Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum tries to make several different points. The central framework of the book, on which all the arguments are hung, is that science has a status, a place, in American culture, politics, and economy, and that this status has changed over time. Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the claim that science rose to an increasingly higher status than it had ever previously enjoyed through a series of events and transformations during the early and middle part of the 20th century, and subsequently, suffered a series of political and cultural defeats so that today real science holds a precarious position in the public view. The outcome of this reduced status is that important policy decisions that require an understanding of and appreciation for, and most importantly a certain level of trust in science are contaminated by right wing generated pseudoscience and politically motivated denialism.

There is no question in my mind that that this is correct. The specific arguments made in Unscientific America regarding the rise of the status of science, and increasing funding for scientific research, are also largely correct. At some point during the story, Unscientific America focuses on the role of science communicators. Readers of a certain age will enjoy the historical discussion of Carl Sagan’s position in society and politics, and if you are like me, you’ll learn things you did not know regarding his prowess.

Unscientific America also documents the negative effects of the diminution of the role of, and respect for, science in America, and the book documents that this change in attitude is in part due to the systematic dumbing down of our culture by right wing partisan forces.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum address the problem of communicating science to the public, and it is in this area that most negative criticisms of the book have arisen. For example, they spend one entire chapter taking PZ Myers and the “New Atheists” to task for riding rough shod over people’s sensibilities. To me, it is very interesting, and I want to see this in a positive light, that an entire chapter of a major book on science communication is devoted to new atheists and the blogosphere. This serves, in a way, to underscore the fact that faithless radicals are truly at the negotiating table. I happen to disagree with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s take on Myers, his blog, and his handling of Crackergate. (Which should not surprise you. I am, after all, the one who found the image of Jesus on the famous trash can banana.) Also, the Cracker Chapter does disrupt the flow of the book and distracts from the main argument, in my view.

Many readers have had a hard time understanding what the main point of Unscientific America is in relation to science communication, suggesting that Mooney and Kirshenbaum don’t really know what the point is themselves. I think this is not a lacking on the part of the authors, but rather, it is because the situation is itself undefined and vague, like a battlefield with very few troops spread across a great deal of terrain. Science and society touch in many places but they tend to be discontinuous places. Cable TV shows, but only a couple, are science-oriented (and they all suck). Prime Time TV currently sports forensic science (in a totally unrealistic way) but the presence or absence of science in this venue is capricious and unpredictable. Science is required in high school and college. But so are a lot of other things. Science may or may not be part of a person’s weekly media intake. Many Americans probably don’t even know when they are looking at science, or when science is in fact making a difference in their lives. Most people probably read, see or hear most of what they consciously encounter from the scientific world in the from of snarky remarks by TV pundits or anchors or sensationalized but uncontextualized “wow” reports about whales or killer bacteria or NASA scientists doing something esoteric but loud and expensive.

Most people do not develop positions on science policy. Most people receive their positions from wherever they receive all of their political views. From Rush Limbauch or Keith Olbermann, or someone. To combine my own personal view (which I have drifted into here, sorry…) with that of Unscientific America: Regular citizens and scientists are separated by a very narrow but very deep canyon, resting comfortably on either side of this canyon and vaguely aware of the others across the way. When science policy issues arise among the citizenry, the scientists don’t really play a role. When scientists lobby for their funding from the big agencies and other sources, they don’t really account for the people over on the other side of the canyon. This has been the case for years, and over this time, the social and cultural relevance of actual science has pretty much vanished among the populous, and the ability to understand what motivates or interests the general public… or just even how to talk to them … has disappeared from the culture of science. Not that it was ever there. Looking back, it is clear that the bridges that did exist across this canyon were built by regular people inspired by the occasional super-communicator, such as Carl Sagan. Those bridges were not, in any systematic way, built by the scientists.

Clearly, a central point of the book is that science needs to regain a position of respect and perceived importance, and to get out from under the thumb of right wing anti-science denialists and industry apologists. But to do this, it may be useful to know why science has lost its political grip, and what the best way to get back some traction may be. The authors have criticized the old school “popular science” approach as something that has not worked in the past, and they see education reform as too slow. Yet, I’m fairly sure they are not against education reform, and they probably see the existence of a healthy science geekhood as not a bad thing, even if it is not the best way to solve the current dilemma.

With respect to the history of the problem, Unscientific America is totally there. It’s a well done accessible account not meant to be a scholarly work. With respect to the definition of the problem, for the most part, Unscientific America is there as well, although I do not agree that the so called “New Atheist” voices are ruining it for everyone, and I wish Sheril and Chris would just appreciate Cracker Gate for what it was. But much of what Mooney and Kirshenbaum say about the problem of science communication is in my view, dead on even though most of my colleges in the scientific world do not agree. The fact that the people who clearly have failed to communicate the important features of science to usefully enhance and affect public understanding of policy does not make them expert on what should be done to better develop public understanding of science policy. It makes them failures in that area. It makes their opinion about how to do what they’ve done so poorly rather irrelevant.

The assertion by scientists that they know what they are doing when it comes to communication with non scientists smacks of things like the “mommy instinct” and other wooish beliefs that science tends to eschew.

When it comes to what to do next, how to approach this problem, Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the same mistake I see so many of my fellow bloggers make, and so many of my fellow political activists as well. They take sides not just against the obvious enemy (Republicans, Morons and Megalomaniacs) but also against their allies. So I’ll declare the “howto” part of this book a first (or second) draft.

Read the book. Respond to it. Help do something to make Unscientific America obsolete. In other words, try to be a good citizen.

Comments

  1. #1 lynn fellman
    January 13, 2010

    Thanks, Greg. I haven’t read the book but I will. When you write about doing something effective to influence policy, I think of Darlene Cavalier and her citizen science blog. http://www.sciencecheerleader.com/

    She has spotted the gap in achieving a solution just as you have.

    She is pushing to reopen the office of Technology. She says there is no connection to congress so she is working to be that advocate for science to congress. For instance, she is working with the Boston Museum of Science to do public engagement of science with public issues. Her group will synthesize the issues and get them to congress — providing sort of a feed back loop.

  2. #2 KristinMH
    January 13, 2010

    I was hoping you were going to start up the Great Scientific American Blogwar again, but this is all very mild and measured. Pooh. Can you at least piss ERV off or something?

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    There is plenty to argue about over the Cracker Chapter. Maybe we can get something going there.

  4. #4 Charles
    January 14, 2010

    I read the book, and I found their attack on the ‘New Atheists” rather pathetic. I think they shot themselves in the foot with that move.

    I’m tickled pink that we atheists are feeling less afraid of confronting religion than we have been.

  5. #5 MadScientist
    January 14, 2010

    Part of the problem is that Mooney/Kirschenbaum say (in the Kwok/McCarthy blog) “This is the problem, and we have a solution, but it’s top secret.” All good scientists are naturally mistrustful of secrets. So far M&K have not given any details on their secret solution. There were numerous substantive issues raised about the book; I think Ophelia Benson has a pretty long list – and yet the authors refused to address any of those issues. That has unsurprisingly resulted in a lot of people saying the authors must be dishonest at best.

    I would side with the camp who say “even the authors don’t know what they are talking about” rather than create excuses on the authors’ behalf (“it’s a complex subject and everything is so vague”) – making excuses is pointless.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Have you read the book? (Just curious)

  7. #7 Laurent
    January 14, 2010

    All good scientists are naturally mistrustful of secrets.

