Unscientific America: Mooney, Kirshenbaum Book Offers Valuable Science/Policy Insights


View larger image
Coauthors Mooney and Kirshenbaum at a Washington, D.C., bookstore event.

Scientific issues continue to play a larger and larger role in many important public policy issues. No news flash there.

Neither is it news that public understanding of science falls short, far short, of what many in the science and policy fields would like to see. New studies emerge practically monthly illustrating that the situation is getting worse, not better.

Climate change is far from the only public policy issue in which insufficient public understanding is seen as an obstacle to constructive policy changes. Count stem cell research, genetically modified foods, evolution/creationism, abortion/”choice” among the many others.

A recent headline from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press helps illustrate the challenges: “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media” (also see Yale Forum News Note).

In this context, author Chris Mooney (“The Republican War on Science”and “Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming”) and coauthor/marine scientist/Duke University research associate Sheril Kirshenbaum offer a timely bromide for the science blues.

Their new book – “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” – could not be better timed. And their execution too leaves little to be desired, as they serve up a very readable and useful resource for a wide range of audiences.

For those well versed and thoroughly steeped in the subject of science-policy-communications-education issues, the 209-page hardback (132 pages of copy and the remainder footnotes and index) offers a quick-read refresher, touching on a number of what the authors rightly consider to be recent milestones on the road to a more scientifically understanding citizenry. From Sputnik to fond memories of astronomer/communicator-par-excellence Carl Sagan, they offer insights into a number of factors behind the “disconnect” between science and policy, often, but not always, with an eye toward climate change.

They find fault everywhere they look, and appropriately so: With the media, with the science education community, with Hollywood and TV caricatures of the “mad scientist,” with established scientists and their academy.

They point to the promises, but also to the limitations, of the new media and of blogging, at one point acknowledging: “The problem with the internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it: There’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap. This is as true for science as for any other area.”

They stress that they don’t intend to short-shrift blogs, but wonder “how much time should the scientific community be spending online” given the narrower and more specialized audience they likely reach. “In the vast space of the internet,” they caution, “it’s unlikely that anyone who is not already a science aficionado is going to spend much time with science blogs, except perhaps by stumbling over them by accident or while researching a topic.”

Their message here, in the midst of a major overhaul of mainstream news organizations, is clear from their chapter title: “The bloggers cannot save us.” They find that particularly so given that blogs often lead to a “grouping together of people who already agree about everything, and who then proceed to square and cube their agreements, becoming increasingly self-assured and intolerant of other viewpoints.”

Some, of course, might say that ideological self-grouping tendency applies also, and increasingly, to use of what remains of audience interest in mainstream news media, as people reliably tend to seek out those outlets reinforcing their own existing biases.

But it is in their “Is Our Scientists Learning?” (sic.) chapter and in their conclusion chapter that Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer what may be the book’s most valuable contributions. Here, they outline the woes, but also the promises and potentials, of the science community, and they issue a veritable call to action not just for more scientists, and certainly not for more scientists working “in isolation” from the society so badly needing them. Instead, they call for better scientific training of “more well-rounded scientists,” familiar with and comfortable dealing in policy, politics, society, and the media. They call for career paths supportive not only of scientific innovation, but also of scientific outreach.

Emphasizing that the media, entertainment, politicians, and others share responsibilities in improving scientific understanding – and in not undercutting it – Mooney and Kirshenbaum point to scientists and those caring most about scientific work as knowing best what is being missed and why it matters. “They have the talent, the knowledge, and in many cases the resources to turn things around.”

“We don’t simply need a bigger scientific workforce,” they argue: “We need a more cultured one, capable of bridging the divides that have led to science’s declining influence.” Echoing some who have come before them – there are indeed many, as these two young authors are very early in their promising careers – they make a convincing case not simply “to mend the rift between science and culture.” Instead, they argue for “a perfect union. Science itself must become the common culture.”

“Our future depends on it,” they say with certainty, again invoking Carl Sagan.

“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Basic Books, Copyright 2009, ISBN 978-0-465—13-5-0.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unscientific America: Mooney, Kirshenbaum Book Offers Valuable Science/Policy Insights

  1. I am halfway through the book now, and for anyone who cares about mending the gap between science and some public/political groups, it’s well worth a read.

    Great review Bud!

  2. Howard Neufeld says:

    I read this book as soon as it came out, because Chris Mooney’s previous book, The Republican War on Science, was so well done. However, this one did not fare as well. While their message might be important, it is neither new nor innovative. One need only have read Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, whose great Chapter 2 should be required reading for anyone interested in the dumbing down of America, or the Ehrlich’s book Betrayal of Science and Reason, for similar arguments. Or more importantly, Morris Shamos’ 1995 book, The Myth of Scientific Literacy, Rutgers Univ. Press, which outlined many of the same points that Mooney and Kirshenbaum make in their book, yet they never even acknowledged it!
    I get the feeling that they wrote this in a hurry, and as a result, missed some important previous works. Finally, I agree totally with Jerry Coyne’s review just published in Science, in which he takes issue with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s criticism of Dawkins and others, scientists who express their viewpoints no matter how uncomfortable that may make people. I think this is an intellectual cop out.
    A little more time and effort, and this could have been a much better book. Ah, now back to Idiot America, by Charlie Pierce.
    Howie Neufeld, Class of ’77