Unscientific America

I’ve been slow in writing this review only because the kerfuffle over Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum distracted me. Yes, there’s a lot of controversy, but I’m going to set that aside, ignore other reviews, and give my own take here. A response to some of the reviews will follow separately.

“Americans are dumb.” This is the reaction I get most often when talking about the creation/evolution conflict, and it’s the premise of many actions by the scientific community (which includes both scientists and a broader group of science advocates – science-ists if you will). If we could only educate people better – teach them about the fossils, tell them more about stem cells, explain the physics of light striking a carbon dioxide molecule – America’s trouble assimilating scientific findings would be resolved.

As Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum point out in their breezy Unscientific America, those solutions miss the point.

The statistics on American scientific knowledge are staggering. Americans embrace creationism, do not know why a year lasts 365 days, and have trouble figuring out if an electron is bigger than an atom. But equally significant is the evidence, ably argued in the book’s second chapter, that the problem cannot simply be put down to lack of knowledge. By some measures, Americans are on a par with Europeans in scientific knowledge. Roughly 80% of Americans accept that the continents have drifted over time, and nearly as many (74%) know that “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Yet surveys show that only 44% personally accept that claim.

This disconnect is not a lack of knowledge, then. Despite its popularity among those worried about the state of science knowledge, this “deficit model” is wrong. Americans know what science says, but they either reject it outright (as is the case with some creationists, global warming deniers, or vaccine opponents), they reject the consensus-building process of science by cherry-picking their preferred results and twisting others to suit their agenda (most creationists, global warming deniers, and vaccine deniers, among others), or they simply ignore the science, regarding it as unuseful or irrelevant to their lives.

The solution is not merely to better educate the public about what science says or how scientists know what they do, but to improve people’s appreciation of why science matters to what we all do in our lives.

This is not easy. Scientists who talk to nonscientists tend to assume that everyone thinks their topic is fascinating. And one often feels like scientists wish that their efforts would induce their audiences to become scientists themselves. But I recently asked a group of teachers in a well-off and generally science-friendly school district how many of them thought one students from their whole career would become a professional biologist. No hands went up. I asked the same about medicine, and two or three of the thirty teachers expected to produce a single doctor in their career. If our goal is to produce a new generation filled with scientists, we’re doomed to fail. And in ignoring the many other ways that scientific knowledge, and an understanding of the scientific process, serves citizens outside of the lab, we serve our audiences poorly.

The solution Chris and Sheril advocate is, broadly, to bridge key gaps. Scientists are not trained to communicate with the public. Some want to be, an encouraging sign that I have also noted in my travels, but institutional biases will delay such efforts. In many cases, the skills scientists cultivate are at best independent of their ability to publicly communicate, and in some cases are actively contradictory to such efforts.
Unscientific America sets itself the task of updating The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow. In that work, Snow argued that the culture of science and the culture of the humanities had become dangerously divergent, that this chasm threatened both fields, and indeed the broader society, and called on the then-less-prominent scientific community to reach across the divide. In the increasingly technological mid-20th century, it was unacceptable for intellectuals to ignore science, and unacceptable for scientists to allow this to happen or for the state of affairs to persist.

In Chris and Sheril’s update, the divisions have multiplied, and with them the dangers. Science is not just separated from academic disciplines across the quad, but from the media, from journalism, from religious communities, from politics, and (they observe in an endnote) from the law. As science becomes ever more integral to our daily lives and to America’s economic, political, and military places in the world, Americans as a whole are increasingly disconnected from what science is, and what scientists know. This is a problem not just for the general public, but because of the increasing specialization of science, a problem for scientists themselves.

Writing on a similar theme to Snow’s and to Chris and Sheril’s, Max Weber noted in the 1920s that the problem for anyone choosing “Science as a Vocation” is that it is so specialized that it’s hard just to stay on top of ones’ own field let alone to branch out into others. For Weber, the touchstone of a polymath was Goethe, who not only made important contributions to the study of morphology of plants and animals (developing concepts central to our modern study of evolutionary developmental biology), but also studied the physics of optics, wrote plays, operas, music, poetry, and novels. Such true polymaths were a thing of the past, Weber argued.

Indeed, Weber was unsure that this was problematic:

In the field of science only he who is devoted solely to the work at hand has personality. And this holds not only for the field of science; we know of no great artist who has ever done anything but serve his work and only his work. As far as his art is concerned, even with a personality of Goethe’s rank, it has been detrimental to take the liberty of trying to make his ‘life’ into a work of art. And even if one doubts this, one has to be a Goethe in order to dare permit oneself such liberty. Everybody will admit at least this much: that even with a person like Goethe, who appears once in a thousand years, this liberty did not go unpaid for. In politics matters are not different, but we shall not discuss that today. In the field of science, however, the person who makes himself the impresario of the subject to which he should be devoted, and steps upon the stage and seeks to legitimate himself through ‘experience,’ asking: How can I prove that I am something other than a mere ‘specialist’ and how can I manage to say something in form or in content that nobody else has ever said? — such a person is no ‘personality.’ Today such conduct is a crowd phenomenon, and it always makes a petty impression and debases the one who is thus concerned. Instead of this, an inner devotion to the task, and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve. And in this it is not different with the artist.