    To qualify this rather strong claim, I’d say that when you have an interesting idea well worth exploring, you can’t always speak about it loudly everywhere until some other scientist goes scooping you out. So there’s some level of secrecy involved in working sciences. The thing is, we don’t tell “I have a secret / rocket data set that will make you turn mad when you see it published”… We simply wait to have it all done.

    I don’t hold a position yet, but I’ve been working long enough to have experienced what would be labeled as “inspiring others without having the opportunity to benefit my own ideas” several times (and usually by very great, big and respectful peers). Enough to now keep everything precious to myself so deep, until I get in a position to do it myself (if it ever happens). I may nevertheless not be what you meant by good scientist (it depends whether you were implying only ethics or speaking about peer celebrity).

  8. #8 yogi-one
    January 14, 2010

    I haven’t read the book (and I am not a scientist), but your “canyon” metaphor is spot on.

    It strikes me that what scientists are trained to do is research, hyptothesize, test, analyze data, publish results, (wash, rinse, repeat).

    The politics they encounter are in meetings with other scientists, or with faculty or bosses in academia. Scientists in the private sector face politics from corporations, and pressures to make their science look the way the potential funders of their project want their science to look like.

    But mostly they do scientist-type work. Some of them also do a lot of grant-writing.

    The work of interfacing with the public is not science meat-and-potatoes. It’s PR, it’s speechifying, it’s organizing at the community level, advocating, writing opinions (not results), persuading, schmoozing when necessary, and taking the heat pretty directly from the usual anti-science warriors.

    Which all smacks of plunging into politics head-on. Which most scientists run away from.

    The rare being like a Carl Sagan or a Michio Kaku is not enough, as you note, to do more than build an occasional, and temporary bridge between the walls of the canyon, and these bridges fall down when that occasional celebrity-scientist retires from public life.

    The PR stuff is hard work. There’s no regular, guaranteed check or tenure that goes with it. It can get very confrontational at times. It takes resourcefulness, thinking out of the box, consummate people skills, and political savvy.

    Which is to say, it is not science. Finding someone who has some knoiwledge, and as you say, a respect for science who is going to lay themselves on the line day and day out to fight to win public respect for science, is hard to do.

    Clearly, there need to be some organizations that make it easier to do. We need a Bill and Melinda Gates style foundation that is dedicated to restoring respect for science and establishing productive, positive use of the principles and benefits of science in our everyday life. Or something – something that brings a lot of regular folks together to make progress on this, instead of the occasional, lone superstar who carries the torch for 10 or 20 years, then the ball is dropped again for an indefinite period.

    There has to be a way to get regular people involved with organizations that are sustainable over generations, and not overly dependednt on any one person.

    It is a tough problem. But I think well within the reach of solving if the scientific community wants to seriously devote time and resources to it.

  9. #9 MadScientist
    January 14, 2010

    I spent time looking at the reviews of the M&K book. The ones which gush with praise have nothing of substance in them. Others shred the book and have little to no praise. Many points have been raised on the M&K blog yet none were addressed in an honest and forthright manner. I see no reason to waste my time reading the book given the authors’ responses to valid criticism and the lack of any positive reviews which say anything meaningful. As many other reviewers stated independently, M&K seem intent on blaming the scientists for their perceived problems – and that is only one of the numerous items that reviewers have complained about. It’s easy to say “the problem is with communication” – but *what* is the problem with communication, how can that be addressed, and how is that action meant to change things?

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    As many other reviewers stated independently, M&K seem intent on blaming the scientists for their perceived problems

    That is true by and large, but in and of itself is not a valid criticism of the book a priori. Scientists might not like being blamed, but not liking to be blamed is not an argument against being blamed. Of the negative reviews, most are by scientists or people who are heavily into science.

    I know that I’m in a very small minority, and I did not used to be part of this minority. I used to disagree that the problem was among the scientists. Then I noticed this phenomenon whereby scientists (many, not all obviously) demonstrated an amazing ability to not react well to criticism. And by not react well I mean close the eyes really tight, drop to the floor, pound the floor with feet and fists, and scream “La la la la la” so they couldn’t hear any more criticism.

    If science has been doing a great job communicating its significance to the general public, then why is it that the general public a) has no clue; b) is not on board and c) can be turned against good science so easily?

    Consider the possibility that the collective of “bad reviews” includes a) reviews by annoyed scientists and b) reviews written by people who did not read the book but are basing their review on other reviews.

    I am not without disagreements with the authors, and I am quite clear about that in my review. But the issue is complex and there are important points that are being lost by reviewers who are, in my view, taking the easy way out in many cases. That is why I decided to focus this review on the key points of agreement and on what needs to be done to improve the current situation.

  11. #11 SLC
    January 14, 2010

    The big problem with Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirshenbaum is that they reacted poorly to criticism. In citing reviews of their book on their web site, they disdain to cite negative reviews received from PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Ephelia Benson, etc. In fact they banned Ms. Benson from commenting on their blog and removed all negative comments from threads there. This is in addition to devoting an entire chapter to PZ Myers, seeming to blame him (and Richard Dawkins) for the deficit of science acceptance in the United States.

  12. #12 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Well, one of the fundamental laws of the universe is that blaming the customer or the public is self-defeating. If they aren’t getting your message, it’s your fault.

    If you cannot get across a message about what science is and why it’s important, do you think you are going to change them by blaming them for not paying enough attention or not being smart enough?

    I think the atheism thing is a bigger problem than Greg does. For one thing, if you look at blogs like PZ’s or Jerry Coyne’s there’s a lot of material there that a) blurs the lines between science & politics in a way that, I think, would suggest that scientific argumentation really ought to be taken more like political argumentation is.

    And this, I’d say is playing into the hands of denialists of every ilk.

    There’s also a teenage-fan-club aura to those blogs, which doesn’t help much. Atheism is treated as a matter of adolescent or post-adolescent identity politics and is always aligned as if it were an inevitable consequence of scientific knowledge.

    But there’s a very powerful identity politics on the other side as well, one which is not susceptible in many cases to argumentation. When you put the terms out this way, you tell those folks that if they reject atheism, they reject science as an institution. I think these folks are only too glad to do so and that we are not in a good position to fight this battle on those terms.

    More or less Myers and Coyne represent a wing of science which has completely subordinated the interests of science as an institution to the needs of evangelical atheism. I think that’s a stupid position to take up.

    Lastly, Coyne has occasionally revealed himself to be appallingly ignorant of intellectual matters outside his realm of expertise, but always ready to interpret them as mere epiphenomena of evolution. This kind of ignorance/arrogance is very damaging to science because it is one of the powerful “fears about science” that lurks in the popular imaginary (see, for instance, many b-grade SF films).

  13. #13 NewEnglandBbo
    January 14, 2010

    Thanks for your review, Greg. I have not read the book and I do not intend to, because of the same reasons brought up by MadScientist. M & K have been intellectually dishonest on their blog. I used to follow it but dropped it. Their chapter on PZ, et al. has fouled their book.

    Apparently M & K have identified the problem, as you stated: “the book documents that this change in attitude is in part due to the systematic dumbing down of our culture by right wing partisan forces.”

    Unfortunately their solution is to blame the ‘New Atheists’ instead of blaming Limbaugh and Olberman and Dumbya Bush and the fascist dogs and Palin-like morons.

    While it appears to be true that scientists do not do quite as good a job communicating as in the past (I am 58, so I remember the late 50′s, 60′s) It has actually been the job of the government and congress to push the scientific agenda on the advice of scientists. This stopped happening a long time ago.

