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‘Unscientific America': A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2009

Author Chris Mooney (of “Storm World” fame) and fellow “Intersection” blogger, scientist, and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum have written an extraordinary, if rather sobering book entitled ‘Unscientific America’. What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).

‘Unscientific America’ explores how we’ve come to the point we’re now at, examining the historical factors behind the diminishing prominence of science and scientists in the popular culture of the U.S. since its heyday in the years following WW II. The authors uncover more than enough blame to go around. They find fault with the media, both in how it portrays science and scientists (e.g. the icon of the ‘mad scientist’), and in the decreasing news coverage devoted to issues involving science and technology. They find fault in the way policy makers often abuse science (cherry-picking those particular scientific findings which suit their agenda), and in the behavior of corporate special interests who, in areas such as our own area of ‘climate change’, have often deliberately manufactured false controversy and confusion to dissuade the public from demanding action be taken. At this point, the scientists among you might begin to feel absolved of any responsibility for the problem. Don’t–Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t allow us to escape blame, and with good reason. As they point out, we ‘eat our own’, when it comes to colleagues engaged in public outreach and science popularization. Case in point: Carl Sagan–a hero to many of us who value science outreach. One of the darker episodes in modern U.S. science history was the blocking by Sagan’s fellow scientists of his entry into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Evidently, a majority of his colleagues resented his having become a household name–something they presumably considered unbecoming for a scientist. What sort of message does it send when the most effective science communicator in modern history was shunned by his colleagues for his efforts? Certainly not a good one. This is just one example, and there are many others–it is not surprising that so few scientists to choose to pursue the path of outreach and public education. The reward systems in academia and the scientific world typically do not favor scientists who choose to expend considerable time and effort engaging in public discourse. And here of course, it is as much that system, as the scientists themselves, which is to blame.

Given that we (scientists) are part of the problem, it must stand to reason that we are also part of the solution. And indeed, this is a primary thesis advanced by Mooney and Kirshenbaum. The authors argue that we must fundamentally reinvent the way that scientists are trained, so as to encourage and reward those who choose to serve as much-needed science liasons and science communicators. Indeed, the reward system must be reworked in such a way as to facilitate the establishment of a whole new class of scientists, so-called ‘science ambassadors’ who are rigorously trained in science, but have the proclivity and ability to engage in the broader discourse and to help bridge the growing rift between the ‘two cultures’. We can no longer rely on pure serendipity that figures such as Sagan will just come along. We must be proactive in establishing a pipeline of scientists who can fill this key niche. In the absence of such intervention, the authors argue, the current rift between the “two cultures” will continue to grow, and the chasm between science on the one side, and popular culture and public policy-making on the other, will grow ever more dangerously wide. Such was Carl Sagan’s great fear, as revealed in his classic “The Demon-Haunted world”, published shortly before his untimely departure in 1996.

To some, the authors could potentially come across as a bit overly prescriptive here. One might interpret them as arguing that science needs to be taught in a fundamentally different way, with the new generation of science students fully immersed in the social sciences as part of an entirely rethought curriculum. Were the authors arguing this, one might indeed expect quite a bit of push-back from the scientific community. After all, the course work required to prepare today’s science students for careers of advanced research in cosmology or genetics (or climate modeling for that matter) is extensive, and slapping a whole bunch of additional course requirements in, say, communication and sociology, on top of their current requirements would be onerous to say the least. But this is not what the authors are saying (I can say this with confidence, having confirmed this in my discussions with them). To allow science to continue to flourish, it will of course be necessary to allow those scientists with neither the interest nor inherent aptitude for communication to continue to do science in the old fashioned way. It would be an unwise use of our resources and theirs to push these reluctant individuals towards outreach.

What does make sense–and what the authors are indeed arguing for–is that we adapt the current system to facilitate the development of those individuals who are well suited to careers as ‘science ambassadors’. An appropriate step might be requiring science majors to take a course in college (perhaps a so-called ‘capstone’ course taken in the senior year) that focuses on the broader societal context within which the scientific topics they’ve studied resides. Some, perhaps even most, of these prospective future scientists will decide that they want no more of this–and that’s fine. Once again, we should not force those who are reluctant to follow this new path. But hopefully the experience will identify, in a self-selecting manner, those scientists who do have broader interests and abilities in this area. And for those who do, there needs to an entire academic infrastructure, ready to absorb them and to help prepare them to join the ranks of those much needed science ambassadors. We need to be realistic in this venture of course. These innovations may not yield another Carl Sagan. But they will certainly move us in the right direction. For those who believe that such dramatic changes in our way of doing things are not necessary–that the burgeoning litany of science blogs, such as RealClimate (which does get several mentions in the book!) will help to insure the penetration of science back into popular culture, the authors have a disquieting message: an entire chapter entitled “The Bloggers Cannot Save Us”. And to those who hope that the more forwarding-thinking attitude towards science within the current U.S. government signals the long-awaited stemming of the anti-science tide, the authors caution that the current crisis–such as the disappearance of science and technology journalism from our media–is far more fundamental and structural in nature.

