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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. 201
    Jordan Bigel says:

    @91 – 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.

    Excuse me? This is the heart of the matter right here. First, the MOST important thing is that we mitigate climate change. If that can be done by “coming together”, then fine. But to place “coming together” along with – either to claim it as a goal, or a neccessity for reaching the goal of mitigating climate change – is a huge mistake. If you think you need to convince the far-right deniers that man-made climate change can only be addressed by man-mad solutions, you will never acheive your goal because they cannot be convinced or reasoned with, the same way “god did it” people will never be convinced. Did you hear the state congresswoman from Florida recently say the earth is 6000 years old, and its done just fine so far (thank you) that we don’t need to worry about climate change.

    The two belief systems are so wrapped up in each other that we cannot address one without addressing the other.

    But the author of comment 91 further illustrates the fallacy of this approach (ie. must. come. together. to. defeat. climate. change.) with her parting comment:

    “…far-flung theories of evolution/biology that even anthropologists who firmly accept evolution have trouble with.”

    This kind of nonsense and mushy thinking (as also utilized by the author’s of the book in question – of which I admit to have only read 2 chapters of, chapter 1 and chapter 8, in the bookstore, I did not purchase it) – THIS kind of mushy thinking is what is at the core of PZ Myers and Dawkins arguments.

    There are NO “far-flung” theories of volution/biology at contention between scientists and “god did it” creationists.

    Evolution is fact, and there is nothing far flung about it. People who use language like this are either creationists themselves, or are “hedging” because (again, like the argument made by the authors) believe it is NECCESSARY to appease and appeal to the creationists, to “bring them on board” so to speak so we can all work “together” to mitigate climate change. Yawn. Never going to happen, these people are frozen in the cement of their religous beliefs and think the world is 6000 years old! For chrissakes!

    So no, this book is not useless, it shows us a good example of how NOT to crusade against climate change. A better approach is to say THIS is science, THIS is fact, you have no facts so thank you very much, now go away and leave the adults alone to address the problems.

    Not this molly-coddling “togetherness” crap. I love kum-bay-ah as much as the next guy, but there comes a time when you have to conclude that beating your head against a wall is not going to break down the wall. A new approach is neccessary and Myers and Dawkins are on the right track. The authors of THIS book, are not.

  2. 202

    I’m both very religious, and very engaged with science. As with Lynn Vincentnathan, the more I learn about Science, the more miraculous I find the Universe.

    I think that some people view Science and Religious as either-or, as with post #200. If ‘Science’ is right, ‘Religion’ must be wrong, so the argument goes. But for me, and I suspect Lynn Vincentnathan as well, I don’t see them as competing. When I run across a person who rejects ‘Science’ in favor of ‘Religion’, I try to focus on the fact that religious texts don’t explain ‘How?’

  3. 203
    James says:

    FurryCatHerder says (11 Jul 2009 at 11:49 am):

    “I think that some people view Science and Religious as either-or, as with post #200. If ‘Science’ is right, ‘Religion’ must be wrong, so the argument goes.”

    I don’t see how you can avoid that, at least in some instances. If religion says the Earth is a bit over 6000 years old, and multiple lines of scientific evidence say it’s something over 4 billion, then there are really only three possibilities: either the religion is wrong, the science is wrong, or the religion’s run by a deity with a sophomoric taste for practical jokes :-)

  4. 204
    Jacob Mack says:

    I am using the term “genius” in accordance with the definition which entails the ability to take complex subject matter and make it understandable to the lay person; James you lost me on your last post… Bart, to make claim that Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, Genetics, and Sociobiology is less credible and validated than climate science is ludicrous to say the least. (to put it nicely)

  5. 205
    Anders M says:

    Showing how dangerous and unscientific climate change deniers are is good, showing how dangerous and stupid religous dogma instead of science is is bad according too the book. ( )


  6. 206
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jacob Mack wrote: “It has been found that a need for a ‘higher power’ or dominant belief system etched out in superstition is actually hardwired in our brains.”