  14. #14 NewEnglandBob
    January 14, 2010

    Oops, typo: NewEnglandBbo -> NewEnglandBob

  15. #15 Coturnix
    January 14, 2010

    Have you read my review? I think the worst part of the book is that they got history wrong. Perhaps they grew up in that tiny socio-economico-intellectual circle that was awed by Sagan. There was no rise and fall of science trust in 20th century America, except in a small circle of people. For the most part, it was and stayed abysmally low. Do not mix that up with, possibly, a rise and fall of the awe with technology – that is a different topic.

  16. #16 gillt
    January 14, 2010

    Greg Laden: “If science has been doing a great job communicating its significance to the general public, then why is it that the general public a) has no clue; b) is not on board and c) can be turned against good science so easily?”

    For better or worse, science is now a part of the culture war here in America, and now has to combat think tanks, religious right, Republican Party, etc. That’s an awful lot of money invested against scientific progress.

    I think it was Chade Orzel who said, there’s nothing in their book that hasn’t already been said on their blog. Or something like that.

    Anyway, I read the book. It’s definitely not a how-to on solving the communication problem. It’s more like a primer with a lot of finger-pointing but not much in the way of practical solutions. (e.g., vague, idealistic restructuring of grad school programs.)

  17. #17 Phillip L.
    January 14, 2010

    I see no reason to waste my time reading the book given the authors’ responses to valid criticism and the lack of any positive reviews which say anything meaningful.

    Really? That’s how you viewed the book reviews? Most of the positive reviews I saw said essentially “Hell yes! I’m a scientist that works with the public every day, and the real world I work in is exactly how the authors painted it.”

    On the other hand, there were some valid criticial points made, and M&K actually addresed those points rather well over on their blog. They just didn’t buy into the whole “this book is useless/you should just throw this book into the trash bin/I’m criticized in a single chapter of the book so therefore the whole thing sucks” foolishness.

    I get the feeling you’re just banging the boards for the sake of boneheaded tribalism.

  18. #18 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Coturnix: a link? Or could you summarize the evidence behind your no change in status of science argument?

  19. #19 Philip L.
    January 14, 2010

    In find it interesting that people seem so bewildered that a stunt like Crackergate – which was pulled for sheer shock value – gets more than a passing mention in a book about communication strategies. That’s a shocker, guys? Really?

    Really?

    Whether you like it or not, the New Atheism is built off of shock value. The plan is to scream before you speak, to offend before you engage, to call people “child abusers” and accuse them of “enabling genocide” and tell them to “fuck off” before you ever attempt a rationed explanation of why. The New Atheists are really just the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs of atheism: there are some kernels of substance in what you hear from them, but the onus is to perform for your like-minded colleagues and get a “hell yeah!” from the peanut gallery. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it’s just silly to act so shocked when people point out and/or criticize it.

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    January 14, 2010

    Readers of a certain age will enjoy the historical discussion of Carl Sagan’s position in society and politics,

    No, not really.

  21. #21 Paul S.
    January 14, 2010

    I would suggest a couple of other possible reasons why the attitudes of a large section of the public toward science have declined. First, I suspect that the public esteem for certain branches of science was at least slightly raised during the Cold War by the widespread sentiment that “we need to be better at science to defeat the godless commies”. Science (or at least some types) was very patriotic, very American, and this probably helped conservatives in particular see it in a more favorable light.

    Second is that I suspect that many people blame science, rightly or wrongly, for the problems caused by technological change – or the misuse of certain technologies. Yes, I know that science and technology aren’t the same thing, but a lot of people view them as two sides of the same coin. So, environmentalists blame certain kinds of science and technology for causing widespread ecological damage, pacifists blame any kind of science of technology that is in any way related to the military for causing death and suffering, animal rights people blame certain types of science and technology for death and suffering of animals, anti-abortion activists blame certain kinds of medical science and technology for killing unborn children, etc., etc. This can apply equally to people on the political right and left.

    The whole New Atheists vs. religious fundamentalists vs. moderate/liberal religion is enough for a book of its own, and something that I have very mixed feelings about.

  22. #22 Mike
    January 14, 2010

    The problem with Mooney and his books is that he links science and politics in a hypocritical fashion. He is too willing to ignore certain people being denialists or even waging war on science as long as those people generally have liberal political standpoints.

    Look at the global warming denialists. They reject the scientific findings because the science requires them to act in a political manner they find disagree with. Now look at traditional farming denialists (aka organic enthusiasts). They reject and wage war on science to the exact same extent that global warming deniers do. They have been so successful waging war on food science that have subverted the political process and forced the USDA to certify their scientific denialism with the organic label.

    If Mooney truly cared about bringing back the prominence of science, he would attack all science denialists and not just the ones he disagrees with politically.

  23. #23 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Mike:

    I really don’t think the organic farming movement is very much like global-warming denialism.

    For one thing, current agricultural practice and policy in this country is driven by the profit motive, first and foremost. Science may provide the tools, but they don’t necessarily validate the methods as serving either the long or short term interests of consumers, farmers & everyone else.

    Of course there are some nutters in the organic movement, but there’s some good sense in it, too.

    On climate denialism, the scales are tipped way to the one side.

  24. #24 Mike
    January 14, 2010

    Oran,
    Thank you for reminding me of another similarity between these two types of denialists.

    Food science denialists wage war against science by claiming that traditional agriculture is all about the profit motive.

    Global warming denialists wage war against science by claiming that big government wants to be able to expand and control more aspects of people’s lives.

  25. #25 Lorax
    January 14, 2010

    If science has been doing a great job communicating its significance to the general public, then why is it that the general public a) has no clue; b) is not on board and c) can be turned against good science so easily?

    Well, I would suggest your question is only half way there. Let’s not forget there is an extremely active and storied set of forces that actively misinform miseducate and otherwise fight against good science. When industries (be it cigarette companies, oil companies, pharmaceuticals) distort lie and otherwise misuse “science,” when religious leaders require a choice between facts and hell, when political leaders get their own “facts” to support their preconceived notions. I would say the cards are stacked against us. Carl Sagan or even a small clones army of Sagans has a hard time fighting those odds. Can scientists do better, sure absolutely in fact. But it really is not the childs fault that daddy beats him and suggesting that if the child behaved a little better the problem would be fixed or improved is poor at best. Your “why” question ignores these aspects of the equation.

  26. #26 Paul
    January 14, 2010

    The big problem with Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirshenbaum is that they reacted poorly to criticism. In citing reviews of their book on their web site, they disdain to cite negative reviews received from PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Ephelia Benson, etc

    That barely tells half the story.

    Most of their reviewers, good, bad, or lukewarm, said pretty much the same thing. Light on substance, offers no real solutions, ignores anti-science forces in order to snipe at acceptable targets. The difference? With the negative reviewers they could use to draw blog hits (e.g. Myers, Coyne) they mined out the “angry”, less substantial parts and ignored the actual criticisms. The positive reviewers, they mined out the bubbly, friendly parts and ignored the actual criticisms. They managed to split reviewers into two camps when the reviewers were all saying the same thing. Contrast Myers’ review with Stemwedel’s. They are similar in content, but where PZ gets a commenter at his site quoted as “Classic PZ” (instead of actually answering any criticism, or really anything in his actual post), she gets a post titled “Janet Stemwedel’s Great Posts on Unscientific America”.

