Book Review: Unscientific America

(Note: This is a book review I originally published in 2009 on a defunct version of this site.)

In a recent assessment of American student achievement in science education, it was found that by 2005 only 18% of graduating seniors were considered proficient. Forty-six percent were considered below a basic achievement level. That was up 3% from 1996.

How did we arrive at this situation? How did the United States go from being one of the envies of scientific achievement to a nation of near scientific ignorance? Author, and science journalist, Chris Mooney teams up with marine scientist Sheri Kirshenbaum, to create a compelling examination of the state of science education in the U.S. and what can be done about it in their book Unscientific America – How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

In Mooney’s previous book, The Republican War On Science, he describes one front of the decaying state of science in this nation. The politicization of science, the distortion of fact, particularly by the far right’s distortion of the global warming crisis, has lead to a general mistrust of the scientific establishment. A major portion of this new book examines what the scientific establishment, then, can do to recover.

Don’t make the mistake of going in to this book assuming Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s assessment of American scientists to be glowing. The finger of blame is pointing both ways – scientists and politics, with a good helping of religion and media (both news and entertainment), all share fault.

Politics was well covered in The Republican War On Science, but additions are made here. Kirshenbaum worked as a congressional science fellow. During her time working with Congress men and women, she saw the confusion of politicians trying to grasp deeply scientific subjects. It was not necessarily the politicians fault.

There’s a major disconnect in discussions between scientists and politicians. Mooney and Kirshenbaum refer to this disconnect in terms of communication. Scientists, they note, are “source-oriented” while politicians are “receiver-oriented.”

Source-oriented communicators speak the way they feel comfortable with. Receiver-oriented communicators speak in a way they hope an audience will accept. When the two clash, conflict arises.

Scientists, deeply passionate about their work, often do not know how to communicate that passion in ways understandable to non-scientists. They may not consider the social impacts of their works. Meanwhile, politicians may hold a distrust of scientists, either because of conflicting ideology, or political agendas.

In my opinion, the book puts a great deal of the resolution on the heads of the science establishment. While I’m not sure that’s wholly fair, I do agree with the methods.

Science education needs to include outreach and communication efforts. Honestly, I feel all fields should require this, not just science. Scientific fields, however, deeply ingrained with their own jargon, are at a distinct disadvantage currently. Outreach has never, really, been a part of the curriculum, and communication, with an emphasis on writing for science journals, would need to be further expanded to more mainstream media.

And mainstream media isn’t immune from Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s finger of blame. The two primary outlets, fact and fiction – news and entertainment – are viewed critically in this book.

On the news front, it is shown how coverage of science has been in steady decline over the years. Indeed, on television, for every five hours of news coverage, only one minute pertains to science. News papers that once had entire sections devoted to science have dwindled to less than a page devoted to the field – and that often highlighting only the latest tech gadget.

In entertainment, the scientist is either the geek or the villain. Few heroes are scientists. Corporate scientists want to keep the deadly Aliens, House is an antisocial jerk, Dr. Emmett Brown was a crazy mad scientist in Back to the Future.

Oddly, in this section the authors choose to quote Michael Crichton as “the voice of reason”. Crichton, whose State of Fear has been roundly debunked, states that real science and movie making “don’t mesh.” This is primarily do to the fact that movies need a number of things that are incompatible with science, including the need for compelling characters, villains and a motivation for action. He may be a twit, but he’s right.

Again, the authors put the impetus upon scientists. They suggest scientists need to “seek out constructive consulting roles within the entertainment industry.” It’s my opinion that this is something that needs to go both ways. Many good movies have been made in which directors and producers have worked closely with scientists to create entertaining works.

Shifting to one of the lasts fronts in this ongoing conflict, we move to religion. And this is perhaps where I have the most disagreement with the authors. One of the things they do is suggest that faith is not incompatible with science. Ok, I can agree with that. But then it appears to me that they make the leap from that to suggesting that atheism is not. I find that a fairly shaky premise.

They point a very strong accusatory finger at what they refer to as the “New Athiests” – essentially people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Zachary. The authors suggest, perhaps justly, that the confrontational style of these people is driving an expanding rift between science and the majority of the country, which happens to prescribe to one religion or other.

Their solution seems to be essentially, “Tone it down.” But this lacks historical context. Saber rattling on one side is generally the result of saber rattling on the other. And while I hate to sound wishy-washy, this is definitely one of those areas where a middle ground must be found. A give on one side needs to be met with a give on the other. Religious fundamentalism, as much as militant atheism, is also responsible for the current sad state of affairs.

The book repeatedly mentions one name as an example of excellence in science communication. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a Sagan fanboy, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of times he was held up as a standard to strive for. Not that there weren’t people who despised him – he made plenty of enemies during the Reagan administration – but his communication skills, his ability to show his deeply held passion for science, have never been rivaled.

And, honestly, that’s a shame. Don’t get me wrong, there are many scientists who strive to fill the gap left by Sagan. Neil deGrass Tyson and Stephen Hawking come to mind.

As does Bill Nye. He comes to mind, for me, because of a recent video going around the internet in which he was interviewed on CNN regarding “bombing the moon” in a science experiment to detect water. The video exemplifies the discussion of science education in the U.S. and how poor it has become. CNN was being flooded with concerns about the affects of the experiment – Would it cause weather disruptions on earth? Would it influence tides? Could it destroy the moon?

In his response, Nye suggests that such questions indicate that he, as a science educator, has failed. My response to that is that he hasn’t failed, but that there simply aren’t enough people like him, people both passionate about science and able to communicate easily with non-scientists.

I think this book is an excellent starting point. While I may quibble with a few points, the overall plan is spot on. We must start emphasizing the education of future scientists and arming them with the communication skills they need.

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