This aversion to popular speakers on science persists today. For Chris and Sheril, the touchstone is Carl Sagan, whose nomination to join the National Academy of Sciences was shot down due to Sagan’s efforts to popularize science and force it into broader social discussions. Sagan was a scientific polymath, a skilled speaker and author on scientific topics, and a modest novelist. He did not, to my knowledge try his hand as a composer or dramatist.

Even this reduced form of the public scientist is absent from the early 21st century. There are scientists writing about their own field, but none with the capacity or apparent inclination to tackle the universe in its breadth and its particulars, from atoms to galaxies and from organelles to the mind. For Chris and Sheril, the solution is to build ties to communities dedicated and trained in communication.

They point to the potential for movies like Sagan’s Contact and Gattacca to address complex scientific topics in responsible ways. Bringing scientists into the process of writing scripts could prevent movies and TV shows from actively misinforming viewers, and as with CSI, could even inspire people to pursue a career in the sciences.

One show that Unscientific America doesn’t mention, but should have, is Mythbusters. It is probably the best show on TV in terms of actually presenting the scientific process, and in terms of getting scientific facts basically right. But even that show illustrates the dilemma for science advocates. In order to keep viewers and to sneak a little science into the discussion, the mythbusters actively deny that theirs is a “science show.” Calling it science would reduce ratings.

This is the problem with shows like NOVA. In an increasingly divided media marketplace, the only people who voluntarily watch NOVA and read Science Times on Tuesday are those who already understand that science matters. Shows and movies like Numb3rs, CSI and its ilk, and medical dramas offer some opportunity to push science content to a broader audience, but the real key is connecting science to a much wider range of topics. Scientists, Chris and Sheril suggest, should think about those connections and pursue them with Hollywood, through projects like the NAS’s Scientists and Engineers Exchange and as scientific advisers to shows and movies.

This advice holds true in the world of journalism, too. The New York Times seems to be standing by its commitment to its science section, but other major media outlets have slashed or simply eliminated their trained science journalism staff. That reduces the already miniscule media coverage of science, and does a disservice to the science stories that are covered at all.

Here again, partnerships strengthen coverage. Media-friendly scientists should actively reach out to editors and reporters, suggesting stories and helping them navigate the social web of scientists to get the good stories. Unscientific America itself is such a work, pairing a journalist with a marine scientist. Schools of journalism also ought to seek partnerships with science programs to give their graduates a background in science, just as science programs should reach out to journalism schools to boost their presentation skills.

Partnership is also key to outreach to the political world. The heart of Unscientific America, and much of its inspiration, was the work Chris and Sheril did with Hollywood scriptwriters Shawn Lawrence Otto and Matt Chapman to create ScienceDebate 2008. This group, none of them an active scientific researcher at this point, did what no scientists have done since Carl Sagan publicly attacked Reagan’s Star Wars proposals: forced politicians to answer serious questions about science.

Such engagement doesn’t come naturally to scientists, and Unscientific America shouldn’t be read only as a call to action for scientists. Non-scientists who like science (“science-ists,” perhaps) are essential. In groups like Kansas Citizens for Science, media professionals, clergy, teachers, and scientists could join together in support of honest science education, with each bringing their own area of expertise to bear. Such groups rarely form in the absence of an overt attack on science, such as science standards revisions in Kansas, but once formed, can branch out and take the initiative.

My two years (to the day!) at NCSE have convinced me that the greatest need in terms of public understanding of science is for science advocates (not just scientists!) to organize and make themselves a distinct constituency for science. Teachers need to know that they want evolution in the classroom, politicians need to know that the public cares about science funding and accurate scientific inputs into the policy process.

Chris and Sheril make many of these points in an extended endnote to a line on page 65. The endnote itself spans 4 pages, presents practical advice and considerations for future efforts, essentially presenting a miniature manifesto for political action by scientists. Indeed, the endnotes section is half the length of the body of the book, with several endnotes running to more than a page. This is problematic. The text of the book can occasionally cross the line from light and into superficial, and skipping to the endnotes to find the meat can be frustrating. Bulking up the book by a few pages here and there wouldn’t hurt the flow, and may have forestalled some of the books’ critics.

Consider three endnotes to page 104 which themselves occupy a full three pages. Those endnotes relate to Chris and Sheril’s disagreements with Richard Dawkins and other so-called “New Atheists” (a term rejected by those labeled, but to which they have not offered any compelling alternative, and have in fact used to refer to themselves on occasion). Chris and Sheril think attacks on religion are counterproductive from people who want to promote science literacy (in their sense, this means increasing not scientific knowledge so much as promoting appreciation for the value of science in their lives). Dawkins disagrees.

The body of the text doesn’t do much to present Dawkins’ views, only enough of a hook really to hang their criticisms on. The endnotes go into substantial detail and nuance, giving what strikes me as a fair account of what Dawkins argues and then presenting their own replies. This back and forth belongs in the text. The ability to accurately represent your opponent’s view is often taken as a basic measure of one’s own argument, and refuting a fully-represented opponent rather than a caricature shows the strengths of a successful argument. Readers who skipped the endnotes, or didn’t read them until after reading the whole book, will get very different impressions of Chris and Sheril than someone who made the effort to flip back and forth. If these extended arguments are worth making, they were worth making in the book’s body.

In general, I worry that the book is not clear about its target. The authors rightly warn against scientists’ tendency toward source-oriented communication (in which a speaker tailors a presentation to his or her own interests) and suggest training in receiver-oriented communication, where the speaker considers what the audience knows already, what they need to know, and what information is likely to connect with them. The book’s light tone might increase its appeal to the general public, but nonscientists are unlikely to be convinced that science is relevant based on this book. The arguments offered seem directed at scientists and science advocates, but the light tone seems to have turned off many scientists (fairly predictably).

The book is also a departure from Chris Mooney’s previous works. The Republican War on Science was a masterpiece of reporting. My review noted that “Mooney is certainly meticulous in his research,” and his writing “presents the problem [of conservative attacks on science as a process] starkly.” Chris followed that best-selling success with a very different book. Storm World told the story of how the scientific community shifted its views on the effects of global warming on hurricanes. From a fairly narrow and abstruse question, he managed to weave a tale about the scientists themselves as actors. It was a tour de force as a presentation of the scientific process and its connections with the world of policy and politics. “Mooney deserves special praise,” I wrote, “for capturing the dynamic of scientific debate, humanizing the scientific process and inviting the public in to see how things work in a field they care about desperately.”

Unscientific America tells relatively few stories, and contains little original reporting. The sections on ScienceDebate narrate their own activities, and the chapters on politics and on science in Hollywood include a few references to original interviews.

For scientists, the presentation of data and established research results might be enough, though the data would have to be presented in more detail. The study of communications is not a field most scientists are aware of, so this isn’t a setting where shorthand references to the literature would suffice.

For the general public, scientific studies of communication will not be enough. More data would simply dull the book’s impact with that audience. Stories help us connect to data, and Unscientific America would have benefited from a more journalistic approach to the stories behind the data if the general public were its prime audience.

For people like me, the book is excellent. It provides a good introduction to work on science communication that I wish I had known about a decade ago. The diagnosis of the problems aligns with what I’ve seen in my work, and the solutions they propose seem reasonable, workable, and most importantly, necessary.

I don’t know that the market of people like me is large enough to make this the bestseller that RWoS was, but Unscientific America will have a place on my shelf next to Mooney’s earlier books, close at hand so that I can use it as a reference. It has already changed the way I talk to the public, and I hope that the discussion around the book turns to a productive discussion.

Noting that I promised to delay any direct reaction to the blogospheric fallout to the book, I will only note that they are right in their observation that scienceblogs are not the salvation for science literacy. Too few people read scienceblogs, and they are not the people we have to reach in any event. They are right that stunts like crackergate are unlikely to shift anyone’s views in any productive direction, and are likely to have a negative effect if any. But it would be wrong to claim (as some have) that Chris and Sheril are blaming PZ Myers or other atheist science advocates for science’s declining fortunes. They clearly think PZ, Dawkins, and others could do great things for science literacy, and they have some thoughts about more effective approaches. “Of course,” Chris and Sheril write, “the New Atheists aren’t the origin of the cleft between religious and scientific culture in America – they’re more like a reaction to it.” Chris and Sheril think that this is a cleft worth closing, PZ and company seem to disagree. That’s a worthwhile discussion, but vituperation over Chris and Sheril’s account of Crackergate is hardly likely to advance any useful cause.

There’s much to be learned from Unscientific America. I look forward to seeing the discussion broaden, hopefully with input not just from the scientific side of these cultural clefts, but from the religious, political, and media sides of their respective divides.


  1. #1 Dan
    August 5, 2009


    Americans embrace creationism, do not know why a year lasts 365 days, and have trouble figuring out if an electron is bigger than an atom.

    Don’t you see the difference? There are entrenched organizations promoting confusion on the creationism issue, but there’s no organization that I’m aware of trying to cast doubt on the year=365days=one_orbit thing, or on the size of an electron. The latter two are outstanding examples of how, yes, people just ARE stupid at times.

    But equally significant is the evidence, ably argued in the book’s second chapter, that the problem cannot simply be put down to lack of knowledge.”

    I read the chapter (and the rest of the book). I don’t know how you can reach the conclusion that they ably argue anything in there – the studies by Jon D. Miller et al. are only passingly referenced, without explanation of their findings, and everything in chapter 2 hinges on this being explained. I tracked down the 4 or so articles reference by M & K, and reading the articles, it’s not obvious at all how it refutes the many findings (that M&K mention) that many Americans are astoundingly stupid (again, the 365days in a year thing).

    But on the issues of creationism, global warming denialism, etc., yes, but ONLY THEN, their argument seems to apply.

    It’s these and other comments that make Unscientific America a bad book. M&K should have written something a bit more thorough, and thought about their argument quite a bit more, IMO.

  2. #2 csrster
    August 6, 2009

    I have a PhD in astrophysics from an elite university and I would have trouble figuring out if an electron is bigger than an atom. What is the size of an electron anyway?

  3. #3 bsci
    August 6, 2009

    I just want to note that you’re review is barely different from the very negative reviews. To summarize all of them, “Science communication is extremely important and we need to find ways to do it better. This book addresses this issue, but does so with minimal new reporting and is written in such a disorganized fashion that the authors obscure their main points.”

    As for your review, I’m getting a bit annoyed with all the references to an aversion to popularizers because Carl Sagan wasn’t elected into the NAS. Why not say he was disrespected because he didn’t win a Nobel Prize? Membership is linked to scientific discoveries and not communication. NAS does honor people for communication and Sagan was so honored. If you want to make the point that NAS should actively honor and promote great communicators, that’s different, but saying a award for discoveries n should be given to someone for their communication work is silly.

    I also can’t speak about Carl Sagan’s time directly, but when the popularizers in my field write books they are widely read by the scientists and when they give talks at scientific meetings they’re heavily attended. Communicators are respected by many scientists.

  4. #4 Patricia LaRaia
    August 6, 2009

    I’m not a scientist. But have educated myself on every scientific theory and knowledge I could find. Why? Because I fell in love with the universe, the fact finding process of science, skeptisism and asking deep intelligent questions about ourselves only because I was introduced to science by Carl Sagan. He believed that science should be a part of everyday life, known by the average Joe. He believed our future depends deeply on our understanding of who we are and our place in the universe. I did not know him personally, but would dare to say that he wore the honor of being the best science populizer with just as much pride as all his other, not less important, accomplishments. Isn’t after all, sharing science and making it accessible to everyone’s inteligence level vital to our survival? he knew that our future depends on what we understand about ourselves. He was more than a scientist, he had deep genuine passion for truth and was a devoted humanist. Why aren’t there MORE scientists like him?…I must ask. Give us a chance, we CAN understand science, we are not as stupid as you think we are.

  5. #5 John Kwok
    August 6, 2009

    Josh –

    ‘Tis a great review, but don’t you think some of the solutions they’ve suggested are virtually impossible to implement (e. g. by having newly minted Ph. D.s spend as much time as possible on being effective science communicators, when it’s probably much more important for them to establish themselves as scientists with as extensive a publication history – in peer-reviewed – scientific journals as possible)?

    I am also completely puzzled by their fixation with Carl Sagan, especially when two well known science popularizers – Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond – were elected to NAS membership. While I believe Gould’s admission was delayed by both his educational outreach to the public via his essays and talks and his political activities, NAS ultimately did recognize him for his substantial contributions to evolutionary theory and paleobiology. As for Carl Sagan, planetary scientist David Grinspoon has stated elsewhere that Sagan may have been more important for the Ph. D. students under his supervision, including one who became Grinspoon’s graduate school advisor.

    While I will agree with you and others who think “Unscientific America” should be bought and read, it is fundamentally a substantially lesser work from Chris Mooney, and one that’s not quite the masterpiece of sound science journalism which his two previous books are.



    P. S. Thanks again for the great talk you gave here two nights ago. Am delighted to have met you finally.

  6. #6 Norwegian Shooter
    August 6, 2009

    I haven’t read Unscientific America (and probably won’t based on reviews, including yours). But I would like to give you a shout out for what you have written here. Anyone who quotes Weber from something other than Protestant=Capitalist deserves praise. And I certainly didn’t know Goethe was such a stud.

    You highlight the right topics: appreciation of why science matters, bridging key gaps, communication, partnerships, engagement, etc. However, I believe the audience you should be addressing is educators of young children, not general population adults. At that point, it is too late for them to become science-ists. (Of course, parents are included as educators, but outreach to them should be focused on getting their children involved in science)

    I’ve heard about research that says kids need to be excited by science by age 10 to have a chance of being a science-ist. Makes sense to me. So the question becomes, how do we do that?

    The bright side is that kids are prone to being excited by science. And there is a growing capacity to present science as exciting on the web. Science.tv is one. How about a ScienceBlogs for Kids! (TM)

  7. #7 SLC
    August 6, 2009

    Re crackergate

    The problem is that the discussion of crackergate in UA is dishonest and is probably a major reason for the negative reviews by many.

    If one reads Chapter 8 and the review by Ken Miller, one would conclude that PZ Myers decided one fine day, apropos of nothing at all, that it would be a barrel of laughs to desecrate a communion cracker. It totally ignores the provocations that led up to the actions that Prof. Myers took. I would point to the article posted by Ed Brayton on his blog about the affair. Mr. Braytons’ view is that, although PZs’ action was a bit over the top, it was amply justified by the actions of the Catholic hierarchy and their sockpuppet Bill Donahue who acted like a bunch of red neck bullies in their treatment of the student in Florida. Prof. Myers reaction was basically an invitation to the bullies to pick on someone closer to their own size.

