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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. 251
    Radge Havers says:

    “By university, you should be able to teach yourself.

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

    Repetitive and uninformative. So what’s the point of even having a university?

    Learning is partly a social activity. The idea is well stated here:

    “How I found glaring errors in Einstein’s calculations”

    “So the specific dysfunction of crackpottery points to the notion that you cannot do science by just studying the right books, having the right mathematics and being commited to (some form of) “scientific method”. What you ned, over and above all that, is constant social interaction with other practising scientists. Oral tradition and daily exposure to other scientists’ everyday decisions are indispensable, and only a very small fragment of that makes it way to the scientific journals. This, incidentally, may be why cranks do not read the journal articles – simply because most of these must be totally opaque to them. Understanding them requires not just technical expertise but also all the implicit assumptions that are shared by the community at a particular point in time. (That is also why it is so difficult to understand old articles – try reading cognitive psychology from the 1970s…)”

  2. 252
    Mark says:

    “Repetitive and uninformative. So what’s the point of even having a university?

    Learning is partly a social activity. The idea is well stated here:”

    So that someone can show you the way.

    They aren’t a teacher. They are a lecturer.

  3. 253
    Steve Fish says:

    Mark #238, 247. You state that “By the time you get to university, you should be intelligent enough to teach yourself, if someone shows you the path.” All I am saying is that good teaching shows the path more effectively and that one significant contact between scientists and the general public is teaching at the undergraduate level. I can’t really disagree with your assertion (“should be able to”), but what this thread is about is the low level of scientific literacy in the general public. The general public we all are concerned about consists of adults who should be able to teach themselves science, but they haven’t. What do you suggest?

    You seem to be saying that general public science literacy would be improved by preventing the students that are least prepared from attending university. This may or may not be a good idea, but I don’t see how it improves science literacy in the general population.

    Steve

  4. 254
    sidd says:

    Mark writes:

    Entropy.
    Heard of “heath death of the universe”?
    Or “the Big Crunch”?

    There are some difficulties defining the second law and the arrow of time in the contractionalry phase of “Big Crunch” theories.

  5. 255
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Re lack of science. I mean, just how much science do we need know to screw in a compact fluorescent bulb? (Answer: It takes 3 scientists to screw in a compact fluorescent bulb — one to collect the data, one to analyze it, and one to present the findings at a conference — or one ordinary person. And as for the denialists? They aren’t able to screw in a compact fluorescent bulb, but they’re writing a thousand page dissertation on why it can’t be done.)

    Lack of a science education is simply no excuse for BAU on global warming, which was also known as “the greenhouse effect.” Perhaps we need to get back to that analogy — the greenhouse, or the closed car out in a sunny parking lot, and a baby left in it dies from the excessive heat. People can understand that.

    When I had to explain AGW in my limited Tamil to person in India who never went to school, I told her the world was getting warmer and causing more floods — in past few years a large % of Tamilnadu has experienced extraordinary flooding as well as getting warmer (esp at night & when you don’t have AC at night, you really notice that), so that was in her knowledge base — likewise increased droughts, which are also affecting Tamilnadu. I told her this warming was caused mainly by us driving cars and using electricity, and that caused something like a blanket in the sky, one we can’t see, that was warming the world.

    She seems to have grasped it, then went on to talk about some animal programs she had seen on TV and how they said the animals were in trouble.

    So if she can grasp it, why can’t other people who are educated beyond 2nd grade grasp it?

    Now that’s not saying we shouldn’t have more science education. We should, but it’s not vital to having people mitigate global warming.

    What we really need is for people to respect what the scientists are telling us, and to be savvy enough to distinguish between denialists in scientists’ clothing and real scientists. People who are street smart enough to know that if it sounds too good to be true,* it is.

    *as in you can have your cake and eat it too.

  6. 256
    Mark says:

    “There are some difficulties defining the second law and the arrow of time in the contractionalry phase of “Big Crunch” theories.”

