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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. 1
    pete best says:

    Even scientific amercian and other fashionable scientific magazines could not achieve what Carl Sagan achieved with Cosmos. It probably influenced an entire generation of who are now astrophysicists, cosmologists, quantum physicists and just physicists and many others I am sure. It is still incredibly watchable on youtube and still entertaining and educational.

    Maybe scientists are human with human values, jealously and envy and egos and should I say following the money which many people accuse scientists of in todays world. Some people say that science follows the money and not the money to fund the science anymore as it should be.

    Should science and its practitioners be judged accordingly.

  2. 2
    dhogaza says:

    Great post, and it sounds like a great book. However it’s “heyday” not “hay day”…

    [Response: Yikes! Thanks-fixed now. -mike]

  3. 3
    James P says:

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

    I’m not trying to start a fight…

  4. 4
    James P says:

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

  5. 5
    Eric Fairfield says:

    Very nice column. Thanks.

    As a scientist who has tried to communicate clearly to scientists in different fields and to interested people who are not scientists, I realize that communication is hard and is critical. More support for those attempting communication between scientists and non scientists, during college and, more importantly, after college is critical. Scientists eating their young does not help the communication.

    The joke below has to lose its nearly universal bite of truth, to scientists and non-scientists.

    ‘A lawyer, a salesman, and a scientist were having a beer together. They started to talk about wives and mistresses. Eventually, the discussion got to which is better.

    The lawyer said,”A wife is better because she is always there and supports your career.”

    The salesman said, “A mistress is better because she is always happy to see you.”

    The scientist said, “It is better to have both.”


    “Yes. Because when the wife thinks you’re with the mistress and the mistress thinks you are with the wife, you can be in the lab working.” ‘

  6. 6
    Mark says:

    “Evidently, a majority of his colleagues resented his having become a household name–something they presumably considered unbecoming for a scientist.”

    Actually, it was probably so that the recorded minutes won’t have lots of people trying to get Carl to say “billions” (cf South Park Movie in court and “aboot”).

    They ARE now pressing new copies of “Cosmos” for the UK market now. Which I’m up for.

    Pity that not having made it available isn’t counted the same as P2P sharing: it still denies the copyright owner a potential sale, after all.

  7. 7
    L. David Cooke says:

    Hey All,

    Very interesting to see this idea recently returned to print. There was a text that came out in either late 1989 or the early 1990’s talking of technocrats and the increasing divide between general society and the technical establishment it has spawned.

    The call for someone who would bridge the gap as science ambassadors was predicted to gain in importance by the 21st century. Where they explored the idea of the then emerging Technologists, the former and more relevant ambassador of science education has always been the teacher.

    Though many expunges the value of teachers with the saying, “Those who can do, do and those who can’t teach”, denies the value of teachers to our society. If you are looking for an ambassador look to our teachers and supplying them with the best and most up to date tools.

    By the same token require of our teachers to teach not only the rout curriculum; but, diversity, pointing to the interaction between the various branches of education and critical thinking. If there is insufficient capacity in the teaching ranks then open up the possibility of team teaching. We scream at the world for its ignorance and yet we choke the very vehicle that can help lift us from the morass…

    Dave Cooke

  8. 8

    One field where the public does have some interest in science is medicine. It would be interesting to see what drugs are used by those in congress who call climate change a hoax. Would they call biology a hoax when it’s time for their heart transplant? Same question for editors, producers & fossil fuel executives…

    I hope \Unscientific America\ is widely read. Thanks for review.

  9. 9
    Cassidy says:

    So why not practice what you preach and offer one of the major networks a debate on the consequences of climate change, and the cost of doing nothing or low-balling the efforts. I don’t mean another Discovery, PBS, HBO or CNN special that appeals to the converted. This has to be prime time and ubiquitous like the actors or authors promoting a movie or book.

    Both the G8 and the US Energy Bill say that we (human species) still don’t get it. The “opposition” has convinced many that the impacts are not serious or can be technologically managed and that in an era of financial breakdown we can’t afford to spend or constrain carbon.

    Which one of you is up to the challenge? Gore’s idea of educating citizens at special seminars and sending them out to proselytize (noble idea) is not really the same as top climatologists speaking and debating the issues frequently on major networks and talk shows. You need to jump in with the rabble or the rabble will be our unraveling.

