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’.