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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. 151
    James says:

    Don Thieme says (9 July 2009 at 7:09 AM):

    “I teach science in a public university. I think that the deficiencies are particularly bad right now because of economic inequality and the dominant European culture’s tendency to keep scientific skills and knowledge within their own sphere.”

    I wonder what university you teach at? My own experience has been quite different, in that the majority of students (and faculty, perhaps) were and are not from that “dominant European culture”. An extreme case was a graduate physics course I took some years ago, where the instructor was prone to lapsing into Chinese – and I was the only student for whom it wasn’t my native tongue :-)

    Carries over into the work world. At my last salaried job, at a large computer company research lab, I was the only member of “the dominant European culture” in my group. (The others were Indian (3), Chinese (1), Iranian (1), and a black guy from the East Coast.) Overall, roughly a third of the 600 or so researchers were from India, maybe 20% from China. Add in others from all over the map, and that members of that supposedly dominant culture were a distinct minority. Judging from names on papers and attendees at conferences I’ve been to, I’ve no reason to think those numbers are at all unusual.

    “Carl Sagan pushed to democratize science, but we need to do a great deal more.”

    I have to disagree. We don’t need to democratize science any further than it has been. Instead, we need to elitize the rest of the non-scientific world.

  2. 152
    Suzanne says:

    If any of you did not read the quotation Hank Roberts posted, please, please go back and read it. It is absolutely on the money. I know because I come from people just like the ones described – I was born in Dallas, Texas and raised a Southern Baptist.

    I have been a science geek since birth – I was reading Asimov in grade school – but most of the people I grew up with were good, religious folks who would have done anything for their country. However, they did not understand science and did indeed feel it was “anti-faith.”

    I never had a problem myself with evolution/religion because I learned about it when I was so young that a simple “that’s the way God chose to work” was more than enough. I’ve fallen away from that simplistic view of things, but it took years and a lot of thought on my part about the intrinsic contradictions in the message of my faith that had nothing to do with evolution.

    If in those earlier days someone like Dawkins had come along and insisted that I had to summarily give up my religion in order to accept evolution – and by extension, science in general – really, I don’t know what I would have done. Giving up something that is as much of a given as the existence of God was to me then is no small thing. Dawkins doesn’t seem to have any grasp of what he is doing to religious people with his stance. I probably would have had a breakdown – I had a hard enough time giving up my religion gradually.

    If you’re going to educate these people and make them care about science, you can’t just jerk the rug out from under them and expect them to thank you for it.

    I know none of this matters to some, but if you don’t the book burners to send us back to the Dark Ages, blowing them off isn’t the right answer.

  3. 153
    Jesse says:

    James (149) — I wasn’t thinking of sea level rise as the ony thing, just that when it comes up I was trying to get my head around the concept that even a few millimeters can matter.

    And I think New York is one of he most habitable American cities– few others exist where not owning a car is perfectly workable.

    The big issue we have here with sea level rise is not with how high it is, per se, but the amount of water you need to pump out of the subway tunnels. As it is it’s becoming more problematic as the pumping systems were designed 100 years ago in some cases.

  4. 154
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mark @137,
    I cited some of the work Sagan did in planetary and astrophysics–among them the atmospheres of Venus and Jupiter. One of his grad students, Dave Stevenson, now at Caltech, I think, has gone on and had a pretty stellar career himself. Again, I didn’t know Sagan. I did know some of his students. The esteem they held him in wasn’t just because he was a nice guy. I see no objective reason why Sagan should have been denied election to the academy.