    On the other hand, there were some valid criticial points made, and M&K actually addresed those points rather well over on their blog.

    Could you point out where they actually answered any criticism? Even their posts that were ostensibly replying to criticism were mostly spent talking about how everyone else is so mean and just doesn’t understand them.

  27. #27 cervantes
    January 14, 2010

    I think a major problem is that scientists aren’t given liberty by their peer culture to speak in the appropriate voice when communicating with a mass audience. We are programmed to hedge conclusions, to say “it has been found that . . .” or “there is support for the hypothesis that . . .” rather than “Here’s how it works.” You don’t have to say something is a dead certainty when it isn’t, but you can lay out the theory saying, “this is our best understanding, and it fits together really well with everything we know.” We also are trained to attach little weight to anecdotes and individual cases, but those are absolutely necessary hooks to get people interested in what you are saying and to find it compelling. Specific stories are what most people find interesting and convincing. The point is they are illustrative, not evidentiary beyond making an existential statement.

    There’s more but you get the point. You need to speak the right kind of discourse.

  28. #28 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Mike:

    So you are claiming that modern agribusiness and climate science are similarly scientific enterprises?

    I don’t think they are. Agribusiness is a business (yes, just like old time agriculture) and disagreeing with their priorities and practices is not a matter of denial.

    Trying to dress up the activities of an entire industry in the mantle of science is horsecrap, plain and simple.

  29. #29 bioephemera
    January 14, 2010

    Oh no Greg! We almost exactly agree. That’s weird!

    BTW, you should expect a bunch more people who haven’t read the book to tell you how wrong your opinion of it is. Have fun. :)

  30. #30 Mike
    January 14, 2010

    Oran,
    Nice strawman.

    I am claiming that climate science and food science are similar scientific enterprises.

    Let’s examine one of the most recent food science denialists stances. The FDA, after reviewing scientific studies declared that meat from cloned animals was safe. The food science denialists waged war on the science and made sure that the organic label could not be applied to meat from cloned animals.

    There is no difference between food science denialists and climate science denialists.

  31. #31 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Except that there are organic and sustainable agriculture advocates within food science and agricultural science. Plenty of them.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Oran, I am confused by the first part of your comment because I can’t tell who “they” and “them” are… this could be lack of sleep on my part.

    Regarding the atheism bit, I doubt very much that you think of this as a bigger problem than I do. I think of it as a big huge problem, but I chose to not address it with more than a sentence or two. I do say they have it totally wrong. I don’ tthink I could say that more clearly.

    I just feel that there are important issues that UA intends to address and that does address that actually are common to most of the people who have been busy screaming at each other for the last several months, and that we need to get together on this and pile on the bad guys instead of each other.

    I’ve had a number of conversations with my fellow blogger, neighbor, and friend PZ Myers about a number of topics, and I don’t think there is any obvious or even subtle disagreement between us. Neither off us has shifted our position since we are on the same tag team for the Great Slapdown at the Bell.

    But, this is not all about crackergate. Also, I’m convinced that Mooney is not an accomodationist or at least does not want to be and tries not to be.

    I think the centrist/new atheist (so called) conflict has grown its own legs and I wanted it to sit out this particular review. To force the metaphor perhaps more than appropriate….

  33. #33 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Oran, I am confused by the first part of your comment because I can’t tell who “they” and “them” are… this could be lack of sleep on my part.

    Sorry, too many pronouns. More or less: If science can’t even give the public a decent impression of its work and importance, does it really expect that it can make the public change its ways by accusing the public of being lazy & stupid?

    On the rest–yes, I see how you might not want debate on those New Atheism chapters to overwhelm everything else.

  34. #34 llewelly
    January 14, 2010

    We need a Bill and Melinda Gates style foundation that is dedicated to restoring respect for science and establishing productive, positive use of the principles and benefits of science in our everyday life.

    Bad example. The weird blindness of the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation toward global warming is exactly what we do not need.
    (See also here and here. )

  35. #35 llewelly
    January 14, 2010

    We need a Bill and Melinda Gates style foundation that is dedicated to restoring respect for science and establishing productive, positive use of the principles and benefits of science in our everyday life.

    Very bad example. The weird blindness of the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation toward global warming is exactly what we do not need.

    I posted another version of this comment, but with two more links. I’m leaving them off as an experiment.

  36. #36 nitramnaed
    January 14, 2010

    The problem with todays Scientist is that they dont look enough like Sam Jaffe:

    http://www.pictureshowman.com/images/articles/Articles_graphics/Day_Earth_Stood_Still/earth_3.jpg

    I would think that guys like Bill O’Reilly would never question your expertise if you just LOOK smart!

  37. #37 MadScientist
    January 14, 2010

    Ideally people should develop an appreciation for science in their school years; many don’t and the scientists are hardly to blame. It would be great to have more communicators like Sagan, but it is unrealistic to expect any but a very small minority of scientists to do that – communicating was Sagan’s passion; giving scientists “media classes” won’t produce any Sagans. Developing lectures for the general public takes an awful lot of time to do and naturally takes scientists away from their research, so the vast majority of scientists will simply not be interested. If anything, press releases I see absolutely all overhype things while telling the audience absolutely nothing of value. They say “we *will* do this and that” and then don’t deliver. “We are looking into this and we hope to be able to do this and that” is more honest. Nor can these short announcements drum up any interest in research except in a few cases where there is an immediate effect on society (like treating diseases), so I’d love to hear about how this can be improved (better still, demonstrate that claim).

    I’d also like to point out that dwelling on “Cosmos” conveniently ignores numerous other series which interest people such as Attenborough’s nature series (to name just one). That is all very basic stuff (as it needs to be for a general audience) and it needs to be repeated (perhaps with some changes) to every new generation. Not every laboratory can have its TV show nor can every laboratory explain its work in such a way as to interest the general public (you’re lucky to get an “oh, that’s nice, now leave me alone”).

    Now if Mooney’s chief interest were on the policy side, he should be dealing with how various scientific organizations deal with politicians and how they can gain access to politicians. Policy has almost nothing to do with the general public (except when the public get up in arms about something like abortion rights).

  38. #38 MadScientist
    January 14, 2010

    @Oran: You are misrepresenting Coyne and Myers. I’ll bet a case of beer that you’re at least religious, if not a creationist. The crap you spout is fairly typical of creationists.

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Bora: You mean this?

    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2009/12/what_does_it_mean_that_a_natio.php

    No, I’ve not read it yet but I am very much looking forward to it.

  40. #40 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Blake [20] Well, that would be a good example of what I’m talking about. Jason makes plenty of valid and interesting points, but …

    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.

    Is not a description of scientific illiteracy, it is a description of science geek/fandom, and is not a good example of scientists doing what is needed to get the public (not the geeks and fans) on board.

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Lorax: Exactly. I would say that the above referenced sorts of successes that scientists who are communicators can claim are limited in that they address a very narrow audience and hardly put a dent in the sorts of things you are talking about. You’ve identified (some of) the real bad guys, and they are very much at fault.

    But if you are the Dallas Cowboys, you better not rely on having only a good defense. You also need to have a good offense, or come this Sunday, you’re cooked. If you know what I mean.

    cervantes: I think that is a very good point. This is part of why the skeptical movement is so important, as a way of getting the general public to think more like scientists think. (Which will get us 1/10th of the way there, but that’s still helpful).

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    January 14, 2010

    Bioephemera [29]: Yes, I think we do agree on most points, but it’s not that weird that we do, is it? I mean, we have exactly the same aspiration, on some inarticulate level.

