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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. 101
    dhogaza says:

    I think that is another example of ‘amateurs being on the receiving end of condescension’.

    Actually, if you think about it, if this were true, amateurs would just tell scientists to “f*** off”.

    And it doesn’t happen where the amateur *scientist* interfaces with the professional equivalent.

    If you think that Andrew Watts, for instance, is in any way a scientist, well! You might just fall into the fallacy that YOU TOO are a scientist (amateur or profession, choose your poison).

  2. 102
    Craig Allen says:

    Jim Prowl #47:

    Promoting an enthusiasm for nature can be done in ways that improve understanding and conservation, or work against it.

    I’m an Australian environmentalist and unfortunately I see Steve Erwin as part of the dumbing down of science. He was a likeable clown who entertained people by poking wildlife (until one poked back). He wasn’t a scientist by training, and he did’t set out in his shows to seriously impart a deep understanding biology, ecology (which I don’t percieve he had other then his gut understanding of reptilian behaviour).

    In contrast there was Harry Btler, the ecologist I grew up watching and who set me on my path to study ecology. In his television series In the Wild with Harry Butler he who took the audience on an exploration of the Australian landscape, it’s fauna and ecology. He was famous for his ability on to plung his arm into random tree hollows or to flip over random rocks and pluck out fabulously interesting creatures. The thing is that he then told you all about their biology and ecology. And he always treated the creature with respect, releasing it and making a point about carefully replacing the rock or log where he found it.

    I’m part of a group that goes to shows and festivals all around southern Australia, putting on educational performances teaching about nature, flora & fauna, and raising an awareness in people of all ages about the critical role that people play in managing and conserving their local flora, fauna and pockets of habitat. It’s clear to me from my interactions with audiences that Steve Erwin raised the publics interest in reptiles. But my percepton is that he has caused a spike in the number of people who are collecting reptiles from the wild and thereby pushing populations to extinction. So I always take the time in my performance to explain the impacts that collecting from the wild has, hopefully undoing a little bit of the damage that Steve did in this respect.

    Steve Erwin, God rest his soul missed a huge opportunity to contribute enourmously to the conservation of Australian flora and fauna. But hey, his ratings were HUGE.

  3. 103
    dhogaza says:

    Actually, Steven Reynolds, you’ve gone beyond the stupid (I used to think you weren’t really there) saying…

    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’.

    No, this is actually an example of volunteers not doing their job.

    And, of course, you cut the rest of my statement about going on to claim that the photo of an A/C unit proves that NSO can breed in the habitat being photographed.

    i.e. you gutted my words to “prove you’re right” while stupidly still posting something false.

    But your quote-mine attempt … tch tch you’re dishonest. Proven for all to see who are willing to scroll backwards.

  4. 104
    John Mashey says:

    (Might be duplicate, posting problems).

    1) I finished the book Tuesday, concur with mike’s review.
    Following are comments on two of the topics:

    rewards system
    receiver-oriented communication

    2) Rewards system
    Indeed, if you want something to change, you change the rewards system. If you run a university, and you want to encourage interdisciplinary research (which can be risky for younger faculty in disciplines that tend to be stovepiped), you have to take explicit action to encourage that to happen. (Stanford’s Bio-X is a good example).

    If you want communication skills to be improved, as the book suggests, you have to offer long-term encouragement for some scientists to do that. University faculty vary widely in their communications skills, from truly wonderful to abysmal. [Imagine a physics course in theoretical mechanics where the professor starts at one of a blackboard, spends each class scribbling illegible equations from one end to the other, all the while mumbling in heavily-accented English.]

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

    Besides lectures & papers, we had frequent internal formal courses, but people weren’t usually *allowed* to teach them unless they’d shown 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 really matter.

    3) “Receiver-oriented communicators” (p.61-62 of book) calibrate the audience and adapt, rather than being “source-oriented communicators”.

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

    Counterexample: someone asks a really basic climate question.
    Answer: Read the IPCC.
    Comment: not particularly productive, unless one points them at a specific tutorial box.

    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.

    re: #29 Scientific American: I’ve gotten it since 1967, think it’s still useful. Hang in there, George. I think 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/B2 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 each, a great deal. Read the first half of each issue for context, and to see hot topics. Some of that overlaps with SciAm.

    Read the abstracts of the second half to see current high-quality research, and how it’s presented, by researchers writing mostly for each other. You can see what real arguments *within* science look like.

    If an article title appears written in some language other than English, don’t feel bad, just skip it. I skip most after reading 1-2 sentences. 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.”

