“They say rather than cursing the darkness, one should light a candle. They don’t mention anything about cursing a lack of candles.”
- George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?
In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (the latter of whom I consider a friend) are deeply concerned that the American system is unsustainable so long as scientific results and recommendations are not appreciated by the general public or by the politicians that represent us. And there is good reason to be concerned. In their book they cite the results of a 2008 report from the Keystone Center demonstrating that most members of Congress have little interest in or use for scientific results. However, considering that 46 percent of the public holds an “anti-evolutionist, young-Earth creationist, and scientifically illiterate” point of view and that only half of the adult populace even knows the Earth orbits the sun once per year, it appears they are merely following their constituents in this regards.
Few among the scientifically trained in this country, or around the world, would find these results surprising. Ever since international studies comparing mathematics and science achievement began the signs have been ominous. PISA, the Program for International Student Achievement, found the United States trailing behind most other developed countries, particularly during the Bush years. From a high in 2000, where we were slightly above average, the United States tied with Latvia for 27th place in 2004 and, by 2006, we had fallen to 29th (even despite the No Child Left Behind Act). The trouble is what to do about it?
Unfortunately, while Mooney and Kirshenbaum are long on causes for how we came to be in this mess, they are short on solutions. They blame academic overspecialization, lack of political will, media deregulation, Hollywood, the blogosphere, atheists, the Bush administration and anti-intellectualism in American culture as all contributing to the decline. This list is nothing new (except for the part about blaming atheists) and many scientists have been pointing out these concerns for years. However, despite this litany of causes the overriding message throughout Unscientific America is, strangely enough, to berate the messenger. In a variation on the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself” the authors insist that it is the American scientist that needs to change in order to avert our looming crisis. The change that’s needed, apparently, is a rebranding.
Science has become much less cool, scientists have ceased to be role models, and kids aren’t rushing home anymore to fire rockets from their backyards.
According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum scientists show a “troubling disconnect” from society, are “self-isolating,” too “condescending” to the public, overly “idealistic” in politics, have a worldview and life experience “vastly distinct from those of the public at large,” show an “unwillingness or inability to suspend disbelief” in their criticism of Hollywood, show “befuddlement” over the religious right and, in general, need to be “more well-rounded” and “more cultured” in order to convey the message they’ve failed to get across.
Too many smart, talented, influential people throughout our society don’t see the centrality of science in their lives; and too many scientists don’t know how to explain it to them. . . the fact remains that scientists, and the people who care about their work, know best what is being missed, why it matters, and indeed, how the science-society gap places our entire future at risk. Moreover, they have the talent, the knowledge, and in many cases the resources to turn things around. So what are we waiting for?
Their solution then: “It’s time to have more vision.” That vision, given the number of times each is mentioned, comes down to Carl Sagan and ScienceDebate2008. Somehow if people talk more about science in a different way people will wake up, focus more in school, and switch the channel from ESPN to NOVA. While there’s no doubt that Carl Sagan was a brilliant communicator, the trouble with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s argument is that it doesn’t hold up to the most basic scrutiny. For example, while frequently celebrating the power of Carl Sagan to bridge the culture divide and build a common scientific understanding, they also quote him at the end of his life fearing the worst for our society’s scientific illiteracy.
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time . . . when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority.
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
So which way is it? Was Sagan the champion we need to resurrect or was he a tragic figure that was ultimately overwhelmed by the forces that surround us?
As for ScienceDebate2008, while an increased focus on scientific issues in politics is important, the words that come out of politicians mouths and the reality that follows are frequently at odds. Unless there’s an electorate that demands action on scientific issues (such as the current environmental movement) there will be little political action, ScienceDebate or no ScienceDebate. Indeed, most of the discussion about ScienceDebate2008 in their book appears more about self-promotion than any real effect it might have had on the political dialogue.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum have a few useful suggestions (which I’ve discussed previously) but the bulk of their proposed solutions to the problem of scientific illiteracy are vacuous and completely insular. Given the United States’ poor ranking internationally, they fail to even consider looking at what other countries are doing right. They spend an entire chapter focusing on how Hollywood has a poor track record of presenting science realistically but don’t even mention the policies that other countries have adopted to maintain a scientifically literate population or look to larger sociological circumstances that might hold the key.
For example, while the United States has a low international standing in science and mathematics, we also rank far below other countries in reading and critical thinking. This speaks to a poverty of education in general, not simply that scientists are no longer good role models or have trouble speaking in sound bytes. In the 2006 PISA study of international science literacy it was found that 18% of the variation in U.S. scores was due to socioeconomic circumstances, more than twice that of top-scoring countries such as Finland or Canada. The United States had the top-scores in the world for those with access to quality educational resources, but the preponderance of low scores lowered the country’s overall average.
American variation in science literacy is enormous. Data from Salzman & Lowell (2008)
This was noted by Education Week (pdf here) soon after the 2006 PISA study was released (which showed the US ranked a dismal 29th):
The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”
Following up on these conclusions, Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell stated in their commentary “Making the Grade” for the journal Nature:
Paying attention to the problems at the bottom is as important, if not more so, than focusing on the top. The most innovative technology has limited use if the more than 70 million workers without college degrees do not have the skills to use it effectively. The nation’s low performers and schools should be a headline concern and the remedies are often to be found in schools only a neighbourhood or town away.
The reality is that this economic disparity has been growing consistently over the last three decades, during the very period that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have noticed a decline in scientific literacy. While they emphasize how this trend could result in future economic problems for this country, they don’t seem to consider that it might have been the cause in the first place. It at least deserved a mention. As powerful as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins may be, I suspect that this rising economic disparity might be nearly as influential.
In focusing on science communication alone, rather than unequal access to scientific tools, Mooney and Kirshenbaum have chosen to focus on style rather than substance. They present a host of wrongs but think that mere cosmetic changes will reverse two decades of decline. It is unfortunate that two writers who have previously done such a marvelous job of communicating science would present such a poor case in their latest work. This topic is one that holds great importance for the future of our country. Unfortunately, Unscientific America was a wasted opportunity to enliven the discussion and motivate a concerted drive towards a common future.