    [Response: I happen to agree. As I’ve explained above, his work on early earth evolution and the “Faint Young Sun” paradox represents a fundamental enough contribution in the Earth Sciences that it has become a core topic in introductory courses on Earth system history at most universities. To me, that is an unambiguous indication of research achievements that clear the academy’s significance hurdle. But this particular topic appears to bring out quite a bit of vitriol in some corners, so I’m going to enforce the request that there be no more comments on this topic—from either side. -mike]

  5. 155
    Steve Reynolds says:

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

    I absolutely agree with the general points you make in 147 except possibly the second sentence above. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘authority… derived from solid, validated research on a topic’. If you mean to consider data and results ‘from solid, validated research on a topic’, certainly that should be done, but I would not call that authority.

    The additional authority that is unwarranted is to accept unsupported statements from someone who has previously done ‘solid, validated research on a topic’ or to take on faith that ‘solid, validated research on a topic’ could not be in error.

  6. 156
    sidd says:

    Mr. Bouldin wrote:

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

    I wrote:

    “a good description of the process of writing a doctoral dissertation, or a serious paper”

    I was incorrect. I should have said: “a good description of the beginning of the process of writing a doctoral dissertation or a serious paper”

    a lot more goes into it of course. The actual calculations and comparison with measurements and dancing in rage when you discover simple arithmetical errors in the last proof that just went off to the publisher, and such. But I agree with Mr. Bouldin, we begin in the library.

  7. 157
    Pat Cassen says:

    Ray -(154)
    I don’t think that Dave Stevenson was a Sagan student. Jim Pollack, Brian Toon, Chris Chyba were among Carl’s students. All with ‘stellar careers’. Sagan was a great teacher.

  8. 158
    Jacob Mack says:

    Even science can be a form of religion and then again, $ changes most people’s minds if it is enough.Humans are hardwired to have a belief in something “higher” than themselves.

  9. 159
    Jacob Mack says:

    Science does not contradict personal faith. Everyone is entitled to their own faith. Evolution is fact, but it has nothing to do with believing in “GOD,” or a higher and evolution can completely reside in one’s mind reconciled. It is ridiculous to think one “must” be an ahteist to understand and practice science…insulting even.

  10. 160

    I recently ended a presentation at an AMS Climate seminar for broadcasts Meteorologists with Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. If you have not seen or heard it, it is a must. Am currently reading Demon Haunted World.

    All I can say is you hit the nail on the head Mike.

  11. 161
    Mark says:

    Ray, you posted as part of your reasoning how he was a good man.

    That doesn’t prove anything on what you were complaining about.

    I pointed it out.

    You then complained about my pointing this out by talking about scientific credentials, NOT about how he was a good man.

    In what way does that response make me pointing out “he’s a good man” doesn’t prove the point wrong???

    (NOTE: This isn’t about the NAS/Carl but about correcting bad arguments)

  12. 162
    Alan of Oz says:

    Sagan’s the man and his book is by far the best introduction to science and skepticisim ever written. A couple of others that come to mind are Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” which was made into a BBC series, and a non-scientist, the Magician James Randi who’s thin little paperback debunking Uri Geller cured me of “woo woo physics” about three decades ago.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on Sagan, Bronowski’s book should also be required reading and Randi’s lectures should be required viewing.

    I would also recommend Julius Summner Miller’s “why is it so” series for younger students, he always made a point of leaving some questions unanswered and I think the world needs more “mad proffesors” like him, not less.

  13. 163
    Ray Ladbury says:

    According to Dave, he was. One time, in a phone conversation (oops, no facial cues), I made some crack about “mbillions and mbillions,” and was thoroughly chastised.

  14. 164
    Mark says:

    There’s also the Christmas Lectures from the Royal Society on BBC2.

    De Bono’s thinking course I remember too.

  15. 165
    Mark says:

    Well Said, Jacob in 159.

    And something BPL would be well advised to take to heart.

  16. 166
    Pat Cassen says:

    Ray – Well Dave was at Cornell, so I guess he at least took courses from Carl. I thought Ed Saltpeter was his adviser. In any event, Sagan’s influence is far and wide. I got hooked on Shklovskii and Sagan’s \Intelligent Life in the Universe\. And you’re right, he was the most generous of scientists.