‘Unscientific America’ is extremely well written, which is no surprise to those of us who follow Chris and Sheril’s insightful blog postings. Its also remarkably error free (something I wish I could say about our own book “Dire predictions”–we still caught a few typos going into the 3rd printing). Every review must find some fault, and so here’s mine: There is a very minor mistake. The authors at one point refer to an exciting new venture known as “Climate Central” as being a Princeton University-affiliated effort. Its not. Other than being physically located in Princeton, and having some Princeton folks on board, there is no formal relationship with the university. I doubt Princeton is going to sue however.

If it were up to me, this book would be required reading for all undergraduate science majors, along with Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”. Only when we begin training scientists to understand the relationship between science and society, and their crucial role in that relationship, will be begin to solve the dilemma so eloquently described in ‘Unscientific America’.


371 Responses to “‘Unscientific America': A Review”

  1. 51
    Jim Bouldin says:

    re 47: current or recently:

    Steven Jay Gould
    Edward O. Wilson
    George Page (PBS’ Nature)
    Roger Tory Peterson
    Ted Turner

  2. 52
    Steve Reynolds says:

    35.Paul H: “Referring specifically to amateurs being on the receiving end of condescension, can you provide some examples of where and when this happened?”

    Well this comment just below yours is one example:

    37. tamino: “Alas, too often the end result of powerful methods and powerful desktop computers in the hands of amateurs is: Anthony Watts. ‘Nuff said.”

    While I do not defend everything Anthony Watts has written, he and his team have put a lot of apparently (to me) sincere effort into gathering data and understanding AGW issues. Just because someone distrusts his motives or dislikes his results does not justify the dismissal above. That kind of dismissal is what I expect from denialists, not practiced by scientists.

    Another Watts example: The speculation on his blog a few months ago of whether it was ever cold enough in Antarctica for CO2 snow. I thought that (which eventually included an apparently effective experiment) was a good example of the scientific method in action. Here on RC, it was a subject of ridicule.

    I could mention more examples, but I would like this to get through the censor, and I need to get back to work.

  3. 53
    Ralph Johnson says:

    PZ Myers strongly disagrees, calling the book “utterly useless”.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/unscientific_america_how_scien.php

    [Response: Yes, he does. I respect PZ views on many matters. Here however, even by his own admission, his objectivity is likely compromised: He is at the receiving end of a fair degree of criticism in the book. The subjects explored in the book, especially the delicate and often awkward intersection of science and religion, tend to excite great passion and fierce disagreements. I’ll let my appraisal of the book stand on its own merit, but I’d encourage folks to read the book and form their own opinions. -mike]

  4. 54
    Phillip Shaw says:

    Re #27:

    James Griffiths wrote:

    “The only way to increase scientific literacy, like in every area of ignorance, is to make the debate more widespread.

    Debate leads to curiosity. Curiosity will inspire enquiry. Enquiry will lead to education.”

    Wow! I’d love to visit your home planet because it sure doesn’t work that way on this one. :-)

    Can you name a single scientific topic that has advanced through widespread debate? I can’t think of any. That’s because debate does not lead to curiousity, any more than professional wrestling leads to physical fitness. Debate is just entertainment at best, and propaganda at worst.

    On the other hand I can think of a number of topics that have benefitted from widespread educational initiatives. Ecology, environmentalism, recycling, renewable energy, and manned space flight are several off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many others.

  5. 55
    James says:

    I think we’re up against a basic problem: there are Snow’s Two Cultures*, each involving only a small fraction of the poulation. The remainder form the great mass of the uncultured, whose only interaction with either is to ridicule them as the activities of eggheads and longhairs. (If you’ll forgive rather dated terms. Nerds and geeks I think are the contemporary equivalents for those interested in science & technology.) So how do you educate those who don’t want to be educated?

    *Though from my observation there are two only if looking from the humanities side, since scientists as a group tend to be rather interested in the humanities, if often dismissive of the more avant garde aspects.

  6. 56
    dhogaza says:

    Tamino:

    I have extensive experience with amateur astronomers; I’d venture to say that astronomy is the single scientific field in which amateurs make the most significant contribution.

    Amateur ornithologists give amateur astronomers a run for their money. Heck, Jared Diamond, the world’s leading authority on the avian fauna of New Guinea is technically an amateur.

    In part that’s because astronomy is still, to a large degree, an observational science, and the vast army of amatuer observers can muster orders of magnitude more “telescope time” than professionals (who constantly complain about how hard it is to get telescope time at major observatories).

    And the same comments apply to ornithology.

    Perhaps the biggest difference I see between “amateurs” in climate science and in other sciences is: arrogance.

    I think that amateurs in fields like astronomy and ornithology have a sense as to where they fit in, i.e. largely providing huge amounts of valuable data than professionals rely upon for the more theoretical aspects of the field of science involved.

    Amateurs are responsible for monitoring USF&W breeding bird routes, for instance, and they know exactly what they’re doing – the nitty-gritty, time-consuming, often fairly uninteresting job of data collection in the field. They understand the value, that there’s not money available for paying the huge number of field techs that would be necessary if the job weren’t done by skilled and dedicated volunteers. And they know that the raw data of a single count done in one year isn’t useful, it’s the long-term accumulation of data over a large number of BBS routes that allow for making observations about changes in distribution of species over time, etc.