  5. 105
    dhogaza says:

    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?

    Yes, I learned that Steven Goddard is scientifically illiterate. I already knew Watts is. I’ve now learned that you’re scientifically illiterate, too. Thank you. Hopefully you’ll accept the consequences.

    Experiment trumps authority (or in this case confirms one authority over another).

    This is why every soldier, learning how to hit targets on the firing range, should tell is instructors “you’re wrong! I don’t have to compensate for that weird downwards force you insist is real!”

    Each and everyone should spend months experimenting, because, you know, being told that gravity is real and therefore believing it, is *so* unscientific.

    Everyone should always start from first principles (naked, no cave, no stone tools, etc) because, you know, this is how all scientists really work.

    They all throw out all existing knowledge.

    Newton’s “Standing on the shoulders of giants” claim was heresy, after all, Rather, every scientist must build everything they know about the world by climbing from the primal much, without the aids of undergraduate and graduate education, textbooks, seminars, etc.

    Your vision of science inspires me …

  6. 106
    dhogaza says:

    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”.

    But, of course, your error is in assuming that every dataset can be reasonably analyzed without statistical methods.

    Hopefully you do recognize the fallacy.

    If you don’t, doesn’t matter. Vegas does … and they make money ignoring you, and always will.

  7. 107

    40 Karen Kohfeld: You make the “Engineering and Science Core Curriculum” mandatory for everybody, even acting option Drama majors. Make “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul 1980 University of California Press required reading. In this book on the Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791) page 99 says: “Science is not so much a natural as a moral philosophy”. [That means drylabbing [fudging data] will get you fired.]
    Page 106 says: “Nature isn’t just the final authority, Nature is the Only authority.”

  8. 108

    Americans will get the message when there is no more food in the grocery store. Don’t talk about sea level. Talk about the rain moving, causing famine.

  9. 109

    I’m a little surprised to see such emphasis on changing the science curriculum. The bottleneck to scientists engaging in outreach seems to me to be more located in the institutional rewards for working scientists than in the educational curriculum. Perhaps I’m biased, because I was fortunate enough to have a lot of free choice in courses to take, eg communication and social psychology courses in addition to atmospheric chemistry stuff.

    The problem seems to me that none of the rewards for academic researchers are related to public engagement. It could even diminish your career chances, as you also point out. Shouldn’t the solution be searched more in the academic working environment rather than in the education system?

    Right now as a scientist wanting to engage more in public outreach you face a choice: Remaining in science and trying to squeeze in some outreach work, often at the risk of your career perspectives. Or leaving science and search for another job that entails more communication with the public (eg teacher, journalist, politics, …). I know a fair number of scientists who went into teaching for that reason, whereas some of them perhaps had an intrinsic ability to reach a lot more people, if given the chance. It is sad that there is no middle road, where combining research and outreach is valued (read: paid), just as the combination of research and teaching is (in most academic environments). I’m still looking…

  10. 110
    davidc says:

    “Given that we (scientists) are part of the problem, it must stand to reason that we are also part of the solution.”

    That statement is non-sequitur.

    Rewarding scientists for acting as public figures will make it much harder for them to back down from a point or revise a position if a factual change in the basis of their decision become apparent.


  11. 111
    Mark says:

    “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”.”

    Well, you could also have shown how to use chicken entrails to look at the data. You know, not getting stuck in a “statistics rut”.

    Yours wasn’t that daft, but you didn’t listen to anyone telling you it wasn’t going to work. You assumed that such was just because you were using it to show it was cooling.


    It was because your attempt isn’t applicable

  12. 112
    Mark says:

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

    Comment by Steve Reynolds ”

    Uh, you’re going on about how people here are rude to people.

    Are you appearing on Watt’s blog and doing the same there?

    Your implication with “you’re so rude” is that this stifles real science. Yet Watts gets a by from you and you think he’s doing real science.

    But if being rude stops that happening as is your current position, he’s not doing it and worse.

  13. 113
    Mark says:

    Steve, what was ridiculous is well put by dhgoza. A shorter form was their insistence that they are merely skeptical, yet when it comes to a theory they want to promote, they show NO signs of skepticism.

    Isn’t that ridiculous/

  14. 114

    David B. Benson writes,

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

    For me, Dawkins’s usefulness is compromised by his insistence that accepting evolution means you can’t believe in God; that evolution somehow disproves theism. I think he probably turns off a lot of people that way and actually makes the problem worse. The science-minded people who read his books already accept evolution.

    There’s also the fact that he embraces one very fringe-science idea (gene selection) and one pseudoscience (sociobiology).