  17. 167

    Everyone is entitled to their own faith.

    And I am entitled to state unequivocally that your religious faith is made up fabricated delusions with no empirical basis. If you demonstrate any of my hypotheses to be completely false or wrong, my whole world is not going to come crashing down on you, but when your faith is demonstrated to be wrong, the actions that you have caused by exercising your delusional faith have real ramifications in the real world.

    [moderator: ok, that’s enough on religion now. thanks]

  18. 168
    James says:

    Jacob Mack says (10 July 2009 at 12:55 AM):

    “Humans are hardwired to have a belief in something “higher” than themselves.”

    I have no such belief, therefore I am not human. That’s logic :-)

  19. 169

    A ‘science ambassador’ in his own field of medical science and biology, Lewis Thomas,made a statement that I think should apply generally, even though he made it about his particular field: “If I were a policy make interested in saving money for health care over the long haul,I would regard it as an act of high prudence to give high priority to a lot more basic research in biological science……”
    This is from an essay titled “The Technology of Medicine” in his collection of essays titled “Lives of a Cell”.

    His words are just as applicable today as when he made them, and can be widely applied to cover all the sciences, including climate science.

  20. 170
    SecularAnimist says:

    I think the following passage by Sagan, from The Demon-Haunted World, is an interesting example of skepticism:

    “At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under minor sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they are likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.”

    Here Sagan acknowledges his a priori bias — that he doesn’t think such “claims” are “likely” to be “valid” but they “might be true”.

    He has already made the entirely subjective judgment that — in the terms of his own famous aphorism — these are “extraordinary” claims that require “extraordinary” evidence. (Of course to many people in India, including scientists, the idea that young children will sometimes “remember” a “previous life” in what researcher Ian Stevenson called “cases of the reincarnation type” is not extraordinary at all, but quite ordinary.)

    And yet, Sagan is willing to be skeptical of his own skepticism, and to acknowledge that these claims have some experimental support and “deserve serious study”.

  21. 171
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jacob Mack wrote: “Humans are hardwired to have a belief in something ‘higher’ than themselves.”

    Well, sure. The Appalachian mountains to the west of me are higher than myself. And the Rockies further west are even higher than that. And birds fly way up high over my head every day. And then there’s the Moon which is quite a lot higher still.

    Or perhaps by “higher” you meant greater, and more powerful. Well, there are likewise plenty of things that I know of that are greater and more powerful than me. Numerous other human beings, to start with, who are certainly physically or mentally or economically greater and more powerful than me. Corporations. Governments. And of course ecosystems. Hurricanes. The Earth’s biosphere. The Sun.

    Or perhaps you meant “spiritually” higher. Well, “spiritual” means lots of different things to different people, and even means different things at different times to any given person. But whatever it means, if I am a “spiritual” entity, then surely various aggregates of “spiritual” entities, such as my family, or my community of friends, or my country, or the human species, or all sentient species, and on and on up to and including at least the Earth’s biosphere considered as an undivided, whole, living system, are “higher” than myself alone.

    All of this seems pretty self-evident and I don’t see that any of it has anything to do with being “hardwired” to “believe” anything in particular.

  22. 172
    Jacob Mack says:

    #171 Secular,
    if you did dome reading on current findings in Neuroscience, behavioral genetics and the classic works: Carl Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell you would see the point. It has been found that a need for a “higher power” or dominant belief system etched out in superstition is actually hardwired in our brains. Cultural Anthropology studies as well have found that superstition has actually assisted in preserving our species. Of course different cultures express spirtuality and beliefs in something “higher” in a myriad of ways; what is your point? Of course there are plenty of intelligent “atheists” as well who deny an existence of any “God,” but they place their principles and their anti-religious sentiments or other teahings as higher mandates which they derive a sense of purpose from. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are two noted existentialists who were militant atheists who used their body of work and beliefs to attain a “higher” purpose in their lives. I strongly suggest you check out ack issues of Scientific American Mind and the journal Neuroscience for further clarification on the hardwiring found. Any Cultural Anthropology textbook or PBS special with Joseph Cambell should be enlightening as well. I am not preaching and I belong to no religion; just making the point clear from research.

