation was about the literary counter-attack on 19th century scientific racism. It was one thing that no one on the faculty and among fellow grad students had read Types of Mankind; it was quite another that none had read Stephen Jay Gould. The sciences were simply invisible, with the rare exception of someone like me who had a long-standing love of science. At the same time, I was fighting the battle (this is before that battle had been won) within Humanities that African-American lit (in my case) was a legitimate field of study. For precisely the same reasons that science did not matter, literature of social protest did not matter: all writing was merely a game of wordplay to that view of lit crit; a text that seemed designed to have meaning was scorned and ridiculed. I struggled against that constantly.

    Post-structuralism has lost much of its pull, though it’s not dead. Massimo Pigliucci (in Denying Evolution) talks about post-structuralism as academic anti-intellectualism and I think that is right on. For M&K to think that this battle was not one worth fighting suggests to me that their youth gets in the way of their insight about academia as much as their geography keeps them from understanding the fundamentalists in our classrooms and communities in the “heartland.” As with other problems on their blog since the “framing” obsession began, M&K seem not to want to talk to anyone who has experiences and opinions that differ from their preconceptions. It’s a shame.

  22. #22 SC (Salty Current)
    August 8, 2009

    I tried to submit a comment this morning, but I think it may have had too many links as it’s been in moderation all day. Please feel free to delete it (and sorry for any inconvenience). I’ve expanded on the ideas at my blog here:

    http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com/2009/08/alan-sokal-science-and-politics.html

  23. #23 Muzz
    August 9, 2009

    Post structualist type philosophies seem alive and well, to my cursory eye, in Marketing areas of study (coupled with a lot of bad psych and science particularly in sub sections like Branding, which bears a strong resemblance to what people call ‘framing’ lately. Others might know better. I hadn’t heard the term myself until I started frequenting these parts).
    I find this creepier than a lot of mostly well meaning old hippies from back in the day. They were merely trying to point out how constructed our world views can be (albeit taking it a bit too far). The other lot are actually trying to construct peoples world views in order to sell things. The nihilism often inherent in extreme post structural thought coupled with that makes me uneasy.

    What Craig B mentions about the writing style is close to my heart. That is, for me, the most regretable thing I saw as a student of this stuff. It only really dawned on me afterwards what was happening there, with all the endless run on sentences and hyphenated neologisms. The culture had become obsessed with aping Foucault’s (and others) writing style, which functions a bit like poetry in the circuitous way it is comprehended. It’s not his fault per se, but so prevalent was this that the potency of an argument became, it seems, a function of how difficult it was to decypher. Plain spoken argument was less impactful, less worthy of interest, because it was too easy to read. This went all the way down to undergrad papers (no real surprise that a lot of humanities grads from the era found they weren’t great communicators when they got out).

    Anyway, I still think that an education climate that will permit and defend this stuff, a bit like a philosophical Larry Flint, is one that values free thinking and can resist anti-intellectual attacks on other perhaps more important areas. Even if it’s mostly a kind of intellectual calisthenics the sciences don’t want to kick it too hard when it’s down.

  24. #24 Chris Hallquist
    August 9, 2009

    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.

    Since I’m traveling, I haven’t read the book myself, but this is an odd paragraph in light of the rest of your review. You talk about how they sacrificed factual accuracy for the sake of narrative–a narrative that was largely about tearing down existing science communicators like PZ. That’s the kind of thing we should hold people’s feet to the fire for.

  25. #25 windy
    August 9, 2009

    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.

    Even his ridiculous “what would Darwin have done?” ‘argument’?

    (Darwin didn’t want to be associated with public defense of atheism – so Rosenau, Mooney and others trot him out as an example of how scientists should behave. But Darwin also refused to advocate for birth control. In fact, he was against it. Should scientists imitate Darwin on that issue, too?)

  26. #26 Sili
    August 9, 2009

    and more than a few Republicans who accept the validity of evolution as science

    While I know it’s bad form to feed the troll, I can’t help but notice that none of those Republans mentioned are running for political office. As has been said elsewhere, when we speak of “the Republan war on Science” we do not mean the electorate as a whole but the people they vote for.

    So if you want to make a point, it would probably make more of an impact if you could point to some prominent Republan politicians, House or Senate, who’re proudly and loudnly anto-creationist.