  15. 115

    Steve Reynolds writes:

    “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?

    The freezing point of CO2 is 194.7 K. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 184.0 K, at Vostok Station, Antarctica, 07/21/1983. While technically this is cold enough to freeze CO2, it didn’t last long enough, and there isn’t enough CO2 in the air, for CO2 snow to fall. That’s why carbon dioxide snow has never been observed in nature, even in Antarctica.

  16. 116

    David B. Benson writes:

    Nothing wrong with Dawkin’s popular works on biological evolution

    Yes there IS. “The Selfish Gene” especially. Mainstream evolutionary biology assumes selection at the level of the individual–“genes mutate, individuals are selected, populations evolve.” Dawkins pushes selection at the gene level, and what’s more, tells everyone that his side won and is the consensus now, which is just not true. Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Lynn Margulis got along just fine without ever making use of “gene selection,” and as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, you can’t even make it work in real life. “The environment does not see genes, it sees bodies.”

    There’s also the unquestioning belief he has in sociobiology, to the point of supporting idiocy like Kevin MacDonald’s crackpot books about the Jews. Like every pro-sociobiology writer I’ve ever encountered, he knows a lot about biology but has never taken a course in sociology and doesn’t know anything about it.

  17. 117
    Jesse says:

    to GPW and Doug Bostrom — that helps, but even if sea level rise accelerates, if I tell someone it is 1.8-3mm per year, it would still have to be a pretty big increase to make a dent. Again, say 3mm/year. After 10 years that’s 30mm — about an inch and change. After 20 years you get 2 inches, if it accelerates a little more. The Battery park example would take, at 3mm per year, 300 years.

    So I feel like I am halfway there to understanding this. But I can understand why people might not feel too concerned about sea level rise when put that way: “Two inches? So what? And 300 years from now it won’t matter.”

    I don’t mean to be dense. I am jut trying to understand the relationships between the rate of change measurements (measured in single mm) and the meter-scale changes I see elsewhere. Looking up methods of measuring sea level rise didn’t help.

  18. 118
    Don Thieme says:

    I teach science in a public university. I think that the deficiencies are particularly bad right now because of economic inequality and the dominant European culture’s tendency to keep scientific skills and knowledge within their own sphere. Carl Sagan pushed to democratize science, but we need to do a great deal more.

  19. 119
    dylwah says:

    Nice to see C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ getting a little air. ‘Science and Government’ might also be worth a look now as it is about the development of Radar from a science bureaucrat’s point of view.

    The most important thing about Radar, apart from the fact that it worked and that it is . . . well . . . basically beautiful, may be that it is the ultimate in technological winner picking by governments. The bureaucratic paper trail (that starts the process of selecting, funding and deploying radar) starts at a time when there was no consensus about the threat that that pack of Godwin Law inspiring nutters really posed. The scientists and bureaucrats that supported the idea had to defend it against a series of hostile cabinets with their own ideas, arguing simply on the merits of the science.

    It is a good story, well told by a participant with some axes to grind, most declared, some not. Most importantly, C. P. Snow understood science and he understood politics. One of my Pol Sci lectures used to tell a story about C. P. Snow and the First Soviet Ambassador to the UN, I think it was Vasily. Apparently Vasily approached Snow and said “I have read your book, ‘The Masters’, politics in England is not so different to the Kremlin”.

  20. 120
    Steve Reynolds says:

    96.Jim Bouldin: “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)…”

    Not OK. I claim to know something about how science operates and I think Watts’ work has some value, but that is not the topic.

    So what are these multiple scientific methods you claim as fact?

  21. 121
    Steve Reynolds says:

    101.dhogaza: “If you think that Andrew Watts, for instance, is in any way a scientist, well! You might just fall into the fallacy that YOU TOO are a scientist (amateur or profession, choose your poison).”

    [edit – that’s enough on Watts already]

  22. 122
    Hank Roberts says:

    Good, relevant read here that came out of a different panel on the same issue:

    “… If I may resort to the maligned “personal experience or anecdotal observation” (actually both): a few years ago, when I had to create a basic science literacy course for college non-majors, I structured it around the tangible benefits of evolutionary theory to medicine and agriculture – just like the NAS report did! I did that back in 2005, well before the NAS report was published. It seemed obvious to me as a teacher that I had to reach my students on their own terms, using issues that were important in their lives and their families’ lives. Health is a universal issue of interest; plus, my college had lots of pre-nursing students. So I explained how we get antibiotic resistance and why vaccines need to be constantly updated. That’s how I taught evolution. It just made sense….”

    “Last Wednesday, when I had to slip out of the State of Innovation Conference early, I had the good fortune to encounter the venerable sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in the elevator. (yay!) I spent almost five minutes talking to him; if there ever was a time in my life for an elevator pitch, that was probably it! But I didn’t pitch anything. It was more important to simply thank him for his leadership in one particular area: communicating the importance of environmental conservation to religious America (as he does in his book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.)

    I grew up in a conservative religious town. The people I grew up with were neither bad nor stupid; most of them loved the natural world. They spent a huge proportion of their time outdoors – camping, fishing, hunting and hiking. But many of them couldn’t relate to ecological arguments, because they perceived science – rightly or wrongly – as being materialistic and therefore anti-faith. They didn’t see how their personal values could possibly be acknowledged, if a strictly evidence-based discourse was shaping policy. I know this probably sounds alien or bizarre to many scientists, but many people in the town where I grew up honestly felt oppressed by what they saw as powerful environmental lobbyists with sinister government scientists on their side. (You ecologists can quit rolling on the floor now; I’m serious.) See what I mean about the importance of understanding different perspectives?

    E.O. Wilson tries in The Creation to make environmental arguments accessible to people who are working from a different worldview than most scientists. He doesn’t patronize them. He assumes that most Americans want to do the right thing. And that’s huge to me. If I had a copy of The Creation when I was a tree-hugging high school idealist with a Greenpeace sticker on her locker, I would’ve made every adult I knew read it. It says the sorts of things I wanted to say, but just didn’t know how to say back then.

    Anyway, I didn’t get all that across to E.O. Wilson in the elevator. But when I mentioned where I grew up, he brightened and said, “I know just what you mean – I grew up in Alabama.” When E.O. Wilson wrote The Creation, he was writing for people he knew – a community he was part of, and one he cared about. Those people are citizens of the United States. They one of the groups that science communicators and science policymakers should be most concerned about reaching. We can’t write them off. And that is why it is so important that we bring different experiences and perspectives to the table: because as convinced as we may be of the importance of science, there are perfectly reasonable, genuine, caring Americans who do not understand science, do not relate to it, and do not know why they should bother to invest their time in it.”

    There. Did anyone bother to read that while rushing to comment on something else? Go back. Give it some thought.

    If you blow that kind of information off, you’re dismissing a large part of the United States population, or at least their parents. You need to reach their kids.

  23. 123

    Steve Reynolds (121),

    See this excellent book chapter for an exposition of the different scientific methods, and how climate science ranks according to them:

    An associated presentation is available here:
    (start at slide 38 for the stuff on scientific methods).

    Highly recommended.

  24. 124
    Ray Ladbury says:

    With respect to Watts, at a certain point, science done badly–by amateur or professional–becomes indistinguishable from anti-science, regardless of the sincerity of the person doing it. Science is not just empiricism. It is empiricism guided by understanding. You can’t simply throw out all the work that’s been done in the past and expect to make a meaningful contribution–beyond comic relief, anyway.

  25. 125
    Chris Mooney says:

    I just wanted to stop by to thank the readers of this blog (and Mike) for such a great discussion.

    One way to boil down our book is this: The dangerous gap between scientists and the public is the fault of *both*, and it won’t do to put the blame only on one side. Accordingly, bridging the gap requires many things of the public, but also many things from scientists–many of which are now under valuable consideration here.

    So once again, thank you.

  26. 126
    Kevin Leahy says:

    It would be helpful if part of the communication was about the scientific process itself — how ideas are challenged and tested, in what arenas and so on. Simply showing off the “gee wiz” sort of thing common to science shows or articles misses the point entirely.

    Re the issue in context of climate change, would be helpful to continually refer back to the process itself, and show how most of what passes in the publics’ mind as scientific debate on this topic is actually nothing but heckling by the uninformed.

  27. 127
    Ken says:

    It seems that the National Academy of Sciences was right to reject Sagan. While you might feel that it is good to have a “scientist” communicating with the public, the National Academy of Sciences should be a body for elite scientists, not elite Johnny Carson Show guests.

    [edit – sorry, I won’t permit this thread to be hijacked as a forum for dubious attacks against Sagan. And spare us the egregious and, in my view, rather disingenuous straw man that anyone is arguing Sagan should have been elected to the academy for his work as a science communicator. Nobody is arguing that. As I pointed out earlier in this thread to a like-minded commenter, I’d happily match Sagan’s contribution to our modern understanding of long-term Earth System evolution (in particular, his work on the “Faint Young Sun Paradox”) against the scientific accomplishments of any number of other scientists who have been elected to the academy. Feel free to take this elsewhere. But consider the matter now closed here at RealClimate. -mike]

  28. 128
    Ken says:

    Hey Mike, you said my claims against Sagan were “dubious”. Did you understand the actual physics? Did you consult a physicist? If not, how did you decide on the degree of merit?

