Scicurious is always thrilled to receive books in the mail, and this one was rather eagerly awaited. Given the frequent controversy that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum routinely incite on their blog, The Intersection, the book was bound to be controversial at the very least. And indeed, before Sci had even gotten her little paws on the book, reviews had already gone up all over the blogosphere, some saying how great it was, and some saying how it was horrid and they hoped that all copies of it spontaneously combusted. Sci has avoided, however, giving any book reviews a read in detail, as she didn’t want to bias her own views of the book before she had read it.
So here it goes:
In Unscientific America, Mooney and Kirshenbaum expand somewhat on the various discussions taking place on their blog over the past few years. Specifically, they address four possible causes of scientific illiteracy, and what might be done to help bridge some of the gaps between scientists and the rest of society.
The book is short, the tone is light, and the style very reminiscent of the stuff commonly seen on the blog. It’s a fast read, and a highly opinionated one.
In their view, they main conflicts between scientists and the rest of the outside world arise from four main divides: science and policy, science and the media (journalism), science and Hollywood, and (the most contentious issue for many scientists) science and religion. One by one, Mooney and Kirshenbaum take on each of these issues, noting what they feel goes wrong with each one, and offering possible solutions to each issue.
Sci personally found that the authors had some good points to make. While it’s true that there are a lot of people out there who simply don’t want to learn about science, it’s also true that communication is a two-way street. Scientists can’t sit back and expect their results to speak for them. While that does indeed work with other scientists, it doesn’t tend to fly with the lay public. And many scientists don’t WANT to communicate. Sci cannot tell you how many scientists go into lab work “so they don’t have to deal with PEOPLE”, or because they just HATE reading and writing. Teaching at the graduate level, even of future scientists, is often performed unwillingly and with as little effort as possible. Scientists know that their future, their career, is to be found in successes at the bench. I don’t think we can be blamed for wanting to pursue our careers, especially when “community outreach” counts for so very little in the pursuit of jobs or tenure.
So Sci likes the idea of incentivising public outreach, and training scientists in public speaking. Aside from getting our ideas out to the public, it would certainly help Sci stay awake at lectures and conferences! And making communication skills count for something might make scientists look on those who communicate well with less suspicion. As most people who read this blog (and many other excellent science blogs out there) can tell, if given time and the incentive, scientists can indeed communicate complex ideas so that those with relatively little background knowledge can understand them. And there is not necessarily a lack of interest. When people realize how important science can be in their daily lives, they are often interested and eager to learn.
And communication abilities would indeed be very useful in getting the word out to policy officials as well. Many scientists these days are extremely specialized, and often look askance at those who “simplify” their stuff for the public. But if the public, and particularly the policy makers, are going to understand why the science relates to them and why they should fund it, they need to have a basic understanding of what’s going on. Sci agrees with the authors that this should probably be happening at both the level of better science education at the K-12, and better outreach on the part of scientists. Ultimately, if we want to have our work funded, understood, and appreciated, we’re going to have to make ourselves understood to people outside of science.
Sci also found the section on science and Hollywood particularly interesting. It’s true that science has “gone out of style”, and that’s it’s just not cool. But has it EVER really been cool? Sure, there was space fever for a while, but that wasn’t really everyone. It was still the geeks. Sure, people might have felt a little more at liberty to feel geeky, but Sci still thinks there were more people wanting to become football players during the space race than physicists. Science, honestly, may NEVER be really cool. It’s hard, it’s meticulous, and it’s not often very heroic. But it’s also true that Hollywood doesn’t do a lot to help us along. Mooney and Kirshenbaum think that the issue with this is putting more scientists in “good” roles, and portraying scientists as active, adventurous, and attractive, and science itself more accurately.
Sci’s not so sure about this point. After all, most professions don’t get a fair shake in Hollywood. You’d think every politician and lawyer was out drinking with the ladies every night, every doctor saved every patient with CPR, and every spy had license to kill. The reality is that none of this is true. I would hesitate to say that scientists get a WORSE slice of the pie than anyone else. And Hollywood can be instrumental in promoting science, getting people interested, and making what we do on a day-to-day basis relevant to the rest of society.
But it would still be nice to see science portrayed more accurately (if another idiot asks me again to sequence their DNA overnight I might hurt something), and to see scientists more as how they are, people with strong ideals, who are persevering, really nerdy, and often not very good looking or social…wait…crap…
Where the book runs into major controversy is in the section dealing with science and religion. Sci has known, to some degree, of the major split between “new atheists” and “apologists” or those who believe science is entirely irreconcilable with religion, and those who do not, but it was still extremely educational to see the entire history of this debate laid out. Sci was not aware that it went back so far. While this section is good for stirring up controversy, and thus very good for selling books and generating a lot of talk, I am not so certain that this section fits well with the rest of the book. I feel that the book might be stronger, and end up making a bigger positive impact, if the book focused more on policy, the media, and Hollywood, and saved the religion debate for another book. There’s definitely enough material there to fill one, if need be.
As it is, the section on religion has its issues. It is probably true that scientists have enough problems making themselves understood and appreciated, without pointing fingers and attacking those who disagree with regard to religion. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are coming at this issue from the idea that science needs all the allies it can get, and that scientists should, for the time being, be conciliatory toward religion. Indeed, they argue that being antagonistic toward religion is only going to make scientists enemies that they cannot afford to have. While this may be the case, it seems rather unrealistic to ask scientists, who are often very idealistic in the pursuit of truth and reality, to hide their opinions and play nice for the sake of popularity. And, as some have pointed out in previous discussions on the topic, scientists have tried to play nice before, and been soundly rebuffed. Why should they play nice now?
Sci admits that she can see both sides of the question. Scientists have a hard enough time making themselves understood without making extra enemies, but at the same time, when attacked, it would be both foolish and bad for science just to bend to the will of religion. But she will not venture her own opinion at this time. In fact, she recommends you get the book, read it yourself, read some Dawkins for the other side of the issue, and come up with your own opinion.
But she does indeed recommend this book, especially to those who are scientists, and want to work on getting other scientists to communicate with policy makers and the media. When it comes down to it, policy making is where a lot of our money comes from. Though scientists often don’t really care about the money (and those of us in grad school certainly aren’t “in it” for money and fame), it does cost a lot to get our jobs done, and we’ve got to convince the people funding us to dish out the dollars.
Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.