Book Review: Unscientific America

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:
unscientific america.png


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. brain_icon.pngbrain_icon.pngbrain_icon.png

15 Responses

  1. Good point about how Hollywood treats not just scientists, but other careers and roles as well! Hadn’t thought of it that way before.

  2. There’s a really interesting book called from “Faust to Strangelove: Representations of Scientists in Western Literature.”
    It categorizes, I think, 6 or 7 different constructs of scientists in literature and film. For example, the heroic scientist, the nerd, the mad scientist, etc. It’s thick book, but an easy read.

  3. Thanks for mentioning that you’d been avoiding other reviews. I’m very impressed at how consistent the reviews have been for this book. Of course, at 132 pages, there’s less incentive to focus on just one part of the book to keep the review from getting unwieldy.🙂

  4. It’s ironic that the few movies that put forth some effort to be scientifically accurate tend to do well and make money. (E.g.: 2001, The Abyss, Gattaca.) Maybe that’s just a sign of craftsmanship in general.
    What’s really annoying is when movies get science wrong unnecessarily.

  5. It’s ironic that the few movies that put forth some effort to be scientifically accurate tend to do well and make money. (E.g.: 2001, The Abyss, Gattaca.) Maybe that’s just a sign of craftsmanship in general.
    What’s really annoying is when movies get science wrong unnecessarily.

  6. In some areas concerning religion, scientists have to be aggressive, e.g. combating the teaching of creationism as a plausible alternative to evolution.
    However, this is best accomplished for long-term results in better teaching of evolution. I am amazed at how many people who aren’t all that religious and are not even trying to defend creationism that think evolution means we are descended from monkeys and that’s all it means.
    Critical thinking and logic should be required high school courses. And politicians and policy-makers should be required to show proof they took it, passed it, and understood it!

  7. I hear that there is a companion book coming out called “Atheist America: How Biblical Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”

  8. I haven’t got the book yet, which is probably just as well as I have many better things to do with my time (than write a review), but IMO one problem with the teaching of science is that it’s taught like a religion: the divine revelation handed down by “SCIENCE”, rather than “GOD”. This gives people a really bad idea of what science is all about: in Kuhnian terms they understand “normal” science but paradigm shifts, “Kuhnian revolutions”, totally discombobulate them.
    An example of this, taken second-hand from another review, is the problem with redefining Pluto as not a planet. According to this other review, Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest that this shouldn’t have been done as the impact on the public perceptions was unfortunate.
    The essence of the paradigm shift is usually a semantic change: the redefinition of one or more terms in a way that makes the science clearer. In the case of Pluto, the word “planet” was redefined to make it fit modern ideas of how the Solar system formed, a small but distinct paradigm shift, and thus an essential part of how science works.
    If Mooney and Kirshenbaum actually said that this semantic shift should have been suppressed, whatever the reason, this would make them Kuhnian Counter-revolutionaries: proponents of “Normal Science” but opposed to the paradigm shifts that allow the real, fundamental, insights of science. Without paradigm shifts, it’s not really science, it’s just constant niggling with the same “Principles” revealed from on high by “SCIENCE”, that will end up disputing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: just another religion.
    As an intellectual anarchist: a Kuhnian revolutionary looking for a revolution, I am totally at odds with this approach. I certainly hope that when I do get my copy of the book I discover that the reviewer who told this Pluto story got it wrong somehow.

  9. One way that science can take on religious overtones is when scientists adopt the same type of hysterical, “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” tone that we are accustomed to hearing from leaders of the religious right. That was why I joked earlier about a companion book called “Atheist America: How Biblical Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”. If you visit your neighbourhood Christian bookstore you will quickly discover that there are already many books out there that might as well have my fictious title. So is this new book by Mooney & Kirshenbaum attempting to fight fire with fire?

  10. AK: Ok, having read the other reviews now in some detail, I…don’t get what they were talking about with Pluto. The whole thing about wanting to restore Pluto as a planet was one line, and I personally kind of thought it was meant ironically. I could be wrong. Written word doesn’t come with tone of voice.
    But I think you’re right about science being taught in ways that do not encourage people to think about paradigm shifts (I’ve read my share of Kuhn). Perhaps that’s just so teachers don’t have to hear backtalk? It’s definitely a problem.

  11. Thanks, Sci… I definately feel better.
    On the issue of backtalk, I think you’re right. I had a science teacher in grades 4-8 who, if you missed a question on a test but could prove that the “standard” answer was wrong according to the textbook, would restore the question (and correct the grade). More importantly, if you could prove that the textbook itself was wrong you got extra credit as well as restoring the question. (I only managed it once, when I demonstrated that foxes eat a variety of fruit despite being “carnivores”.) This may have prejudiced my attitudes on the subject.
    (As it happened, the teacher was my mother, a former chemist who’d worked on the Manhattan project before stopping to have children. AFAIK she took the job teaching to assure that her children were properly taught. This just adds strength to the prejudice. Of course, all the other students got the advantage of her teaching.)
    In my experience, most teachers envision themselves as intermedaries between “authority” (such as the textbook) and the students. Any challenge to that “authority” is a threat. As far as I can see, only by replacing that (often tacit) self-image with a more appropriate one can real science be taught properly. (I don’t have a ready answer what that replacement ought to be. Any ideas?)

  12. AK, the discussion of Pluto is in the opening of the book, which is available either through Amazon’s preview feature or at the website for the book itself.

  13. Thanks Stephanie…
    Having read it, I’m middling disappointed. Here’s the quote:

    In the astronomers’ defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects–one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly “Xena”), turns out to be larger. But that didn’t mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word “planet,” they were arguably not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise, meaning that instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris… [emphasis mine]

    This may have been an ironic “throwaway” comment, but even so dismissing it as a “semantic exercise” shows a woeful ignorance of Kuhnian revolutions (unless there’s an extended discussion later in the text, which I’m confident there’s not since Sci would have mentioned it).
    IMO any book discussing (and lamenting) the problems with science education ought to spend a good deal of time on this subject: it is a problem, as Sci has mentioned.

  14. Thanks Stephanie…
    Having read it, I’m middling disappointed. Here’s the quote:

    In the astronomers’ defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects–one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly “Xena”), turns out to be larger. But that didn’t mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word “planet,” they were arguably not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise, meaning that instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris… [emphasis mine]

    This may have been an ironic “throwaway” comment, but even so dismissing it as a “semantic exercise” shows a woeful ignorance of Kuhnian revolutions (unless there’s an extended discussion later in the text, which I’m confident there’s not since Sci would have mentioned it).
    IMO any book discussing (and lamenting) the problems with science education ought to spend a good deal of time on this subject: it is a problem, as Sci has mentioned.

  15. If these authors think reclassifying Pluto as a Kuiper Belt Object rather than a planet was merely semantic, they are arguing astronomy from ignorance. How ironic scientific ignorance is the very thing they are writing about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: