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.