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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. 351
    Hank Roberts says:

    Whoah! A drive-time talk radio host who has read and understood the climate science, and writes clearly, and stays calm dealing with the um er ah expected responses.


  2. 352
  3. 353
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oops, for the above link to
    hat tip to:

  4. 354
    Bill Kovarik says:

    Among several organizations working to bridge the Two Cultures is the Society of Environmental Journalists, a 501c3 for working journalists and academics based in the US and Canada. If you’re a science journalist or a scientist interested in communications issues, you might want to know more about SEJ.

  5. 355
    Phil says:

    CP Snow’s essay was definitely not about the relation between science and popular cultures. [edit–this point was already made, and indeed accepted near the top of the thread (comment #20). Please come back when you have something new to add]

  6. 356
    Hank Roberts says:

    Just happened on this one; since so many engineers express an interest in the very basic questions about climate, it’s interesting to see what’s available to them professionally.

    the American Society for Engineering Education.

    Here’s what they have for climate change:

    They invite comments:

  7. 357
    Hank Roberts says:

    Aside: today’s National Public Radio “Science Friday” program, on decision-making, is relevant.

    In particular, Dr. Lerner (Harvard Decision Science Laboratory) comments on how anger affects decisionmaking:

    Anger correlates with being more optimistic, and with taking more risks.

    Now compare that to the tenor of the remarks about climate change.
    Seems to fit, doesn’t it?

  8. 358

    In re Mark and his comments about DC —

    Yes, Mark, I have an electrician’s license. And no, working at 48VDC doesn’t mean one doesn’t need a license because the output of a typical inverter is 120VAC (220/240 in regions where that’s the system voltage), and connecting that to anything useful, in the States at least, usually requires a license.

    As for everyone else’s comments about DC —

    Don’t go selling rotating magnetic field’s short. Polyphase AC has a great many properties, not the least of which is the simple ability to put an inexpensive pole pig out by someones house and give them more electricity than they know what to do with. DC buck converters aren’t so cheap.

    Finally, anyone who’d touch a potentially live conductor with their body should be kept away from wires. And anyone who’d ever suggest doing so should be held criminally negligent. There are a wide range of tools for checking out wires, and there are always gloves and insulated tools for that added measure of safety.

  9. 359
  10. 360
    Hank Roberts says:

    More education — pointer to two recommended videos.
    Question to Gavin and the other Contributors — might it be worth collecting a list?
    I have trouble with video, it’s too damned slow. But many rely on it for their news now.
    At least the first of these two comes with citations.
    And they’re recommended by a usually reliable source:

  11. 361
    Mark says:

    “Yes, Mark, I have an electrician’s license. And no, working at 48VDC doesn’t mean one doesn’t need a license because the output of a typical inverter is 120VAC (220/240 in regions where that’s the system voltage),”

    And so working on the transformer or on the high voltage AC side needs a license.

    Still doesn’t mean you need a license for 48VDC.

    Which you don’t.

  12. 362

    Mark @ 361 —

    120VAC isn’t “High Voltage”. And yeh, if you want to run your house on 48VDC, with all the current and voltage drop problems that come with it, you can manage to get by without a license. You’d have a lousy electrical system, but hey — wouldn’t need that license!

  13. 363
    Mark says:

    “!20VAC isn’t “High Voltage”. ”

    [edit – OT – no more HV discussion please]

  14. 364
    Mark says:

    Well why didn’t you do that in 362?

  15. 365
    Mark says:

    And a section that WAS OT was relating low voltages to Photovoltaics.

    But that got nuked…

  16. 366
    Hank Roberts says:


    Hat tip to:
    —- excerpt follows—-

    Scientists plot and prepare for Noah’s Ark-like floods
    California may be caught in the throes of a years-long drought, but crisis experts are now planning for a 200-to-500-year flood.
    By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer
    Posted: 07/26/2009 10:15:14 PM PDT

    scientists are now fashioning a hypothetical scenario similar to the mother of all known California floods — the Great Flood of 1861-62.

