The Island of Doubt

Unscientific America:
How scientific illiteracy threatens our future

by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
209 pages,$24 (US) Basic Books,

I wish I’d written this book. Its subject matter is exactly the thing that gets me going. The tension between science and irrationality was the original inspiration for this blog. There are a few elements that I would have approached differently, of course<> But my quibbles are minor and none detract from the the book’s primary strength: solid, concise writing that wastes no ink or paper (just 132 pages, not counting endnotes) getting to the heart of the problem.

The problem was described long ago, by C.P Snow, and the cultural divide that separates the humanities from the sciences resists all efforts to close it. It makes sense, then, that Chris, an informed journalist with two excellent books behind him (The Republican War on Science and Storm World), should team up Sheril with a trained scientist (a marine biologist, no less). Both are also bloggers who used to be part of the ScienceBlogs collective, and now post at Discover magazine. (I also consider them friends, so I hope they don’t accept what criticism I have well.)

Their combined insights and experience prove most complementary. Chris has been doing a lot of reading and he’s clearly inspired by Richard Hofstadter’s 1962 Anti-Intellectualism in America. The historical context is valuable as it’s what’s so often missing from blog posts and mainstream media commentary on the subject. Sheril, for her part, brings important lessons from the real-world intersection of politics and science.

What they’ve discovered is that America isn’t really “unscientific,” just burdened by irrational forces that impede the country’s full potential. They also spend a fair bit of their short book taking aim at scientists for failing to do their part to bridge the cultural gap. Most instructive are the lessons to be learned from the fiasco that followed the unsuccessful nomination of Carl Sagan (a hero of mine, as well as Chris and Sheril’s), to the National Academy of Sciences.

Indeed, so sharp is their criticism of the scientific establishment that the book’s subtitle is perhaps a little misleading. It’s not just the public’s failure to grasp the basics about the world around them that we should worry about; there’s plenty of blame to go around the halls of academia, it would seem.

Which brings me to my primary complaint. Chris and Sheril point too many fingers for my taste. Religion and the media are obvious and richly deserving targets. But Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists are singled out more than once, for failing to understand that if you want to change minds and win friends, you can’t be rude to your audience. True, but I’ve long believed that there’s a place for pointed barbs, especially if those barbs are as well crafted as they are in Dawkins’ prose.

Just as the environmental movement needs Earth First! and other voices of impatience to help redefine the center and make others appear more reasonable by comparison, so the science-atheism debate need Dawkins and his allies to call a spade a spade. The genteel enthusiasm of Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are critical to the campaign to engage the public. But there’s also room for more pugnacious criticism of that which threatens progress.

Unscientific America is a valuable contribution. It’s such a quick and easy read that it should appeal to a wide swath of the public that needs to be exposed to its arguments. It’s not the only tool at our disposal, but it’s good one.


  1. #1 jdhuey
    July 7, 2009

    For the life of me, I just have not seen any comments by Dawkins that I would consider ‘rude’. He is direct, clear, and uncompromising but not mean. If he thinks that someones thinking is muddleheaded he says that their thinking is muddleheaded but that is an honest assessment of their thoughts not intended as an insult. If he thinks that some actions or tendencies are pernicious he calls them pernicious but he directs his comments toward the action. There are people that mistake his attacks on their beliefs or their actions or their arguments as an attack on them personally. In my assessment they are just plain wrong.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    July 7, 2009

    I snicker inwardly every time somebody uses the term “New Atheists” with a straight face. This is the burden of a classical education: You read Lucian of Samosata, and you think, “Invite this man to give a keynote at James Randi’s meeting!” You read Lucretius, and you find yourself thinking that the “New Atheism” is a century older than the rise of Christianity. Allowing for scientific advances which the man couldn’t anticipate, the philosophical difference between Lucretius and the mean (or median) New Atheist is no greater than that between, say, Christopher Hitchens and Alan Sokal or John Allen Paulos.

  3. #3 6EQUJ5
    July 7, 2009

    The only way an atheist can avoid being seen as rude to the religious is to kiss their ass, which will only reinforce their deranged ideation. Simply remaining silent, without going out of our way to accommodate them, they will see as rude. Our mere existence, they see as rudeness. There is no pleasing them except to abandon sanity and join their madness.

