Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future is the new book by Chris and Sheril of The Intersection (formerly on ScienceBlogs, now at Discover), and they were kind enough to include me on the list of people getting review copies. It turned up on Friday (after I’d already started Newton and the Counterfeiter). I read it this afternoon, partly at lunch with SteelyKid (who, alas, was woken up by somebody else’s ill-mannered child), but mostly in the back yard on a surprisingly pleasant afternoon. It’s a quick read– only 132 pages of text, plus 65 pages of (unmarked) endnotes.

This is a difficult book to review, because I already knew pretty much exactly what was in it. If you’ve read The Intersection these last few years, you do to– the core argument of the book is essentially what Chris and Sheril have been advocating on-line for some time now: the standing and influence of science in our society is in decline for a variety of reasons, and it’s partly the fault of scientists:

Our culture has changed vastly since the mid-twentieth century. Science has become much less cool, scientists have ceased to be role models, and kids aren’t rushing home any more to fire rockets from their backyards. It would be unproductive and also unfair to blame scientists alone for this sad state of affairs. For every scientist who shuns or misunderstands the broad public, there’s another who deeply wants to find better ways to connect and who may exert considerable energy and ingenuity to that end. And we’ve already seen how other crucial sectors of society fail to give science its due.

Still, it is undeniable that the troubling disconnect between the scientific community and society stems partly from the nature of scientific training today, and from scientific culture generally. In some ways science has become self-isolating. The habits of specialization that have ensured so many research successes have also made it harder to connect outside the laboratory and the ivory tower. As a result, the scientific community simultaneously generates ever more valuable knowledge and yet also suffers declining influence and growing alienation. too many smart, talented, influential people throughout our society don’t see the centraility of science in their lives; and too many scientists don’t know how to explain it to them.

There’s nothing here that will surprise readers of their blog. That’s ok, though, because the audience they’re aiming for is not the heard-it-all-before blog readership, but a wider audience of people who read smart and well-argued non-fiction. For those people, this will be new and fresh, and it’s a very well-constructed book. Even as somebody who has heard essentially all of this before, I was impressed with how well this book lays out their argument.

Unscientific America is divided into three main parts, as is traditional for this sort of book. The first section summarizes the historical context, presenting a short history of the rise and fall of the American science establishment. The second section breaks down the main sources of the current problems facing science– disconnects between the “culture” of science and four other “cultures” in American society: “political culture, media culture, entertainment culture, and religious culture.” The final part lays out some suggestions for how to move forward in a productive way.

There are two larger-than-life figures who dominate the whole book: C.P. Snow and Carl Sagan. Snow, of course, is the author of the famous “The Two Cultures”, lamenting the lack of communication between scientific and literary intellectuals. In many ways, what Mooney and Kirshenbaum are trying to do is to update Snow’s argument and shift it into a modern American context.

Carl Sagan is a recurring figure in the book as both an example of what a talented science popularizer can accomplish, and a warning about the poor regard for popularizers in the culture of science. They hold up Sagan’s heyday in the early 1980′s as a sort of high-water mark for science in popular culture. Starting with the failure of his nomination to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, because the illustrious scientists making up that body felt he oversimplified things in his popular writings, science has been on the decline.

Most of the bloggy commentary on the book will focus, alas, on Chapter 8 and Chapter 9, dealing with religion and science blogging, respectively. This is a shame, as those sections are a fairly small piece of the overall argument. They say some harsh things about PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, though, which is sure to throw everybody into a tizzy.

To my mind, though, the really important parts of the book are Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, on political and media culture, respectively. They lay out in great and depressing detail just how the culture of science fails to match up with the ways that politics and the mass media work, and how it got to be this way. The problems really are huge, and if anything, they’re getting worse, not better.

They close with some suggestions regarding ways forward from here, which deserve more discussion than I can really give them in this review post. I don’t entirely agree that what they suggest will work, but their suggestions are at least plausible, and they make a reasonable case for them. And at least they’re putting something on the table to be discussed.