  43. #43 Stephanie Z
    January 14, 2010

    I have a few friends in physics education research. They study the most effective ways of teaching people physics. It wouldn’t hurt if they weren’t viewed as second-class scientists. When we’re talking basic literacy, the focus has to come back to the schools.

  44. #44 Marion Delgado
    January 14, 2010

    I think the hostility and juvenile name calling by PZ et al. started long before the chapter in UA, frankly. And I’d also like to know what Francis Collins, for instance did to the so-called New Atheists. Or why the alleged representatives of all that is scientific were waging war on their alleged allies in the NSCE.

    I also call attention to the very religious market fundamentalism of James Randi and Michael Shermer and Penn Jillette, the “God was a realtor” Zionism of Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens, and so on.

    If on the evolution end Xian fundies (and nowadays, Moslem fundies mostly out of Turkey) are the biggest problem, in the climate world, it’s the capitalism fundies. The supply siders, libertarian absolutists, Austrians, etc. The Heinlein wannabes, the crank engineers, the right-wing TV weathermen. Quite a few of these are atheists. Even Ian Plimer is an anti-creationist.

    The only place I’ve parted company with Chris is when he promoted Matt Nisbett because I thought Nisbett was as bad on the attack as PZ or Jerry Coyne, for one thing, and that his competence and success as a framer was largely self-proclaimed and self-evaluated, for another.

  45. #45 Marion Delgado
    January 14, 2010

    By the way, it’s a well-done review and I agree with Stephanie Z.

    Along those lines, the Freshwater case in Mt. Vernon OH is more important than some might think. Science classes are one of our few chances to reach average people. If the students are being taught to say “HERE!” whenever confronted with science that doesn’t fit their religious dogma, that’ll haunt us for decades.

  46. #46 Oran Kelley
    January 14, 2010

    Madscientist:

    How do I collect my beer. And I don’t come cheap, by the way . . . Founders Centennial is my usual tipple.

    Waiting in Godless but thirsty anticiaption,

    OPK

  47. #47 Stephanie Z
    January 15, 2010

    Marion, the reason the chapter on Crackergate didn’t belong in the book is that thinking PZ is actually the problem is equivalent to being concern trolled and believing the trolls will go away if you do what they want. They won’t, because a troll is never after what they ask for. They don’t want you to tell them they’re right about their side of the argument. They don’t want you to fix the misspelling. They don’t want you to be nicer. They just want to be in charge.

    The only real response is to pat the troll on the head, say, “Yes, yes, dear. The world is an ugly place. Perhaps you should sit this one out if it’s getting to you. But the science is still the science.”

    PZ’s nonscientific behavior is a distraction in this discussion, and it doesn’t matter whether you succumb to the distraction because you’re already feeling sore at PZ or because you think the world really should be a more polite place. You’re still succumbing to the distraction when there’s work to be done.

  48. #48 Peter Beattie
    January 15, 2010

    Then I noticed this phenomenon whereby scientists (many, not all obviously) demonstrated an amazing ability to not react well to criticism. And by not react well I mean close the eyes really tight, drop to the floor, pound the floor with feet and fists, and scream “La la la la la” so they couldn’t hear any more criticism.

    Which, if you have followed the whole story, sums up pretty neatly M&K’s reaction. They ignored any and all reasoned criticisms as long as they didn’t come from somebody who was basically sympathetic to their book. They milked any controversy with blog heavyweights like PZ and Jerry Coyne for all they were worth but never once even acknowledged any of their substantive points.

    As to the “many scientists” you say reacted badly, would you care to provide any names? Otherwise the assertion should be dismissed out of hand.

    PZ and Jerry in their respective reviews have repeatedly pointed to a lack of data supporting M&K’s case (specifically, that scientific literacy has declined since some putative heyday and that outspoken scientists share a large part of the blame). I have seen no review that did cite any supporting data from M&K’s book. PZ and Jerry have also said that, yes, better communications training would be much appreciated, but that’s by no means a new idea nor do M&K say it any better or more persuasively than others before them have.

    As to the book itself, I’ve only read the introduction about the Pluto affair. As I’ve argued on the Intersection (a post on the introduction to UA, can’t seem to find it now), M&K’s treatment of the affair is a joke, it’s badly written, and if that excerpt is representative of the whole book then it’s certainly not worth bothering with.

    From everything I’ve read about UA, it seems that Ben Goldacre’s analysis in Bad Science of the reasons why science literacy is not exactly what we would like it to be is much more insightful and indeed helpful. And the book is well written, so go pick it up! :)

  49. #49 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2010

    Huh. You want to dismiss out of hand my assertion that scientists don’t take well to the criticism that they are lousy communicators until I give you name. But you are writing off a book that you have not read.

    Shall we compare the sizes of our credibility gaps?

    Here. I’ll start: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=site%3Ascienceblogs.com+%22unscientific+america%22

    I am actually thinking you have not read any more of my review than you read of the book that you are so confident writing off. Notice that I did not discuss the pluto chapter. Noticed that I strongly criticize, with words indicating that i think they’ve got it very wrong, two major features of the book. Notice that most of the negative reviews by people who actually have read the book (and that is an embarrassingly small percentage of the total number of reviews) criticize, in the main, exactly what I criticize. Therefore, it could be said that I’m in agreement with many of the negative criticisms.

    But I’m saying something ELSE. Something other than what a lot of other people have said.

    But to get that you’d actually have to read my review, and to evalute what I said you’d actually have to read the book. But instead, you take the criticism of scientists being bad at something (communication) and use it as a dog whistle to spout the usual complaints.

    Is it not possible to move beyond this into territory where the focus of our pissing contest is perhaps the actual bad guys? You do know that there are actual bad guys, don’t you?

    Don’t you?

  50. #50 Peter Beattie
    January 15, 2010

    Huh. You want to dismiss out of hand my assertion that scientists don’t take well to the criticism that they are lousy communicators until I give you name. But you are writing off a book that you have not read.

    Shall we compare the sizes of our credibility gaps?

    Greg, I wasn’t talking about your credibility. I was talking about your agreement with M&K on the point that “many scientists” reacted very badly to being told they were part of the problem. I cited PZ and Jerry to the contrary. I would still be interested to hear from actual people whose reaction would fit your description, however much I appreciated your “Go Google it if you won’t take my word for it” attempt at an argument from authority.

    Your assertions as to what I have read or haven’t read, though, are irrelevant to what I actually said. I was explicit in basing my conditional dismissal of the book on the authors’ attitudes towards substantive criticism, and on their introduction. They have steadfastly refused during months of discussion to cite any more from their book, or even give page numbers for answers to specific questions. They have also refused to define key terms of the debate. As far as that goes, I said, and if the introduction is any indication of the book’s overall quality, I said, then it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. Would you argue those concerns have no bearing on the book whatsoever?

    As to your pissing contest, you go right ahead. I think I’ll give it a miss, though.

    And I need no lectures on “bad guys”, either, thank you very much. What’s your argument there, anyway? That one shouldn’t criticise M&K because they’re on “our” side against the “bad guys”? And in any case, seeing as M&K seem to have no particularly good grasp of the whole concept of ‘scientific literacy’, and especially the philosophical background to that, I don’t actually agree that they’re helping very much. In fact, they are muddying the waters considerably. Being “on our side” doesn’t earn anybody a free pass.