    Doesn’t make the universe perpetual.

  7. 257
    Mark says:

    “All I am saying is that good teaching shows the path more effectively ”

    And I’m saying that should have been done whilst doing the A-Levels or whatever pre-university work is done elsewhere.

    It USED to be that way.

    Now in the rush to get kids off the dole and into college (leaving the problem of unemployment to at least another election), this seems to have fallen.

    It may well be that ***now*** we need better teachers in University, but only because we’re letting the kids down before then.

  8. 258
    Hugh Miller says:

    As many have noted, the real issue is the way that science is taught. In terms of biology, if you look at the state standards used by K-12 teachers, you find that biology is approached as a collection of facts and that is fully supported by the textbooks that everyone use. Before we can improve the general scientific illiteracy, we need to address how science is taught and change the paradigm!

    Biology needs to be taught as a method of asking and answering questions, not as a collection of facts. This can change by changing our approach to teaching freshman courses. Throw out the encyclopedic textbook and replace it with a discussion of concepts. Use real data to demonstrate how science is done. Integrate science with statistics to allow students to understand how data can be analyzed. If we can approach freshman courses this way, we can start to change the culture!

  9. 259
    Mark says:

    “Throw out the encyclopedic textbook and replace it with a discussion of concepts. ”

    No.

    At University, YES.

    To some extent, for A Levels, YES. To an extent.

    All of school? NO NO NO.

    You need a good grounding first in the uncontested or the “good enough” without the faffing about with “teach the controversy” style “education”.

    You should end up in your first year knowing all you need to have been TAUGHT.

    And your first year is to show you how wrong that was. At the end of your undergraduate you should be able to work on your own (everyone needs help, but they don’t need *teaching* all the time).

    It’s like being taught that matter is made of atoms and the electrons run about like orbiting whizzers around the heavy nucleus.

    It’s true.

    To an extent.

    THEN at university, you find out that that wouldn’t really work because of something else you got taught: electromagnetic radiation. And the electrons are waves that have to sit somewhere where the wave nature makes it constructively interfere with itself as a stable orbit.

    The cleverer ones work out that this doesn’t work either.

    But the lecturers are telling you what’s going on and assuming you’ll work out the interconnects on your own. Either by working with colleagues, asking lecturers, or reading for yourself.

    The teacher doesn’t want you second-guessing them.

    The lecturer expects it. A good one, anyway.

  10. 260
    David B. Benson says:

    Perpetual universe — one possibily is an infinte contraction phase leading to a big bang from a hot, dense state and cooling to the present. Then the universe continues to expand forever.

    Cute, symmetric, but the part before the big bang is untestable, so it is not a scientific hypothesis as it stands.

  11. 261
    Steve Fish says:

    Mark, I agree with your #257 and also Hugh Miller (#258). I believe that true skepticism (as apposed to the false skepticism of the denialist crowd) and the logic of assembling unbiased facts to solve problems should be taught in school from the earliest grades. I have seen some interesting ideas about this in the Skeptic magazine and their Junior Skeptic is an interesting approach to teaching skepticism. As for the actual method for teaching, I believe that an involved and knowledgeable instructor can make any method work. In an average classroom I have no idea what method would be an improvement.

    Lynn Vincentnathan #255. I have a soft disagreement with you in that I believe that the problem in the US (I have little knowledge of other western nations) is that our ethic of equality and equal opportunity has been inappropriately spread, in popular culture, into a sort of post-modern notion that this also means that all opinions are equal and facts don’t matter, and this leads to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Otherwise, why would anyone even listen to Monckton. I think the question is- what kind of educational experience will provide a citizen with respect for “what the scientists are telling us, and to be savvy enough to distinguish between denialists in scientists’ clothing and real scientists”?