    Barton Paul Levenson replied: “I don’t take sociobiology seriously because most of its contentions are impossible to test. But this one is easy to test. If it were true, there would be no atheists.”

    Actually I would put Mr. Mack’s contention in the “impossible to test” bin. Certainly the existence of atheists doesn’t refute it. There are plenty of conceptions of “a higher power” and plenty of “dominant belief systems” that might be characterized as “superstition” that are in no way theistic, and would therefore be compatible with atheism.

    No, the problem that I have with that contention is that the terms “belief in a higher power” and “belief system based in superstition” that are asserted to be “hardwired” are so vague and ill-defined that almost any notion that any sort of pattern or entity or system exists that transcends oneself meets the criteria, including a hard-core, purely “materialist” belief that the universe is governed by physical laws.

    All it seems to say is that we are “hardwired” to believe that there is some sort of order in our experience, or if you prefer, in the universe. If so, that’s probably a good thing, since empirically speaking, it is pretty self-evident that there is some sort of order in the universe. We know from observation that the universe, and our experience of it, is not just random chaos.

    As for sociobiology, the fundamental idea as I understand it is simply that human social behavior is ultimately biological in origin. That seems to me to be an uncontroversial idea. Given that we are biological entities, everything about us is ultimately biological in origin.

  7. 207
    Mark says:

    Jacob, that isn’t genius, that’s one method of seeing it.

  8. 208
    Jacob Mack says:

    #203 In modern times many religious leaders from various denominations, sects and cultures have come to accept the science regarding just such topics you bring up. Science is not “right” or “wrong,” but rather it is a methodology of applications. It uses “constrained models” to explain small pieces of whatever the subject of study happens to be; as Mark correctly points out time and time again, gravity and other physcial pheneomena just “are,” and science approaches approximations of “truth” on what these phenomena actually are. I belong to no religion, but faith in
    “God” can be comeplete;y independent of religion or dogma per se. For some science is their “religious dogma.” Religion= “to reconnect,” science= “to know.” Science can only explain physical things in gardations of approximations in space-time, which if fine.., this is what it is meant to do. Then again there are many Muslims and Christans who work an dmake a lot of $ in science from all fields and subdivisions. I had several religious Biology professors for example. There are also dozens of well publiscized scientists who uphold evolution for the fact it is while maintaining religious beliefs. I dare say science may be a state religion for you James.

  9. 209
    Doug Bostrom says:

    James 11 Jul 2009 at 1:17 am

    What is this thing “fun” you speak of? I cannot find any material evidence of “fun”… ;-)

    “You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.”

    Ah, now I understand! My “fun” is being spoiled because I’m trying to have it too fast!

  10. 210
    Mark says:

    “I’m both very religious, and very engaged with science. As with Lynn Vincentnathan, the more I learn about Science, the more miraculous I find the Universe.”

    That’s one reason why some scientists become heavily christian (e.g BPL). On seeing the miracle of reality, some think this is evidence of a God.

    It’s a valid hypothesis, but has very little to do with science, since any effect by such a being would either be concomitant with science and therefore indistinguishable from it (so can be forgotten as an agent of reality) or breaks science which doesn’t seem to have happened.

  11. 211
    SecularAnimist says:

    As for religion, this discussion, like many others, seems to have a myopic focus on particular, Middle Eastern monotheistic religions and particular scriptural doctrines thereof regarding the origin of the Earth and of life, which are contradicted by modern scientific understanding.

    Please keep in mind that other religions have quite different ideas. The Vedic scriptures that are the basis of what we nowadays call “Hinduism” describe a vast, ancient universe that has existed through endless cycles of big-bang, expansion, collapse and bang again, on time scales similar to modern understanding of the age of the observed universe, and a universal deity, Brahman, which is not so much the “chief executive” of the universe as the impersonal ground of being from which all things arise, reminiscent of physicist David Bohm’s “implicate order”. Taoism does not have any notion of “God” as found in theistic religions. Various other nature-oriented religions, including European pagan traditions and Native American religions, view human beings as just one of many species on this Earth, with no special status, and with deep connections to all life on Earth. The Buddha taught radical empiricism as the foundation of Buddhist practice, repeatedly exhorting his followers that they should not take his teachings on faith but test them for themselves, and the Dalai Lama has said that if the knowledge of modern science challenges Buddhist beliefs, then Buddhists should reexamine their beliefs.

