The Intersection

Announcing Unscientific America

i-bbd44b20fe2861e3bbdb40f3b20b46e1-broken test tube.pngYesterday, many among us were aghast to learn that yet another major news outlet is eliminating its science coverage. In this case it was CNN, which decided to nix its seven-person unit on science, the environment, and technology–including six producers and veteran space correspondent Miles O’Brien. It’s a growing trend around the country as science journalism is dropping out of style; newspapers are hemmhoraging science sections and reporters, and cable news was already pretty science anemic and is just getting worse. The irony, as Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review online wrote, is that “the decision to eliminate the positions seems particularly misguided at a time when world events would seem to warrant expanding science and environmental staff.”

But wait: Were citizens–not science bloggers, not science journalists, but citizens–really aghast at the news from CNN? Sheril did her own reality test… she called some friends back home outside of her comfortable science journalism bubble. No, they hadn’t heard, but they knew what Obama said when Bill Richardson shaved his beard and that Jennifer Aniston is peeved at Vogue. Now, Sheril promises that the ‘control group‘ is comprised of intelligent, curious individuals, but the problem is that Americans are being spoonfed heaps of gossip, instead of what really matters.

A PBS show we like called Sid The Science Kid recently depicted the title character asking why he can’t eat cake for every meal. In the end, he learns that he needs to round out his diet with nutritious foods in order to grow and stay healthy. American journalism should take a lesson from Sid. The media has grown fat by feeding us a steady diet of figurative and often frivolous, sugar-coated dessert, and unfortunately, the dramatic reduction in substance forecasts a grim future.

This seems, then, an appropriate time to formally announce the title of our forthcoming, co-authored book: Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, due out from Basic Books in May of 2009. We won’t give much away yet, but suffice it to say, it is about all of this–despite the importance of science, why is the media running away from it? Why doesn’t it have the influence it obviously deserves?

We, of course, have all the answers (yeah, right).

Seriously, though, we’ll have more info about the book soon. In the meantime, you can see the amazon page here. People are already ordering it.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    December 5, 2008

    Pre-ordered. You both WILL autograph it once it comes out and my copy arrives.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    December 5, 2008

    but the problem is that Americans are being spoonfed heaps of gossip, instead of what really matters.

    Is it not just as much (or more) that Americans are demanding heaps of gossip?

  3. #3 Philip H.
    December 5, 2008

    Hey guys,
    So, building on the Science Debate 2008 model, how about we create a virtual revolt over this? Get those same Nobel Laureates to run CNN to the ground, or something?

  4. #4 Itch
    December 5, 2008

    I’ve always kinda chalked it up to the “everyone can be an expert” type of thinking. Or lack of respect for those have have spent the time working out the details in experiments or gaining the education.

  5. #5 Jim Ramsey
    December 5, 2008

    I’m wondering if this is a trend that will turn around.

    Thanks to Obama’s victory, competence may come back into fashion.

  6. #6 the interSeCtion
    December 5, 2008

    Pre-ordered. You both WILL autograph it once it comes out and my copy arrives.

    Naturally 😉

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    December 5, 2008

    Meanwhile, CNN has pretensions of taking on the Associated Press. So apparently, getting accurate science coverage will have to mean trying to instill shame into journalists who try to tweak partisan press releases into quick news stories.

    Here’s the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus several months ago:

    Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players–the government and its opponents–can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

    At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have dropped the idea of having experienced reporters provide analysis and context and turned instead to retired public figures or so-called experts to provide commentary. It was not always this way…

    From the 1950s through the 1980s, I could name reporters and columnists whose experience on their beats or in their areas made them thoughtful and respected commentators. Younger reporters today are regularly shifted around from beat to beat, never really having enough time to master totally complex subjects, such as health, public education and environmental policies. Coverage then depends on statements and pronouncements by government sources or their critics.

  8. #8 Chris C. Mooney
    December 5, 2008

    Exactly. It’s a crying shame that people who care about science coverage haven’t stood up to fight for it yet, as I write here:

    We need to mobilize those who care. As for precisely how…stand by. I’m certainly thinking about it, SD08 was a good model, and I’m interested in further suggestions.

  9. #9 Toaster
    December 5, 2008

    C’mon, we’re nerds. Let us use that to good effect. We know a lot about all kinds of stuff, and some of us know a lot about computers.

    So let’s hack CNN and insert our own science coverage. We could cook up a robo-voice synthesizer and hack the audio from Larry King Live or Lou Dobbs Tonight to insert science coverage.

    Alternatively, and not as much fun or as illegal, start our own media outlet. If we don’t like their coverage, we write our own. We know this science beat. We’ll need practice writing about it in a way that won’t make non-scientists fall asleep, but it can be done.