    You obviously have Sagan as your idol, and childishly want to censor criticism about him regardless of whether or not it is correct.

    If Sagan actually was seriously wrong about things he pontificated to the general public about, that does not have relevance on whether he was a good ambassador for science?

    [Response: I suppose if I was in an argumentative mood, I’d point out that my having advanced degrees in physics probably qualifies me to evaluate the merit of your criticisms. Now, I’ve let you have your say above, ok? Lets get back to a more productive discussion on this thread. -mike]

  29. 129
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Hank Roberts 9 Jul 2009 at 9:02 am:

    Hank, I did read that, and I’m trying to understand how it fits together with the pernicious and degenerate voices of unreason howling at the same demographic Wilson mentions.

    Perhaps the key is hidden in this statement:

    “They spent a huge proportion of their time outdoors – camping, fishing, hunting and hiking. But many of them couldn’t relate to ecological arguments, because they perceived science – rightly or wrongly – as being materialistic and therefore anti-faith. They didn’t see how their personal values could possibly be acknowledged, if a strictly evidence-based discourse was shaping policy.”

    Science leads to engineering. Engineering enables us to produce complex, useful artifacts, and there we have evidence in the material world of the successful predictive abilities of scientific theories.

    In the products of engineering we have not only tangible illustrations of how science works for us, but common ground. We all enjoy and depend on various engineered artifacts impossible to produce without foundations of solid scientific findings, findings so reliable that we can depend on them for our very lives. The control arm connecting the steering box of one neurotic ecobunny’s Prius is made using the same principles as a ski boat’s outdrive steering fork.

    So perhaps by analogizing the success of science in making recreational things safely work for us with other predictions, we could find a way forward.

    Still, faced with competing voices of irrationality I’m not sure this is possible without a generational commitment to improving our educational system. It seems to me some basic powers of discrimination have to be in place before folks can sort out who is misleading versus those pointing the way ahead.

  30. 130
    Doug Bostrom says:


    Every centimeter of rise will be accompanied by a statistical increase in various undesirable outcomes. No one collapsing structure or drowning will be attributable to any given increment of increase, but taken as a collection and graphed the results will be easily visible. To the extent that we can minimize the rise it’s good.

    Human nature is tough to deal with. In the end we have to account for how poor we are at thinking on the kind of timescale involved, and for that matter how common it is to make the mistake of turning our backs on the ocean.

    At a certain point you may have to say “Our grandchildren will know the answer. I hope it’s good, let’s give them cause for more hope by being responsible for their world to the extent we can.”

  31. 131
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Sagan did some excellent work in planetary science, stellar evolution and several other areas. He also produced some very good students, who really did love the man. It really says a lot about a man when even his grad students won’t say anything bad about him.

  32. 132
    mike says:

    Eerily apropos to the topic at hand is this survey on science and its public perception just released by Pew Research Center (in collaboration with AAAS). It is perhaps reason for some degree of optimism, but there are some warning signs there too, in my view.

  33. 133
    Ken says:

    \Sagan did some excellent work in planetary science, stellar evolution and several other areas. He also produced some very good students, who really did love the man. It really says a lot about a man when even his grad students won’t say anything bad about him.\

    Ray, I actually listed specific things that Sagan had said that were seriously wrong, but Mike keeps editing them out, and then pretending that I am just ranting without actually knowing what I am talking about. That is pretty sleazy of him.

    Obviously I’m not exactly counting on this post making it through censorship either.

    [Response: Not sure how many times I have to repeat myself. This will not be a forum for debating whether or not Carl Sagan ever made a mistake or got something wrong. In “Demon-Haunted World” he actually enumerates for his readers a long list of mistakes he’d made in his career, and how he learned from them. Now, if you want to go on an anti-Sagan tirade, then do it on your own site. I’ll even let you post a link to it here. Beyond that, let me once again state that I consider the topic closed on this thread. So, yes, any further comments from you in this vein will not be posted. Feel free to complain elsewhere about how mean we are here. -mike]

  34. 134
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I forgot to bring up a point I’ve been pounding on forever….