  10. 10
    James Staples says:

    Speaking of Scientific American – maybe they’re to blame!
    I mean, I first subscribed to SciAm when I was 12 – because it forced me to whip out the Encyclopedia and/or to check out physics or chemistry or geology texts to figure out all of it’s oh-so-delightfully LONG HAIRED content; now….now it’s just another Rag that has been intentionally ‘adjusted’ so as to ‘match’ the averag Americans misserable ‘4th Grade level’ reading skills.
    I still Love it – but will it ever earn another teenager, like I once was, a consistent 98% Science Aptitude Test Score; will it still teach kids like me what my High School Teachers wouldn’t – or couldn’t, years ahead of College?

  11. 11
    counters says:

    I’m looking forward to picking up this book as soon as I see a copy in the Cornell Store. Chris Mooney’s previous works are must-reads for anyone interested in the how science intersects with policy politics, and this one looks to be even more diagnostic.

  12. 12
    mark O. says:

    I grew up with Carl Sagan and still to this day think back to specific episodes when pondering new scientific discoveries. I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson does a pretty good job and Nova in general, presents science in intersting ways, but it is not enough. I hear people at work who spout of the usual nonsense about not believing in Global warming. My inclination is to belittle them for their ignorance but generally just hold off saying anything to keep the peace. Gotta pick the moments and hopefully make them teaching moments. Still waiting for someone to bust a comment on my picture of Darwin “very gradual change you can believe in” t-shirt.

  13. 13
    Samuel Watterson says:

    I rather think that in casting the blame to everyone, they’ve missed the culprit. People like Carl Sagan are actually part of the problem. Through men like Sagan, the culture has lost more and more of the necessary philosophical basis for the pursuit of science and any confidence in it. If we are only stardust, and the universe is all that there is, then how do we find an imperative for scientific study?

    Not only so, but how do we hold on to the presuppositions on which science was founded – namely, that logic applies, that the universe is ordered, and real, that our observations are not simply a meaningless dream, etc? These convictions which gave birth to modern science as we know it, did not come from Sagan’s philosophy, and there is no room for them within it.

    I think the problem runs a lot deeper through the subconscious philosophical undercurrents of culture than those authors have realised.

  14. 14
    Randy L says:

    Being a non-scientist, I have only 5 words to add.
    Bill Nye the Science Guy.
    My children loved his show and still talk about him. I have always been a Carl Sagan fan. And what is wrong with someone in science having fans? Especially when our education institutions need “billions and billions” of dollars to improve our American scientific efforts.

  15. 15
    James Staples says:

    Etc. – for James P.
    You are so right! Here’s a good example! I have a Neuropathy, which was diagnosed by DNA test and declaired ‘autosomal’ – which means passed through the male, with the likelihood of 9 out of 10 of any children that I might have getting it, too.
    Nonetheless; I have a Christian acquiantance who insists that I should, “Go ahead and have babies anyway,” because, “He’s not so sure he believes in that DNA Test STUFF”, and besides, “We’ll pray for the babies…you believe in the power of prayer, don’t you?”
    They also want to ‘Faith Heal’ ME – as they’ve assured me that if I just get rid of the Buddha nonesuch and accept Jesus into my Heart – my Pain will go away!
    I don’t know whats worse; what people like this have done to me personally – or what they have the potential to do to all of us.
    Not starting trouble, either – THEY did that part already!

  16. 16
    Michael Sweet says:

    How do we ensure that it is the Jim Hansen’s who do the talking for scientists and not the Richard Lindzen’s? Unfortunately, as noted in the original post, moneyed interests can hijack the messengers and distort the message. When the media fire their science reporters that only gives moneyed interests more power.

  17. 17
    SecularAnimist says:

    It may help shed some light on the nature of the mutual alienation that sometimes arises between the “two cultures” to ask why Carl Sagan did not title his book “The Angel-Blessed World”.

  18. 18
    Jim Roland says:

    Sagan’s finest hour for me was his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, far more enlivening than the sight of him gazing out of his spaceship.

  19. 19
    Spencer says:

    Creating science communicators is tricky indeed. For what it’s worth, I was set on the path when Isaac Asimov gave a talk at Cornell ca. 1962; the talk was supposed to be on his work but turned into a plea for scientists to get out and explain themselves to the public. So it helps just to present the case as often as possible.

    When I first started writing a science book for children, it was because my Aunt had done just that, and urged me on. My PhD adviser was bemused–okay, so long as I did it on my own time (outside the 60 hours/week expected of a grad student working on his dissertation).

    I expect every scientist who moves into communication has such personal stories–on the record so far, institutional changes aren’t likely to be as much help as the right shove at the right time. So onward with more blog posts like this one and books like Mooney’s, just constantly reminding people that it’s really important and worth support. Hmmm, next time I give a public talk on whatever, I think I’ll include a plug for scientist-communicators. Let’s all do it.

  20. 20
    Silver Rattasepp says:

    Just a nitpick, but CP Snow’s “two cultures” was not about a rift between the scientific and the popular culture, but between sciences and the humanities within the academy.

    Though admittedly the rift between the “two cultures” discussed here is by far the larger and the more important one.

    [Response: Thanks, point well taken. -mike]

  21. 21
    tamino says:

    I don’t mean to take anything away from Carl Sagan, he was certainly a great science communicator, but I don’t believe he was “the most effective science communicator in modern history.”

    In my opinion, that honor falls to Isaac Asimov. I probably learned more science from him than from all my pre-college schooling (by a long shot).

    [Response: Certainly we can have honest differences of opinion as to who takes first honors. Feynman and Gould are certainly also in the running in my book, and I’m sure our readers could come up with a long list of equally qualified candidates. But after having recently re-watched the “Cosmos” series for the first the time since childhood, I’m simply awed by Sagan’s talent for, seemingly without effort, explaining tough scientific notions in a way that makes them seem intuitive. His explanation of Maxwell’s equations for a lay audience in “Demon-Haunted World” is nothing short of brilliant. -mike]

  22. 22
    Dean says:

    I’d like to offer three comments.

    The first is that the tension between popular culture and science is not new. The period after WWII was anomalous in many ways in the US. The higher degree of nonpartisanship in politics at that was also not typical of US history.

    Second, I think that the suggestion in #9 – for a debate, demonstrates the problem, not the solution. Public debates have demonstrated that they are not effective ways to communicate science. Debates are short-term adversarial events, the opposite of science. There are clear examples that when somebody sticking to science debates somebody more attached to a political and rhetorical method, the science loses.

    Third, seems that more recent than Sagan, a successful science communicator is Edward O. Wilson. Though it’s a different field, I’m wondering if he has run into problems. He certainly didn’t avoid advocacy.

  23. 23
    TimJ says:

    Science lost its way with the demise of the Natural Philosopher. Far too arrogant and over sold now IMO.

  24. 24
    Mark says:

    “So why not practice what you preach and offer one of the major networks a debate on the consequences of climate change, and the cost of doing nothing or low-balling the efforts.”

    Because on a TV network, in a 30 minute slot (with 3 minutes of adverts every 10 minutes, wind up, wind down, so only about 20 minutes real time) all you have is quotes.

    You can’t GET complex science out in that time.

    And TV don’t want to put that sort of thing up.

    Reality TV is

    a) cheaper
    b) watched by more people

    Look at how many people remember the quotes from TGGWS that was put out on the BBC and, after its first showing REMOVED.

    These people didn’t see that version (in the vast majority), they (if they saw it at all) saw the version where there quoted “truth” was excised or changed.

    They got their quotes from blogs.

    And they’ll CONTINUE to get it from the same blogs.

  25. 25
    James P says:

    James Staples (15)

    Thank you! I’m sorry to hear of your condition and the position it puts you in, but good to know there are people who can act rationally. I hope it’s fixable, although that will probably involve foetal stem cells, so you’ll be in trouble with the fundamentalists again.. :-)

  26. 26
    Yvan Dutil says:

    Being a scientist by formation and having been a science journalist and science teacher, I can tell you how difficcult is to communicate science, especially science has it is beeing done.