  51. #51 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2010

    Peter: Actually, yes, PZ and others make the argument that there was no scientific heyday. That may or may not be true. In popular culture, it is not true. What one can do with science with impunity in the press and the public pulpit today smacks of what the church did centuries ago and was not something you could do in the 1960s and prior in the same way or to the same degree.

    But, even if that is wrong, it is a distraction. The same scientists who make the argument that there was not a heyday also make the argument that science as a profession has not dropped the ball. But, the ball has been dropped. And it is our ball. So we dropped it.

    The fact is that for any given issue it is enormously difficult to break the 50% barrier, and this is a rhetorical and political barrier, not a matter of what the science says.

    I have not addressed the issue of what C&K have or have not done to respond to the internet because I’ve largely ignore it. Indeed I find that when I comment on their site, my comment only appears about half the time. I would not use The Intersection, as a blog, as a great example of how one handles internet discussion. On the other hand, there are worse blogs in this regard.

    But I do see this sort of thing as potentially little more than YA Internet Pileon. Really think about this. A stronly stated opinion on the book being bad, or the argument in the book being a poor argument, is one thing. Such a statement based mostly on other statements (conditional …. and yes, I caught you panning a book that you. did. not. read … ) is not another reivew. It is a iece of shit being slung. Another blog post or lengthy comment that includes a negative review plus reference ot a comment or post or two based not on reading the book but on other blogs is simply slinging more shit. And so on.

    This is like how the anti-vaxers make their case. It is really kind of appalling that people are screaming about how a particular view of the public aspect of science policy is all wrong when the screaming really taking on the form of shit slinging .

    Again, I am not trying to obviate or avoid discussion of real issues that are in the book. You are qualified to talk about the first chapter, because that is the chapter you read.

    Now, if you want to use mainly secondary sources, try this: Where in the critiques of the book are substantive ideas that address the obvious dismal situation we are in now, with real suggestions as to what to do? That would be helpful.

  52. #52 Marion Delgado
    January 15, 2010

    Stephanie, I think that chapter was meant to be illustrative and therefore works. Clearly I disagree with Greg Laden on that, and I can see, you. It’s a profound disagreement – you’re reiterating PZ’s and Jerry’s self-serving PR version of what they’re doing, but the reality is completely different.

    In this case, pace Dr. Laden, we disagree very strongly on the diagnosis, actually, but I still agree with you on one of the prescriptions.

    We have to fund science education, make it teach mainstream consensus science at the lower levels as well as the process and reason for science, and preserve it from political interference, including religion-based.

  53. #53 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2010

    Just to be clear (or, perhaps, unclear) looking at Stephanie’s remarks regarding PZ and UA, I would not assume we are on the same page.

    In fact, I’m going to drive over to her house in a short while and get this straight.

  54. #54 Stephanie Z
    January 15, 2010

    Marion, I’m not saying anything about what PZ and Jerry Coyne are doing. I’m talking about what other people are doing with their names and some version of descriptions of their behavior. The only part of their behavior I’m concerned about in this context is when they also get distracted by their own allies’ behavior, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

  55. #55 llewelly
    January 15, 2010

    In fact, I’m going to drive over to her house in a short while and get this straight.

    And the unsuspecting public gets another glimpse of the global conspiracy of Big Science …

  56. #56 John Kwok
    January 15, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Surprisingly, a very nuanced, thoughtful, and rather balanced review of “Unscientific America” from you. Must rank as among the very best I have read so far. However, I have rather mixed feelings on this book (which may not be obvious to those who have read my comments over at the Intersection). They revolve around such issues as the Pluto “controversy” and their apparent adulation of Carl Sagan (I would contend that Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson and a few others are probably far more influential as science communicators than Sagan was.). I also think that they don’t shoulder enough of the blame fo “Unscientific America” on the media itself (Regrettably there are so few journalists of the caliber of Andrew Revkin, Cornelia Dean, and Carl Zimmer, for example, working the so-called science “beat”.), while thinking too that a more important part of the solution has to come from the scientific community devoting more time to educating its members in the fine art of superb science communication to the general public.

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  57. #57 John Kwok
    January 15, 2010

    Typo, so am reposting this -

    Hi Greg,

    Surprisingly, a very nuanced, thoughtful, and rather balanced review of “Unscientific America” from you. Must rank as among the very best I have read so far. However, I have rather mixed feelings on this book (which may not be obvious to those who have read my comments over at the Intersection). They revolve around such issues as the Pluto “controversy” and their apparent adulation of Carl Sagan (I would contend that Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson and a few others are probably far more influential as science communicators than Sagan was.). I also think that they don’t shoulder enough of the blame for “Unscientific America” on the media itself (Regrettably there are so few journalists of the caliber of Andrew Revkin, Cornelia Dean, and Carl Zimmer, for example, working the so-called science “beat”.), while thinking too that a more important part of the solution has to come from the scientific community devoting more time to educating its members in the fine art of superb science communication to the general public.

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  58. #58 mk
    January 15, 2010

    conditional …. and yes, I caught you panning a book that you. did. not. read …

    Actually, the way I read it, Peter offered up at the very beginning that he read only the intro, and because it was so lame he decided not to continue. I don’t think it’s fair to say you “caught” him. And I also don’t think he was panning the book. I found him more criticizing M&K and their tactics, and the way in which they handle criticism. And I think he’s dead on in that regard.

    I appreciate your choosing to emphasize the positive and not the negative. Finding common ground and all that. But bringing up the book brings up the kerfuffle that followed and they, frankly, did not comport themselves well at all. To put it mildly. In fact, I found them to be completely self serving all the while just stating the obvious. That is part of the reason why I would not give them a dime for their book.

    “Greg Laden’s Blog,” “Pharyngula,” “Why Evolution is True,” (book and blog!) Dawkins, Zimmer, Phil Plait… to name only a few, are much better at communicating science to the public. The public could completely ignore the Intersection and that book and not miss a scientific-communicating beat. IMO.

  59. #59 Peter Beattie
    January 15, 2010

    » Greg:
    PZ and others make the argument that there was no scientific heyday. That may or may not be true.

    But that’s exactly the point at issue: if you, too, after reading UA can point to no evidence tipping this issue either way, then it would seem that all the other reviewers who said that M&K didn’t give any evidence for their assertion might be on to something. Ball squarely in M&K’s court; if they can’t or won’t even indicate a passage in the book that does count as evidence, then chances are it’s not in there.

    What one can do with science with impunity in the press and the public pulpit today smacks of what the church did centuries ago and was not something you could do in the 1960s and prior in the same way or to the same degree.

    What exactly are you saying here?

    But, the ball has been dropped. And it is our ball. So we dropped it.

    I hope you do not seriously expect anyone to be convinced by this—for lack of a better word—reasoning. From all the data that is available, it seems that science literacy, as far as it could be measured in pretty simple questionnaires, has been rather constant over the past decades. Neither Carl Sagan, nor Stephen Jay Gould, nor indeed David Attenborough have so far been shown to have had any measurable impact on science literacy. Conversely, the so-called New Atheism has not been shown to have any negative impact on the acceptance of science in the public. Both are claims that M&K have repeatedly made, and they have failed to provide evidence for either. (Lest you misread this: this is a criticism of M&K, not their book.)

    A stronly stated opinion on the book being bad, or the argument in the book being a poor argument, is one thing. Such a statement based mostly on other statements (conditional …. and yes, I caught you panning a book that you. did. not. read … ) is not another reivew.