  27. #27 John Kwok
    August 9, 2009

    Sili seems incapable of recognizing that there are many Democrats who are evolution denialists, of which one notable example is Young Earth Creationist – and United States Senator (Arkansas) Mark Pryor (or is it Prior). If evolution denial was an issue that reflected only party affiliation, then the number of Americans who accept evolution as valid science would be substantially higher than the approximately one third who do in recent polling. But I can’t blame Sili, since he/she/it is merely one of the many Militant Atheists internet trolls lurking here at Science Blogs.

  28. #28 SLC
    August 9, 2009

    Re Jo0hn Kwok

    Gee, Mr. Kwok found one Democrat who is an evolution denier. Let’s look at the evolution deniers on the other side, like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and some of his cohorts at the fascist news channel like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, etc. (remember the three Rethuglican presidential candidates who didn’t raise their hand when asked by Chris Matthews during a debate whether they believed in evolution. I like Vice-President Joe Bidens’ response when asked about ID, he stated it’s malarkey.

    As Mr. Kwoks’ hero, Chris Mooney, showed conclusively, anti-scientific at this point in time falls heavily on the right side of the political spectrum (in the 1960s, it fell heavily on the left side of the political spectrum). And of course, the Rethuglican Party is where most of the global warming denialists hang out.

  29. #29 John Kwok
    August 9, 2009

    SLC has rather selective amnesia, since I have stated, more than once, that, as a Republican, I do endorse the major themes and facts stated by Chris Mooney in his book “The Republican War on Science”. And SLC’s recitation of former Republican politicians like Huckabee who reject evolution, tends to forget that noted Conservatives and Republicans who do accept evolution as valid science can be found at The National Review (John Derbyshire), The Weekly Standard (P. J. O’Rourke, who is probably better known for his work at Rolling Stone), and The Washington Post (Charles Krauthammer and George Will), to name but a few. And then there is conservative biologist Paul Gross, co-author, with philosopher Barbara Forrest, of “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”. Did I mention too, Federal Judge John Jones – appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush – who presided over the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial (His ruling was praised, almost immediately, by both Krauthammer and Will in their respective Washington Post columns.)?

    But SLC’s amnesia is virtually nonexistent with regards to his conduct as an online male chauvinist pig and sex addict, as I have noted in Part II of Jason Rosenhouse’s review of “Unscientific America”. For SLC has absolutely no problem at all in viewing women like Sheril Kirshenbaum and Cameron Diaz as “hot”. That they have brains as well as beauty – and that their brains may be far more important than their beauty – has certainly not “computed” with Evolutionblog’s resident online sex addict and male chauvinist pig.

  30. #30 MarcusA
    August 9, 2009

    @John Kwok

    Sili seems incapable of recognizing that there are many Democrats who are evolution denialists

    I believe what you are referring to is called political pandering –if I may be so condescending. Example, Mike Huckabee in the 2007 GOP debates straddled the fence as if viscous dogs were on both sides, and he failed to give a straight answer as to his thoughts on the age of the Earth –not the most difficult of questions. So, I’d wager there are an equal number of republican politicians who secretly accept evolution, but play it safe by paying lip service to their creationist constituents –be they the young-Earth variety or IDers. Politicians do love their demographics. And they are chameleons after all, as John McCain readily proved when he completely transformed himself from middle-of-the-road McCain to GOP-lap-dog McCain, for his debut on the national stage.

    The main point I’ve taken away from Jason Rosenhouse’s review –your point may, of course, differ– is that pandering to the public’s emotions, which include their feelings on Pluto’s astronomical status or, let’s say, god, is a bad thing. And since we –most of us– know evolution to be based on good science, babying the general public into thinking that every feeling or point of view they hold on the subject is somehow equally valid as compared to the scientific perspective is a terrible mistake, which will ultimately dumb down the nation as a whole.

    If evolution denial was an issue that reflected only party affiliation

    What’s reflected by party affiliation is the degree and type of pandering; and the GOP has so enthusiastically outshone everyone on the stage in this respect, which is consistent with the base constituency of the GOP being that 28, or so, per cent ultra-conservative Christian. Ken Ham’s creation museum isn’t situated in Kentucky for the fried chicken. So, I think it’s safe to say that all the attempts by halfwit republicans to legislate anti-climate change and anti-evolution beliefs into reality aren’t just part of our collective post-modernistic imaginations.