    This is not to contend that science “proves” any of these religions to be “right” or that they are more or less “scientific” than Middle Eastern theistic religions, merely to suggest that we ought not to speak of the particular beliefs of particular religions, which may not be in accord with scientific thinking and scientific knowledge, as though they represented some sort of universal religious incompatibility with science.

  12. 212
    Mark says:

    Secular Animist, one of the reasons I’ve heard for the lack of scientific *progress* (note, not scientific ability) is that a pantheistic system allows several reasons for something to happen. A monotheistic one looks for the “one true reason”.

    IMO, Bhudda has it right: his teachings are merely HIS view of reality and that you need to find your own way.

  13. 213
    Radge Havers says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings about the whole concept of science ambassador. The thing that gives me trouble about it is the line it implies between \us and them.\ Having an ambassador may improve relations at border crossings, but it doesn’t really address whether the border is even a good thing. It sort of sounds like you’re condescending to the riffraff. Maybe it’s just a weird fixation of mine, but wouldn’t it be preferable to have a continuum of understanding from lay person to master scientist rather than a quantum jump, either/or, at some point?

    I’d contend that Sagan was more than an ambassador. He created a comfortable venue in peoples heads where anyone willing could commune with a world of science that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. That’s as much art as it is anything else. I’d go further and suggest that much of what religion supplies to people, the absence of which makes some antagonistic to science, is really just art that provides them a desirable sense of place in the world, nothing more, despite protestations to the contrary.

    As for poor, beleaguered PZ, you wouldn’t necessarily want him setting the tone for the whole of *Science*, but sometimes a science brawler is more appropriate than a science ambassador. IMAO, too much politeness has given permission to the rise of hateful anti-science over the past few decades, something that should have waned to the point of vanishing by the opening of the 21st century. Instead the world is at the mercy of a bunch of AGW denying, creationist, homeopaths.

    \Scientist,\ def. see Sheldon in \The Big Bang Theory.\ Intellectually rigorous, socially autistic.

  14. 214
    David B. Benson says:

    “Sociobiology is a neo-Darwinian synthesis of scientific disciplines that attempts to explain social behavior in animal species by considering the evolutionary advantages the behaviors may have. … Applied to non-humans, sociobiology is uncontroversial.” from

  15. 215
    Jacob Mack says:

    Mark #207… The term genius has many definitions and extrapolations, but my loosley phrased definition holds up; just check a few dictionary definitions or discussions on Carl Sagan himself; you make a valid point in that the genius I aforememtioned is an application. Still there are many typologies when discussing “genius,” like Mozart, Einstein, Darwin, and Maxwell for example.Maxwell applied quite elegant, but simple mathematics to solve complex problems. Mozart was a genius of a composer and Einstein saw a greater glimpse of physcial reality before the mathematics and experiments revealed the “truths,” in his hypotheses. Carl Sagan was a “genius” in not only understanding complex scientific matters, but he also made them understandable to others, not only is his teaching an application of “genius,” but definition of “genius,” is to make complex matters understandable and add some new viable hypothesis based upon such findings or data.

  16. 216
    francois says:

    I have just borrowed a copy of “CLIMATE OF EXTREMES: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know” by Michaels and Balling.

    While I am hoping someone can point me to a debunking of CATO’s latest, the title itself may have done the job already.

    “…Science They Don’t Want You To Know”

    Who is “They”? And how many Americans are so unscientific that they are willing to believe some sinister “They” is keeping the real science from them?

    captcha adore Lakeville

  17. 217
    Hank Roberts says:

    Let’s not get sidetracked into theology or sociobiology arguments. The book is about how to do science education. Equal opportunity is the place, I suggest, to start.