    I think you haven’t been paying attention. I explicitly limited the “panning” to the introduction and the authors’ behaviour. (I never said the book, or the arguments therein, were bad.) I then said if that is representative of the rest of the book then it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. How you can twist that into an attempted “review” of the book and “shit-slinging” remains your secret, I suppose.

    So not only did you not catch me doing anything untoward, you didn’t even catch my explicitly stated meaning. Adding to that that I’m using the equivalent of antivaxxer techniques and am “screaming” just borders on the bizarre.

    Again, I am not trying to obviate or avoid discussion of real issues that are in the book.

    It appears that you are. I am still honestly interested in some examples of scientists demonstrating an “amazing ability to not react well to criticism”. Are we to infer that you are not talking about PZ and Jerry, then?

  60. #60 Paul
    January 15, 2010

    Now, if you want to use mainly secondary sources, try this: Where in the critiques of the book are substantive ideas that address the obvious dismal situation we are in now, with real suggestions as to what to do? That would be helpful.

    While suggestions to address the scientific literacy issue are needed, it seems odd to me that you’re basing the worth of a review of Unscientific America on whether it solves the problem that they claim UA does not solve or not? That’s fallacious. I don’t need to come up with a solution to the problem of global warming to point out that someone suggesting we don’t do anything is probably not the best person to listen to.

    You could argue that critics of the book that don’t offer solutions to the problem at hand are participating in self-indulgence and not really helping the problem, but that doesn’t mean their critiques of M&K’s book are not valid. If you did not mean to make that implication, you can ignore this post. But that is how your response sounded.

  61. #61 Peter Beattie
    January 15, 2010

    » Greg:
    PZ and others make the argument that there was no scientific heyday. That may or may not be true.

    But that’s exactly the point at issue: if you, too, after reading UA can point to no evidence tipping this issue either way, then it would seem that all the other reviewers who said that M&K didn’t give any evidence for their assertion might be on to something. Ball squarely in M&K’s court; if they can’t or won’t even indicate a passage in the book that does count as evidence, then chances are it’s not in there.

    What one can do with science with impunity in the press and the public pulpit today smacks of what the church did centuries ago and was not something you could do in the 1960s and prior in the same way or to the same degree.

    What exactly are you saying here?

    But, the ball has been dropped. And it is our ball. So we dropped it.

    I hope you do not seriously expect anyone to be convinced by this—for lack of a better word—reasoning. From all the data that is available, it seems that science literacy, as far as it could be measured in pretty simple questionnaires, has been rather constant over the past decades. Neither Carl Sagan, nor Stephen Jay Gould, nor indeed David Attenborough have so far been shown to have had any measurable impact on science literacy. Conversely, the so-called New Atheism has not been shown to have any negative impact on the acceptance of science in the public. Both are claims that M&K have repeatedly made, and they have failed to provide evidence for either. (Lest you misread this: this is a criticism of M&K, not their book.)

  62. #62 Peter Beattie
    January 15, 2010

    Is there some new comment moderation policy in place, or is it just me?

  63. #63 NewEnglandBob
    January 15, 2010

    I, surprisingly agree with what John Kwok wrote for a review of UA and what he wrote here, except for his idolization of Stephen Jay Gould who did a lot of damage to science with NOMA, spandrels and other issues.

  64. #64 Peter Beattie
    January 16, 2010

    » Greg:
    A stronly stated opinion on the book being bad, or the argument in the book being a poor argument, is one thing. Such a statement based mostly on other statements (conditional …. and yes, I caught you panning a book that you. did. not. read … ) is not another reivew.

    I think you haven’t been paying attention. I explicitly limited the “panning” to the introduction and the authors’ behaviour. (I never said the book, or the arguments therein, were bad.) I then said if that is representative of the rest of the book then it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. How you can twist that into an attempted “review” of the book and “shit-slinging” remains your secret, I suppose.

    So not only did you not catch me doing anything untoward, you didn’t even catch my explicitly stated meaning. Adding to that that I’m using the equivalent of antivaxxer techniques and am “screaming” just borders on the bizarre.

    Again, I am not trying to obviate or avoid discussion of real issues that are in the book.

    It appears that you are. I am still honestly interested in some examples of scientists demonstrating an “amazing ability to not react well to criticism”. Are we to infer that you are not talking about PZ and Jerry, then?

  65. #65 Marion Delgado
    January 17, 2010

    Greg, my apologies, I was trying to be too clever, I think. When I said pace you, I meant, “the converse is true, sometimes, because I disagree with Stephanie’s diagnosis but agree with her solution.”

    I was not trying to imply anything one way or the other about whether anyone else here, including you, agreed with me or Stephanie, etc. etc.

    Okay, I will add a caveat that I am sure you and chris and sheril and any number of people have mentioned:

    One reason we sometimes have trouble communicating SCIENCE is that some of us sometimes have trouble COMMUNICATING.

    And since most of my career has been in journalism, that makes me very thoughtful.

    Actually, both undergrad and grad I trained in both science (ecology and physics undergrad, math and physics grad) and journalism, so I should theoretically be an ideal person to address some of this, but I have to tell you, the more I’ve worked in print and radio journalism, the less hopeful I’ve become. The room for science journalism – the news hole for it – has shrunk as the need has increased.

  66. #66 mary
    January 17, 2010

    I work in an elementary school, and am depressed and astounded at the number of actual untruths (dumb, not politically motivated) that are put out, and the gee-whiz factoid approach. There isn’t really any idea of unifying principles, what science is about. I would love to see kids just learn to see what they see, and wonder why at a k-2 level, and be curious. Science isn’t a bank of facts to be learned, but an attitude towards living in the world. Of course, the social studies stuff is often nonfactual and overtly propagandistic. I understand the point of developing ‘good citizens’, but I think we need to think in terms of being world citizens as well as US citizens. Part of it is general lack of sophistication of the teachers. And– conformity is the second (or first) half of the curriculum; necessary if you have one adult in charge of 25 kids, of course… OK, enough.

  67. #67 Matt Penfold
    January 17, 2010

    …and the gee-whiz factoid approach

    I have noticed Mooney likes “factoids”.

    Unfortunately he seems to not realise a factoid is something that is not true.

  68. #68 Marion Delgado
    January 17, 2010

    mary:

    You have to teach people a body of facts to give the methods and thinking you’re teaching something to work with. Also, I taught elementary for a while, and I think kids the age I was teaching are better at soaking up information than they are at critical analysis. They’re going to internalize what you say anyway, so it should be the soundest information you can find.

    Matt Penfold:

    Chris Mooney didn’t initiate the use of factoid for “little fact” or “bit of trivia.” It was all over the media long before he used it that way, and that is the 2nd definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, for example. You aren’t going to score points on your enemy by accusing him of pop language usage, since that’s what he advocates. It’s actually never a good idea to play this game, by the way – saying someone’s using one definition of a word when they’re clearly using another – it’s dishonest, it doesn’t shed light, and it simply throws another punch in the brawl.

  69. #69 John Kwok
    January 17, 2010

    @ NewEnglandBob -

    If you’re going to blame Stephen Jay Gould regarding “spandrels”, then equal blame should go to Richard Lewontin, his Harvard University colleague. Two of the reasons why I think Steve had much more impact on the public than Sagan ever did were in addressing the use – and indeed, abuse – of scientific data to demonstrate “differences” between ethnic groups, especially races (beginning of course with his classic “The Mismeasure of Man”, and culminating with his scathing – but quite correct – attack on “The Bell Curve”) and in his critique of E. O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” (though that should be seen more as a political – rather than scientific – critique, in which his fellow Marxist “supporter” (I don’t know for certain whether he is as an avowed Marxist as Steve was, hence my quotation marks), Richard Lewontin also weighed in, in tandem with him.