    So, from where I’m sitting the term “militant atheist” is purely ironic.

    You can put that through your Leica rangefinder camera and see what develops. Just don’t forget to take off the lens cap this time.

  31. #31 pough
    August 9, 2009

    It was the prior system, in which Pluto was a planet but other, comparable bodies were not, that was arbitrary.

    I wonder if they’ll also go after the completely arbitrary decision to promote whales from fish to mammals? Seriously, who died and made scientists the deciders of how science works?

  32. #32 SLC
    August 9, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    1. Mr. Kwok forgot to mention that I also said that Jaclyn Smith was hot. I also wasn’t aware that Cameron Diaz was in the same category as Jill StJohn, Margo Thomas, and Candace Bergen in terms of smarts. Perhaps Mr. Kwok can enlighten us on that score.

    2. I’m glad that Mr. Kwok mentioned George Will, the noted climate change denier and liar (as demonstrated by his heros Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer).

    3. I’m also glad that Mr. Kwok mentioned chickenhawk Charles Krauthammer, a neocon warmongering piece of filth who would gladly involve us in a war with Iran when we haven’t finished the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A war which he won’t have to fight from his wheelchair.

    4. Gee, Mr. Kwok labors under the rather quaint notion that anyone who admires beautiful women is a sex addict. I guess that makes most straight men sex addicts.

  33. #33 John Kwok
    August 9, 2009

    @ MarcusA –

    You were almost making sense until I came across your comments about the Republican Party in your second-to-last paragraph and your risible example of breathtaking inanity with regards to Leica rangefinder cameras (As for the latter, you ought to take a look under gallery at http://www.tamarkin.com, just to see what I do when I take my lens cap off.). I don’t agree with those in the Religious Right who have set the political agenda of the Republican Party for decades; I am cautiously optimistic that we may be seeing some semblance of sanity now that the party has lost control of both the White House and Comgress (You also seem to ignore that there are quite a few notable conservatives who do recognize that evolution is valid science, as I have noted.).

    @ SLC –

    You are merely proving my point that you are Evolutionblog’s resident online sex addict and incorrigible male chauvinist pig. If you had any common sense – which your Ph. D. degree in physics didn’t provide you with – you would have shut up already.

  34. #34 John Kwok
    August 9, 2009

    @ pough –

    One could argue successfully that science has succeeded due to its adherence to methodological naturalism (“the scientific method”) and its ability to “self correct” itself. It is because science does change, and that it often involves “self correction”, that science has earned the right – or rather its members, scientists have earned the right – to decide how it works. By referring to the “Pluto” affair, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have given us the mistaken impression that science should reflect “public opinion” (And if that’s really true, then if science were to follow “public opinion”, Intelligent Design creationism – or some other form of creationism – would be recognized as valid science, not modern evolutionary theory.).

  35. #35 Jr
    August 10, 2009

    The Pluto episode was I believe big news mostly in the US. Especially the demands that it be kept as a planet were mainly American.

    But the decision was made by an International body. I wonder if they discuss this in the book?

  36. #36 Christophe Thill
    August 10, 2009

    I have difficulties understanding why M&K choose Pluto as their “warhorse”.

    To me it’s clear that the general public wasn’t interested in Pluto at all, and still isn’t. Perhaps if there was footage of a guy landing on Pluto, they would be. But for now, I’d say that they care much more for reality shows, sports, Oprah Winfrey, sex scandals… well, the kind of stuff TV is made of.

    No, those who raised a fuss about Pluto were actually passionate. They love Pluto, for whatever reason. They want facts and data about it. They want some dignity for it. Hey, fellow dinosaur fans, do you remember how we felt when we first heard about the possibility that our beloved beasties were warm-blooded ? Yay ! No more stupid, lumbering monsters ! Longlive the agile runners caring for their young ! That felt just great, didn’t it ? Well, the Pluto fans lived the same kind of episode… except it went in the opposite direction.

    So in my opinion M&K example is entirely misguided. The pro-Pluto crowd are not anti-science, they’re just partial. Can you say the same about creationists or climate change deniers ? Of course not ! Those have no need for facts. They know the “truth” in advance, they just want arguments to support it, and are ready to discard them as soon as they are refuted, just to jump to new ones.

