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.