  23. 173
    Hank Roberts says:
    It’s pertinent to the book review; pointless to argue here; look it up.
    insisted impulses (ReCaptcha)

  24. 174
    Jacob Mack says:

    James #168…You are using faulty logic…you indeed do place something above all else as most important and it fills your days of thought and actions. It may be science, debating, your family, etc… but even more than that we all belive in “myths” and “constrained models” of some sort in place of actual 100% unadulterated reality. All humans are hardwired to believe in a higher cause, power, ideilogy, or system. We are influenced preanatally and through birth until adulthood; we are shaped, primed, and persuaded one way or another by good arguments, “facts”, and our own choices and studies under the circumstances.
    It is a shame the level of scientific illiteracy in this country, but it is not just true of physics, chemistry and climatology. Most of my scientifically literate peers who post here know virtual;y nothing of Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, Behavioral Genetics and Anthropology. Science is too broad a term, and no one can be literate in all branches of science equally and still make a living doing science…science is a great cause and methodology in general, however, do not pretend it is not an human endeavor full of misapplicatoins, greed, error, cover ups, and gross uncertainties. Scientific American had several articles over the past few years highlighting the possibility of “Science” becoming the new state religion. There is still so much mystery and things that are in fact unknowable as Plato stated.
    So, yes in all of humanity’s actual genes are codes which predisposes us to belief and to “faith,” of some sort, and in turn our neurons creat clusters in key regions which “superstitions” and belief in higher purposes, or perhaps beings reside. How many people are stuck on the belief in super intelligent aliens if not a God or universal consciousness? How many atheists “faithfully” cling to their belief that all religion and spirituality is evil or harmful? Think about it.

  25. 175
    Hank Roberts says:

    A brief excerpt from the above because this is seriously relevant to convincing people of ideas — the brain does appear wired for vigilance against ideas that challenge beliefs:

    “… These theoretical models and empirical data suggest that the detection of novel or imminent changes in the direction of a series of semantic implications or meanings may be first discerned by the right hemisphere, before ‘left hemispheric’ awareness occurs or a ‘choice’ is made. If the right hemisphere is more specialized for vigilance and affect than the homologous regions of the left hemisphere, then one would expect specific activation by the emotional meaning or implications of statements that challenge personal beliefs …”

    It’s a research study on how the brain handles challenges to deeply held beliefs, neurologically. It’s worth reading.

    Of course the paradox is: reading the study will challenge anyone who has strongly held beliefs about _how_ to effectively convince people.

    If you’re sure your method is right, you won’t consider reading the research. Chuckle. My method is always to suggest reading cites ….

    So take the self-test: can you read the study before responding to argue about the idea? Preview text is available; free registration with ScienceDirect will be needed.

  26. 176
    Jacob Mack says:

    #173 Rather interesting series of papers. I would like to remind you of Francis Collins and Isaac Newton as two prominent figures with high IQ’s who have held or currently hold a religious faith. Still religion can be “opiate for the masses.” PBS has an excellent debate among religious evolutionary biologists as well, which you may find of ineterest. Now, past religion; even the methodology of science itself takes on a religious fervor and spiritual quality for many of its practitioners.

  27. 177
    Trent1492 says:

    The glowing review of Unscientific America that I have read at this site, contrasts strongly with the critique offered by P.Z Myers at Pharyngula. For example, beginning with chapter 1 he says:

    This chapter is completely baffling. They chose to illustrate the serious problem of the disconnect between a science-illiterate public and the science establishment with a strange example: the redesignation of Pluto as a non-planet. This event was accompanied by a public outcry, by people who had some peculiar emotional attachment to the idea that Pluto was the ninth planet, an attachment that was fed by a willing media that found this level of trivia to be about as complex an issue as they could handle. We know that certain topics rouse the public, and often it’s unpredictable what will catch the fancy of the news. But this? This is the opening story on which they build their argument that “consequences of the science-society divide may prove far more damaging”? And what do they propose we should do to resolve the issue?