    I would also point out the disgraceful actions of Mooney and Kirshenbaum in banning Ophelia Benson from commenting on their blog because she persisted in posing questions to them which they evidently preferred not to answer. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have some chicken feathers where their competitive spirit should be.

  8. #8 John Kwok
    August 6, 2009

    @ SLC –

    While I won’t speak for Josh himself, we did talk about Ken Miller’s New York Times letter when I saw Josh in New York City a few nights ago. Without going into specifics, it would be reasonable to assume that we were in agreement about Ken’s remarks in that terse, but rather, accurate assessment of Collins and his Militant Atheist critics.

  9. #9 Wes
    August 6, 2009

    Thanks for the level-headed and informative review, Josh.

    I must take issue with one portion, though, which has irked me throughout the entire debate over Unscientific America

    hey are right that stunts like crackergate are unlikely to shift anyone’s views in any productive direction, and are likely to have a negative effect if any.

    Huh? Who said it was supposed to do that? I bet PZ’s “I Get Email” posts don’t persuade people in productive directions either. But so what? They aren’t intended to.

    “Crackergate” was silly. It was a non-controversy blown way out of proportion by Bill Donahue, who makes a living on fake controversy. It’s not a big deal. That’s something that always seems to be left out whenever people bring it up. It was not a big deal.

    What irks me is that many of the examples I’ve seen being used in these debates–crackergate, the weblog awards, Pluto’s “demotion”–are insanely petty. These things just don’t matter, and I would wager that very few people care much about them at all.

  10. #10 SLC
    August 6, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    As I pointed out in a comment on Jason Rosenhouses’ blog, Myers, Coyne, Harris, and Moran have taken issue with Prof. Millers claim that they oppose the selection of Francis Collins because he is a Christian. Let me put it very simply, Prof. Miller is full of crap.

    Re Wes

    I suspect that Ken Miller, who purports to be a devout Catholic, was probably personally offended by PZ Myers’ crackergate actions. Actually, the issue of communion crackers also rose up to bite the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Hadley, who also pocketed the wafer during an appearance at a Catholic Church. Mr. Hadley, who apparently belongs to a fundamentalist Protestant denomination, was taken by surprise when offered the wafer, which is apparently a ceremony not performed at his church, and was unsure what he was supposed to do. It is also interesting to note that George Washington, who was a vestryman at the Falls Church Episcopal Congregation, always declined to take communion and left after the main service.

  11. #11 Mike Chapman
    August 6, 2009

    My education is scientific, but, more to the point, I LIVE science daily in every way. To me, the most important tool in spreading an appreciation of science is to invoke an esthetic muse when talking about thunderstorms, fossils, photosynthesis, or continental drift. When people come to see nature around them through scientific eyes, it gains a breathtaking depth, and turns their eyes away from the sidewalk and toward the edge of the universe. We need more scientific poet/evangelists, eg, Loren Eiseley, to demonstrate the expanded world view emerging from the findings of science to show that “there is grandeur in this view of life,” not just facts to be learned and applied.

  12. #12 Physicalist
    August 6, 2009

    Thanks, Josh, for the very thoughtful review.

    I was right with you up to this point:

    The solution is . . . to improve people’s appreciation of why science matters to what we all do in our lives.

    Do you really think this is going to have any effect on those who reject the science of global warming and evolution? I just don’t see it.

  13. #13 John Kwok
    August 6, 2009

    @ SLC –

    Neither Josh nor I think that Ken Miller is “full of crap”. We both concur with the style and substance of his New York Times letter.

  14. #14 José
    August 6, 2009

    Those endnotes relate to Chris and Sheril’s disagreements with Richard Dawkins and other so-called “New Atheists” (a term rejected by those labeled, but to which they have not offered any compelling alternative, and have in fact used to refer to themselves on occasion).

    Why would they need to offer up a compelling alternative? It’s a stupid, misleading label that doesn’t need to exist.

  15. #15 José
    August 6, 2009

    And it’s not unheard of for some people to adopt a pejorative to refer to themselves. Sometimes it’s done for the sake of discussion, and sometimes it’s done tongue in cheek. That doesn’t make it a validation of the meaning behind the term.

  16. #16 SLC
    August 7, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    If Mr. Rosenau thinks that Prof. Miller has correctly characterized the opposition of Myers et al to the appointment of Francis Collins, then he, like Mr. Kwok, is seriously in error. To put it simply, the implication of Prof. Millers’ charge is that Myers et al oppose the appointment solely because Dr. Collins is an Evangelical Christian. That is simply false. They oppose the nomination because, in their judgment, Dr. Collins is unable to separate his religious views from his scientific views. They provide chapter and verse from Collins’ own former web site, Biologos, and a presentation he made at U. C. Berkeley to support their judgment. I suggest that Mr. Kwok either refute their specific charges, which Prof. Miller has thus far failed to do, or STFU.

