I’m sure we all remember the book Unscientific America, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. I found the book to be very disappointing, for reasons I explained in my epic, three-part review (Part One, Part Two, Part Three.) In short, I felt the book was superficial in its analysis of the problem and, as as result, offered solutions that were unlikely to be effective (and were highly impractical to boot.)
I had mentally moved on to other things, but then Jerry Coyne published a hostile review of the book in Science. I read the review when it was published, noted that it raised some of the same issues that I did, and moved on again. But now Mooney and Kirshenabum, hereafter M and K, have revived the issue with this post, which charges that Coyne’s reviews was “misleading.” They write (referring to a post from Josh Rosenau:
Rosenau detailed the many ways in which Coyne misrepresented our book on fundamental matters-e.g., what is the problem it identifies, what are the causes of that problem, and so on. We encourage readers to go through Rosenau’s entire post, which contains numerous rebuttals, followed by more accurate descriptions of what Unscientific America argues.
Serious charges, and we will come to them in a moment. First, though, let us note that M and K have not exactly bathed themselves in glory throughout this little kerfuffle. They were the ones who grossly misquoted P. Z. Myers (as I documented in Part Two of my review), making it appear that an insult directed at certain religious fanatics was meant to apply to religious believers generally. They are the ones who presented a woefully misleading account of the whole “Crackergate” affair, omitting many critical details in an attempt to make P. Z. look as bad as possible. A reader who only knew of the affair from M and K’s description would not have a good understanding of what happened.
In the present post, intended to discredit Coyne, they write:
Indeed, we are not the only authors who have felt compelled to respond in this manner to one of Coyne’s book reviews. As Robert Wright has put it:
Here is a partial list of false or misleading things Jerry Coyne says about my book The Evolution of God in his review of it in The New Republic. I want to emphasize that I think these are innocent mistakes…If Coyne wants to write a devastating review of my book–and there can be little doubt that he wants to–he’s going to have to start over.
Let us not forget that it was Mooney and Kirshenbaum who, writing in the LA Times, mocked Richard Dawkins for writing a book presenting the evidence for evolution and proceeded to distort the arguments of those who argue against a peaceful coexistence between science and religion. And they were the ones who used a single comment from the thousands PZ receives every week as a tool for discrediting his blog in general. (Sorry, I can’t find the link right now.) I could cite other examples as well.
There have been a lot of nasty things written on both sides of this dispute. I have seen many unfair and uncalled for slurs hurled at M and K, as well as Josh Rosenau for his posts on similar topics. Much of it has come from people on my side of the debate, and I cringe whenever I read it. Incivility has its place, but this is not it. As I said in my review of UA, while I disagree with almost everything in the book, I think anyone interested in science popularization should read it.
But let us have no illusion that incivility is a one-way street. M and K, and many of their supporters, have given just as good as they have been getting. They have consistently rejected opportunities to take the high road, and have resorted to many of the same poor tactics they so quickly call out in their critics.
Now for some of the substantive points. M and K have a letter to the editor in the current issue of Science outlining their objections to Coyne’s review. They write:
The problem is apparent from Coyne’s opening sentence, in which he asserts that Unscientific America argues that the problem of American scientific illiteracy “derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public.” This would be a very foolish position; thankfully, it isn’t ours. On the contrary, as we describe it, scientific illiteracy–really, the gap between science and society–is a complex, multifaceted, multidecadal problem. It is hardly something that can be blamed exclusively on the failings of scientists, although surely scientists have contributed to the divide.
Fair enough. “Derives from” was a poor choice of words. Coyne should have used a phrase like “is seriously exacerbated by” instead. M and K do not believe that vocal atheism and poor outreach are the cause of scientific illiteracy (which the phrase “derives from” would imply) but they certainly think they are big contributing factors.
Coyne should have phrased things more carefully, but this has nothing to do with the substantive arguments Coyne raises in objection to the book.