    Steve

  12. 262
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Fish,
    Ever hear of Jack Tales. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the few we still know, but there were hundreds in Britain in the 16-1700, all telling how a young upstart or halfwit gets the better of his betters. There’s a long anti-authority streak in Anglo Saxon culture. Nothing new or post-modern about it. They listened to fire-and-brimstone preachers in the Great Awakening and to snake-oil salesmen on the frontier. It’s not that people are getting stupider. They’ve never been that smart.

  13. 263
    Steve Fish says:

    Hey Ray, #262, thanks for that. A sizeable portion of my career was professoring in the Appalachian region. I encountered local yokel verses city slicker tales there that are similar, and probably related, to the Jack Tales. That said, I do believe that the recent, and hopefully gone, post modern movement in some universities promoted a singularly disgusting version of this genre. The question is- how do we find a way for smart skeptic kid makes a fool of slick libertarian think tank guy stories to become popular?

    Steve

  14. 264
    David Wilson says:

    I think the worst thing that happened to Global Warming science was the statement ‘ the science is settled’. That to me is a political statement, not a science statement. Global Warming and String Theory have been around about the same amount of time. No one would say that String Theory is settled because many scientists think it has promise. The scientific issues of Global Warming are the issues of Global Warming – not politics or money. As long as there are issues of fact, theory, statistics, and measurements, there will be debate. When we portray the image that none of these issues can or should be studied or debated, when we dismiss opposing views, we key to the public that this is not science. The public is not foolish. They can see this. We need open scientific exchange. We need to embrace the Litzens and Spencers, as well as Manns and many others. When the public sees that the issues have been truly wrung out in the scientific process, then the ‘science will be settled’.

    [Response: Perhaps you could show me where this has actually been stated by any scientist? As opposed to being set up as a strawman argument by people who want to paint all knowledge as either known perfectly or unknown completely? - gavin]

  15. 265
    David Wilson says:

    Gavin,

    I agree. I believe that many Climate scientists that I have read do not say that the ‘science is settled’, although I do think Jim Hansen has said something like that. Buy once Al Gore said it in his movie, it has shaped the discussion even, I believe, within the science community. It has certainly shaped how the press in general reports the science. The New York Times last week had a news article, not an editorial, based on this assertion. My point is that the public perceives this, and does wonder if the science appropriately open. I believe that he science will get ‘settled’ in the eyes of the public only when the Climate science goes out of its way to embrace, not dismiss, the issues of theory, measurement, statistics, etc. underlying the Global Warming assertions, and the people who raise them, and that includes some of the ‘skeptics’.

  16. 266
    Mark says:

    the science f AGW is settled in much the same way as the science of how babies are created and born is settled.

    Is anyone willing to bet that it’s the males who give birth?

    Yet we have people saying “the science is still under heavy discussion” because there are people arguing that women don’t have babies. That is the line by the educated “skeptic”. The uneducated skeptic you read on many blogs merely argues that men have the babies.

  17. 267
    Mark says:

    Something I read a while back is appropriate to 264:

    Yes, there are always two sides to an argument.

    One side is sometimes just plain wrong.

  18. 268
    Mark says:

    “As for the actual method for teaching, I believe that an involved and knowledgeable instructor can make any method work. In an average classroom I have no idea what method would be an improvement.”

    At school you HAVE to be there. There are compulsory courses.

    Therefore you will get a proportion who do not want to be there. You have to teach “facts”. Things that are, to the needs of the people who will go no further in their education of this subject, are true.

    Post-educational studies have people who know why they are there. They either want to be there or know what they need to get out of it. University used to do that too. Except now you can’t get a job without some form of degree, so you have more people there who don’t know why they want to be there or just don’t want to be there, but have been forced.

    So post-educational work can teach via the better methods of teaching how to learn for yourself (which was a massive part of MY university education and one of the reasons, I think, why my tutors expected a much higher grade than I got: I could learn very well. My expression of that learning, not so good, probably due to impatience with the time taken to get the detail out). However for remedial classes (adult education), they don’t need to know how to learn, so we’re back to teaching “facts”. However, the teacher can become more of a lecturer. Motivation helps you pay attention.