  17. #17 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ SLC –

    You don’t know Ken Miller. I do, and I realize that Ken was being a bit flippant and sarcastic in his accusation. However, ultimately, Ken is also right, because Coyne, Harris, Moran, Myers et al. are all “screaming” at Collins and the Obama Administration simply because Collins possesses religious views that they find utterly distasteful. BUT THE IMPORTANT THING TO NOTE IS THIS: Collins has never used his duties as a scientific researcher or administrator to advance his religious views. He didn’t do this when he served with ample distinction as the director of the Human Genome Project. Nor will he do this – contrary to the breathtakingly inane observations of Coyne, Harris, Moran and Myers et al. – as head of NIH. For these reasons Ken Miller has every reason to support Collins’s appointment (and why both Josh Rosenau and I – and many others incidentally – concur with Ken’s assessment of Collins’s Militant Atheist critics).

  18. #18 SLC
    August 7, 2009

    Rather then repeat the comment I left at Jason Rosenhouses’ blog, I will post the link to the statement made by Prof. Jerry Coyne concerning the entanglement of Dr. Collins religious views with his scientific views. The readers here don’t have to listen to me or the Kwok or Ken Miller. They can read what Prof. Coyne actually wrote and make their own judgments.


  19. #19 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ SLC –

    Here’s what Ken Miller left over at Carl Zimmer’s blog late last month, which is far more reasonable than anything Coyne, Myers et al. have written:

    The worry that Francis Collins would use his position at the NIH to “proselytize” or would not back researchers whom “the religious right dislikes” isn’t grounded in the reality of the man’s life and career. I’m no more worried about Collins using NIH to advance his religious views than I was about Harold Varmus using the same position to advance non-religious views. Varmus was a great Director because he was a first-rate scientist who understood how to administer research, and Collins matches him on both counts.

    Yes, Collins has written that he doesn’t think that biological evolution can explain the human moral sense. I disagree with him on that point, even as a fellow Christian. But Collins’ whole career has been marked by openness, fair-mindedness, and above all, a driving intellectual curiosity. The over-reaction of those sounding the warning sirens about him is without foundation in fact. It’s also emotional to the point of irrationality. PZ Myers has called him “a clown,” and written that “The man is a flaming idjit.” This comes from a guy who opposes Collins in the name of scientific reason?

  20. #20 SLC
    August 7, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    PZ Myers has called him “a clown,” and written that “The man is a flaming idjit.” This comes from a guy who opposes Collins in the name of scientific reason?

    And once again, Prof. Miller is disingenuous. He has taken a quotation out of context (by the way, the very thing he eviscerates the Intelligent Design schmucks for) and thus unfairly characterizes it. Prof. Myers made the comment in reference to a totally inane statement that Dr. Collins made in his Berkeley presentation and, in fact, the statement was both clownish and idiotic.

  21. #21 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ SLC –

    Ken Miller’s comments are valid and are not worthy of the disingenuous comments posted here by an incorrigible male chauvinist pig such as yourself, claiming to have a Ph. D. in high energy particle physics, and yet, unable to recognize the recent accomplishments of physicist Lisa Randall, whose current research I presume is related to what you did do in your graduate research years ago.

  22. #22 SLC
    August 7, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    Ken Miller’s comments are valid and are not worthy of the disingenuous comments posted here by an incorrigible male chauvinist pig such as yourself, claiming to have a Ph. D. in high energy particle physics, and yet, unable to recognize the recent accomplishments of physicist Lisa Randall, whose current research I presume is related to what you did do in your graduate research years ago.

    I rather doubt that. The field has move on since I left a million years ago and most of the work done in those days is irrelevant.

    By the way, I consider it a great honor to be labeled a male chauvinist pig by a birther schmuck like Mr. Kwok. It does not speak well of Prof. Miller that he has friends like Mr. Kwok. I expect better of him.

  23. #23 BioinfoTools
    August 7, 2009

    I haven’t read other comments yet, so excuse any overlapping material. (I haven’t read UA, as until it reaches a library out here I won’t be able to, my budget prevents buying outside of essentials.)

    I’ve been trying to learn from their experience, as is my habit, and one of my personal questions was how well edited the book is. The reason I raise this point is that this might explain at least some of the various complaints people raise. It might explain what appears to be some unwise decisions in writing chapter eight, the way the endnotes poorly tie in with the main text and so on.

    I’m skeptical that the solution outlined is really a complete one and one that will do as much as some seem to think it will. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I just think the notion that having scientists involved in communication by itself is going to bring about some grand change is over-reaching.

    The issue of an unscientific audience isn’t new. I’m just starting reading Bernard LIghtman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science. The preface opens with an account of a letter written about science popularization which includes complaints about the nature of the audience, e.g. “incapacitated by a lack of general education from grasping any special subject”. This letter was written in 1875.

    I can’t comment on Lightman’s book as I’ve barely started it, but it’s a rather more substantial work at over 500 pages and which, according to the acknowledgements has “taken over fifteen years to reach fruition.” It’ll be interesting to draw the parallel to the present-day situation and the latest kerfuffle on the blogs.