    When commicating about science, or right after, we need to let people know about “scientific standards,” and how scientists usually require 95% confidence that A is causing/impacting B before making a claim; that scientists need to avoid the false positive of making untrue claims, so they won’t be the boy who called wolf and lose their credibitility.

    But we know what happened in that story — the people got eaten up by the wolf in the end. People, policy-makers, and those suffering from or under threat of harm need to know that they can (and perhaps should) have lower standards before acting to avert threats, such as toxic poisoning or climate change effects. They should be striving to avoid the false negative of doing nothing while the real problem rages. They do not have to wait and wait and wait until 95 (.05) blings on the scientists’s computers. They should be out in front of the scientists, striving to mitigate harms and threats, not trailing far behind, destracted by tabloid news.

    And certainly they need to be doing all the cost-effective measures to avert or mitigate the harms; and be willing to pay a price (if any) to mitigate, commensuate with the level of threat.

    These ideas also need to be communicated right behind communication of the science.

    In fact, I’m thinking that part of the problem people have with science is just this — they feel betrayed when science cannot definitively prove their child’s cancer was caused by the toxic dumpsite next door. They know some scientists are working for industries and covering up evidence of harm, like the tobacco and formaldehyde industries (some of whose scientists ended up in prison for falsifying the science). And hopefully they understand the media are supported mainly by advertisements from businesses and bound to be somewhat biased. And if they don’t know the specifics of these issues, it’s in their general understanding of how the world works. Unless they were born yesterday.

    Anyway, people have to be informed of this difference between what the scientists are trying to avoid (false claims) and what they as persons facing threats or responsible to people facing threats should be trying to avoid — that is, harm from doing nothing about true problems. Maybe this could be included right after the science is explained….sort of like “caveats for policy-makers and laypersons,” such as: “Science has not reached 95% confidence that global warming will cause severe drop in food production, but we should nevertheless be working to mitigate it and adapt to right now.”

    Or, “Not all scientists agree with Hansen about the probability of runaway warming if we continue BAU — most haven’t even read his work on this (see — but, hey, we’ve got to work double time to avert this one, no matter how many scientists are not on board with it yet.”

  35. 135
    GFW says:

    Also to Jesse – the predicted acceleration of sea level rise will take it much higher than 3mm/year. Even then, it’s a particularly slow-motion disaster. But as I previously said, a sea level rise of 4-5 feet is very likely by 2100 (where 3mm/y would only give 1 foot). The first 3 feet take out half the cropland of Bangladesh. The population of Bangladesh is over 150 million. That’s just one country. Entire low lying island nations will vanish. Nigeria, Indonesia and China will suffer cropland loss (not as extreme as Bangladesh) and they also have huge populations. Here in the US, large chunks of Louisiana and Florida will no longer be habitable. Heck, parts of London and New York may no longer be habitable. A long time before the ocean climbs the Battery Park seawall, it will have flooded the utility tunnels in the area. The Dutch will put up a valiant struggle, but at 3 feet, I don’t know.

    (aside – reCaptcha must be a Jodi Foster fan. “starling FBI”)

  36. 136
    Doug Bostrom says:

    re mike 9 July 2009 at 12:05 PM:

    A breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    For the curious, survey methodology is here:

    I had no idea the Pew Center’s staff is so small. They must work very long hours indeed, good on them.

  37. 137
    Mark says:

    Ray Ladbury says:

    “He also produced some very good students, who really did love the man. It really says a lot about a man when even his grad students won’t say anything bad about him.”

    This makes him a good man. But that doesn’t make him a smart man.

    I’m pretty sure he WAS a smart man (though I only know him through the series on telly), but if you’re trying to say he’s smart enough to be in NAS, you can’t really use how nice he was as proof.

    [Response: Agreed. But the case for him having been inducted into the academy had nothing whatsoever to do with how nice or loved he was. It has to do with the fundamental contributions he made to the forefront of our knowledge in key areas, such as Earth System evolution, as I’ve discussed above. It is the belief of many that his efforts at popularization did indeed inappropriately influence the decision regarding his prospective induction into the academy–in a negative way. That is the injustice we are talking about here. I trust the point is now clear. -mike]

  38. 138
    Ken says:

    Hey Mike, maybe you should have just posted my original post without doctoring or editing, even though you disagreed with me.

    It is strange that you do not understand the concept of allowing differeng views, and worse yet that you are such a sleaze as to delete key material and then debate me while acting as if I made no specific claims. While you can legally do what you want on your own website, it clearly is unfair to actually have a debate with someone without posting that person’s actual responses.

    Pretty creepy.