    As Tom Paine points out
    genius arises equally among people in every generation–he didn’t know how heredity gets reshuffled but he certainly observed clearly how it worked, and that government should give every opportunity to all children of every generation to learn everything they could.

    We haven’t come close yet. We should do better. This humbles me.
    Take just a moment to read these few words from 1791-1792:

    “… nature acts as if she disowned and sported with the hereditary system; that the mental character of successors, in all countries, is below the average of human understanding; that one is a tyrant, another an idiot, a third insane, and some all three together, it is impossible to attach confidence to it, when reason in man has power to act….

    … it is impossible to control Nature in her distribution of mental powers. She gives them as she pleases. Whatever is the rule by which she, apparently to us, scatters them among mankind, that rule remains a secret to man. It would be as ridiculous to attempt to fix the hereditaryship of human beauty, as of wisdom. Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth, and again withdrawn.

    … How irrational then is the hereditary system, which establishes channels of power, in company with which wisdom refuses to flow! By continuing this absurdity, man is perpetually in contradiction with himself; he accepts, for a king, or a chief magistrate, or a legislator, a person whom he would not elect for a constable.

    It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; but those events do no more than bring them forward. There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”

  18. 218
    Hank Roberts says:

    This is marvelous: hat tip to Slashdot:

    “itwbennett writes
    “Rose Shuman developed a contraption for this under-served population called Question Box that is essentially a one-step-removed Internet search: ‘A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who’s sitting in front of a computer attached to the Internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the Internet and reads it back. All questions and answers are logged. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues.’ This week, Jon Gosier, of Appfrica,
    launched a web site called World Wants to Know that displays the QuestionBox questions being asked in real time. As Jon put it, it’s allowing ‘searching where Google can’t.’ And providing remarkable insight into the real information needs of off-the-grid populations.”

  19. 219
    Jacob Mack says:

    Hank Roberts,
    all good points… society should support its citizens to attain the highest learning possible. To Mark’s points: Nikola Tesla was a far superior “scientific” genius in comparsion to Thomas Edison and yet Edison shit down AC current for a long time and stole many of his inventive ideas as well. Science is a worth while cause, but like all human endeavors it is filled with corruption and outright politics.Biil Gates stole ideas from Jobs who in turn stole them from NM. Many typologies do exist, so no everyone agrees semantically on the concept of “genius.”
    Nowadays DC current can be generated more efficiently, but generally AC current drives DC current. Hnery Ford a “genius” of an engineer and shrewd buisnessman killed the electric car.

  20. 220
    Mark says:

    “Biil Gates stole ideas from Jobs who in turn stole them from NM”

    Who is NM?

    If you’re talking about the Windows/Pointer/Mouse idea from Xerox Parc, that was paid for by Apple with shares in the company.

    Bill stole them from Apple.

  21. 221
    Mark says:

    \Mark #207… The term genius has many definitions and extrapolations, but my loosley phrased definition holds up;\

    It isn’t the only one, though.

    So my definition holds up too.

    See where that sort of argument gets you? Nowhere.

  22. 222

    Markus R writes:

    The climate skeptics can easily recruit the entire religiously fundamentalist political movement by adopting their rhetoric of science.

    Did you see where 86 leading US evangelicals signed a statement saying that Christians should do more to combat global warming? Did you see the print ads where Pat Robertston and Al Sharpton were sitting together on a bench to advertise that the one thing they agreed on was the need to stop global warming? Don’t assume fundamentalists are inherently anti-environment. It’s not true.

  23. 223

    SecularAnimist writes:

    The Vedic scriptures that are the basis of what we nowadays call “Hinduism” describe a vast, ancient universe that has existed through endless cycles of big-bang, expansion, collapse and bang again, on time scales similar to modern understanding of the age of the observed universe,

    Wouldn’t that make the universe a perpetual motion machine of the second kind?

    CAPTCHA: “deformed 1972″

  24. 224
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Yes, enough about religion and science, except to say that,

    In the beginning……
    there was not a clear distinction among religion, science, ethics, philosophy, and expressive culture (art, literature). All were one. The split only came much later, and only very recently (within 300 years) did science develop into it’s distinctive form that calls not only for theories, but empirical, objective observation/data and experiments and continual retests.