  19. 269

    Jacob @ 219:

    Yes, it’s true that DC can be generated more readily than AC. But AC has a huge advantage over DC — it can be transformed from one voltage to another by a … transformer. I have about 500 amp-hours of 48VDC storage in my side yard. Yet I’m having the hardest time imaginable coming up with any supply of 12VDC close enough to all that 48V storage without either wasting huge amounts of energy, or creating all manner of problems.

    While Tesla was clearly a genius compared to Edison, Edison’s decisions were often based on commercial issues, whereas Tesla dealt more in theoretical issues. Edison’s DC dynamos were feasible long before Tesla’s polyphase AC power was practical. Even then it took effort before all the kinks were worked out. Before there was 3-phase (120 degrees between phases) there was 2-phase (90 degrees between phases). Two-phase power taught lessons that couldn’t be guessed at with the limited knowledge of the period.

    That era has a lot to teach the present — while some technologies, such as CCS, might be nice from a theoretical purpose, the only proven carbon-free and sustainable solutions are wind, solar, hydro, and the like. Existing coal power facilities, much like Edison’s DC transmission system, is here today.

  20. 270
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Fish, I taught in Pikeville, KY for a couple of years–hence my exposure to Jack Tales. The enemy is anti-science, whether it is the sell-the-controversy corporate anti-science of the right or the postmodern BS of the left.

    David Wilson,
    Uh, ever hear of Fourrier, Tyndall, Arrhenius? Your estimate of the age of climate science is only off by a factor of 5 or so.
    Please read: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/

    Once you’ve read it, ask yourself whether you might be equally wrong in any of your other opinions.

  21. 271
    SecularAnimist says:

    Re: “The science is settled” …

    The problem with this statement and the response to it is, what exactly is meant by “the science”?

    Is CO2 a greenhouse gas? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Do higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2 cause the Earth system to retain more of the Sun’s energy? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Are human activities over the last century and continuing today, principally the burning of fossil fuels, releasing large amounts of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere and thereby dramatically increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Is the anthropogenic increase in atmospheric CO2 causing the Earth system to heat up? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Is the anthropogenic heating of the Earth system already causing rapid and extreme changes in the Earth’s climate, hyrdosphere, cryosphere and biosphere? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Will continued, unmitigated anthropogenic warming cause further changes that will be detrimental to human well-being, on a very large scale? The science is settled. The answer is yes.

    Can we predict in minute, specific detail exactly what the consequences of anthropogenic global warming and consequent climate change will be, throughout every nook and cranny of the Earth system, and exactly when these consequences will occur? No, we can’t. The science is not settled on that score.

    The problem is, that the phony “skeptics” dishonestly say that because the answer to the last question is “no” that the science is “not settled” on whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or whether human activities are increasing CO2 concentrations, or whether increasing CO2 concentrations are causing warming, or whether there even is any warming, etc.

    But on those questions, the science IS settled, and scientists should not hesitate to say so.

    That’s not incompatible with saying that the science is NOT “settled” on the exact details of what AGW will bring … while also pointing out that what our “unsettled” science on that score can tell us, is extremely unsettling.

  22. 272
    Mark says:

    SecularAnimist, there’s also a “not settled” on “How much warming will there be from our CO2″.

    But there’s a settled on “Is there significant warming from CO2″.

  23. 273
    SecularAnimist says:

    Another thought about Carl Sagan. The science fiction movie Contact, based on Sagan’s novel of the same name, was on cable the other night. For those unfamiliar with the book or the novel, Contact tells the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The movie changed various parts of the story from the original novel, mostly (in my opinion) for the worse.

    In particular, the movie left out the novel’s ending. At the end of the book, the protagonist — a radio astronomer — goes to work on a hint she received from the extraterrestrials, searching for scientific evidence of the existence of “God”, a higher intelligence that created and guides the universe.