    [Response: You were warned multiple times. There was no ‘doctoring’ of anything you posted, and to imply that to our readers is simply dishonest. What I did do was to delete material (as indicated for our readers by the ‘edit’ note) that was defamatory of a highly respected and loved scientist who is sadly no longer here to defend himself. On top of that, I even offered you an opportunity to provide your views off site, where they would be linked to. You chose not to take me up on that offer, and instead come back with an ad hom. By my assessment, you’ve now violated essentially every one of our comment policies multiple times. You have now earned the rare honor of permanent ban from the site. -mike]

  39. 139
    Mark says:

    mike: “But the case for him having been inducted into the academy had nothing whatsoever to do with how nice or loved he was”

    However, that wasn’t the point Ray made. Ray made the point in a discussion about Carl Sagan’s ban from entry to the NAS that he was a good man.

    You agree it’s OT for the discussion. He could be the loveliest man alive (if you’ve seen “Support your local Sherrif”, think of Joe Danby talking about his Paw: “A heart as big as the whole outdoors. But not a brain in his whole body”), but that doesn’t mean he should have been in the NAS.

    His education was.

    Now if Ray had said “he had many students who praised his intelligence”, THEN he’d have had an on topic point.

    In fact, Carl probably does. Hence the outrage (in limited circles of people who know and care about the membership of the NAS).

  40. 140
    Mark says:

    mike: “influence the decision regarding his prospective induction into the academy–in a negative way”

    This could have been not spite but old-fashioned thinking.

    The Gentleman Scholar. Seeks not the limelight but persues his work with quiet dilligence.

    It’s kind of old fashioned thinking, after all, the change of that form of thinking (which IS extant: was it Wallace, can’t remember the name off the top of my head, but he went and allowed Darwin some time to collect his thoughts on evolution by natural selection rather than steal a fellow scientists’ thunder).

    It could be some were thinking more of the gravitas of the post and were concerned by getting a “household name” in, that this would make their work seem less serious.

    Again, old-fashioned, wrong (IMO), but not malice.

    And, yes, there could be some malice. Newton had a hate-on for quite a few of his fellows and as the President of the Royal Society, quashed a few good names. But as we saw with Darwin/Wallace (or whoever), such malice is not all-pervading.

    All we CAN say is that from what we know (though again remember that I only know his TV appearance, not his scientific one, like many do here), is that Carl Sagan would have been an excellent choice for a member of the NAS, as good as any who were accepted for that role, and who would have maybe made the works of science better known and understood by virtue of his showmanship talents.

    [Response: Well put Mark. -mike]

  41. 141
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Steve (120):

    I’m not going to get into a dissertation on the varieties of methods in science, but there are many depending on the field and it’s maturity. But one that is ubiquitous, is that, as thoroughly as possible, you examine the existing literature on a topic before you wade into it with any putative contributions or criticisms. You do NOT simply assume that previous work is faulty, and you DEFINITELY DON’T assume that it is driven by some sort of a non-scientific agenda. You have a degree of respect for peer review (both during the pre- and post-publication processes). You recognize that on any less than obvious topic, you’re not the first one to address it or ask questions, and those who have already published on the topic are more than likely to have thought the matter through more thoroughly, and/or more rigorously, than you have. Until you REALLY understand the topic and its history, you’re very likely to be wrong in concluding that you have a new/better approach that nobody’s thought of. As for assumptions of collusion or agenda, you damn well better have rock solid evidence of it, because that’s not how scientists operate.

  42. 142

    It’s too bad that some are resisting reading Carl Sagan’s last book,cited by Mike, and particularly the chapter titled “Maxwell and the Nerds”.It’s a fascinating tale taking us from the remarkable discoveries of Oerstad and Faraday to Maxwell’s easily understandable(Thanks to Sagan) math synthesis of these insights and his own insight leading to an understanding of light as an electromagnetic wave, and taking us to Hertz,Einstein and beyond. Quite a story!

    [Response: Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than that. Sagan realized he needed to explain Maxwell’s equations to his readers for them to truly appreciate what makes them so elegant, and for them to appreciate the point he’s seeking to make about the importance of individual moments of great scientific insight (in this particular case, Maxwell’s ansatz of keeping the displacement current term for the pure vaccuum limit of the equations, which might have seemed nonsensical to others). Then, once he’s got his readers on board with all of this, he uses it to drive home the point that pure science is essential for technological innovation, i.e. that there would have been no Marconi radio without the understanding of the possibility for electromagnetic wave propagation provided by Maxwell decades earlier. Sagan manages to pull it off where most would likely fail, and he tells a fascinating and important tale in the process. -mike]

  43. 143
    Lance Olsen says:

    “The individual scientist can survive for a long time by lying low in the valley of specialized intellectual interest … We in science must get up and face the wind, confront the future.”