    So you could view the Judeo-Christian Bible and ancient writings of other religions also as ancient “science” books. People of those days were amateur scientists, if you will. They stood outside and viewed the sun crossing the sky — a sky which held up the water, occasionally leaking rain. Now we know about how the earth goes around the sun and about the hydrologic cycle.

    I teach expressive culture and mythology, and also include science’s view in each section — world creation, the flood, world end or destruction. In the “world end” section, in addition to science’s entropy and the fizzling out or winding down of the universe I talk about how thru global warming we might be destroying life on planet earth (actually that sort of fits with the Christian Bible, you know, how sin leads to world destruction :( ).

    Since I’m in the deep South many of the students are fundamentalists, and I know they don’t teach evolution or global warming in high school, because I’ve asked the students, and I know a HS teacher who is adamently denialist on GW.

    But by the end of my courses, the students not only have an appreciation for the myths of the world, but also for science, and I think many come to belief in evolution and climate science, and view these as not threatenting to their religions (since I’ve made it a point — professor cap off — that these are not threatening to my religion). Some even join our campus Environmental Awareness Club, of which I’m advisor :)

    Small, local advancements in promoting the appreciation science and its harder truths, but that’s all I seem able to do.

  25. 225
    Mark says:

    “Did you see where 86 leading US evangelicals signed a statement saying that Christians should do more to combat global warming”

    And there are as many who say that Man cannot be causing this because God is All Powerful.

    Those 86 leading evangelicals are not letting their religion control their reason. Unlike the tinheads who refuse because God is Great and He wouldn’t let this happen.

    Another example of religion being used to bad effect and ignoring the tenets where they interfere with logic and reality shows up good.

    Religion can help someone work out how to live life and that doesn’t mean that it is real in any sort of solid sense you can rely on. But it should be a GUIDE to life, not the REASON for it.

    “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett has a good section about it and how the structure of religion can be a bad thing. But Brutha is religious. Yet he is more concerned that humans are allowed to think freely.

  26. 226
    Hank Roberts says:

    You can discuss science without insisting on telling people your opinions of their religious beliefs; that’s an important point in teaching science.

    Science doesn’t need to go there at all.

    Here’s someone actually doing the job we’re all talking about:
    He begins:

    A deep sigh of relief…
    by Bryan Walker on July 11, 2009

    Elizabeth Kolbert recently interviewed Jane Lubchenco, appointed by President Obama as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration…..

    And more:
    pointing to news about the ANDRILL results, which are seriously scary:

  27. 227
    Hank Roberts says:

    And yet more from the same paragraph at HotTopic:

    “… the Herald also reported on a lecture by Prof Peter Barrett that covered similar ground.
    I’m hoping to persuade the good professors to provide more detail here sometime soon…”

  28. 228
    Hank Roberts says:

    Nothing newer that I can find. I’ll put their March _Science_ paper over at the “Two Degree” thread where it’s entirely pertinent, if nobody has mentioned it yet.

  29. 229
    The Wonderer says:

    Okay Mike, I went back and re-read “Maxwell and the Nerds.” Very good, I wish we’d had a teacher to impart some of that perspective in undergraduate Electromagnetics. I also didn’t realize that Sagan quotes Feynman in that same chapter. And yes, I was mystically attracted to the book “QED” as if there were mental magnets somewhere in the paper binding. :-)

  30. 230
    Steve Fish says:

    Some of the best science ambassadors should be college graduates. But who is it that teaches science to undergraduates? Have they been trained in science communication? Many undergraduate science instructors are young scientists working hard to get their first grant and publish enough to get tenure, and many tenured teachers are focused on their science. For these instructors, their teaching can be just a distraction.