    As a science journalist, I am often limited to 250 or 375 words to explain some concepts. Not an easy task. Often, this means I can only resume the abstract of the paper. The same is true for teaching. I discovered than most science course a taugh as a bunch of recipies to remember. This is not the case of physics. In consequence, most students are totaly ignorant of the way science is done. They only know recipies for the course in order to get good grade. They forget everything after the course.

    Compoud that with the fact the average science paper is at least twice as complex than in Sagan’s time.

  27. 27
    James Griffiths says:

    Michael Sweet says:

    “How do we ensure that it is the Jim Hansen’s who do the talking for scientists and not the Richard Lindzen’s?”

    Missing the point?

    It should be the science that speaks.

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

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

    Making unilateral decisions about who has the voice of science, or who controls the forum for debate is a huge step forwards on the path of ignorance.

  28. 28
    Steve Reynolds says:

    One thing the RC community could do to help a little is to try to avoid the arrogant attitude that many perceive scientists having, especially when dealing with non-scientists. The scientific method (which is about as anti-arrogance as is possible to be) is something everyone can understand. When the public sees scientists ignoring the scientific method (and other scientists tolerating this behavior), how can you blame them for thinking scientists are just another elite special interest group?

    Another example is the disdain shown here at RC (especially by some commenters) for the efforts of ‘amateur’ scientists in the area of AGW. Some of these efforts may be misguided and not produce significantly useful results beyond educating the participants. Even if that education is the only useful result, the effort deserves respect.

  29. 29
    George Musser says:

    #10: If the problem is scientific literacy among the general public (as opposed to motivating kids who are already the high tail of the distribution to go into careers in science), then aren’t we at Sci Am doing exactly what is needed by trying to reach out to a broader audience? Calling us a “rag” is the same disapprobation that Carl Sagan faced. Most of us who work here (and at other science magazines) gave up careers in research to be the science ambassadors that Chris and Sheril are calling for.

    That said, if you have specific ideas for how we can improve our coverage, please email me offline. We’re the first to admit we could improve.

    George Musser

  30. 30
    Leonard Evens says:

    An Aside about Carl Sagan.

    Most people thought his way of speaking, in `cosmic tones’, was something he put on for his TV presentations. But an astronomer I knew at Northwestern, who was a graduate student with Sagan, told me that he always spoke that way, even in casual conversation.

  31. 31
    Dan says:

    “The scientific method (which is about as anti-arrogance as is possible to be) is something everyone can understand.”

    Yes, they can understand…if they take the effort to do so. But many are intellectual lazy. As can be seen by some of the regular denialist posts here over time. Even after explaining the scientific method to the same people over and over, they just either ignore trying to learn, pretend it does not exist and they know something that scientists do not, or exclaim that the scientific method is a religion.

  32. 32
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Just recently I saw Chris Mooney speaking here at the UW, on a panel discussing the topic of his book. The irony of the presentation is that it was hosted by the recently terminated science reporter for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, laid off prior to the end of the print edition of the PI and after he’d arranged the panel.

    How metaphorical is that? A layer cake of degeneration…

  33. 33

    I come from the other end, a journalist who later became interested in science and science communication, first in environmental issues and now in astronomy. There can and should be many voices communicating science, and one set of them that should be considered is writers and journalists. The journalism industry is undergoing vast changes, and many writers will be looking for new avenues of work. Good writers already have the communication skills, and with some additional training in science, can convey the issues to the public in a clear yet non-condescending manner. Another source, especially in astronomy, is the vast network of amateur astronomers, who outnumber professionals by almost 20 to 1. Amateur astronomers love what they do and love to talk about it. Some are involved to the point of making actual discoveries and imaging hard-to-find objects. Many amateur astronomy groups already have some form of public outreach in place to bring astronomy to schools and other public venues.

  34. 34
    Mark says:

    “Another example is the disdain shown here at RC (especially by some commenters) for the efforts of ‘amateur’ scientists in the area of AGW. ”

    Depends what their efforts are toward.

    a) wasting time
    b) learning

    if it’s (b) then fine and dandy.

