Pharyngula

Unscientific America: still useless

Mooney is at it again, scrabbling madly to refute my criticisms. It’s another ho-hum effort.

He claims he did spend some effort criticizing the overt anti-science forces in our country — only it was in his previous book, not this one. No, that doesn’t rebut me at all: in a book that purports to be discussing problems and solutions to the science and society divide, there ought to be some effort made to prioritizing the issues, even if it means revisiting points made in other books. Unfortunately, the message here is that we have three problems: the bumbling scientists who don’t know how to communicate, and the malicious atheists, who are hurting the cause of science education, and the sell-out media. You don’t just get to pretend that your readers have all read your other books.

He then compounds the problem by answering my accusation that he did not deal with the root causes of the problem by simply saying “did too”. Maybe he doesn’t think religion is as serious a problem as I do…but judging this book by its content, he apparently doesn’t think it has anything to do with the unusual American disregard for science.

Further handwaving ensues in his defense of the media. Apparently, his own words that label factual accuracy as “mere”, is taken out of context — which he justifies by pointing out a comment by Dawkins that the natural world is fascinating, and doesn’t need human drama. As I said before, accuracy is not the enemy of drama, so this is a silly and pointless argument. Sure, make fun, entertaining, exciting movies. They just don’t need to be imbecilic to be good.

Ah, but the real kicker here, the one that clearly is annoying Mooney most, is my accusation of uselessness against his book, that it offers no solutions at all. He says there are, there are! He says it several times, in several ways!

There are solutions in each chapter of the main body of the book, broken down by sector-politics, media, entertainment, religion. And then there is the grand solution in Chapter 10-which emerged from our collaboration, and which we don’t think either of us would have come up with on our own. So far as we know, it really is new in its particular way of analyzing the academic pipeline and finding, in it, a solution to our problems at the science-society interface.

Alas, if you read his rebuttal, he won’t actually tell you what those solutions, or even that Grand Solution, are. It’s very strange; it’s as if he’s afraid that if he even briefly summarizes what his proposals are, you won’t need to buy his book, so they’ve got to be kept secret. His book is apparently like an M. Night Shyamalan movie — if you’re told what the little twist is before you go to see it, all you’ve got left is a rather slow moving, boring story that is plodding tediously towards the big reveal. Come on, grow up. If it’s a substantial idea, it’s the explanation and the details that make your book worth reading, not the one-liner gloss on your solution. You can give it away, it really won’t hurt your book sales. And if it does, that suggests right there that you aren’t offering much.

Well, I’m going to do it. I’m going to spill the beans. I am going to give you the Grand Solution that Mooney and Kirshenbaum present in chapter 10, the one that is so new that neither of them could have come up with it on their own.

Here it is. Ready?

Here’s a summary of chapter 10: seven pages laying out the many problems that face people who want to pursue a career in science, from uninspiring teachers in grade school to the fierce competition for university positions. All true, of course, nothing at all novel here. What is their solution, presented in the final three pages? Create more well-rounded scientists, more Renaissance scientists, more scientists with specific training in communications skills, so that when they don’t manage to land that academic position, they’re still prepared to go out into society and act as ambassadors for science.

Really, that’s it. All of it. That’s their solution.

How nice.

I’m all for it. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and there’s absolutely nothing new at all in the sentiment expressed by Mooney and Kirshenbaum. It’s actually something of a letdown and rather dismaying that they think it “really is new in its particular way of analyzing the academic pipeline”. Excuse me for being thoroughly un-dazzled, but I think they could have talked to any of a few hundred thousand academics and they would have told them the same thing.

It’s also a little insulting.

You know, the majority of my cohort that entered graduate school with me are not currently employed in academic positions. Mooney and Kirshenbaum know this, they outlined the general state of affairs in the first 7/10ths of this chapter. Yet, somehow, they aren’t sitting around panhandling for Thunderbird money down at the bus station — they are gainfully employed, and they are already smart, well-educated people with considerable depth and breadth to their knowledge and marketable skills, and no, none of them (as far as I know) are now anti-science cranks out there fighting the system. They already are ambassadors for science in our culture. They vote for pro-science candidates, they support public schools, and some of them even have jobs in government, industry, and communications where they are working in their own way to better the country…and many of them are certainly more effective at what they do than I am.

It’s very strange. Mooney and Kirshenbaum say their “solution” will “alleviate pressure by opening new pathways for pent-up scientific talent to filter out into society.” I had no idea that post-docs and graduate students who left the academic track were “pent-up” somewhere! I do hope someone lets them out of their cage soon.

Now there really is a problem, that all of you readers who have gone through grad school know. There is a lot of social pressure that is piled up on you to reinforce the notion of a hierarchy of science careers. The very topmost rung is the research professor at a Research I university, getting big grants and running a big lab with a team of grad students and post-docs; anything less is regarded as something of a failure. It can make it very hard to move on to something like these Renaissance jobs Mooney and Kirshenbaum want to promote. You can also see that same attitude resounding throughout the comment threads on their own site, where being, for instance, a teaching professor at a small liberal arts college or, oh no, a mere popularizer of science are the marks of a lesser being.

I think it would be absolutely wonderful if science students could also value the noble profession of teaching, or think that communicating well was a most excellent and useful skill that they could acquire by writing and speaking throughout graduate school. Or if they felt empowered to use their knowledge for public outreach in film-making, or in working as an activist for environmental causes, or finding a job in the pharmaceutical industry that would help establish new medicines. I know I felt that way, as did enough of my peers who went on to such professions. However, nothing in their book explains how to make such an attitude occur more frequently, or even why we should expect a major change in the culture if something that is already happening, Ph.D. students finding work outside of academia narrowly defined, should continue to happen.

So, bottom line, still useless. The fact that Mooney seems so determined to hide his Grand Solution from public attention testifies to the fact that he’s offering some mighty thin gruel in his book.


Oh, but I should mention where Mooney shines, just to be fair. He’s written a rather shallow book with negligible substance, but he has managed to get articles in Salon that tells us we need to “figure out where the real blocks to accepting science are” (but fails to tell us what they are) and another in Newsweek that claims that atheists are “hurting their own cause”. Perhaps self-promotion ought to be high on the list of their proposed Renaissance curriculum.