    I ran a required Scientific Presentation Skills course for Ph.D. students that gave them an advantage in presenting their own science to their peers and helped them prepare for teaching duties. The course didn’t require a lot of time and was popular with both the students and their advisors. There were a lot of presentation components that were taught, but three most relevant to the present discussion were:

    Perspective taking– From years of study scientists know their area well, and when one knows a teaching unit very well it is hard to remember all the grinding head work it took to obtain that understanding. To communicate understanding, a teacher must provide the students some of the insights he/she had when learning the material themselves. Presenters have to learn to talk to the audience they have, otherwise they are just wasting everybody’s time.

    Science is a series of stories– There is an unresolved problem that causes tension, and it could be explained in one or more ways (strategy/hypotheses). Action is taken to resolve the problem (data collection) and this leads to a resolution of the tension with a logical answer. Such stories make a connected sequence of ideas in which one part leads logically to the next in a manner that engages student attention. Bumps in the road make the story more complex and interesting. Always look for the stories to tell.

    Enthusiasm trumps all other presentation techniques– Scientists enjoy the learning process and mastery of new material, even for teaching. It is a small shift of attitude toward teaching to let this enthusiasm come out in the classroom. Teaching should be fun, not a drudgery.

    It doesn’t take any more time to prepare and give required lectures well than it does to give ones that are boring and full of unrelated facts. College graduates should go out into the world with an appreciation for the beauty and logic of science so they will influence others and improve the scientific literacy of the general public. If any of you here teach graduate students and your program doesn’t have a good science presentation skills course, I strongly urge you to create one.


  31. 231
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Small, local advancements in promoting the appreciation science and its harder truths, but that’s all I seem able to do.

    It’s all most of us can hope to do really. Nice job fightin’ for the the cause in a tough environment Lynn.

  32. 232
    Rod B says:

    MarkusR (200), I comprehend your philosophical point, but what is its relevance? Which religion says what about global warming/climate change?

  33. 233

    How to do science education?

    To paraphrase an old idiom from real estate. Location, location, location…

    Context, context, context


    Relevance, relevance, relevance


    Data, context, relevance

    That could work :)

  34. 234
    Rod B says:

    Jordan Bigel (201) Wow! I’m sure Lynn can stand up for herself (and maybe has — I haven’t read further down yet), but (and truth in lending: I’m on the skeptic side) since your interest is clearly and exclusively just beating hell out of people you disagree with, I don’t think you’re helping the AGWers’ cause. First, as I said earlier, I’m not aware that global warming/climate change is in any part of any religion’s doctrine. (And one person who is both a religious fanatic and opposed to AGW — and say a German heritage — has zero relevance.) There are people, e.g., posting in RC who are strongly religious and strongly an AGWer; I, as one example am a border atheist and a skeptic. I admit you might find some correlation in what you assert, but it is completely coincidental. Second, a minor point, if you’re asserting that evolution theory is all wrapped with nowhere to go then you’re in disagreement with probably all who work in the field, as Lynn correctly points out.

    If someone offers you a job in major sales or marketing, run away fast. Your method of influencing people makes your average Neanderthal look like a pussy cat.

  35. 235
    Rod B says:

    Jacob Mack (219), way OT, but I think Jobs was given windows and the mouse, e.g., openly and free gratis by Xerox’s PARC. (Actually by Xerox corporate; PARC was dead set against it.)

  36. 236
    Rod B says:

    BPL (223), but in the final analysis isn’t the universe a perpetual motion machine, prima facie?? ;-)

  37. 237
    Mark says:

    “I’m on the skeptic side”

    No, RodB, you’re not on the skeptic side.

    Else you would show as much skepticism over McIntyre et al. You’d have found something that you agree is proven.

    Yet you still deny AGW is real.

  38. 238
    Mark says:

    Steve, Fish, #230. By the time you get to university, you should be intelligent enough to teach yourself, if someone shows you the path.

    That this doesn’t seem to be the case any more is more an indictment of the falling standards in acceptance of students. Probably in the name of getting paying customers, no matter how poorly prepared…

  39. 239
    Mark says:

    “BPL (223), but in the final analysis isn’t the universe a perpetual motion machine, prima facie?? ;-)”



    Heard of “heath death of the universe”?

    Or “the Big Crunch”?