    There are a large number of such examples. Astronomy’s similar. Amateurs view themselves as being useful helpers.

    And when they’re told “we need you to stand here for 15 minutes, and identify every bird you can by eye or ear”, they don’t respond by e-mailing you a photograph saying “well, I didn’t get you the data you want, because all you really need is a photograph and this air-conditioner in the photo proves that northern spotted owls breed in junkyards”.

    Most of the “amateurs” who pollute the blogosphere with ruminations about climate science aren’t really amateurs in the purest sense; they don’t do it for love of the science, but for the hatred of it.

    And this is the best sentence summarizing the problem I’ve seen. That and/or the hatred of the *implications* of the science. These people aren’t amateur climate scientists any more than creationists are amateur evolutionary biologists. There’s no comparison with the amateur enthusiasts helping out with the observational aspects of fields like astronomy and ornithology.

  7. 57

    In my country, Dr. David Suzuki — through the Nature of Things on CBC — has turned many, many people onto science and sustainability. And yet, I still remember my oceanography professor in 1980 taking Suzuki to task for losing his objectivity, and for becoming so political. (The irony is that this particular professor went on to do the exact same thing on various CBC radio and television programs for more than a decade).

    It drives me crazy that Suzuki has become the Al Gore of Canada, a focal point for so much anger and vitriol. I honor the man.

  8. 58

    Science ambassadors — that’s a great way to describe applied scientists and inventors who bring science to bear on important problems. It used to be, in America, that applied science was admired. Lay people could see what it was good for.

    But now, pure scientists, instead of applied scientists, get nearly all of the funding and the academic posts. Like eunuchs in the Roman empire, they promote only those like themselves, so it will take generations to correct the system. Lee Smolin’s devastating critique of string theory, “The Trouble with Physics,” points this out with regard to physics departments today. String theory (the putative Theory of Everything) is unprovable, but nevertheless such quasi-theological speculations in cosmology and particle physics consume most of the available physics grant money and get most of the graduate students.

    Even if the science budget is increased in response to the current global emergency, it’s a safe bet that the money will go to academic and national lab pure science for efforts that will bear no fruit. For example, hot fusion and supercolliders. We need mission-driven applied science, but we’ll probably get nothing tangible but obscure papers concluding that much more study (grant money) is needed.

    So maybe that’s part of the reason that science gets no respect.

  9. 59
    Mark says:

    “I struggle to formulate a simple definition of what it means for absorption to be “saturated” for a specific molecule / band / whatever.
    Comment by Jim Prall”

    It means (very simple really, explaining this is like when I explained CGI [web application] to a contractor who was a programmer) that the medium is optically thick.

    E.g. several optical depths.

    Therefore, for any reasonable definition of “opaque”, adding more will not reduce the transmission any more. Statistically, very similar to the “six sigma’s of virtual certainty”.

    Which we were at, as far as the outgoing column of atmosphere is concerned, in the low scores ppm (someone help on that?).

    So denialists (and they really are) take that “it is virtually 100% opaque” to mean “adding any more cannot change that”.

    Only possible if you don’t listen to the explanation or read what it is you’re “skeptical” about (since they explain what the difference is there).

    And if you don’t read what you’re being skeptical about you aren’t a skeptic: you don’t know what the argument is, so that’s NO reason to think it wrong, is it?

    [moderator: ok, we’re getting way off topic here]

  10. 60
    Mark says:

    Steve Reynolds, #52, have you READ what Anthony Watts has written about the IPCC scientists? What he’s written about RC and the people here specifically Gavin and Mann and the others here?

    If you think what Tamino said was off kilter, you would DIE (literally) of horror at what Watt says.

    Yet I don’t see anyone leaving the site saying “you’re just too rude about the pro-AGW people, Anthony.”.

  11. 61
    Mark says:

    “Another Watts example: The speculation on his blog a few months ago of whether it was ever cold enough in Antarctica for CO2 snow. I thought that (which eventually included an apparently effective experiment) was a good example of the scientific method in action. Here on RC, it was a subject of ridicule.”

    What if it WAS ridiculous?

    After all, we don’t ridicule David Ike because he wears tracksuits (though there’s enough reason right there…), we ridicule him because he’s CONVINCED that the Labour Government consists of alien Lizards who are trying to take over the world.

    Do you think that *maybe* ridicule of that idea is warranted?

    No?

  12. 62
    tamino says:

    Re: #52 (Steve Reynolds)

    Go read this, this, this, this, and this.

  13. 63
    tamino says:

    Re: #56 (dhogaza)

    I quite agree that amateur ornithologists are also contenders for “greatest amateur contribution to science.”

  14. 64
    Mark says:

    “I quite agree that amateur ornithologists are also contenders for “greatest amateur contribution to science.”

    Comment by tamino ”

    And I’ve done that too! (YOC, president at the time, Bill Oddie).

    Seems I may have a fan club, if I play my cards right.