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

  35. 35
    Paul H says:

    I don’t think things are all bad on the outreach front. In fact, I think there is reason to hope, at least, in the UK. Recently, my prior PhD advisor has essentially gained enormous recognition, awards and mega-funding by selling our chemistry department as an outreach tool. The outreach program was aimed at kids of all ages and even involved various evening lectures aimed at adults to talk about important scientific issues. The department was able to win a funding bid, on the back of these outreach efforts, to re-furbish the department’s teaching labs into one of the most state-of-the art facilities in the world.


    I’m not sure that the scientific method speaks of anything to do with politeness or arrogance. As far as I’m aware, it’s a means for testing the validity of ideas, hypotheses and theories, nothing more, nothing less. So, just because RC takes a pop at someone and is perceived of being arrogant it does not mean that they are not using the scientific method. That said, I think you have a point with regard to being condescending. Whilst choosing sides in a debate based on perceived arrogance on one side or another is a logically flawed way of making that selection not all readers apply logic when making these decisions. Therefore, some will be swayed by perceptions of arrogance. However, it’s really very difficult to ascribe any sort of respect to the, at times, deliberate generation of nonsense ideas by certain individuals. Referring specifically to amateurs being on the receiving end of condescension, can you provide some examples of where and when this happened? I can think of at least one example.

  36. 36
    SecularAnimist says:

    I’d like to add another shout out to Isaac Asimov. I became an “environmentalist” as a direct result of seeing Asimov interviewed on TV in the late 1960s.

    As a child I had read and loved all of his science fiction books and some of his nonfiction books as well. So I was quite excited to see him interviewed on TV.

    Towards the end of the interview, the interviewer asked him “So, Doctor Asimov, what do you think the future will really be like?” I pretty much expected, as the interviewer probably did as well, that Asimov would talk about space flight, robots and other “futuristic” marvels like those found in his stories.

    Instead, Asimov basically said, “Well, if we keep going on the way we are now, we are not going to like the future at all, because we are destroying the capacity of the Earth to support life and setting ourselves up for famine, plague, war, the collapse of civilization and the extinction of the human species.” The interviewer was visibly startled and dismayed, as was I.

    And that was my introduction to what have come to be called “environmental” issues.

  37. 37
    tamino says:

    Re: Amateurs

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

    In part that’s because astronomy is still, to a large degree, an observational science, and the vast army of amatuer observers can muster orders of magnitude more “telescope time” than professionals (who constantly complain about how hard it is to get telescope time at major observatories). Amateurs are also extraordinarily well-equipped, especially in this age of CCD cameras. And I remind readers that amateurs have intense dedication originating from their motivation; the word “amateur” comes from the latin “amatorem,” meaning lover. The importance of amateur contributions to advancing astronomy is indisputible.

    But the more theoretical a science becomes, and the more its observational aspect depends on satellites, the less scope is available for amateur contributions. This is a difficulty for amateurs who hope to contribute to climate science.

    In the field of statistics I’ve come to develop a “love/hate” relationship with the many easily available and free analysis tools. The tools are great, and certainly make my life easier, but many if not most who apply them are ignorant of their proper use. Alas, too often the end result of powerful methods and powerful desktop computers in the hands of amateurs is: Anthony Watts. ‘Nuff said.

    Perhaps the biggest difference I see between “amateurs” in climate science and in other sciences is: arrogance. None of the amateur astronomers I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a lot) would proclaim that the evolution of solar-mass stars is a sham based on faulty computer models, let alone that it’s a hoax perpetrated by astronomers to gain access to research funding. They’re far too much in awe of the majesty of the universe to allow themselves such presumption.

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

  38. 38
    Marc says:

    Entry in the National Academy of Sciences is based on the quality of scientific research, not on success in popularizing science. I find it rather astonishing to see this very relevant point ignored in the case of Sagan. His work within the field was good, but it did not match his profile outside of the field. To ascribe this to “jealousy” is to badly misrepresent the actual grounds on which the debate was carried out.

    [Response: Save us the lecture. I’d happily match Sagan’s work on the Faint Young Sun paradox, in terms of its scientific importance and its significance in advancing the forefront of knowledge, against the qualifying achievements of any number of current academy members. -mike]

  39. 39
    SecularAnimist says:

    tamino wrote: “None of the amateur astronomers I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a lot) would proclaim that the evolution of solar-mass stars is a sham based on faulty computer models, let alone that it’s a hoax perpetrated by astronomers to gain access to research funding.”