  4. #4 MPL
    July 7, 2009

    I agree that there is a place for pugilists like Dawkins, as well as for those who disagree with them. Doesn’t it seem best that we have religious scientists (like Francis Collins), low-key agnostics (like Carl Sagan), and determined atheists (like Dawkins), all out there, showing that scientists don’t all agree, that it is possible to disagree religiously, but still agree on the science, and that it is possible to have a mostly-civilized conversation about religion and society, even when feelings get heated?

    Ultimately, people’s opposition to science often depends on the idea that science is just another interest group. Presenting a unified, market tested face will not dispel that idea.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    July 7, 2009

    What are your thoughts on the infamous chapter 8, in which it has been reported that another active ScienceBlogs participant is taken to task at least as harshly as was Dr. Dawkins?

  6. #6 Joe
    July 7, 2009

    The truth hurts for some people, especially those who think Evil is behind anything that challenges their unscientific beliefs.

  7. #7 Paul Murray
    July 8, 2009

    the cultural divide that separates the humanities from the sciences resists all efforts to close it.

    the sciences and the humanities need to realise that they are on the same side, against the dark howlong forces of unreason. In particular, *justifying* science as a project and a worldview is something that is the job of the humanities.

    @3 The only way an atheist can avoid being seen as rude to the religious is to kiss their ass

    Yup. Simply saying “I think there is no God” is a direct insult to their delusions. There’s no way to say it and to not imply that the belivers, basically, are to some degree insane.

  8. #8 Ian
    July 8, 2009

    I find it interesting that Mooney’s name is writ large and towers over Kirshenbaum’s. Did she not contribute equally or is there some publisher genderism/profiteering going on here?

  9. #9 onkel bob
    July 8, 2009

    I find it interesting that Mooney’s name is writ large and towers over Kirshenbaum’s. Did she not contribute equally or is there some publisher genderism/profiteering going on here?
    I would attribute this font and length of name, not some gender inequality issue. Mooney has an established audience so he’s going to be the draw – which is why his name is “first.” Using a larger font to accommodate and create a singular size is a standard graphic design practice. If they used the same size fonts, the spacing w o u l d h a v e a s t r a n g e effect.

  10. #10 Brian D
    July 8, 2009

    Ian, I suspect it’s because Mooney’s literally a bigger name in publishing, with The Republican War on Science being a seminal work on the intersection between science and policy and a NYT bestseller. His name alone was enough to draw attention to Storm World (another good book), and I suspect they’re trying that here too.

    Of course, the other possibility is much more innocent: that fitting “Sheril Kirshenbaum” (18 characters) in the same space as “Chris Mooney” (12 characters) required the use of a smaller font.

  11. #11 Brian D
    July 9, 2009

    James: Your criticism seems to be dead-on.

    Chris and Sheril sent a review copy to PZ Myers. It was a bit delayed and he wasn’t told it was on its way, which led to Myers getting a bit snarky (natch) about them potentially withholding a review copy from him since he’s singled out in chapter 8. They responded by being (understandably) a bit defensive. When the review copy arrived, Myers’ review was probably their first unfavorable one, as would be expected from a book that argues accommodation and points a finger at vocal atheism.

    That context said, what Chris did next was utterly indefensible. He linked Myers’ review but didn’t address any of its concerns, instead focusing on Michael Mann’s response to Myers’ review. (Mann had previously written another glowing review on RealClimate.) Then, Mooney did this – he cherrypicked a comment from Pharyngula, wrote a post comparing it to a comment from Mann’s review, and framed it as if it was representative speech from both Myers and RealClimate, along with a few other minor framing stunts to separate the perceived credibility of the two sources. Anything addressing any of Myers’ actual criticism was nowhere to be found.

    Why am I raising this here? It seems to me that this entire smokescreen they threw up in response to their first (only?) unfavorable review… is nothing more than exactly what you complained about, an exercise in finger-pointing. It’s just a patently dishonest one.

    I will withhold any opinion on the book itself until after I’ve finished it, and it won’t be based on this event, but I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth anyway.

  12. #12 Stagyar zil Doggo
    July 10, 2009

    James Hrynyshyn:

    Just as the environmental movement needs Earth First! and other voices of impatience to help redefine the center and make others appear more reasonable by comparison, …

    This argument, often phrased in terms of the “Overton Window” has been made literally a zillion times on SB ever since Nisbett and Mooney started pushing “framing” and telling “New Atheists” that they are scaring ‘religious publics’ who will run away from science unless they ‘tone it down’/’shut up’ immediately and how we’ll all be lucky if said ‘religious publics’ don’t return with pitchforks and torches if they don’t. I am yet to see a response from the framists to it anywhere. My two attempt at a direct query on Mr. Nisbett’s blog never made it out of ‘moderation’.

