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.