    By the way I think it’s important to note that Alan Sokal and his associate, Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, are neither enemies of the left nor of humanities. They present themselves very clearly as left wing, and far more interested in humanities then their colleagues. They say that they respect human sciences and think they should be held to high standards of logic and rigor, just like natural sciences. To them, allowing confusion and fuzzy thinking is not respect but sabotage. I agree with that.

  37. #37 John Kwok
    August 10, 2009

    @ Jr –

    Yes, they do discuss the IAU and its decision to “demote Pluto”, but unfortunately, like so much of the book, it is a discussion that is a bit short (IMHO Chris had much better examples to draw upon with regards to his prior excellent journalism on climatology.).

    @ Christophe –

    Thanks for dropping by, especially since I’ve noticed that yours have been lately among the best posts I have read online at various science blogs.

    I think yours is probably the best bit of commentary on the Pluto affair because it’s quite insightful regarding the public’s reaction (It’s not only insightful, but I believe it is quite accurate.). Where I might differ slightly is emphasis, since M & K seem to suggest that science should have taken “public opinion” into account with regards to the Pluto affair (Of course, science is not – nor has it ever been – governed by the democratic impulses of the public, but rather, instead, by what the scientific community believes is valid science based on whether the data has been amply tested and confirmed for its validity.).
    Lastly, thanks for your closing remarks on Sokal and Bricmont which I found quite informative.

  38. #38 Blake Stacey
    August 10, 2009

    Jr, the Pluto section of their book is available online. It’s
    not particularly impressive. Their representation of the decision-making process. . . leaves a great deal to be desired. As always, the motto seems to be, “Go for the simple story!”

  39. #39 Christophe Thill
    August 10, 2009

    Hey… thanks !

  40. #40 Portmanteau
    August 10, 2009

    No, those who raised a fuss about Pluto were actually passionate. They love Pluto, for whatever reason.

    *cough*

  41. #41 Benjamin Nelson
    August 15, 2009

    Jason, thanks for the comprehensive review!

    Craig and Mezz, yes I had that thought as well. But I think a naive attitude toward the science wars has more to do with disciplinary blinders. Though I’m younger than both M&K, I’m also a philosophy PhD candidate, and we’re still hung up and grumbling about the ins and outs of the science wars. This makes good sense, as philosophy is pretty much the intersection of the three cultures.

  42. #42 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 16, 2009

    Thanks Jason for this series of reviews! I’ve learned a lot, in this article mostly that “framing” devolves to making up a narrative that is more important than its goals to the point that it can support them. (By say, ignoring the problems, as here.)

    Oh, and that M&K narrative sums up to “always blame the victims, it supports the problem but sure feels good”.

    FWIW, the planet definition problems are analogous to what is done on cladistics and species et cetera in biology. To entertain the public is the same as letting creationists get away with naming “kinds” for no scientific reason (or even anti-scientific).

    That said, it would have been better to append a new definition instead of amending an old one. Say introduce “euplanets” akin to the new “exoplanets”.

  43. #43 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 16, 2009

    FWIW:

    #12:

    There is a clear scientific argument for distinguishing objects in hydrostatic equilibrium as planets.

    What would that be? Biologists recognized this a long time and it’s time that astronomers do: specific traits aren’t what distinguishes populations (as “species”), processes are.

    In this case there is a quantitative dividing line between those bodies that clears their orbits and those who don’t, at several orders of magnitude in a mature (aka planet) system. While you can find the trait of HE bodies in many different populations of system bodies. What scientific use is recognizing those later? What scientific use is it to not recognize the former?

    That is not science; it’s dogma.

    LOL! The use of “planets” have changed during historical times, and may definitely change again if science warrants. (Whales from fish to mammal is an excellent example, thanks pough!)

    Even if I share the view of the implemented process (see above), it’s a done deal. And it is certainly a scientific deal non-scientists should not affect.

    #32:

    Your definition of someone who discusses the general behavior of males as a “sex addict” et cetera, excludes males from commenting on their own group. That’s bigotry and a tool for chauvinism.

    Unfortunately you have by definition excluded a rational discussion of these behaviors.

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

    Re #12:

    It just hit me that HE bodies, who does sort out their interiors from the process of attaining equilibrium, are akin to the biological trait of “warm-blooded”.

    I.e. not all species of major cladistic groups have the trait of being warm-blooded, look for example at reptiles vs birds.

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