    What she finds is very interesting in that it suggests what Carl Sagan himself might have considered to be sufficiently “extraordinary evidence” for the “extraordinary claim” of the existence of “God”.

    Of course it’s just a story.

  24. 274
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Yeah, the science is definitely unsettled on GW. For instance we don’t quite know yet whether a BAU path will lead to climate hysteresis (akin to the end-Permian warming and extinction of 251 mya when 95% of life on earth died), or to something bad, like runaway warming, in which all life on planet earth dies.

    We might even have to wait this one out to see which it is before taking any action.

  25. 275
    Hank Roberts says:

    Relevant article on science, education, and denial:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/science/space/14hoax.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

    Quote therefrom:
    —–
    Harrison Schmitt, the pilot of the lunar lander during the last Apollo mission and later a United States senator, said in an interview that the poor state of the nation’s schools has had predictable results. “If people decide they’re going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there’s not much you can do with them,” he said.

    “For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.”
    —–
    Excellent comprehensive debunking site, a great how-to example:
    http://www.clavius.org/

  26. 276
    Rod B says:

    The opinion regarding the statement “the science is settled” was meant in large part (by me, too, much earlier on other posts) to be a helpful suggestion. The suggestion is that this response offered up as the answer to many/most questions is neither effective nor helpful in changing peoples minds. In fact it often works contrary to its purpose. The fact remains that “the science is settled” is a pervasive argument form AGW proponents. Maybe it’s not true for Gavin’s inner circle, or maybe there is a goodly number of scientists who don’t use the argument, but to deny that it is a pervasive argument, or to parse the hell out of it as SecularAnimist does to claim you all really do have clothes on, is just silly. The fact that some piece-parts of the science are not exact doesn’t mitigate the assertion that “the science is settled” as y’all would hope. It’s just looking for loopholes.

    The dilemma of course is that 1) it is a good political slogan, and, 2) as you fear, if you succinctly tout the ‘unsettled science,’ a bunch of the aginers will pounce all over it — the kind of thing that would lose every time in 30-minute soundbite debates (which I agree is not a helpful way to get your word out). It’s your choice. I can see where your denial [does this make y'all deniers?? ;-) ] might be the best overall choice. But it ain’t science and it ain’t true.

  27. 277
    James says:

    Re “For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.”

    But it’s not really a failure of education, because they have to learn about lunar landings, and have to use a good bit of science (even though they twist it) in order to come up with a rationale for their conspiracy theories.

    I don’t know exactly what you would call it, but it seems like the same impulse that motivates climate denialists & many others. They don’t want the world to work in the often simple & obvious, but always open ways that it does, but through hidden knowledge. And of course their possession of this secret knowledge places them among an elite…

  28. 278
    Forlornehope says:

    Have a look at what the BBC is doing with Brian Cox and Alice Roberts. Two seriously professional scientists who are also able to make science cool! It is also worth adding that the two Top Gear presenters, James May and Richard Hammond, when not playing the fool host some very good series on science and technology.

    On the other side of the coin, the Dawkins agenda of creating a false dichotomy between science and religion does not help with this problem on little bit.

  29. 279
    Jacob Mack says:

    #269,Furrycatherder:
    Well, they were using high powered DC lines in Africa a while back, and nowadays DC lines could be harnessed across large lad expanses in the Mid-West. Regarding current and voltage intercpnversion, you got me, I would need to do more research.

    Yes, Thomas Edison was a practical and shrewd businessman. Nikola Tesla was by far the better inventor, more skilled engineer, and gifted/brilliant scientist. Like Bill Gates, Thomas Edison copied, (for free)stole, and discredited competing technological innovations and inventions. Incidentally, it was Nikola Tesla who invented alternating current applications and consequently AM radio among other things. So, yes I agree that AC is better under most circumstances, but it was that “commercial inventor,” and practical scientist, Nikola Tesla…not Thomas Edison. Yeah Edison had some loot to make it happen.