    In stark contrast, the only area where one could say that Sagan had some important political impact was in the development of his “nuclear winter” scenario (which was inspired by the Alvarez et al. Science paper announcing the discover of substantially enhanced levels of iridium at the Cretaceous – Paleogene boundary at Gubbio, Italy, and their realization that this was the “smoking gun” pointing to an extraterrestrial impact as the most likely culprit responsible for the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and a substantial proportion of other organisms both on land and in the sea approximately 66.4 million years ago).

  70. #70 mk
    January 17, 2010

    Just came from reading the new issue of Free Inquiry. “A Conversation” with Chris Mooney.

    Ugh!

    “The New Atheism… is often about attacking and alienating the religious moderates.”

    Bullshit!

    “But you cannot alienate your allies when you want to achieve better science education and literacy.”

    Bullshit!

    DJ Grothe should be ashamed of himself for devoting that much space in the magazine to that little cypher. Mooney has nothing unique or interesting to say–and never has!–regarding communicating science to the public. Whenever he stumbles into interesting it is because he is so wrong. The so called New Atheists are not trying to alienate moderates. If criticism is read as alienating then it is the criticized that have the problem, not the criticizer.

    Mooney once again offers no evidence that Hitchens, Dawkins et al are the problem. (actual evidence suggests otherwise!) Once again he’s simply spewing his namby-pamby “can’t we all get along” horseshit. He’s an embarrassment.

  71. #71 Cath the Canberra Cook
    January 17, 2010

    I really don’t think it’s scientists who ought to be asked to do this work.

    In every other field, someone else does the PR. If you’re an athlete you don’t have to discuss what you’re doing – there are commentators and sports journalists for that. Artists are notoriously bad at talking about their art – there’s of critics and historians and art theory academics and museum curators and museum volunteers and gallery sales people. Aid agencies like oxfam and the red cross hire publicity companies and enlist volunteers – they don’t get the doctors or builders or emergency workers to spruik it to the public.

    I agree that there is indeed a problem. And since no-one else seems to be doing it, scientists probably do need to work on it. But it’s a bigger cultural problem than can be solved by dragging scientists out of their labs and making them spout soundbites can solve.

  72. #72 bo moore
    January 17, 2010

    I don’t think scientists know what they are up against: supernatural thinking is the default mode of the human brain; magical thinking and an utter lack of interest in physical reality are normal. Scientists are abnormal. Explaining an event or phenomenon to people who think that their lives (and everything else) are created and operated by beings in a nonphysical supernatural dimension has little effect. It’s this lack of comprehension that the environment is knowable and predictable, because matter and energy behave according to rules, that is almost entirely missing. Just because people use technology it does not follow that their minds are out of the stone age.

  73. #73 mk
    January 17, 2010

    Definitely do not like the new moderation. Impossible to have conversation.

  74. #74 llewelly
    January 18, 2010

    Kwok, Steve Gould was not a Marxist. His father was, but Steve always said his views were different; he criticized Marxist views in a few places.
    His enemies portrayed him as a Marxist because it was politically convenient for them to do so.

  75. #75 John Kwok
    January 18, 2010

    llewelly -

    Steve was all over the place with his interest in and support of Marxism. He was definitely a very strong supporter of it – if not strictly speaking an avowed one – when he and Lewontin critiqued “Sociobiology” (and E. O. Wilson) as members of the radical leftist – and Marxist-oriented – Science for the People.

    There’s this interesting obituary that appeared in this socialist publication which may be worth noting:

    http://socialistworker.org/2002-1/410/410_08_StephenJayGould.shtml

    (I might add that the writer provides more evidence supporting my contention that, as a public figure, Steve was far more important than Carl Sagan ever was.).

  76. #76 Marion Delgado
    January 18, 2010

    It says nothing against EO Wilson other than that he didn’t know everything, but he spent a long time conflating the Progressive Labor Party – a tight-knit Maoist group that pretty much hated and disrupted every other group on every campus they were on, left right and center, including one of his talks – with his often left-liberal philosophical and theoretical opponents. And it only got worse when other people waded in.

  77. #77 Pam Ronald
    January 19, 2010

    Thanks very much for the review. I am on my way to amazon right now.

    One point in your list of the obvious enemy (Republicans, Morons and Megalomaniacs) , you left out the leftwing antiscience crowd.

  78. #78 Pam Ronald
    January 19, 2010

    yogi one

    I agree that we need programs to train scientists in the art of communicating to the public.

    the organization Poptech is doing just that.

    See:

    http://www.poptech.org/science_and_public_leadership_fellows_release

  79. #79 Greg Laden
    January 19, 2010

    Pam, thanks for mentioning that, and it is worth noting that the anti-science “left wing” crowd was just as much on the minds and lips of people at the recent #scio10 conference as were the right wing anti science crowd, in the sessions and conversations I took part in.

  80. #80 bo moore
    January 19, 2010

    Hmmm….It’s good to see active commentary, but much of it seems to be an argument over who should be queen of the Science Prom: not very interesting.

  81. #81 Peter Beattie
    January 19, 2010

    Greg, do you think you’ll have the time to respond to comments 61 and 64? I’d actually be interested in your view.

  82. #82 Greg Laden
    January 19, 2010

    Peter, I’m hoping to. I have had only a minute here and a minute there since Thursday, and that will continue for a while longer. I intend to respond to those comments and others as well, but I think I’ll do that in the form of an entirely new blog post.

  83. #83 Peter Beattie
    January 19, 2010

    No worries, I wasn’t trying to rush you.

    Maybe I can try to clarify one or two things, while I’m at it. I have an interest in any ideas that could help improve actual scientific literacy, as that happens to be something I teach. It goes without saying, then, that I’d be delighted if UA contained such ideas and that I’d actually buy and read the book. In order to assess the likelihood of that, though, I’ll naturally have to rely on reviews and (in this case) whatever texts the authors write about their book. I can only tentatively assume from that that what is contained in UA is neither new nor particularly imaginative—at least that seems to be the consensus in the reviews, and M&K have added not a single thing to countervail that impression.

    But what is worse, from where I’m standing, is that in the whole debate M&K have consistently displayed a rather surprising ignorance of central aspects of any meaningful definition of ‘scientific literacy’—and indeed science’s philosophical basis. To being with, they seem to have no meaningful definition of ‘scientific literacy’; any requests to clarify what exactly they mean by that were deflected with the usual ‘Buy our book’. (See also their latest post, where they speak of “the acceptance of evolutionary science”, as if a mere nodding approval of evolution entailed actual scientific literacy.)

    Second, they seem not to notice that some of their claims, e.g. that the Really Quite Old Atheists’ tactics are counterproductive, would need some actual data to support them; they either ignored this complaint or, in the Pew case, cited material that flatly contradicted their claims.

    Third, with respect to reviews of UA, M&K took great pains not to mention the critical aspects of the great majority of reviews, in a few cases quoting just two or three sentences that were vaguely positive out of a dozen paragraphs that made substantial criticisms which also were almost identical to those by PZ and Jerry. In the context of science, this is blatantly in breach of any good ethical conduct that we should want the public to be literate about.