    That flood, occurring during 45 days of rain, turned California into an inland sea. It also forced Gov. Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration, wiped out a third of taxable land, and virtually bankrupted the state.

    Despite more than a century of flood channels, debris dams and levees built since, such a flood could wreak $25 billion in damage to the state capitol alone, according to the Geological Survey.

    And because of global warming, scientists forecast such a colossal gully-washer born by the “pineapple express” jet stream to happen sooner, rather than later.

    “With climate change, the West Coast is expected to experience even more extreme winter rainfall than we’ve seen so far, along with extreme episodes of dry, hot weather in summer,” said Marty Ralph of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., a member of the team creating the scenario, in a statement. …

  17. 367

    I just finished this book and agree with the central premise: we scientists must learn how to communicate with the general public. Communicating science via the peer review process must continue but each of us must learn how to take that information and bring it to policy makers and to the public in a style that is easy to understand. We can no longer just shrug our shoulders when we hear and see pseudo-science on the airwaves and on the Web (thinking Rush Limbaugh, WUWT, etc.)

    Blogs such as are extremely helpful but even this blog requires some scientific background or, at the minimum, some post-secondary education. Many voters in this country do not meet that standard. Fortunately, the following two books Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming by Mann & Kump, and Climate Change: Picturing the Science by Schmidt & Wolfe are excellent sources of information for the general public and are certainly what Unscientific America was preaching.

    My Earth & Space Sciences team presents a public lecture each month to try to bring current science topics to the community. One such presentation by me titled Global Warming: Man or Myth – The Science of Climate Change has been published on the Web at:

    I hope that my site can help the general public separate the science from the pseudo-science. Any comments about or suggestions for my site by the readers of are very welcome. Thank you.

  18. 368
    Hank Roberts says:

    Great example here of scientists who differed, got together on a new study, and came up with a better result (fisheries):
    —-excerpt follows—–
    By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
    Three years after a controversial paper predicted the collapse of 90% of the world’s edible fish species by 2048, the original paper’s author and a main opponent have collaborated on a groundbreaking survey of the Earth’s oceans which finds hope for fish stocks and the millions who rely on them for protein — but only if overfishing is ended.

    The paper, published today in the journal Science, comes after a 2006 Science paper by marine biologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Canada and colleagues. Its prediction of the destruction of fish populations because of overfishing and ecosystem destruction caused enormous controversy among marine ecologists and fisheries biologists.

    But a 2006 radio interview that brought Worm and fisheries biologist Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington in Seattle together to debate the paper led them to launch an international research effort over two years involving 21 scientists who surveyed 166 areas where specific fish species are caught — called a fishery worldwide and looked intensively at 10 marine ecosystems.

    “It was like a ‘CSI’ for overfishing,” says Worm.

    What they found was that in areas where the rate of fishing is reduced, even collapsed fish stocks can revive and become commercially viable again.

    “This has enormous practical application for the United States and world policy, with billions of dollars at stake,” says Steve Murawski, chief scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service. …
    —-end excerpt—–

    Evidence that a debate between two competent experts can be productive.

    Don’t confuse this with a “debate” …..

  19. 369
    David Schrom says:

    Let’s hope the NAS inducts Sagan posthumously, in a nice scientific admission that accumulating evidence of his contributions makes anything else unconscionable.

  20. 370
    Richie Abel says:

    Have any of you ever heard the saying that when earth presents a problem it also has a solution. Well everyone should know that the earth should produce C02 and other greenhouse gases. so there must be a way to get rid of it .So alge takes from 80-90% of the co2 from the atmosphere and alge also thrive under co2 rich hot conditions. so if as many “experts” are saying that we are making the co2 levals rise and it’s makeing the temp rise with it then the alge population should rise with it witch in tun will take in more co2 and make the temp decsease. If you want more info or to hear more rantings on how to fix the world’s biggest problems then E-mail me @ thank you Richie Abel

  21. 371
    Hank Roberts says:

    Book review — of an educational climate science book aimed at the average reader. This is well worth reading: