Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum were right about one thing.

They sent me a copy of their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), with a strange request: “We hope that like Dr. Coyne, you will suspend judgment until reading the book, at which point we’ll be interested to hear what you think.” I was a bit offended; of course I was going to read it with an open mind. Why would they think it necessary to ask me to do so?

That was before I got to chapters 8 and 9, however, which open with very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect. “Oh, that’s why they warned me,” I realized, “it’s like asking the victim of a hatchet job to hold still for a moment so they can get in a good whack.” They definitely did need to request my forbearance, so I wouldn’t just toss their hypocritical and ignorant paean to mealy-mouthedness in the trash right away, which was one perceptive moment on their part. And yes, I freely admit that my opinion of the book is colored by the palpable contempt they hold for me.

But I get ahead of myself. As I said, the discombobulating assault didn’t begin until chapter 8, but the problems I had with the book started much earlier.

In chapter one.

This chapter is completely baffling. They chose to illustrate the serious problem of the disconnect between a science-illiterate public and the science establishment with a strange example: the redesignation of Pluto as a non-planet. This event was accompanied by a public outcry, by people who had some peculiar emotional attachment to the idea that Pluto was the ninth planet, an attachment that was fed by a willing media that found this level of trivia to be about as complex an issue as they could handle. We know that certain topics rouse the public, and often it’s unpredictable what will catch the fancy of the news. But this? This is the opening story on which they build their argument that “consequences of the science-society divide may prove far more damaging”? And what do they propose we should do to resolve the issue?

This is where I am first taken aback. They come down on the side of Pluto being redesignated as a planet! Why, is not clear — they clearly list the scientific reasons why astronomers thought it didn’t merit the title of “planet” — but they talk over and over about “rifts” and “conflicts” and the “danger of being seen as an Adlai Stevenson egghead”. Apparently, the sin of the scientists was a failure to bow before popular opinion, and insufficient attention to the PR consequences of a scientific decision.

Well, Chris and Sheril, what should the astronomers have done? Should they have had a binding referendum delivered to the public to get their say? Are there other scientific matters that should be decided by popular vote? (Let’s put the truth of evolutionary biology up for decision in a poll!) Should scientists take the time to explain with a little wit and humor and sound scientific reasoning why they made that decision? If so, they missed the boat: they should read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) for exactly that. How about some discussion about exactly why they think that failed?

This chapter was symptomatic of the deficiencies of the whole book. We’re told over and over about how scientists suck at the job of science communication (which is largely true), and that we need more media- and politically-savvy scientists (definitely true), but then…what? Apparently the job of these science diplomats of the future is to bow to the will of the people, and tell the nerds back in the lab what they should be doing. And of course, one of the keys to being a successful media scientist is to show the proper deference and respect to cultural conventions.

Carl Sagan is their hero, and he’s one of mine, too. He’s the model of the scientist who is also both a skilled communicator and an activist, and I would agree entirely that we need more like him. However, they fail to notice the peculiar disjunction in their story: while reciting the wonderful efforts of Sagan and praising his skills and efforts, they’re also telling the story of the dismal state of science education at the same time. Strange…the object of their praise was influencing many of us growing up at that time, those of us who were already enthusiastic about science, but the culture was not improving, and was even getting worse. Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society? The religious right was not glued to their TV sets every night that Cosmos was on, you know. Sagan was preaching to the choir, and there’s nothing wrong with that — it can be a powerful tool for motivating and informing a wider cadre of science communicators.

The book entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces. Our salvation apparently lies entirely in the hands of scientists who quietly promote the positive values of the scientific outlook, while turning their eyes away from deep-rooted values and institutions that directly threaten science. To challenge those would be to offend people! And if we offend anyone, we lose! It’s an exceptionally defeatist attitude in which they plainly recognize a serious problem in American society — it’s the premise of the whole book! — but at the same time, demands that we avoid addressing the structural roots of those problems.

It’s even in the weirdly oblivious conclusion to the whole book.

Science is not merely culture’s “essential component”, and we don’t just have to mend the rift between science and culture: We have to create a perfect union. Science itself must become the common culture.

I can agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment…but how, exactly, are we to accomplish it without challenging anti-scientific attitudes? Like the Pluto incident, what Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to want is that science conform itself to that common culture, that somehow science will accommodate itself to the popular will, and everyone will be happy. They lack the realization that what they’re actually proposing is a rather radical change in cultural values, and that that will not come without some pain and conflict.

Another blind spot is present throughout the book, but particularly in the chapters where they excoriate the “New Atheists”. They regard Dawkins with considerable distaste (but at least they spare him the outright contempt they give to me!), and at the same time they bemoan the lack of great science communicators since we lost Sagan. Wait, what? Are they aware at all that Dawkins is an excellent and popular writer, that he has sold millions of books and has made a number of documentaries? That he’s taken good advantage of the web? I’d be curious to know who has sold more books, Dawkins or Sagan, but if I had to bet on one it would be Dawkins. He has critics and even enemies, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum, but that’s irrelevant — they know that Sagan was also strenuously vilified by critics on the Right and among the religious, as well, yet somehow that opposition is regarded as the defining element of Dawkins’ popularity, yet is overlooked in the case of Sagan. Scientists will always be delivering hard truths; if our hypothetical desired media-savvy science communicator cannot make anyone uncomfortable, then he or she is a failure at science.

And then there’s this exasperating nonsense, in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum are discussing how to get science into the popular media.

Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot. [emphasis mine]

What Mooney and Kirshenbaum fail to grasp is that to a scientist, factual accuracy must be paramount; it is not a matter on which we can compromise. Further, what they fail to recognize, and what they excuse for Hollywood, as that accuracy does not have to compromise narrative, drama, and character! They berate Dawkins as if he has no awareness of the basics of what makes a good story, which makes me wonder if they’ve read any of his books at all — do they think he simply drily recites a body of abstract thoughts at the reader? Perhaps they should take a look at The Ancestor’s Tale(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) to discover that he actually has addressed this imaginary deficit.

The bottom line is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book recites the obvious at us, that there is a fundamental disconnect between science and the popular imagination in our country, but offers no new solutions, and in fact would like to narrow our options to a blithe and accommodating compromise of science with rampant ignorance. Their own bigotry blinds them to a range of approaches offered by the “New Atheists”…a group that is not so closed to the wide range of necessarily differing tactics that such a deep problem requires as Mooney and Kirshenbaum are. It’s not a badly written book, but it’s something worse: it’s utterly useless.