Review: Unscientific America- Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (Basic Books, 2010)

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy threatens our future is both interesting and odd. The book has generated much controversy, many negative reviews, and actually many themes in the book have been further and more clearly developed in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blogging and article writing in the last year. If anything my complaints are that the book is too short and thus several interesting themes are undeveloped, data seems rhetorically mulled, and the best parts of the book where in the areas that involved structural problems with science educated graduate students and post-docs as well as the misunderstanding between the humanities and the sciences (and how little influence that actually has had on popular culture.) Yet, a book on a subject as broad as “scientific illiteracy” and American culture should NOT be only 130 pages. In fact, the book is actually even boarder than the sub-title suggests because the target that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have is not merely “scientific illiteracy’ but scientific miscommunication, misinformation, and denialism.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum do seem to really take on some of the narratives about scientific framing, such as the “post-modern/modernist” science wars which was basically a fight in French sociology and both overblown and expanded as a means of academic turf war. This ALONE could be a good book and have been illuminating if done by someone with experience, understand, and empathy for all factors involved and could rightly have done away with a lot of nonsense, particularly overuse of post-structural semiotics in fields in which semiotics don’t really apply, such as scientific inquiry or the physical nature of the universe. Mooney and/or Kirshenbuam are educated enough in both the humanities and science to do this. Merely mentioning the implied slap to the humanities–all the humanities, not just the post-structuralist influenced ones–in Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstitions , pointing out Bruno Latour’s lament about being abused by religious fundamentalists, and showing the limits of post-structural criticism of science doesn’t really get into the real issues. I could say the same thing for his history of scientific culture relationship to the media, or his mentioning of the structural challenges to science graduate students in an academic setting that, even though scientists are said to be sorely needed, doesn’t seem to have room for them. (This, however, is not unique to science-specialized post-doctorates. I have horror stories about similar things in the social sciences and humanities that I lived through.)

It is not fair, however, to review the books I wish Mooney and Kirshenbuam had written instead of the one they did. Mooney and Kirshenbaum start by critiquing the Pluto situation as about semantics, but seem to play down that the semantics about an ill-defined term always NEED to get more specific. Yes, this is not a case of “objective fact” and, yes, we should criticize how poorly the change in semantics and the controversy surrounding the issue was explained, but it does not make the case to say that because planet definition was complicated and semantic, that the definition should not be made more precise.

While Mooney and Kirshenbaum did talk about structural problems in both the media and the academy, they seemed a little too eager to blame it all on Reagan, missing the cynical use of science during the Cold War may have actually been part of the massive public relations problem in the first place. In fact, aren’t MANY of the fiscal problems in academia, not just in science related to those Cold War policies? My studies of US history indicate that the Cold War distorted things–in science policy for the better—but that it may have been somewhat untenable. Furthermore, even if we were producing an army of Sagans and Goulds, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s discussion of the fragmentation of the media market actually illustrate that it wouldn’t have the same effect.

The discussion of Hollywood was somewhat useful, but needed to be expanded or re-contextualized. The topic has been written about several times before and the “archetypes” (or stereotypes) of scientists are well-known. Hollywood’s abuse of archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are not even remotely limited to scientists, yet those stereotypes do not stick equally to all fields. So what else is going on here?

Furthermore, this book did not really address problems about scientific education in primary schools. Not just the lack of knowledge of scientific facts, theories, and/or models that is endemic to the general populace (and as Mooney and Kirshenbaum rightly point out, not just in the United States). While Mooney and Kirshenbaum are correct about the media role in science education outside of learning institituions, harping so much on this seems to be missing the point.

For a book that appears aimed at a general audience, it does chastise scientists quite a bit. I sometimes feel like I didn’t know if Mooney and Kirshenbaum where writing for the public or for the science bloggers they criticize. Whose this aimed at? CEO’s? The Daily Kos? The Nation? Skeptic Magazine? I see things that would please all of these audiences, but not developed to the point that it would really start more than an initial conservation.

The discussion of Hollywood was somewhat useful, but needed to be expanded or re-contextualized. The topic has been written about several times before and the “archetypes” (or stereotypes) of scientists are well-known. If the audience is general, I understand this chapter, but if the audience are the kind of people who follow Discover Magazine or know who PZ Myer’s even is, well, I don’t think I get it whole angle here.

Towards the end, Mooney and Kirshenbaum write:

“We must rally toward a single goal: Without sacrificing the growth of knowledge or scientific innovation, we must invest in a sweeping project to make science relevant to the whole of American’s citizenry. … [W]hat we need — and currently lack — is the systematic acceptance of the idea that these actions are integral parts of the job description of scientists themselves. Not just their delegates, or surrogates, in the media or the classrooms.” (130)

I love the idea, but the skill set is not necessarily something that ALL scientist need. Yes we need popularizing scientists who are still engaged in research and who are charismatic, but part of the above could be a field in and of itself. Science journalist and science writers do some of this role, and aiding communicators could still do this. Scientists would just have to work with them. Still, most research and professional types in the scientific community are pushed for time. We’ve seen great models here that are still alive and well: DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Novella, Jonah Lehrer, Oliver Sachs, and even Richard Dawkins comes to mind.

So why was I harping on the books I wish this had been? Why is all the above criticism negative? Why did I not mention the controversy over blogs and religion?
I found the first third of the book fascinating and while I did have some critiques that I pointed out above, I learned much from that section of the book. The last section of the book was too short even by the standards of concision that Mooney and Kirshenbaum placed on themselves, but those ideas have promise too. I admire Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s defense of the general public as basically well-meaning; yet, I don’t think we can really give a lot of ground to faith-claims. There are certain types of religious, political, and philosophical l ideas that not only ignore facts and reason, but actively deny those elements of the world. I don’t think we can respect those and push for scientific understanding: why Mooney seems to understand that in the realm of politics, but gives more concessions to religious ideas seems more tactical than principled. I think there is a quote in the very beginning of the book that gets to this point:

“It’s a stunning contradiction when you think about it. The United States features a massive infrastructure for science, supported by well over $100 billion annually in federal funding and sporting a vast network of government laboratories and agencies, the finest universities in the world, and innovative corporations that conduct extensive research…. And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles. A distressingly large number of Americans refuse to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of the origin of our species and the diversity of life on Earth. An influential sector of the populace is in dangerous retreat from the standard use of childhood vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest and most successful advances… The nation itself has become politically divided over the nature of reality, such that college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and is caused by human activities. “(p. 3)

Note that Mooney and Kirshenbaum hit at the root of some problems with partisan discussions of global warming and the economic nature of denialism. Yet the don’t really hit at the heart of the denial about evolution. It is NOT contradictory that people can have trust and respect for scientists but believe ultimately that on some issues there is no real consensus. That’s a niche confirmation bias tied to an ideological view of the world. It is NOT scientific illiteracy or even poor communication on the parts of scientists.

Ultimately, I am glad I read this book, and so I recommend it with some major reservations. I wish that Mooney and Kirshenbaum would have sacrificed some concision for some thoroughness, and, honestly, I not only think the book would have been improved, but the more policy would come out of it, and less arguing would be made on blogs. Perhaps Mooney and Kirshenbaum will continue their working partnership and I will see these arguments expanded out in future books as I am already beginning to see in articles.


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