  10. #10 Stephen Berg
    December 5, 2008

    Sounds like a much-needed book! I’m looking forward to it!

  11. #11 Mark Powell
    December 5, 2008

    CNN is supposed to feed us our vegetables (science) whether we like it or not?

    Come on interSeCtion, you should know better than to ask CNN to be the hero and give us what we don’t want.

    When science is in demand, then media outlets will compete to be the winner in science reporting. Until then, we whine in vain.

    What kind of science reporting is popular? Pharyngula. It’s gossip and invective against the unwashed, with a small dose of science. If PZ went pure science, the flock would leave quickly, I expect.

    Same here, what gets more interest? The gossipy subjects or the science?

    I hope your book is more thoughtful than to blame the media or just blame Republicans.

  12. #12 Chris C. Mooney
    December 5, 2008

    Hi Folks,
    A few more targeted remarks.

    Jim: Obama won’t be anything like Bush on science–but that doesn’t mean he will always give it the priority it deserves, either. Not if we don’t push him, anyway. The last thing we need is to grow complacent and assume that this election automatically fixes everything.

    Mark: Yes, I’m confident our book is more thoughtful than that. And, yes, we understand very well why it is difficult for hard, complex science to be “popular”…but there is a lot more that can be done to make science connect better, I’m sure of it. More on that as we begin to roll out the book.

  13. #13 Linda
    December 5, 2008

    I congratulate both of you, and look forward to reading your book.
    I’m disgusted with CNN’s disastrous choice to nix science coverage in these crucial scientific times. What could they be thinking????

  14. #14 Eric the Leaf
    December 5, 2008

    I take issue with the title of your book. I don’t believe that science illiteracy threatens our future, because I don’t believe that science has the answer to our future, at least in the way that I believe you intend. I do not dispute the importance of science, but for all its discoveries and benefits, it is simply one participant in the human condition and in the trajectory of human cultural evolution, which in its current form was set in motion in the immediate post-glacial era. That the lack of science literacy is a threat, I believe, is a conceit of the scientific community, if the community can be said to adhere to such a collective notion.

  15. #15 Jim Ramsey
    December 6, 2008


    I think there will always be arguments about priorities, but I take heart in two things.

    1. There is often more than one good answer to a problem.

    2. At least with Obama we have someone dedicated to solving problems as opposed to someone seeking loyal followers to carry out an ideological agenda.

    So a problem solver may come up with a different answer, but at least it’s an answer.

  16. #16 Matti K.
    December 6, 2008

    Judging from your articles and blogs, preaching is closer to your heart than analysis. This is not said in offence, since many, if not most journalists are preachers in their heart.

    I truly hope that your new book will contain thorough and hard-worked analysis, not just strong personal opinions based on minimum research.

  17. #17 Jon Winsor
    December 6, 2008

    …not just strong personal opinions based on minimum research.

    Back atcha. “Strong opinions” offered without evidence are completely unconvincing.

  18. #18 Stephen Berg
    December 6, 2008

    A letter I sent to CNN:

    “I am very disappointed and discouraged to learn that CNN has got rid of its science and technology desk, as well as the very good journalist Miles O’Brien.

    Mr. O’Brien has done some excellent work for the network on issues like climate change, space, and earthquakes/tsunamis. He will be a sorely missed presence on CNN.

    Not only is this bad for CNN’s reputation as “The Most Trusted Name in News”, but it also will lead to greater scientific illiteracy amongst Americans, especially children, which will cause Americans to drop even further in terms of scientific education (in school, at work, etc.).

    As some of cable news is about scrambling for ratings, the next time a space shuttle is launched, or the next time there is a natural disaster to be covered, fewer Americans will be choosing CNN as their source for this information. Instead, they will be watching ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, or (God forbid) Fox News (which lacks all objectivity) and rejecting CNN.

    This is a reprehensible decision by CNN. Even with the global economic slowdown, you may have thought better to get rid of your science desk and instead, got rid of your entertainment desk, as the stories that desk covers are lacking intelligence, without importance, and are typical paparazzi filth.

    Shame on you!”

  19. #19 Jon Winsor
    December 6, 2008

    And unfortunately, that’s frequently what passes for political discourse on the right.

  20. #20 Dark Tent
    December 6, 2008

    Jon, the Pincus quote you gave nails it.

    he did not use the word, but essentially what his said was that “balance” has become the be all and end of “reporting” (I refuse to even dignify it with the term “journalism” because it ain’t, not in the traditional sense of the word).

    Truth and accuracy matter not one iota.

    It’s not merely the case with “science” reporting, of course. ALL reporting has been reduced to the same thing in the main stream media (and I include NPR here): A “balanced” debate between think tank “experts”.

    I actually stopped listening to NPR entirely because they have come to rely so heavily (completely?) on think tanks for their “news analysis”.

  21. #21 Neil B
    December 6, 2008

    It isn’t just the outside world and its disinterest or sabotage of science that is the problem. Scientists themselves have become corrupted by cheap-high apparent fixes of perceived fundamental problems. They have fed us, even if seriously, weird junk food like easy talk of “other universes” and the phony decoherence and many-worlds “solutions” to the problem of collapse of the wave function. Really, decoherence is phony because simply replacing waves of definite phase with waves of scrambled or indefinite phase (as described e.g. with a density matrix) does not generate “statistics” in the sense of hits. There is no “statistics” in the math and physics of classical waves (none from Maxwell’s equations, for example.) That is a bastardization of classical waves and classical particles, and you only have statistics if collapse happens – collapse leads to statistics, not the other way around.

    Many Worlds theory is not only stoner-mystical, but it fails to explain how to get observed probabilities in a case where there are two alternatives, but not 50/50 chance. Say it’s 70/30 chance, then how many “worlds” do you need to get apparent division into those proportions? An arbitrary number per split to get adequate proportion is kludgy and contrived, and infinite numbers of each outcome can’t have a proportion (incommensurable infinite sets: see Cantor and the problem of the “Hilbert Hotel” etc.)

  22. #22 Linda
    December 6, 2008

    I also contacted CNN, like Stephen Berg, and gave them a similar opinion.
    I hope that they rethink their position.

  23. #23 Dark Tent
    December 6, 2008


    I was educated as a physicist and, like you, am not impressed by untestable (but oh so elegant!) mathemagical solutions to fundamental physical problems.

    (PS: I won’t mention string theory here, if you don’t.)

  24. #24 modman
    December 6, 2008

    The gossipy, human interest, celebrity centric B.S. that everybody reads is basically a form of relaxation. It differs not the slightest from watching a TV show or listening to Homer sing of the fall of Troy. To be bothered that people are engaging their most base desire for connection to a larger social sphere by consuming this garbage is an utter waste of time.

    That being said a major question that is not being addressed here is why should people in general be interested in science in the first place. It has very little bearing on their day to day life. There are few jobs or industries where you actually use it on a daily bases, if you except communications technology.

    The point of an undergraduate degree in the sciences is not to increase the number of scientists but to weed out the less able, therefore it is hardly a suprise that few people choose to go that route. A good job out of college, in part requires a solid GPA, and the sciences are considered “hard”. That results in a basically active discouragement of taking those types of classes. No future, tough classes.

    All that said I enjoyed my molecular biology and biochemistry back in the late 80’s as a major/minor combination and still consider the sciences fun to read about and regularly attend community physics lectures. But really was only able to find 2 or 3 jobs, none of which I got, in the two or three years I looked. I would be better off today had I studied business and allowed myself to be drawn away from the sciences like my friends that think $100,000 is a middle class salary.

  25. #25 Dark Tent
    December 7, 2008


    There is a great irony in the fact that some companies seem to favor business majors over those who have studied science and engineering.

    Based on my experience in industry working with both types, I would say that the person with an undergrad degree in science or engineering and a B average is probably significantly better at problem solving (of all types) than the person with an MBA and straight A’s.

    One of the things that I have noticed about MBA’s in general (and Harvard MBA’s in particular, having known/worked with several) is that they tend to be very confident and outspoken, even (particularly?) when they have no idea what they are talking about.

    I once worked for a high tech company who hired and fired a Harvard MBA all in the span of two months, basically because of incompetence.

  26. #26 Kristine
    December 8, 2008

    I have to say that the last year I’ve been living in England has been refreshing. The news media here, particularly BBC4, is wonderful at bringing science stories to the public. They regularly broadcast science interest stories (admittedly, mostly related to climate change), not as part of some weekly special, but as a daily part of the news. And they don’t look to “think tank experts” as someone mentioned earlier, they actually interview the scientists working on research. Just last week, they interviewed two scientists working on the methane and carbon dioxide cycles in wetlands – not because there was some huge breakthrough in the science, but because wetlands are an important component of the water cycle and could be a significant factor in discussions of greenhouse gas emissions. Some journalist had done their homework, brought the leading scientists in the field into the public eye, and gently focused their discussion on the points that would really interest and educate the public. I don’t imagine there was great public outcry in the UK for hearing from scientists on wetland gases, but there is a general interest in the issues surrounding climate change, and the media is feeding the public their vegetables.

  27. #27 Jeffrey Beall
    December 8, 2008

    WorldCat has your book listed under the title “The two cultures.” Or is that a different book?

  28. #28 the interSeCtion
    December 8, 2008

    WorldCat has your book listed under the title “The two cultures.” Or is that a different book?

    Must be a mistake. Unscientific America is our title.

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