This is a very good book, well argued and engagingly written. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and a lot of food for thought about the history and future of science in America. I suspect I’ll be boring you all with posts about different aspects of the book for most of this week. I recommend, though, that you pick up a copy and check it out for yourself. Even if you’ve read their blog, Unscientific America presents the most complete and coherent version of their basic policy argument you’re likely to find, and it’s well worth reading.

Comments

  1. #1 chris y
    July 6, 2009

    kids aren’t rushing home any more to fire rockets from their backyards.

    It seems to me one of the key questions is, “Why not?” Maybe M&K answer this in their book, but I don’t feel you can entirely blame scientists’ communication skills for this. What has been done to kids, that “further, higher, faster” is no longer cool, and who has done it?

  2. #2 Josh
    July 6, 2009

    Do they focus at all on whether the computer revolution has played any part in this decline? In my experience, growing up in the 80′s and 90′s, it seemed like all of the technically-minded kids, the ones who would otherwise be playing with chemistry sets and launching rockets, were far more interested in rebuilding old computers or trying out the latest software. It’s trendier, the breakthroughs and advances come faster, it’s easier to afford a computer than a particle accelerator, etc. I’ve always thought that this probably had at least a limited effect (I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet), but in most discussions I’ve seen, computer science is largely ignored (both it’s positive and negative aspects), and the focus is primarily on the physical sciences.

  3. #3 ponderingfool
    July 6, 2009

    What is their evidence that Americans are less scientifically literate than they were in the past? That they truly respect science less? Creationism has always been strong in the US. Evolution was linked to the Communist threat for awhile in the US as well. When was this mythical age of scientific love affair? Sputnik was more about technology than science. Science was a means to an end, not respected in its own right.

    Is there any socioeconomic analysis in the book? Science is not cheap. Process based science courses require resources (good science teachers, small class sizes, equipment/reagents, etc.). How do you reach youths in poorer neighborhoods if their sciences classes are not up to par due to the lack of resources?

    Science involves our everyday lives. It explains why we should properly use our antibiotics when prescribed and why we should seek health care prior to an illness reaching the need for emergency care. It explains why certain environments are not healthy for youths to grow up in. Of course maybe as a society we don’t want people to really understand those answers and how to question to learn other answers; maybe a populace being scientific illiterate keeps the status quo going.

  4. #4 Gaythia
    July 7, 2009

    I think that one of the keys is given by ponderingfool above: “Science involves our everyday lives.”

    It’s not only the science classrooms that lack resources. Too many kids are cooped up in the house afternoons because their parents are working. Few have wild areas or farms to explore to experience nature. Playgrounds are sanitized for fear of lawsuits. Same for chemistry sets and rocket launches, although those activities were never general. Cooking may involve opening a package and then microwaving it or buying takeout, rather than measuring, mixing and cooking.

    I don’t think that chris y’s concern that kids lack “further, higher, faster” is quite accurate, but rather that science and the related necessary preparation are not part of what children view as viable goals. Science is not an apparent part of their everyday lives.

  5. #5 Robert Semple
    August 7, 2009

    “This is a very good book, well argued and engagingly written. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and a lot of food for thought about the history and future of science in America. I suspect I’ll be boring you all with posts about different aspects of the book for most of this week. I recommend, though, that you pick up a copy and check it out for yourself. Even if you’ve read their blog, Unscientific America presents the most complete and coherent version of their basic policy argument you’re likely to find, and it’s well worth reading.”

    You aren’t that good a reviewer if you think this book is well argued. If you think that their blog is the most complete and coherent version of any policy you must be dreaming.
    It makes for good toilet paper after you’ve read this dreck, though.

  6. #6 Neil
    August 10, 2009

    @Robert Semple

    Your criticisms of this reviewer, the Intersections blog, and the book being reviewed are both witless and bereft of any evidence or justification.

    You seem to be describing your own post more accurately than anything else. Toilet paper indeed.

  7. #7 Hans
    August 2, 2010

    Dear ponderingfool,
    If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance…

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