    I guess I am going to have to check out the book and read it myself. Imagine that.

  28. 178

    A large gap of understanding between scientists and the public- from today’s NYTimes:

    The article states in part:”Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.”

    Pretty disheartening numbers. There exists lots of misunderstanding by the general public.The survey was done by the Pew Research Center.

  29. 179
    Doug Bostrom says:

    James 10 July 2009 at 1:20 PM

    ‘“Humans are hardwired to have a belief in something “higher” than themselves.”

    I have no such belief, therefore I am not human. That’s logic :-)’

    Picking on your post James not for any particular reason other than it shows two sides of the same coin…

    We’re wired in a way that lets us “see” the future. The future we see includes that we’re going to die, shed this mortal coil, etc. Yet we’re supposed to reproduce and maintain offspring, a tremendous amount of work and accompanied by the knowledge that they, too will grow old and die. Somehow we have to do all that work with all the commitments it entails, making a serious emotional investment, even though we’re increasingly (thanks a -lot-, cosmologists!) aware that the whole matter is pointless in the long run.

    So perhaps it’s not too far a stretch to imagine that we’ve also been genetically selected to include an inherent capacity to concoct fantasies wherein we don’t really die, or we in some other way avoid the “awful truth” via unlikely magical means.

    I personally can’t integrate religious feelings into my psyche, not so far. As a result I question whether I’m genuinely well adapted to my role as a gene carrier. Perhaps the expression of my “magical thinking” genes is poor.

    My two cents to the barracks room philosophizing…

  30. 180
    Morris says:

    I think the issue of the divide between the scientific and unscientific America is extremely important. Simply being “right” is no excuse to pretend the other opinions don’t matter.

    Certainly Galileo was “right”, but that didn’t stop him from being persecuted for saying the Earth revolved around the Sun. He had lots of hard evidence and it made no difference.

    There is a culture war going on, and I see no reason to assume science minded people can win just because they are right. If the masses don’t support something, then the funding can easily be cut or never happen at all.

  31. 181
    RichardC says:

    On Religion:

    It reminds me of a joke – How do you keep a [insert insulting label here] in suspense?

    I’ll tell you tomorrow.

    Point is that there is NO way that belief in the here and now will determine your fate once you die. You’re worm-food [and a spirit?], but no sane higher power is going to punish or reward you based on your beliefs. That sort of higher power would be far too petty and mean to deserve the label “higher”

    recaptcha agrees: 25 lamps

  32. 182
    Hank Roberts says:

    Often in Error, Rarely in Doubt
    Chair: Don A. Moore
    Carnegie Mellon University

    Excessive confidence in the precision of one’s knowledge is both the most robust and the least understood form of overconfidence. This symposium investigates its ultimate causes. The evidence suggests that overprecision is caused by limitations on the working capacity in human memory, conversational norms, and social pressure. …

    Overconfidence in Intuitive Confidence Intervals: Effects of Assessment Format, Short-Term Memory Capacity, and Aging
    Peter Juslin
    Uppsala Unversity, Sweden

    The naive sampling model suggest that one cause of overprecision is that, although people accurately describe the small samples of similar observations they activate within short-term memory, they are naive about more sophisticated statistical relations between these small samples and the properties they are assessing.

  33. 183
    Jacob Mack says:

    # 180…Indeed you make an astute observation.

  34. 184
    Jacob Mack says:

    Carl Sagan was a pure genius! Hence why he was capable of communicating science to the lay person. That anyone attacks Sagan is incomprehensible to me.