    Or wrong…

    ;-)

  15. 65
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #3 JamesP & “I should think religion and its more fanatical practitioners could also take a fair amount of the blame/responsibility, or is that too hot a potato?”

    I think that’s an important point, the role of the Religious Right (RR) in attacking science, but personally I wouldn’t call them “Christain.”

    It’s interesting that just this week my (Catholic) pastor made the point that science owes its existence to Christianity. I might not go that far; there was already foundations for science in the pre-Christian Greek world, and Christianity has had bleak periods of viewing science as a threat, but many of the scientists in history were monks or religious persons. And at least the Catholic Church supports science education, and accepts evolution and anthropogenic climate change and other science, and adds the ethical/moral dimension that it is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate AGW.

    However, the RR has made it a point to promote bogus science to debunk evolution, which they see as a threat, so they’ve made attacking science almost a righteous duty.

    (I actually think it’s a sin not to accept evolution or AGW, since God is Truth, and scientific truths — tho subject to change with better evidence and/or theories — are to be respected. God’s creation could be viewed as a bible written directly by God, and the scientists are its interpreters. E.O. Wilson said in KEEPING THE EARTH that causing a species to go extinct was like tearing out a page of scripture.)

    But how in the world could many on the RR view climate science as a threat when the solution to AGW could include living a more humble, ascetic, Christ-like life, one of caring for others we might be harming. That really shows their true colors as adhering not to Christianity, but to some perversion of extreme, misguided, self-defeating materialism (there must be some books written about this). So, they are no better than the materialistic big biz-supported deniers who would sell the world down the drain for their own gain.

    I could give a social science explanation for this…..

  16. 66
    Jesse says:

    Seeing all this about scientific reasoning, i had a question and did not know where else to post it.

    A ‘contrarian’ came to me once and said “the scientists say we will get maybe 3 millimeters of sea level rise per year. That means 300 millimeters in a century, or about a foot. That isn’t much, no worries!”

    Can someone help me answer this? I see projections measured that way here all the time, and can’t get my head around the fact that a millimeter is small, and even adding up 1000 of them only gets you three feet (1m). In NYC, where I live, that would put high tide only to the edge of the walls at Battery Park– I doubt many would consider it that serious.

    I know the problem is how people measure things, and relating it to real things we all come into contact with. Any thoughts? I know that I never did understand this measurement either, and only realized it when someone brought it up.

  17. 67

    James P. writes:

    I should think that a fair proportion of the blame can be laid at the door of religion and its more ‘enthusiastic’ practitioners, or is that too hot a potato to consider? I’m not trying to make trouble..

    Why don’t you do the scientific thing and provide some empirical evidence for your hypothesis? It’ll be interesting to see how religion could have caused the decline of support for science in an era when people are less religious than ever before.

  18. 68
    David B. Benson says:

    I’ll add Richard Dawkins for his fine books on biological evolution.

  19. 69

    Lynn,

    Christianity was responsible for the scientific revolution. The SR petered out in ancient Greece, the Caliphate, and medieval China. The one place it succeeded was in medieval Europe, and it succeeded because of the Christian doctrines of 1) a lawful universe, 2) secondary causation, and 3) vocation.

    Ancient Greece denied (3). They thought they could do it all on pure reason. Manual labor was for slaves, not gentlemen. And empirical research was manual labor. From careful analysis of his works, we can tell that Aristotle did a lot of fieldwork, but he was ashamed to admit it–he always disguised his results as having come from pure chains of argument.

    The Caliphate denied (2). Al-Ghazali wrote, “Words do not appear on a page because the writer writes, the hand moves, and ink flows from the pen. Allah moves the writer, the hand, the pen, and the ink according to his good pleasure.” The Arab natural philosophers who wanted to talk about natural causes were hounded out of the Empire.

    Medieval China denied (1). To them the Universe was capricious. The will of Heaven might cause anything to happen, and it was useless to try and predict it. Today undamming the flow of chi might cure a disease; tomorrow it might not. It was not for mortals to try to divine the mind of Heaven.

    Only the Christian philosophers got it right on all three points.

    I think I’ll do a web page on this.

    [Response: No more discussion of religion please. – gavin]

  20. 70
    Chris S. says:

    Re: tamino, dhogaza et al.

    Not just ornithology, there’s a huge number of amateurs in natural science – Britain’s leading flea expert is a retired bomber pilot, most work on insect & plant distribution in Europe is done through amateurs submitting records, there has been some recent research that actively seeks out public assistance as the amount of ground that can be covered is so much more than could be done by professionals, one example being bumblebee nest habitat selection research: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119392104/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    Details of some ‘citizen science’ people can get inolved in can be found here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/stressrelated/2009/06/world-wide_citizen_science_in_1.php

  21. 71
    Mark says:

    BPL 67, didn’t Bill Watterson say in response to a quote from Calvin about how Religion was the Opiate of the masses: “Marx hasn’t seen TV yet”.

    That is how.

    TV wants “talking heads” not thinking from the viewer.

    TV wants quotes. Not discussion.

