Unscientific America

Review/synopsis of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum, Basic Books, NY, 2009:

Carl Sagan, in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World issued this sober warning:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

As Mooney and Kirschenbaum observe, “At present we’re marching steadily toward that outcome.”

The authors note that on the plus side, Americans are surrounded by technology and see first-hand the fruits of scientific research. The Internet and other information technologies have made it much easier to disseminate accurate scientific information. But this same technology also makes it possible to disseminate all sorts of nonsense, and to amplify the fallacy-ridden writings of the creation science and global warming denial communities.

In other arenas, the authors lament that only minor progress has been made. Long gone are the glory days of Sagan’s “Cosmos” series on PBS. Nowadays Hollywood and network TV mostly avoid scientists and scientific themes, and when they do deal with a scientific theme or scientific undercurrent, they prefer paranormal topics (UFOs, time travel, etc) and frequently depict scientists as villains, geeks, and jerks. There are a few bright spots — Numbers, a few of the CSI epsiodes and others — but by and large the Hollywood/TV picture is pretty discouraging.

Mooney and Kirschenbaum criticize writers such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for going out of their way to attack religious belief and believers. In the authors’ opinion,

If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be.

One of the more interesting parts of this book is the authors’ account of how Carl Sagan, who arguably was the most successful communicator of science in history, was himself snubbed by the scientific establishment for his efforts. His 1992 nomination to the National Academy of Sciences was rejected, mainly on grounds of his public endeavors. The message was clear to any current or aspiring scientist: engage the public at the peril of your career.

To address these problems, Mooney and Kirschenbaum call for nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the scientific establishment. First of all, scientists themselves must squarely face the abysmal job they have done in communicating their research to the public. They cannot rely on advanced technology such as Internet blogs here, since these same technologies are just as effective in spreading nonsense. Instead, training in and encouragement for the dissemination of results to the public must be incorporated into the curriculum of every scientific field.

Mooney and Kirschenbaum further argue that society must rethink the financial reward system for those who pursue scientific careers. As a recent blog entry cited in the book laments, “Had I to do it over again, I would not choose a PhD, at least not a general science degree. I would have gone to medical or law school, or perhaps a PhD in public health (a very rapidly growing field). At least after training in these programs your skill set is clearly defined, and you can be confident that you will have a job post-graduation”.

In their conclusion, the authors quote C.P. Snow, “We require a common culture in which science is an essential component. Otherwise we shall never see the possibilities, either for evil or good.”

See also Chris Mooney’s recent essay at HuffingtonPost.com.

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