    Teaching has changed for the worse I think in the public school
    system in general.

    oh and here:
    “AC/DC: What’s the Difference?”

    “In 1887 direct current (DC) was king. At that time there were 121 Edison power stations scattered across the United States delivering DC electricity to its customers. But DC had a great limitation — namely, that power plants could only send DC electricity about a mile before the electricity began to lose power. So when George Westinghouse introduced his system based on high-voltage alternating current (AC), which could carry electricity hundreds of miles with little loss of power, people naturally took notice. A “battle of the currents” ensued. In the end, Westinghouse’s AC prevailed.

    But this special feature isn’t about the two electrical systems and how they worked. Rather, it’s a simple explanation that shows the difference between AC and DC.”

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/edison/sfeature/acdc.html

  30. 280
    Jacob Mack says:

    Oh and my aplogogies FurryCatHerder, and Realclimate; here:
    “Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was an inventor and a mechanical and electrical engineer. He is frequently cited as one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, a man who “shed light over the face of Earth,”[2] and is best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems, including the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, with which he helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla
    (Since everyone is a Wikipedia freak as well.)

  31. 281
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B, is the science settled that CO2 is a greenhouse gas? Yes or no?

    Rod B, is the science settled that human activities over the last century have released large amounts of previously sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere? Yes or no?

    Rod B, is the science settled that the anthropogenic increase in atmospheric CO2 is causing the Earth system to retain more of the Sun’s energy, and heat up as a consequence? Yes or no?

    Rod B, is the science settled that the anthropogenic heating of the Earth system is already causing rapid and extreme changes in the Earth’s climate, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere? Yes or no?

    Rod B, is the science settled that continued unmitigated business-as-usual anthropogenic emissions of CO2 will cause even more warming, and even more changes to the climate, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere? Yes or no?

    Do you think that people who say that the basic science of anthropogenic global warming, as summarized in the points above, is “unsettled” are being honest?

    Exactly what part of the science do you claim is “unsettled”?

  32. 282
    Mark says:

    I bet RodB reckons that men DO give birth since the science isn’t settled on what defines a male or female mentally…

  33. 283
    James says:

    Jacob Mack says (15 Jul 2009 at 6:02 am):

    “Well, they were using high powered DC lines in Africa a while back, and nowadays DC lines could be harnessed across large lad expanses in the Mid-West.”

    HVDC lines are used now, in special situations. See for instance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_DC_Intertie

  34. 284
    Jacob Mack says:

    #283, James… thank you for the comment and the citation.

  35. 285
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (281), in order:

    Yes.

    Pretty much.

    Indicative; not completely settled.

    No. Global warming might be implicated by some of the major (large scale) deviations of late. Causing the myriad of local or regional changes touted is far from settled.

    Maybe. But the degree of future changes is far from settled.

    They are being exaggerative to make a point. In nearly all of the cases I would not call that dishonest. (Though if a skeptic made an analogous assertion we would be called frauds, liars, and subject to prosecution.) In fact IMO stretching the point a bit is often O.K. and desirable in political debates.

    You, of course, will refute my assertions by simply saying I’m wrong. But you asked. The point, however, was whether it is good in the scientific debate, explanation, or in convincing the masses, not necessarily if it’s correct or not.

  36. 286
    Rod B says:

    ps the other reason they’re not dishonest is, predominately, they believe the mantra.

  37. 287
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mike, would you elaborate a bit on your review? You say

    > it offers viable solutions.

    What did you like that they suggest? (page ref. would help)
    Who’d do it, and are there ways for amateurs like the readers here to help implement those solutions?

  38. 288
    Mark says:

    “Maybe. But the degree of future changes is far from settled.”

    It’s definitely more than 1.5C per doubling. And unlikely to be more than 4.5C per doubling.