  22. 72
    GFW says:

    I believe a lot of them are enthusiasts who think they’re witnessing some kind of game and– unequipped with the tools to discriminate– have more or less arbitrarily chosen a “team”, have put on their jersey and then carry on, whooping and shouting from their armchairs as they imagine seeing goal scored.

    You sir, have a fine turn of phrase. The above is how I’ve thought many people choose (and support) a political party.

    Debate does not lead to curiosity, any more than professional wrestling leads to physical fitness.

    I may have to borrow that. :-)

    I really came to to say there were three cultures, but found that James (#55) had said it better.

  23. 73
    dhogaza says:

    Not just ornithology

    No, of course not, and didn’t really mean to place ornithology on a pedestal. Though it’s far more important than in mammology, but there are a lot of reasons for that … most mammals (other than charismatic megafauna) are secretive, in many habitats nocturnal, hard to identify unless in the hand, etc. So the skills needed for observation are less accessible to the enthusiast.

    Guy I know here in the PNW – Dennis Paulson – a leading expert on Odonta (dragonflies etc)- spent time in the ’90s trying to get his fellow taxonomists to adopt and publicize popular names as well as the binomial nomenclature used professionally (as has been done with organizations like the AOU for birds). Most species are fairly easy to identify visually and his goal was to make “dragonfly watching” more accessible to those who dabble in natural history. Don’t know how much traction he got among his fellow odontan taxonimists.

    But my main point – and I really loved Tamino’s “hatred of science” sentence – is that the motivation for involvement is due to love of astronomy or natural history or … not because the conclusions of science clash with one’s ideology. And that love shows in the good work volunteers do in so many areas of natural history, astronomy, etc.

    Oh, another fun example, going out whale watching in the atlantic, the boat driver with his camera sitting beside him, ready to shoot any humpback seen, because there’s a large database cataloging their markings – unique, like fingerprints – and the photos are used to help track migratory patterns, etc. Oh, maybe I shouldn’t mention this example, it proves that photographs really are useful to science! :) uh-oh.

    Watts’ surface stations photography project obviously tapped into an enthusiastic resource. It’s a pity his own scientific illiteracy has served to lead to severely misleading people as to the scientific relevance of his project.

  24. 74
    GFW says:

    Jesse (66) As it gets warmer, the rate of sea level rise goes up. The best current estimates of 2100 sea level rise are more like 4-5 feet. Note that the first 3 feet of sea level rise floods half the cropland of Bangladesh. Doesn’t do much good for south Florida either.

  25. 75
    wildlifer says:

    I’ve a “communications” degree in wildlife ecology (ended up with a double major in journalism). The programs already exist.

    BTW, I agree with PZ.

  26. 76
    John says:

    Scientists unfortunately have also become politicized and hence radioactive on certain issues like bioethics and global warming. Many conservative and republicans distrust scientists as left wingers who have a political rather than scientific agenda. I don’t blame them, I attended a prestigious research university for atmospheric science and many of my graduate professors couldn’t help but bring their political ideology into the classroom. This mix is toxic and leads to stale debates on a relatively clear issue like global warming. I suspect this bias was even more prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s and is now ingrained in peoples minds when listening to scientists talk about certain issues. I certainly don’t agree with global warming denialists, but I would hope some of you would take the political bite out of your lectures and arguments. I’ve actually sucessfully swayed a conservative newspaper columnists by first informing him that I voted republican in the last two elections and telling him to put down his political guard when listening to my explanation behind anthroprogenic global warming. The same method has opened the minds of some of my more conservitive family memebers. After World War 2 there was no discernable political correctness among scientists I suspect, but that all changed thanks to ‘peace love and harmony’ era. 90-95 percent of college professors most likely vote democratic. That number is probably lower among scientists, but still too high to remove an ideological charge to scientific issues in my opinion. I wish I knew how these two sides could reconcile, however, I suspect the death of the baby boomers will be a big help (no offense).

  27. 77
    Steve Reynolds says:

    “Another Watts example: The speculation on his blog a few months ago of whether it was ever cold enough in Antarctica for CO2 snow. I thought that (which eventually included an apparently effective experiment) was a good example of the scientific method in action. Here on RC, it was a subject of ridicule.”

    61.Mark: “What if it WAS ridiculous?”

    So what was ridiculous about it?

  28. 78
    Aaron Lewis says:

    re 49:
    I attended a 4-day “institute” where the newly-wed Asimov (on his honeymoon) was a lecturer and panel member. During his spare time at that institute, he wrote a science fiction novel. He may have been smart, but he did not always put a lot of thought into everything that he wrote.

    Futurists, including Asimov, Forrester, and Fuller, offered a world of tomorrow based on “science”, much of which has not come to pass. Even futures based on detailed models have not come to pass. For example, commodity prices did not rise as fast as Forrester projected. On the other hand, Arctic sea ice declined much faster than IPCC Climate models forecast. Glaciologists have expressed surprise at the behavior of (moving) ice over the last decade. If glaciologists are repeatedly surprised at the movement of ice, how can the public have confidence in the language in the latest IPCC report related to ice and sea level rise? Frankly, science has lost credibility. To quote R. P. Feynman (1985 pg 255), “Since then I never pay any attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.”