Coyne’s misrepresentations continue as he asserts that we “claim that scientiﬁc illiteracy once was ameliorated by people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Gould but is now exacerbated by the ‘new atheists.’” Our views are nowhere near so simplistic. The same goes for this assertion: “Other data contradict Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s claim that American ignorance of scientiﬁc issues reveals a failure of outreach.”
In a complex society and world, in which citizens’ views of scientific issues are influenced by the educational system, the news media (new and old), the entertainment media, interpersonal communications, political predilections, religious commitments, and much else, how could anyone hold the naive positions that Coyne attributes to us? We certainly don’t. To give just one example, consider our observation about where vaccine skeptics get their “science”: “From the Internet, celebrities, other parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation.”
I do not understand this objection at all. Phrases like “ameliorated by” and “exacerbated by” are not absolutist statements. I fail to see how Coyne has oversimplified anything here. Unless I have completely misread them, M and K do think the new atheists exacerbate the problem, and they do think the more conciliatory approach taken by Gould and Sagan ameliorated the problem. What am I missing?
Coyne does not attribute to M and K the view that scientific illiteracy is solely the result of poor outreach. Only that scientific illiteracy reveals a failure of outreach, a point I thought M and K were very clear on throughout the book. Much of the book, after all, is given over to showing how scientists are often poor communicators who are hostile to popularization. Their big solution to the problem is to give science graduate students training in communications skills, and to divert some of those students, who are likely to be frustrated in their desire for an academic job, into nebulous careers in science communication. Does that not indicate that they think a failure of outreach is a significant part of the problem?
I also fail to see how M and K’s remarks about where anti-vaccination folks get their information refutes anything Coyne said.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Relating none of this, Coyne instead poses the following rhetorical question: “Do [Mooney and Kirshenbaum] really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion, Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and ﬁnally recognize the threat of global warming?” Here are the facts: Anti-evolutionism is over 100 years old. The latest outgrowth of anti-vaccine activism, over the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, is about a decade old, but distrust of vaccination also goes back well over a century. Finally, global warming denial goes back decades. With all of these preexisting factors in place, Dawkins’ The God Delusion was then published in 2006–and it isn’t even about global warming or vaccination. So, no: We are quite confident that these instances of anti-science sentiment would be with us no matter what Richard Dawkins did. Yet this admission does nothing to weaken our argument that the confrontational tactics of Dawkins and the New Atheists (including Coyne), in the present moment, are counterproductive.
This is just silly. Are M and K really unfamiliar with the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device? Do they really think that Coyne thinks that they think (pardon me) that The God Delusion is the difference between loving acceptance of scientific facts and the rampant hostility we so frequently find?
M and K devote an entire chapter of a very short book to excoriating the new atheists for hurting the cause. Coyne makes an argument, based on recent Pew data, for thinking this criticism is incorrect, and closes this brief section with his rhetorical question. His question was intended as mockery of M and K’s view, not as a statement of it. Once again we have M and K harping on trivia, and not answering the subtantive argument made against them.
A final point:
Much more might be said, but allow us to rebut one final claim: Coyne’s repeated accusation that we want anti-religion scientists to “keep quiet.” This is simply not the case. In fact, as we observe in an endnote: “We want to emphasize that New Atheists enjoy freedom of speech. No one is asking them to be quiet. However, we have every right to point out the consequences of the divisiveness they are fueling over science and religion.”
We have hashed out this bit of silliness before. You can not consistently argue that one side hurts the cause every time they open their mouths, but then object that you are not telling them to keep quiet. Free speech has absolutely nothing to do with this, as has been explained to M and K many times. No one thinks they want the government to come in and do anything. To be honest, I’m baffled that M and K persist in getting so irate on this point. Of course they want people like Dawkins to keep quiet, or at least to completely change the way he goes about presenting his views, which amounts to the same thing.
I have not replied to everything in M and K’s letter, so go read it, and Coyne’s review, for yourself. Simply put, I do not think they have succeeded at all in showing that Coyne misrepresented their book. They have harped on trivial issues of phrasing, but have left unaddressed the substantive, and in my opinion largely correct criticisms, that Coyne raised.
Sadly, this has been par for the course in their reactions to criticism.