    Anyway, back to the subject. It’s unreasonable to ask scientists—those doing active research—to take on more roles as a “standard” part of their careers. A few individuals might choose to, but most are simply too busy wearing far too many hats already (researcher, scientific writer, mentor, teacher, administrator). It might be reasonable to ask that the industry as a whole include more scientists who promote the work of their colleagues as full- or part-time science communicators. This, though, raise several questions. Who would hire them? Wouldn’t their “message” still suffer by having to pass through the main-stream-media (MSM)? (Assuming they want to do more than present talks, which in my experience largely tend to preach to the choir as it were.) Wouldn’t they still have to reduce much of what they say to “sound bites” in order address an audience that lacks the basics of how science works to take the material in a slightly “higher” level and publishers that will only buy works of that nature?

    I’m also uncertain that any one approach will do a lot on it’s own. I dislike this is the “key thing needed” implication: I think several things are needed. My distinct impression is the standard of teaching qualifications for high schools in the USA needs to be lifted, along with higher standards of teaching and it hard to imagine that this isn’t a least a major contributor to the issue. After all, it’s hard to expect someone to understand something if they don’t know the underlying basics. I am still struggling to believe that you don’t need university degree-level training in the subject area you teach to teach at high schools in the USA. (It beggars belief to me and I still keep thinking I must be missing something obvious, but apparently this is true.)

    The think the role of editors is important and seems to be rarely discussed (but see bioEmphera for a nice discussion of this issue).

    SLC & Kwok: I believe Myers has already written laying out his position on this. (See: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/08/is_it_really_that_hard_to_unde.php)

  24. #24 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ SLC –

    I think you forgot that three of Obama’s key advisors are fellow alumni of my high school, of which the most important one is USA Attorney General Eric Holder, who I am certain, has confirmed Obama’s citizenship status. Continue smearing me online, my dear male chauvinist pig at your own peril. I am not warning you again.

  25. #25 John Kwok
    August 7, 2009

    @ BioinfoTools –

    Yours are excellent points in your comments, especially with regards to what to expect from scientists, especially those at the start of their careers. Asking them to spend more time as “science communicators” is really asking too much of them, when they need to establish themselves as credible scientists capable of securing grant funding and publishing peer-reviewed scientific papers in scientific journals.

    I think Chris and Sheril have de-emphasized the importance of trying to stress rigorous immersion in basic sciences in secondary school (preferably, if possible, earlier), which science journalist Carl Zimmer has noted, most recently during a Bloggingheads,com conversation that he had with Chris Mooney. Eventually we need to develop more high schools which emphasize the teaching of mathematics, science and technology, like for example, New York City’s elite science high schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, and Fairfax County, VA’s Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology. We also need to ensure that science teachers are those who have been trained in the sciences and are capable of being excellent teachers.

    Appreciatively yours,

    John Kwok

  26. #26 Marion Delgado
    August 7, 2009

    Not only is this a great review, but the point about the end notes deserves a second look. One reason I gave the printed (but not audio) version of Gary Zukav’s book The Dancing Wu-Li Masters a great deal of credit was the very long footnotes (sometimes taking up half or a third of a page) that appeared throughout the book. Often, they flatly contradicted the conclusion in the text on a given page. Most of it was corrections by physics advisers.

    This despite the fact that, as Peter Woit has pointed out, Zukav basically jumped on to the bandwagon for the failed paradigm promoted by Fritjof Capra of bottom up organization of particles.

    Perhaps a mixture of footnotes and endnotes would have been best. Where they were disputing, they could have not only summarized the position of the people they were critiquing, but quoted rebuttals as Dancing Wu Li Masters did.

  27. #27 SLC
    August 8, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    I think you forgot that three of Obama’s key advisors are fellow alumni of my high school, of which the most important one is USA Attorney General Eric Holder, who I am certain, has confirmed Obama’s citizenship status. Continue smearing me online, my dear male chauvinist pig at your own peril. I am not warning you again.

    I’m shivering in my boots over the Kwoks’ threats. Apparently, the best part of the Kwoks’ life occurred while he was in high school and it has been downhill from there. Eric Holder is certainly an example of a notable graduate of Stuyvesant High School. Mr. Kwok is an example of one of the least notable graduates of that school.

  28. #28 SLC
    August 8, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    Mr. Kwok, if you bother me or my family I’ll scatter your brains from here to White Plains.

  29. #29 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    @ SLC –

    I advise you to shut up or master the ancient Japanese custom of seppuku (or do both). You’re a nasty, quite delusional, internet troll and an incorrigible male chauvinist pig too.

  30. #30 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    @ SLC –

    You know absolutely nothing about me and have no business to comment, period. The reason why I mentioned Eric Holder is this; do you honestly think I would dispute the citizen status of Holder’s boss, after his nomination and confirmation by the United States Senate as the USA Attorney General? There are quite simply much better reasons to oppose President Obama and his administration, and, I should note that even a well-respective conservative journal like The National Review has urged fellow conservatives to stay clear of the president’s citizenship “status”.

    However, you, on the other hand, are merely a delusional Militant Atheist troll who seems incapable of having a rational discourse with either myself, Josh Rosenau or others posting here at this blog entry, so your only course of action is to try smearing me as much as possible. Again, I remind you. You are doing so at your own peril.