    William Bevan, “The Sound of the Wind That’s Blowing.” American Psychologist. July 1976

  44. 144
    sidd says:

    Mr. Bouldin writes:

    “I’m not going to get into a dissertation…”

    and then proceeds to a good description of the process of writing a doctoral dissertation, or a serious paper

    Thank you Mr. Bouldin

  45. 145
    Steve Reynolds says:

    123.Bart Verheggen: “See this excellent book chapter for an exposition of the different scientific methods…”

    Thanks; I looked at that, but I don’t really see different scientific methods. What Oreskes writes may be useful but does not clearly distinguish the essentials.

    141.Jim Bouldin: “I’m not going to get into a dissertation on the varieties of methods in science, but there are many depending on the field and it’s maturity. But one that is ubiquitous…”

    As sidd says, that may be ‘a good description of the process of writing a doctoral dissertation, or a serious paper’, but I don’t see it as accurately describing the scientific method. It may be good advice to on how to efficiently do scientific work, but a more conventional (and I have found, ubiquitous) definition is typically as shown below:
    “The scientific method has four steps
    1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
    2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
    3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
    4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.”

    A key feature of the convention definition (and in contrast to what came before it) is a complete lack of appeal to authority. Authority may be a useful short cut, but it has no place in the foundation of science.

  46. 146
    Francis says:

    Since the issue of sea level rise has come up in this thread, I feel comfortable asking the following:

    As a water lawyer, one thing I’m concerned about is salt water intrusion into groundwater basins that are critically important potable water resources. (The Los Angeles area being a prime example of this. Enormous sums have been spent injecting water into the basins to establish a high water barrier to keep the saline out.)

    How much study has been done on the risk of increased saltwater intrusion into groundwater resources due to climate change?

  47. 147
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Steve I think you’re missing my point, though that may be because I’m failing to make it well on what is after all a complex topic.

    There are many crucial aspects to scientific investigation that go beyond the typical stepwise progression you cite (and which I have no problem with). My point above is that step numero uno–before any of that sees the light of day–is to thoroughly understand the history and issues of a topic before you start any sort of prescribed “method” of investigation. Failing that, one makes all manner of who knows what kind of assertions in the attempt to reinvent the wheel (or destroy it). And you will quite rightly be taken for lazy at best, or a fool at worst, for so doing, by those knowledgeable in the field. This is where Watts fails big time. Why you think this should only apply to a doctoral dissertation or “serious paper” I have no idea. It applies to science overall; nay it applies to good scholarship in general. No check that, it applies to the advancement of knowledge generally.

    As for authority, you need to define what you mean by that term. It is quite appropriate and necessary to appeal to authority if that authority is derived from solid, validated research on a topic. It’s authority that is based on anything else (e.g. position, charisma, etc) that is unwarranted. Big difference.

    Furthermore, there is a lot more variation to “the” scientific method than is encapsulated in your 4 steps. That’s also partly what I was referring to. For example, there are huge methodological and analytical differences between fields in which controlled experiments are (e.g. molecular biology, chemistry), and are not (e.g. much of earth system science, ecology etc), possible. And there are a whole host of “little things” (not so little in fact) that have to be done right as well (e.g. proper data management, quality control, and archiving). Tedious stuff a lot of it.

  48. 148
    David B. Benson says:

    Francis (146) — First just ask the question irrespective of cause. I suppose civil engineers or geologists ought to have studied saltwater intrusions in, say, the Mississippi delta and so on.

    Then take up the separable question of sea level rise due to global warming. Here engineeers in Northern California, England and The Netherlands have taken three slightly different stands as to what they need to protect against in 2100 CE. As I recall, they all, each with their own studies, are using 1+ meters.

  49. 149
    James says:

    GFW says (9 July 2009 at 1:00 PM):

    “Heck, parts of London and New York may no longer be habitable.”

    This of course presumes that they could be considered habitable now.

    I think harping on sea level rise as though it’s the principal, if not only, consequence of global warming is a mistake, both as a debating tactic and in reality. Other effects – climate zone migrations, changes in weather patterns, melting of mountain glaciers & snowpack – will be more severe.

  50. 150
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Francis 9 July 2009 at 7:03 PM:

    Francis, I took a quick gander at your question via Google Scholar using the search term “salination of aquifer due to sea level rise”. Lots of work being done in that department, seems to be a very active area of investigation.