  29. 79
    David Horton says:

    I was beaten to it (at #20) but I was going to point out out that Snow’s “two cultures” was nothing to do with a disconnect between “scientific and popular cultures”, and if the authors think it does it isn’t much of a recommendation for the book. Snow was talking about a far away time when educated people could be expected to be aware of, able to discuss in an informed fashion, the issues of the day. But he was saying that science (eg with nuclear physics, DNA) had become so technical that even a well-educated humanist could no longer be informed about it. But we have reached the point now, thanks largely to the media and populist politicians, where the public at large is well-educated and informed about nothing. There are still two cultures among the educated and aware, and this may well be part of the problem we face, because this is a time when all good men need to come to the aid of the party, but the proportion of the public they represent, and their influence on public policy, is tiny. Snow would be devastated.

  30. 80
    sidd says:

    Mr. McCutchen writes:

    “String theory (the putative Theory of Everything) is unprovable, but nevertheless such quasi-theological speculations in cosmology and particle physics consume most of the available physics grant money and get most of the graduate students.”

    I disagree. Theorists are cheap, as every physix department knows. Experimentalists are expensive. And experimental tests of string theory are many, many, many orders of magnitude greater than our powers today.

  31. 81
    S. Molnar says:

    To amplify on the point made by Silver Rattasepp (#20) and others, I think the problem, at least in the U.S., is not specific to science, but is more generally an increase in anti-intellectualism (does the book discuss the work of Richard Hofstadter?) and the extinction of the public intellectual. Without getting too specific (for fear of starting a tangential argument), there is no shortage of recent examples in, for example, economics or foreign policy, where the informed viewpoint has been totally absent from what is allowed to be presented to the public by television and the mainstream press. In other words, the problem isn’t the lack of presenters, but the lack of platforms for them.

  32. 82
    The Chemist says:

    Now I have to read the book, considering all the hoopla.

  33. 83
    Steve Reynolds says:

    62.tamino: “Go read this…”

    I’ve read it; I said that I don’t defend everything Watts has written. I think it is great that you point out when he is wrong.
    I just think it is counterproductive to promoting interest in science to dismiss everything he does with disdain just because he may be wrong ½ the time (or even 90% of the time).
    How many scientific publications (including peer reviewed ones) are free of errors? These are just blog posts we are discussing.

  34. 84
    John Mashey says:

    1) I finished the book yesterday, concur with mike’s review.
    I’d amplify two of the mesasges:

    rewards system
    receiver-oriented communication

    2) Rewards system
    Indeed, if you want something to change, you have to change the rewards system. If you run a university, and you want to encourage interdisciplinary research (which can be especially tricky for younger faculty in disciplines that tend to be stovepiped), you hae to take explicit action.

    If you want communication skills to be improved, as the book suggest, you have to offer long-term encouragement for some scientists to do that. Most people have observed that university researchers vary widely in their communications skills, from truly wonderful to abysmal. [Imagine a course in theoretical mechanics where the professor starts at one of a blackboard, spends the class scribbling illegible equations from one end to the other, all the while mumbling in not-so-good English.]

    On the other hand, when I was at Bell Labs (1973-1983), good communications skills were prized and rewarded, and showed up in merit reviews, because management knew that uncommunicated results weren’t very useful.

    Besides lectures & papers, we had frequent internal formal courses … but people weren’t usually *allowed* to teach them unless they’d generally displayed good communications skills atop the relevant expertise. Otherwise, they’d be wasting the time of a bunch of well-paid professionals, few of whom would be shy in complaining about a poor course.

    Rewards systems matter.

    3) Receiver-oriented communicators (p.61-62 of book), i.e., calibrate the audience and adapt to it.

    Anyone successful in sales or outbound marketing does this all the time.

    Counterexample: someone asks a really basic question.
    Answer: Read the IPCC.
    Comment: not particularly productive, unless one points them at one of those tutorial boxes, which are actually pretty good.

    Calibrating audiences is one of the reasons for trying to develop a coherent scale for knowledge and expertise on some natural science. That might help people recommending study, to get from one level to the next in their understanding.

    Example:
    re: #29 Scientific American: I’ve gotten it since 1967, think it’s still useful. Hang in there, George. SciAm still has good material, written by scientists and science writers for the lay audience (which includes scientists far enough away from their own field).

    But, I run into long-out-of-school adults (Background B1 on that scale), and if they try to keep up with science (by reading SciAm, etc, say solid K2), but want more (K3-K5), I occasionally recommend to them:

    Join AAAS for a year – anyone can join. You’ll get Science once a week for a few dollars, a great deal. Read the first half of each issue to see what scientists think is news and important, and for context. Some of that overlaps with SciAm.

    Read the abstracts of the second half to see current high-quality research, and how it’s said, by researchers writing mostly for each other. If an article title appears written in some language other than English, don’t feel bad, just skip it. You get online access to past issues, so you can look up references. If you find an article you can understand, look carefully at the wording, caveats, errorbars, uncertainty estimates. This will help explain why real science lends itself poorly to soundbites and headlines, and why good science often gets confused in the media, even with the best of will.