  31. #31 SLC
    August 8, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    1. A .44 Magnum trumps Oriental hand to hand combat.

    2. The trouble with Mr. Kwok is that he breathes in but he doesn’t breathe out.

    3. It is a waste of time to cut Mr. Kwok because when one cuts manure, it just fuses back together again.

  32. #32 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    @ SLC –

    I think you really ought to stop posting now, since you are merely proving that you are:

    “….a delusional Militant Atheist troll who seems incapable of having a rational discourse with either myself, Josh Rosenau or others posting here at this blog entry….”.

    Did I also say that you are an incorrigible male chauvinist pig too?

    I’m going to keep you guessing as to what I might legally do to you, but you sound scarier and scarier each time you post.

  33. #33 SLC
    August 8, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    It has been apparent for some time that Mr. Kwok has considerably fewer then 52 cards in his deck. I suggest that he seek psychiatric care before he does something he will later greatly regret.

  34. #34 Nemo
    August 8, 2009

    In order to keep viewers and to sneak a little science into the discussion, the mythbusters actively deny that theirs is a “science show.”

    Citation, please. I don’t think that’s accurate. I’ve often heard them use the word “science”, both on and off the show, but never in a context of denial. They might humbly point out that none of them is a PhD, though.

  35. #35 Josh Rosenau
    August 8, 2009

    Nemo asks “citation please.” Ahem:

    Mr. Hyneman, however, insists that he and the “Mythbusters” team “don’t have any pretense of teaching science.” His wife, he noted, is a science teacher, and he knows how difficult that profession is. “If we tried to teach science,” he said, “the shows probably wouldn’t be successful.”

    “If people take away science from it,” Mr. Hyneman said, “it’s not our fault.” But if the antics inspire people to dig deeper into learning, he said, “that’s great.”

  36. #36 John Kwok
    August 8, 2009

    @ SLC –

    You claim you are a normal male, not the incorrigible male chauvinist pig that you most certainly are. This June 15th comment of yours over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog proves otherwise (It should really be apparent as to who isn’t playing with a “full deck”, and that, I can assure you, is the very person who has made this inane accusation at me.):

    Re John Kwok

    1. Let’s see, Mr. Kwok at 177 name dropped Ken Miller, Lawrence Krauss, and Brian Greene (I will pass over Cameron Diaz who is pretty hot herself; just for Mr. Kwoks information, I once saw actress Jacquelyn Smith jogging in the median of San Vicente Blvd in Pacific Palisades, Ca. while riding my Colnago Superissmo; I may have even seen the late Nicole Brown Simpson riding a Masi Grand Criterion down the same street on another occasion, although I can’t be sure it was her, even though I read after her unfortunate demise that she owned such a bicycle). One really has to be amused at how the inhabitant of a very thin walled glass house likes to throw rocks.

    2. Actually, I have heard of the biologist Sean Carroll, having read his second book on evolution. I would have thought that my identifying the other Sean Carroll as an astrophysicist (by the way, I also read his blog every so often) would have made that clear but I forgot that Mr. Kwok is ofter a little slow on the uptake.

    Posted by: SLC | June 15, 2009 3:12 PM

  37. #37 SLC
    August 9, 2009

    Re John Kwok

    Well, I am certainly glad that Mr. kwok saw fit to copy and past a previous comment of mine. Apparently, I forgot to add that I also found Jaclyn Smith hot. Couldn’t tell about the woman who might have been Nicol Brown Simpson as I didn’t get a good look at her.

  38. #38 John Kwok
    August 9, 2009

    Apparently SLC has no sense of decency. If I was a normal person, I’d probably be cringing over the sexist comments made by SLC elsewhere here at Science Blogs. But SLC demonstrates that he isn’t normal, by adding to his list. Here’s hoping he gets the psychological – and maybe psychiatric – counseling that he is in dire need of with regards to his sexual addiction and ongoing acute case of male chauvinism.

  39. #39 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    August 11, 2009

    Hey Josh, have you seen this morning’s LA Times?

    Mooney & Kirshenbaum – “Must science declare a holy war on religion?

  40. #40 John Kwok
    August 11, 2009


    Great piece from Chris and Sheril, though, I might add that NCSE has been posting similar commentary from others in recent days elsewhere online.



  41. #41 SLC
    August 12, 2009

    Heres’ some commentary on the article by Mooney/Kirshenbaum in the LA Times. Of course, the Kwok will be along to bad mouth Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse.



  42. #42 Josh Rosenau
    August 12, 2009

    SLC & Kwok: Would you both shut the fuck up please?

  43. #43 SLC
    August 14, 2009

    Re Josh Rosenau

    Now I know that Mr. Rosenau is very unlikely to be interested in an engagement of finger pointing but I would call his attention to Mr. Kwoks’ comment # 21 in which what had been a civil discussion was turned into a character assassination contest by him. In other words, as the kids say, he started it. I plead guilty to rising to the bait and engaging him in a like manner and offer my sincerest apologies to Mr. Rosenau for my contribution to the deterioration of this thread.

New comments have been disabled.