    If anyone could point me to someplace online where one of the current players (or anyone else for that matter) offers a framist counter-argument to “strident voices move the center/overton window”, I’d be grateful.

  13. #13 Stagyar zil Doggo
    July 10, 2009

    Preview refused to work despite trying different browsers for the above post. Instead, I got the following error:

    Publish error in template ‘Comment Preview’: Error in tag: Can’t find included template module ‘HTML Head’

  14. #14 bigTom
    July 10, 2009

    I agree with #7 that the cultural divide, which we used to view as between humanities, and science is a bit misdirected. I think there has been a bit of convergence, as at least the social sciences have similar epistemological interests as the “harder” sciences. We also share many of the same anti-intellectual enemies.

  15. #15 mistea
    July 12, 2009

    I am going to take this conversation in a different level. My recent studies have led me to the realization that some primary school teachers lack confidence in teaching science. I found an interesting illustration of this in my local paper.
    “A 2007 survey by UC Berkeley revealed that 16 percent of Bay Area elementary school teachers provide no science instruction, while another survey shows that elementary students receive an average of 20 minutes of science instruction per week. In light of this, it should probably be no surprise that 40 percent of fifth graders in Santa Clara County failed to achieve the “proficient” level in science on the 2008 STAR tests.”-Jennifer Pence-mntn view Voice
    Let’s stop pointing fingers people! We need scientists in the classrooms volunteering. We need conversations with the elementary education for teacher programs. Action!

  16. #16 Dieter
    July 13, 2009

    I agree completely with all others who have praised this book. Thanks to the people at RealClimate who pointed it out to me. That PZ starts whining for being told that he is a rude blogger with a language worthy of a teenager is really irrelevant. Of course his fans donĀ“t like this, and I would assume that neither does Dawkins. However, the book does pinpoint the problem with the decline of scientific literacy.

    Chapter 8 was not bad at all by the way. PZ would do science a favor by at least considering the critique from Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

  17. #17 Jesse
    July 14, 2009

    The biggest issue I always had with PZ and Dawkins — and Arthur C. Clarke, for that matter — is that their (richly deserved) criticism of religion is to me, overly simplistic.

    This immediately devolves into essentially calling religious people stupid for believing in something that doesn’t exist. Well, Isaac Newton wasn’t stupid, nor are a lot of other people who took the existence of God as a fact as undeniable as existence itself.

    So people aren’t stupid. But maybe the problem is that many atheists I meet — and I mean the people who label themselves as such — is that they refuse to acknowledge the stuff that science can’t answer because it isn’t a scientific question.

    For instance, there is no scientific justification for outlawing slavery or child labor. There is an important ethical one, but if science could solve ethical problems we’d have settled those debates a long time ago. I mean, I can justify doing all kinds of experiments on human from a purely data-gathering perspective, but I doubt anyone here would say it’s okay to section live people’s brains and see what happens. There are folks who have issues with doing that to mice.

    I myself haven’t found any particular meaning in religion and don’t believe in god(s). But to me that’s sort of the wrong question.

  18. #18 BAllanJ
    July 14, 2009

    For instance, there is no scientific justification for outlawing slavery or child labor.

    ???? And religion is a justification? Which religions were founded just before the move to end slavery and were the cause of that movement?

    Ethics, maybe, but religion? Maybe the move to end slavery and child labour came more out of the Enlightenment and the rise in science… after all, those came after the rise in the current world religions.

  19. #19 Jesse
    July 14, 2009

    You just illustrated the problem. I did not say religion per se was the answer to any of that. But you made the false choice: if you say science can’t address something you must be saying religion does.

    No. Most people don’t experience life that way. It isn’t either-or.

  20. #20 Dieter
    July 15, 2009

    I think what Jesse said is pretty much right on the spot of what the problem.

  21. #21 Skeptigirl
    July 16, 2009


    So ethics cannot be justified by science or religion. What’s your point?

  22. #22 Tom Fool
    July 18, 2009

    Here’s a thought: Maybe the notion that science and religion are inherently diametrically opposed to one another is a false paradigm. Obviously they have famously knocked heads from time to time, but perhaps that has more to do with man’s biases and prejudices and less to do with ideas that are, by definition, contradictory.

  23. #23 Sohpet
    July 27, 2009

    Thanks .

  24. #24 Dark +
    September 19, 2009


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