  35. 85
    dhogaza says:

    So what was ridiculous about it?

    The question itself wasn’t ridiculous, though given that the poster (Stephen Goddard) and his host (Watts) both believe that they’ve pretty much overturned much of climate science, you’d think they’d be more careful about looking scientifically illiterate.

    What *was* ridiculous was the response when posters with a bit of knowledge of physical chemistry trotted out phase diagrams, cites from text books, etc showing that it was impossible.

    The ridiculous response was Goddard’s repeated insistence that he was right, and every professional scientist with knowledge of such things was wrong. Backed up at first by Watts, who quoted as an authority a guy who, as it turned out, works for Argonne National Labs and has a MS in Meteorology.

    So here you had it … a guy with no university degree as far as can be determined (Watts), much less scientific training. Goddard – no scientific training. And a meteorologist. All having proven this bit of basic science wrong, through pontification and assertion of the “I know I’m right and the textbooks wrong” variety.

    Even some of the staunch supporters over their pled “please stop! you’re making our side look ridiculous, like we don’t know anything about science!” (they’re right).

    Finally, someone decided to try an experiment and came back and said, in essence, “well, I guess these textbooks and phase diagrams used every day by scientists are right, after all”.

    Gee, who would’ve thunk that?

    If you don’t find this ridiculous then I suggest that you *might* be humor-impaired.

    Goddard never did admit to being wrong, and AFAIK he still believes he was right. He’s not posted again, apparently, at least not as a topic-starter.

    I just think it is counterproductive to promoting interest in science to dismiss everything he does with disdain just because he may be wrong ½ the time (or even 90% of the time).

    Nothing he does has anything to do with science. Pure and simple.

  36. 86
    Steve Reynolds says:

    60.Mark: ” have you READ what Anthony Watts has written about the IPCC scientists? What he’s written about RC and the people here specifically Gavin and Mann and the others here?”

    How is that relevant to whether his scientific work has value?

    If gavin says nasty things about someone, does that mean we should dismiss gavin’s work as worthless?

  37. 87
    Steve Reynolds says:

    56.dhogaza: “Amateurs view themselves as being useful helpers.
    And when they’re told “we need you to stand here for 15 minutes, and identify every bird you can by eye or ear”, they don’t respond by e-mailing you a photograph…”

    I think that is another example of ‘amateurs being on the receiving end of condescension’.
    [edit–lets keep this civil]

  38. 88
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #66 Jesse:

    “I see projections measured that way here all the time, and cant get my head around the fact that a millimeter is small, and even adding up 1000 of them only gets you three feet (1m). In NYC, where I live, that would put high tide only to the edge of the walls at Battery Park I doubt many would consider it that serious.”

    As GFW pointed out, that rate of rise may well accelerate. As well, using your Battery Park example, don’t forget that if mean high water reaches the edge of the walls at Battery Park, you’ve lost any buffer to account for storm surges, spring tide, wind-driven waves, or a combination thereof.

    Your choice of the Battery Park seawall is an excellent example of the nearly countless artifacts we’ve constructed using our current notion of mean and spring tide as a guideline for location. 3′ of difference will put much of that construction at risk.

  39. 89
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #77 Steve Reynolds:

    “So what was ridiculous about it?”

    A little matter of partial pressure, and Watts’ failure to understand this reveals him as ignorant about crucial features of the windmill he’s chosen to battle. Combine that with his posturing as expert on climate science and the net result is, he appears thoroughly ridiculous even by the most generous standard.

  40. 90
    Steve Reynolds says:

    85.dhogaza: “So what was ridiculous about it?
    What *was* ridiculous was the response when posters with a bit of knowledge of physical chemistry trotted out phase diagrams, cites from text books, etc showing that it was impossible. The ridiculous response was Goddard’s repeated insistence that he was right, and every professional scientist with knowledge of such things was wrong. Backed up at first by Watts, who quoted as an authority a guy who, as it turned out, works for Argonne National Labs…Finally, someone decided to try an experiment…”

    That sounds like the scientific method in action to me. Experiment trumps authority (or in this case confirms one authority over another). Also, almost everyone involved learned something. What’s not to like?

    When people show this kind of interest in science and properly follow the scientific method, they should be praised, not ridiculed.

  41. 91
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Well, with the mention of Dawkins (53), I have to say that there may be some problems with some “science popularizers.” I say that as an anthropologist who in the 70s when I came to know of his theories really disputed the “selfish gene” idea and biological reductionism in general.

    And in recent decades it seems he’s less into promoting science and more into promoting his own ideology. He’s more likely to be used by the anti-science folks as proof positive of the evils of science.

    And this in an age when what we need most is to all come together and mitigate climate change, and we need people to pay attention to the scientists that are informing us about it, not get side-tracked into far-flung theories of evolution/biology that even anthropologists who firmly accept evolution have trouble with.

    It seems he, PZ, and other scientists like them are part of the problem, not the solution.