  35. 185
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Morris 10 Jul 2009 at 4:08 pm:

    “There is a culture war going on, and I see no reason to assume science minded people can win just because they are right. If the masses don’t support something, then the funding can easily be cut or never happen at all.”

    Yep. Despite all the cynicism and distrust inculcated into the electorate’s conception of our government, here in the U.S. at least the power to do well or poorly ultimately still rests with us.

    Social research such as the recent Pew survey is a great tool for figuring out what needs to be done to better connect scientific findings with policy products.

    As it turns out, there is a branch of social science research having to do with mental models, including mental models of risky processes. As with all social science, there are no levers than can be cranked to produce identical results in any given person; results appear as bell curves or the like. Yet we have learned a lot about how to communicate in a way that works better with our internally squishy notions of odds and statistics, low probability/high risk situations and the like.

    So, amusingly and ironically, we can look forward to applied science assisting us with digging our way to daylight when it comes to communicating compellingly important scientific information.

  36. 186

    There is a culture war going on, and I see no reason to assume science minded people can win just because they are right.

    No, you’re right, we’ll win because NATURE is on our side.

    If the masses don’t support something, then the funding can easily be cut or never happen at all.

    So what are the ‘tards gonna do, cut funding to nature so that the laws of physics stop operating? ‘Tards are amazing, they have so much power, with their elected representatives representing their delusional fantasies and all. In the future we can expect great things, no?

  37. 187
    Doug Bostrom says:


    There is no anthropomorphic entity “nature” so no ally. There’s no game, or war, so no victory.

    What is a “‘tard”? How would we recognize one?

  38. 188
    Marion Delgado says:

    Debates are pointless over the pure science issues. They can’t be explained at a sound-bite pace. They also send the wrong message – they pretend that a handful of cranks, mostly not even in the field they’re pontificating in, equal the vast majority of scientists with the requisite expertise. It’s why we don’t have “debates” over ether vs. relativity, phlogiston vs. oxidation, the flat vs. spherical earth, heliocentricity vs. Ptolemy, chemistry vs. alchemy, astronomy vs. astrology.

    Debates over what to do are still in the realm of meaningfullness – but I would recommend that people like Ben honorary doctorate from hobart business college wattenberg be excluded. nobody in the now-debunked washington consensus should be allowed in the debate, neither should a climate science denialist.

  39. 189
    Joe says:

    Why bother even worrying about trying to educate any new scientists (or engineers) since they won’t be able to find any jobs in the USA. As for trying to educate the American public on Science issues. Again why bother when more than half of the public doesn’t believe in evolution. You’re wasting your breath on people that won’t even listen to you in the first place. Sorry, that’s just reality.

    Instead, any efforts by the science community should be concentrated immediately on educating the current leadership at the federal, state, and even local level and hopefully our political leaders will be able to turn the ship back around before it’s too late for the USA.

  40. 190
    sue says:

    As someone who cares both about science and the educational enterprise in general, this sounds like a must read. And not having read it yet, this comment may be redundant, but I think some of the fault lies in the way basic science is taught in high school and introductory college level (the most science that the average American will encounter directly). Science textbooks and your average science teacher, despite lip service to the principles of research and “scientific method,” present science as a set of facts to be memorized, making science little different to the average student than the memorization of the facts of history or the elements of grammar.

    Another source for the problem comes not from science but from religion. There is a theme in contemporary Christian religion these days, that there is no objective “truth” and that everything is a matter of faith, one can put their faith in God and the Bible or in science and scientists, and there is no basis for establishing the truth of assertions other than personal faith.

  41. 191
    James says:

    Jacob Mack says (10 Jul 2009 at 2:59 pm)”

    “James #168…You are using faulty logic…you indeed do place something above all else as most important and it fills your days of thought and actions.”