  40. 240
    Steve Fish says:

    Mark #238

    Being an effective teacher IS the way to show a student the path to learning, no matter how poorly prepared.


  41. 241
    Jacob Mack says:

    Mark # 220 and 221: New Mexico Mark..soemtimes Realclimate does not allow brand names and no Apple did not pay for all they got: the GUI platform and background programming was taken in secret and Microsoft in turnm stole it rom Apple; oh we are not arguing at all” I never said your definition of genius did not hold up; see where not readng other’s post responses get you…nowhere:)

  42. 242
    Jacob Mack says:

    Mark # 220 and 221: Incidentally Mark, you are the only one arguing… I never discredited your definition; try reading my posts first.

  43. 243
    Jacob Mack says:

    Rod B, he was givenm some access by Xerox, but he took far more than they realized for a fraction of its worth.

  44. 244

    Regardless of the terminology(someone had reservations of the use of ‘science ambassadors),explaining science to non-scientists is a worthwhile, and in today’s world,even a necessary endeavor. Just one example why would be in the area of public policy making. An educated public would be a great advantage in influencing their representatives in an informed manner,leading to better decision making.

  45. 245
    Jacob Mack says:

    #244 Lawrence Brown: Absolutely agreed, back on topic!

  46. 246
    Rod B says:

    Mark, and McIntyre is who again? I can’t remember: do I agree or disagree with him? (You seem to know me better than I.)

  47. 247
    Mark says:

    “Being an effective teacher IS the way to show a student the path to learning, no matter how poorly prepared.”

    By university, you should be able to teach yourself.

    You’re all grown up, you’re no longer a baby.

  48. 248
    Susan says:

    I’m with Lynn V, seriously in awe, thanks. Trouble is that idea of some kind of superhuman made in man’s image. But this is not why I’m here.
    With vast amounts of scientific association and moderate but excellent limited training, I find real science challenging and make a lot of mistakes. I work a lot at correcting deniers, pointing out that that science is not a static belief system and a big conspiracy, and am constantly attacked for doing this. The better I phrase it the more I am attacked.

    It is difficult though I’d guess my science training hits top percentile in the general population – where I find it difficult most people find it imcomprehensible and are not interested. The “overeducated” tend not to grasp how out of touch this is. A leftish neighbor, for example, said, well, there’s so much argument he didn’t know whom to believe, and in any case there was nothing to worry about, was there, after all the weather has been rather cold. He’s worried about things that seem closer to home. This is pretty typical; I did succeed in making some suggestions.

    The charisma of the presenter is enormously important. Obama is one of the best; I remember cheering when he mentioned “critical thinking”. Rather than lecturing and arguing, we need a population that knows how to and wants to check for themselves, and can spot bias and bullshit.

    While discussion of WUWT and the like has been recommended to stop, it is important to note that science is not what they do; their purpose is disinformation and advocacy for the wishful thinkers and vested interest fellow travelers. Science, even at its most prejudiced, takes account of reality. These sites are set up to confirm beliefs and select for that purpose. They provide the appearance, a kind of gestalt science (ever parked a car by gestalt? – you get the picture) with resources for those wishing to prevent real discussion. Following the money sometimes points this up.

    I’m a big Mooney fan but found book a little lightweight – maybe a good thing. Liked points about religion and conflict (the science wars stuff startlingly on point). To me it seemed to be intended as a call to action; a logical progression, perhaps for the producer of Republican War… and Storm World (which was surprisingly fair and a great resource just because of its lack of bias).

  49. 249

    Rod B writes:

    BPL (223), but in the final analysis isn’t the universe a perpetual motion machine, prima facie?? ;-)

    No, not from a physicist’s point of view.

  50. 250
    Hank Roberts says:

    > either the religion is wrong, the science is wrong, or the religion’s
    > run by a deity with a sophomoric taste for practical jokes

    To seriously approach the latter idea, see “God: A Biography”

    If you want to talk to people about science, you’ll also need to talk about the books–and the translations–they rely on. This is an important one to be prepared to talk about in Western culture: being responsible for the world is the bottom line.

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