    And that isn’t the science, is it. And it doesn’t say that there will BE no warming.

    After all some women are sterile, so women don’t give birth. Therefore (in your “logic”) since we DO have babies, it must be the men giving birth!

  39. 289
    Rod B says:

    Mark, your (or anybody else for that matter) unequivocal 100% certain belief and assertion does not make science. Are you 100% positive-certain that an equilibrium doubling of CO2 will not produce an increase of say 1.43 degrees?

    I have no idea what women or men giving birth has to do with anything…

  40. 290
    Nick Gotts says:

    “No more discussion of religion please.” – gavin

    Gavin, I understand why you adopt this as a general principle, but in this particular case it seems downright weird: one of the factors Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame for anti-science attitudes is “New Atheists” such as PZ Myers attacking religion as incompatible with science. In this context, discussing the book without allowing discussion of the relationship between religion and science is like discussing “Hamlet” while prohibiting any mention of the Prince of Denmark.

    [Response: That whole discussion is tedious and a huge distraction from what we talk about here. There are plenty of other places where people can give full rein to their feelings on the subject far in excess of it's actual importance. It doesn't need to dominate our threads too. Sorry - but dem's the rules. - gavin]

  41. 291
    Mark says:

    “unequivocal 100% certain belief and assertion does not make science.”

    You say it RodB, but you don’t practice it.

    You are 100% convinced that since we don’t know something 100% that it is wrong.

    Try reading this:

    http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

  42. 292
    Mark says:

    “Are you 100% positive-certain that an equilibrium doubling of CO2 will not produce an increase of say 1.43 degrees?”

    Yes.

    Now, if you were to say “1.43 +/- 0.1 degrees”, then the answer to that would be “no”.

    However, that is an unlikely scenario no more likely (and probably less likely since there’s a definite lower bound:0 on CO2 insensitivity but no real upper bound without looking at the data, for which we already have a figure for the likelihood) than it being 4.85+/-0.01C.

    Are you saying that because we don’t know 100% that it is within 1.5 and 4.5 C per doubling, then it will be less than 1.5?

    This isn’t science or rationality. It’s blinded hope.

  43. 293
    Mark says:

    “They are being exaggerative to make a point.”

    Please prove your hypothesis, RodB.

  44. 294
    Mark says:

    PS none of that says what you think isn’t settled RodB.

    So many words, so little answer…

  45. 295
    Rod B says:

    Mark (291), you say about me, “You are 100% convinced that since we don’t know something 100% that it is wrong.”

    I’ve never said that and don’t believe that. Quit falsely accusing.

  46. 296
    Rod B says:

    Mark (292), you said, “It’s definitely more than 1.5C per doubling.” That seemed unequivocal 100% certainty; I was just checking.

  47. 297
    Mark says:

    And you note that RodB still hasn’t answered Secular’s plaintive question, preferring to go on side jaunts to just check on what people say.

  48. 298
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I really think science education is not enough to solve global warming — look at all the very well educated deniers.

    In this regard, the Pope recently wrote an encyclical, Charity in Truth, and states:

    In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society.

    Which actually makes our situation of staving off the worst of climate change look pretty hopeless. I mean, how do you get people to act morally and ethically — that’s much tougher than getting them a top rate science education.

  49. 299
    James says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan says (16 Jul 2009 at 12:26 pm):

    “I mean, how do you get people to act morally and ethically — that’s much tougher than getting them a top rate science education.”

    Forget getting them to act: how do you even get them to agree on what’s moral/ethical? You might consider the fact that the Pope is a prime offender in this respect.

  50. 300
    Mark says:

    James, 299, the problem is when something comes along where reality disagrees with their view of the world.

    It doesn’t matter how smart you are, but if your belief in your worldview is stronger than your belief that the reality is real, you’ll drop the science.

    You and nuclear power, for example.

    Roy Spencer and evolution.

    Plimer and creationists.


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