    But I do understand their anger and railing against the anti-science crowd; it’s just that increasing the polarization doesn’t help much in bringing people together for the important task at hand of mitigating climate change.

  42. 92
    David B. Benson says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan (91) — Please take that over to Panda’s Thumb, not here. Nothing wrong with Dawkin’s popular works on biological evolution (although his most recent forays certainly cause controversy; but its not the science that does that.)

    As for climatology, there are many good books for the intelligent lay(wo)man. I haven’t seen any mentioned in these comments so far, so I’ll put W.F. Ruddiman’s “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum” right up front, so to speak.

  43. 93
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #90 Steve Reynolds:

    “That sounds like the scientific method in action to me. Experiment trumps authority (or in this case confirms one authority over another). Also, almost everyone involved learned something. Whats not to like?”

    Probably that Watts would like to insist that we start with 19th century science and work our way forward to the present, for the second time. This is not dark matter or string theory we’re speaking of, it’s material that was all squared away in the first half of the 18th century.

    If by “everyone involved learned something” you mean the denizens of Watts’ site, perhaps so, but that’s no recommendation, it’s more condemnatory as well as reflective of an appalling lack of basic scientific knowledge. Again, combine that with all the posing and self-aggrandizement and you end with “ridiculous”, again.

  44. 94
    William Geoghegan says:

    This is in response to a post by James P. His post contains a
    biological error.

    He said “I have a Neuropathy, which was diagnosed by DNA test and
    declaired ‘autoso-mal’ – which means passed through the male, with the
    likelihood of 9 out of 10 of any children that I might have getting
    it, too.”

    The error has to do with the term autoso-mal. Autoso-mal refers to all
    of the chromosomes except for the two sex chromosomes (X & Y). Males
    have only one X chromosome that is inherited from mom. If a gene for
    a trait is present on the X chromosome that a male receives then he
    gets the trait. If a gene for a trait is on the Y chromosome then it
    is acquired only by the male and is passed on only to the male
    offspring.

  45. 95
    The Wonderer says:

    Carl Sagan explaining Maxwell’s equations may be good, I don’t remember. But I was mesmerized by Richard Feynman’s “QED.”

    [Response: Feynman was of course irreplaceable and remains greatly missed. Interestingly, his sister Joan is a highly respected scientist herself (solar physics). She’s a fond acquaintance, who has done some very nice work on solar/climate relationships, particularly on solar forcing of the NAO. Interesting, by the way, that you happened to use the term “mesmerized”. Sagan, as it happens, discusses in ‘Demon-Haunted World’ the pseudo-scientific origins of the term (which comes from the 18th/19th century German physician and astrologer Franz Mesmer, who claimed he could cure patients of their ills through a mystical procedure involving magnets). -mike]

  46. 96
    Jim Bouldin says:

    When people show this kind of interest in science and properly follow the scientific method, they should be praised, not ridiculed.

    Steve, seriously what are you talking about? Anybody who knows how science operates sees through Watts in about 6 milliseconds OK? Notwithstanding the fact that there is no one “scientific method” (popular opinion to the contrary), the guy has no idea what the methods of scientists entail, and ergo, no idea what he’s doing.

    The guy has no interest in science per se. He has an interest in making noise for the sake of attention. He appeals only to people who like himself, don’t understand what scientific inquiry really entails.

  47. 97
    J. Bob says:

    #34 – Mark
    ‘But there have been quite a few (JBob being a good one) who started out “I only want to learn”, refused to listen to anyone who didn’t agree they have something and then give up trying to go “I’m trying to learn” and throw their toys out, blaming RC for the damage to them.’

    Did I hear my name in vain? Sorry, but I would disagree. One of the things I wanted to show was other methods besides statistics, can be used in analysis, and not get stuck in a “statistics rut”. However, that was beneficial in that it forced me to go back, check the analysis and verify it by cross checking the result by other analysis methods.

    But the point is, the analysis was dismissed without probably looking at it, and worse calling the procedures outlined and followed by the co-developer of the Fast Fourier Transform, “bungled” out of hand.

  48. 98

    Concur with 3 James P. Science is detrimental to the incomes of preachers. Preachers have more pulpits. Therefore, we loose.

  49. 99

    8 Bird Thompson: Nope, they STILL don’t believe in evolution. The connection is something we need a biological Carl Sagan to teach.

  50. 100
    Doug Bostrom says:

    J.Bob 8 Jul 2009 at 9:59 pm:

    “But the point is, the analysis was dismissed without probably looking at it…”

    The record shows intensive discussion and critique of your analysis going far beyond dismissal out-of-hand, J.Bob. Some people (yours truly, for instance) did not give it “due respect” but several others did.

    For the record, improvement in this department is possible, for me anyway. As I said in another post, somewhere, it struck me too late that you were not simply parroting talking points. After belated reconsideration about what you were doing, in future I will think twice before shooting off my mouth.

    I still think that hinging your entire argument by forming your conclusions from a single temperature record from middle England was fundamentally flawed, I agree with your critics’ points about exceeding the limitations of the tools you applied, but you did make an effort better than the vast majority of ill-equipped garden variety fact-avoiders.


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