    The difference is that there are no phony “think tanks” and so-called “conservative” media outlets hammering amateur astronomers with ExxonMobil-funded propaganda claiming that theories of stellar evolution are a “liberal” conspiracy to destroy capitalism and impose a global dictatorship headed by Al Gore.

    The “hatred” of climate science that you observe on the blogosphere didn’t just arise spontaneously and mysteriously. It has been very deliberately and methodically created by a long, carefully crafted brainwashing campaign, funded by the fossil fuel industry and executed by the so-called “conservative” media, targeting an audience that has been conditioned for a generation to obediently, unquestioningly believe whatever is marketed to them as “conservative” and reject whatever is branded “liberal”.

  40. 40
    Karen Kohfeld says:

    Thanks (Mike?) for this excellent and thoughtful review, and for pointing out this book. Our university is in the process of revamping their environmental science curriculum, and one aim is to increase science and environmental literacy across the entire university. This book sounds like a must-read for all of us who have served on curriculum committees!

    This post reminds me of the constant challenge for university educators, especially when one considers that one, 100-level science course may be the only exposure some students get to science. The C student in your class is likely to be tomorrow’s CEO, policy maker, journalist, blogger… What do you want those students to take away? How do you create a scientific learning experience that they will remember?

  41. 41
    Mark says:

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

    Why thank you


    My dad’d say thanks too.

    However, there are still the same level of ignorance about global warming and the science behind it in the amateur astronomy side too. Which is REALLY strange, since a common one is “CO2 is saturated! How can it have any more effect???” when the emiision lines are saturated in our sun for many common elements and yet we can still tell the concentration from how much dimmer the sun (or indeed any star) is in those specific bands. Literally observational proof that saturation doesn’t stop the effect for absorption.

    And the proof of the CO2 bands’ existence is of quite an interest to astronomy too, and independently verified: I don’t think the professional astronomer is so selfless as to make stuff up that will move the grant pot from their research centres to the climate ones.

    Yet still “CO2 is saturated! It CANNOT have an effect” is still very common there.

  42. 42
    kajs says:

    I will disagree.

    Science advances due to:
    1) narrowing specialization of scientists
    2) unique out of box insights
    3) and of course persistence.
    making scientific community to desperately communicate their knowledge will cut on these points. then why do it at all? Availability of information is all scientists should offer. That will do the education job well. I do not think anything would do much better – the margin would be small.

    The problem really is that people (that is democracy) makes wrong decisions. And that is the point to address. You cannot educate everyone in all aspects of life! Therefore, certainly there are issues where polls would be undesirable. Or, Dalai Lama may help. Because he will teach rock solid logic, ethics and egolessness.

  43. 43
    Mark says:

    Paul H : “That said, I think you have a point with regard to being condescending. ”

    But is it not condescending to say “Have the climate scientists thought that maybe more clouds will shield us from extra sun?”?

    Is it not offensive to say “you’re only doing this so you can get the grant money”?

    As I’ve put on another blog, after you’ve turned every cheek available, all that’s left is to throw the moneylenders out.

    You can hardly call that attitude “unchristian” of me, can you?

    You, Steven?

    I hear often that “being rude will put people off your side”, yet the denialist side is full of bitter hate and slanderous accusations.

    Never heard A SINGLE ONE say “I used to be skeptical of AGW but after the rudeness of the ones on that side of the discussion, I decided that maybe AGW was right”.

    Has ANYONE?

  44. 44
    Doug Bostrom says:


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

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

    It’s a diversion; they might be arguing about something else, the actual topic is not really the point.

    So you’ve got a relatively few actual denialists, followed by a large fan base.

  45. 45
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I was lucky to grow up in the 50s & 60s when (perhaps due to our embarrassment over Sputnik) science was king, so even those who went in to other fields got a reasonable science education, at least at my schools, or at least a healthy respect for science. And for those who didn’t pay attention in science class, there was the Scientific American Hour on TV – I remember “Hemo the Magnificent” and a number of other episodes.

    However, I guess for the most part we non-scientists only need to know how to turn on the switch, and let the scientists and engineers do their mysterious things.

    However, with anthropogenic environmental problems, especially global warming, in which blind material progress comes up against viability of life on planet earth, that’s where we really need to know more science, and especially we need a dose of humility to turn to the real scientists for their assessments.

    It seems to me to come down to arrogance. Maybe on both sides. But now with climate change, the scientists are coming to us non-scientists with hat in hands telling us, “Houston, we have a problem.” And for the non-scientists and denialist scientists to ignore that or sweep it away as a political ploy is sheer evil, well beyond hubris or outright arrogance.

  46. 46
    Michael says:

    Paul H
    “That said, I think you have a point with regard to being condescending”

    In the US, bucking authority is a way of life. We have a natural disdain for the opinions of people in power.

    In regard to GW, when people hear “here is the science, now change your lifestyle” I would say more people are inspired to learn about the science in efforts to debunk it. If you are more trusting of the scientific community and the claims they make, what motivation would you have to educate yourself?

  47. 47
    Jim Prall says:

    This post brings to mind a straw poll I’ve been taking: can anyone think of any U.S. public figure comparable to Britain’s David Attenborough (or Canada’s David Suzuki, for those familiar with his career)? Attenborough is a household name and his voice is widely mimicked in efforts to spoof TV nature documentaries. Similarly, here in Canada, David Suzuki has built a (second) career as a TV nature journalist via his long-running CBC documentary series The Nature of Things. Suzuki is also a leading campaigner for action on climate change, through the David Suzuki Foundation. Suzuki started out as a geneticist before becoming both broadcaster and environmental activist.

    Among those I’ve asked about this, the only names that have come up for the U.S. are Jack Hanna, famous for bringing exotic zoo animals on TV talk shows (going back to the Johnny Carson era) and the even older “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingom” (aired from 1963-88, and which is apparently back on the air; see online at This show at least did nature themes somewhat like those covered by Attenborough, but with much less breadth (what? another episode on cheetahs?), lacking the scope of either Attenborough or Suzuki who often include geology, oceanography, broader ecology (birds, smaller mammals, reptiles). Wild Kingdom mainly just stayed with their proven safe ground of large African predators, the way I remember it.

    Americans got a heavy dose of Australia’s “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin before his untimely demise in 2006. Steve made his fame wrangling crocodiles, but also conveyed great passion for wildlife conservation and broader environmental protection.

    So, I ask readers: can anyone name a widely recognized American public figure associated with natural history, nature education, wildlife conservation, environmental protection, and/or science/nature communications (writing or documentaries)? Can any American match the stature of Attenborough, Suzuki or Irwin in their respective national media (and worldwide)?

    My own impression is that there is no comparable American figure, and I suspect that is a rather telling corollary tp what Mooney and Kirshenbaum are documenting in Unscientific American.

  48. 48
    Jim Prall says:

    Re: #41
    Another field where amateurs are acknowledged for making real contributions that scientists find useful would be ornithology; avid birders and even backyard birdwatchers contribute huge quantities of statistical inputs through so-called “Christmas counts”, backyard bird count projects, as well as by documenting rarities and previously undocumented behaviours.

    Now, as for “saturation” – I audited a whole semester on radiative processes in planetary atmospheres, and I really did ‘absorb’ a lot, but I struggle to formulate a simple definition of what it means for absorption to be “saturated” for a specific molecule / band / whatever. Does this term indicate that every photon in a specified band is sure to encounter at least one molecule of the absorbing gas before traversing that layer?

  49. 49
    catman306 says:

    I have read that Asimov wrote his 200+ books on a typewriter, 70 wpm, first draft ready for publication.

    Here’s some relavancy from Wikipedia

    “Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as “brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs”,[7] but also said that the only two people he had ever met who he would admit were more intelligent than he was were Marvin Minsky and Carl Sagan.”

  50. 50
    Jim Prall says:

    Sorry, in my last post I obviously intended to include “aside from Carl Sagan”! (Also I mistyped “to what” as “tp what” in the last sentence.
    Sagan did cosmology on TV and certainly did become a household name. I don’t recall if he did other aspects of science beyond cosmology/astronomy.