    You don’t know me as well as you apparently think you do :-) There really is nothing like that in my life; nothing that could be called “higher” without stretching the definition out of all meaning. When I do those things on your list, I do them because they are enjoyable, or because they will in some way (perhaps indirectly or over a long term) profit me.

    I won’t, for fear of boring everyone, go over your list in detail, but I will say a few words about science. You write about believing in science, but I don’t. I use it because it works (and because it’s fun and pays me a good living). Show me that something else works, and I’ll use that.

    “How many people are stuck on the belief in super intelligent aliens if not a God or universal consciousness? How many atheists “faithfully” cling to their belief that all religion and spirituality is evil or harmful?”

    But this takes us right back where we began: many people may in fact “believe” these things, but I don’t*. Therefore either your contention that ALL humans are wired this way is wrong, or else I’m not human.

    *For clarity’s sake, I should explain that not believing is not the same as disbelieving. I won’t categorically say that there aren’t such things as gods, superintelligent aliens, or the like, just that I’ve never seen any evidence for them, or any reason to think that they’re necessary hypotheses.

  42. 192
    Hank Roberts says:


    Aquitard, the people stupid enough to collapse aquifers.

    “Groundwater … is always in the ground, drought-proof, Garrod said…. county water authority and Sweetwater Authority officials said no municipality would be foolish enough to deplete its aquifers. …”

  43. 193
    James says:

    Doug Bostrom says (10 Jul 2009 at 3:49 pm(:

    “Somehow we have to do all that work with all the commitments it entails, making a serious emotional investment…”

    But it’s fun :-) Though to be honest, while I think that kids are great fun in small to medium doses, I must admit that I prefer the sort that can be returned to their parents when I’m tired of them.

    “…even though we’re increasingly (thanks a -lot-, cosmologists!) aware that the whole matter is pointless in the long run.”

    Yeah, and so’s climbing mountains – after all, you generally just turn around and climb back down. But that’s fun too.

    “So perhaps it’s not too far a stretch to imagine that we’ve also been genetically selected to include an inherent capacity to concoct fantasies…”

    Concocting fantasies is one thing: many of them are entertaining, some few are useful. But some people pick one particular fantasy (and in much of the world, a particularly nasty one) and set about believing in it while trying to exclude all the others.

  44. 194
    blackcream says:

    I don’t think that the divorice between science and the public is something novel, and i don’t think it
    specifically applies to the U.S.; although some more obvious gap might have been observed
    during the last 50 years; the divorce between science and society goes along way back,
    maybe 500 years, and it is a western european problem at large, not an essentially american one.
    Buy yes, indeed one thing that remains a fact and I entirely agreed with it, is that there is
    a gap.

    But I don’t think that system of rewards to create science communicator will have any large scale
    effect for two reasons. One because, the number of such communicators would be substantial;
    Responsibility and societal concern in my own view comes from an inner impulse, it does not forment through
    rewards and incentives.Again, The problem of societal responsibility is rampant among scientist, but it is
    a problems of intellectuals in general. If there were magic keys to render intellectuals responsible and socially concerned,
    we would probably resolve a great deal of the crisis of our time.

  45. 195
    Mark says:

    “Carl Sagan was a pure genius! Hence why he was capable of communicating science to the lay person. That anyone attacks Sagan is incomprehensible to me.”

    A pure genuis is often what you DO NOT want. I had one teaching solid state physics. He was a genius. But he couldn’t work out how to think like a “not a genius”.

    And why say it is incomprehensible?

    It’s quite easy to understand.

    Heck, I bet Carl Sagan got into arguments in a pub like ordinary people. He wasn’t perfect, so there are faults.

  46. 196

    Mark writes:

    Well Said, Jacob in 159.

    And something BPL would be well advised to take to heart.

    Huh? Were you under the impression I thought accepting evolution conflicted with faith? I’m not. I was arguing against that very argument. Go back and read my post again.

  47. 197

    Jacob Mack writes:

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

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

  48. 198
    CM says:

    Shouldn’t science history play a big part when one wants to communicate science to a broad audience? It is easily given the narrative structure and human interest that a popularization anyway needs to draw the reader’s or listener’s attention.

    A historical approach, with stories of the right ideas winning through in the end after many false starts and challenges, also helps get across the idea of science as a cumulative project, where a single contrary observation does not suffice to falsify an established theory (denialist vulgarizations of Popper to the contrary).

    RealClimate’s “A saturated gassy argument” post, one of my favorites, is a good example of what an historical narrative can add to an explanation of the science. So is Spencer Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming in general.

    Since we’re discussing our intellectual heroes here: The late Stephen Jay Gould excelled at rising above such dichotomies as “the two cultures” and communicating science in historical perspective. With his nuanced understanding of the complex historical relationship between science and religion, he also argued for their peaceful coexistence. While this indeed is not a good place to discuss religious convictions, culture-war perceptions of science vs. faith (a late 19th-century construction in Gould’s view) are topical here, since several commenters above have identified them as an obstacle to getting the scientists’ message across to a “middle American” audience. If science is to have ambassadors, they’ll need to learn diplomacy, and Gould’s Rocks of Ages has much to teach on that score.

    But Barton (#69) — if Mike will allow me that far off topic —

    while there are good reasons for revising the received wisdom on this, your (Rodney Stark-inspired?) argument is not tenable. Any neat single-cause explanation of the scientific revolution is bound to go down in flames. This one seems to rely too much on a caricature of Greek and Islamic science. It also begs an account of how theological doctrines translated into scientific practice, acknowledging the significant role in the West of doctrines similar to that of your Ghazali quote. But that’s a discussion we’d better take elsewhere.

    ReCaptcha: “radium is”. As for intellectual heroines, my well-worn copy of a children’s biography of Marie Curie described her giving physics lessons to school children even as a world-famous Nobelist. Dunno about the reward structure.

  49. 199
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #152, it is, I guess, more common for people to lose their religion (if at all they do) as they become more educated, especially in science. For me, the more education and science, the more religious and awe-filled I become — it’s like everything is a miracle, and some things have scientific explanations and some don’t (yet). However, for me religion goes far beyond science (which does very well in the territory it has carved out for itself — the empirically knowable material world) & includes the “known” and the “unknown” and “unknowable,” and most importantly “the I and the Thou” — which science as objective endeavor can never include.

    What demoralizes me and threatens to harm my faith is those on the religious right who reject science, especially climate science. I guess it makes me a bit upset with God (as in “Where is God when you really need God”) that these types should be allowed to spout their falsehoods and threaten life on planet earth.

    Bring on the science, bury the unbelieving religious right with scientific truths, strenghten my faith and inspire my awe.

  50. 200
    MarkusR says:

    How does climate science skepticism relate to religious fundamentalism? By creating a division between people and science on science that are not aligned with religious dogma.

    They create the rift that causes scientific establishment to become a competing religious institution in the minds of the religious population–the ‘truths’ of science become challengers of the Truth of the religion, which is considered infallible at the extremes. To the common religious observer, science does become a ‘religion’ because of religious insistence on its own ‘truths’. The debate between the age of earth on scientific or religious terms is no longer apples and oranges, but religious apples (or oranges). The obvious degrading of scientific certainty goes unnoticed as religious ‘truth’ is considered as perfectly capable of providing absolute certainty.

    Because religion dominates the society, political parties are able to hook onto the religious descriptions of science and make that one of their founding principles. As such, skepticism of the scientific establishment–as simply a competing religion–is applied to other matters, such as climate science. The climate skeptics can easily recruit the entire religiously fundamentalist political movement by adopting their rhetoric of science. Climate scientists that warn of global warming are “priests” of a competing religion, rather than seekers of secular knowledge.

    Religion is an issue. As is excessive long posts. My apologies on the latter.