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Unscientific AmericaReview - Unscientific America
How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future
by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
Basic Books, 2009
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Oct 27th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 44)

In Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum explore the divide between the scientific world and domains such as politics, religion, news media and entertainment.  They repeatedly argue that scientists' lack of awareness of the modus operandi and unique content of each domain and its respective audiences is likely to be the main culprit for the diminished role of science in American society.  They propose that the American public holds a superficial appreciation for science and has more confidence in scientific leaders than in leaders of many other fields, albeit the task of naming such valued leaders yields less than stellar performance.  The authors then rely on these 'facts', based primarily on large-scale survey research, to claim that the American public is merely 'uninvolved in science', distracted by other more pressing concerns.  Lack of involvement, they argue, has had a direct impact not only on the decline of science in the public arena but also on the proliferation of distortions regarding the scientific enterprise and its related products.  Hence a call for action is issued to scientists who are discouraged from retreating to their laboratories and offices and who are expected to communicate more effectively to the American public the products of their work.  How to accomplish the latter task remains undeniably challenging.  Unscathed, Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that any effective communication of scientific knowledge to the American public must begin with scientists' tolerance of viewpoints that may appear opposite to science from both a methodological and a knowledge-based standpoint.  Knowledge of the audience is then the inevitable, subsequent step. 

I found the text disappointing in several areas.  I expected Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future to contain a comprehensive historical overview of how scientific communities in their different realizations have related to and have been portrayed in the diverse avenues purportedly examined by Mooney and Kirshenbaum (i.e., news media, entertainment industry, politics and religion).  I encountered a generally superficial, eye-catching, treatment of the complex web of relationships that exists between scientists and each of the areas that the authors claim methodically to have explored.  Over-simplification of these relationships, for instance, emerges in the authors' tendency to focus on one entity of a multiple-party relationship, which is then used to organize a logical argument supporting the authors' initial assumptions.  Of course, the resulting product is so one-sided that the reader may understandably ask whether it was generated during one of the countless 'news' shows in which opinions expressed by self-proclaimed 'insiders' trump accurate reporting of facts. 

A poignant illustration of the unsolicited consequences of over-simplification is the chapter entitled 'Bruising their religion', where caricature-like depictions of reputable scientists, which lack any reasonable attempt to describe each individual's view and the evidence upon which it relies, are used to argue that such scientists unknowingly work against the goal of restoring science to its rightful dominance in American society.  These scientists' actions, intended to counteract what they consider superstition (i.e., irrational beliefs) with rationality, are then portrayed as needlessly increasing the divide between science and religion, leading most of the public to avoid and ignore science.  Sadly, the authors claim that tolerance of other views is required to bridge the science-religion divide; but they apparently do not hear their own preaching.  Is one of the main ingredients of scientific enterprise the open debate of differing viewpoints?  Undeniably, some scientists keep the domains of science and religion separate whereas others delve into what they judge to be the inconsistencies and incompatibilities between the two realms.  Shall we silence the latter because their words can offend someone or may appear to some counter to the purpose of restoring science to a position of dominance within American society?  Silencing opinions is poisonous to the progress of scientific enterprise.   How can Mooney and Kirshenbaum write against a core principle of science? Is their text intended to propose that scientists find a way to connect with the American public by behaving in ways that are contrary to scientific enterprise? 

Perhaps the authors should have asked themselves a set of fundamental questions as part of their examination of the relationships between science and domains such as the news media, the entertainment industry, religion and politics:  What is science? What does debating scientific issues entail? What is acceptable conduct in debating such issues? Is a controversy involving scientific knowledge and some other domain such as religion always 'bad for science as a public entity'? Can such a controversy ultimately benefit the public (i.e., consumers of knowledge)?  To what extent can pre-existing opinions and attitudes be influenced during such debates? Evidence-based answers to fundamental questions pertaining to the functioning of scientific enterprise and of delivery of its products would have clarified or perhaps eliminated some of the logical contradictions that the text blissfully ignores.  Furthermore, because dyadic relationships do not exist in a vacuum, a focus on such relationships tends unnecessarily to obscure the network of interactions in which they are embedded.  Hence Mooney and Kirshenbaum would have better served the reader if they had analyzed more explicitly and thoroughly how the domains they targeted interactively maintain each other's generalizations and distortions of the scientific process and its products.  

Of course, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future is not entirely a bust.  The text begins with an engaging and insightful chapter on the 'Pluto controversy'.  The chapter appears to foretell other entertaining chapters, where pointless controversies with a hint of injustice as the motivational force place scientists and their actions in a negative light.  The next chapter cleverly addresses the popular belief, frequently the source of jokes on comedy shows, that the American public has little understanding of the scientific method and of its products.  Evidence is discussed, and a re-framing of the notion of 'illiteracy' is proposed. Unfortunately, after it, all sense collapses.  Would it behoove the authors to question their framework and search for counterevidence?  Instead, the text appears mostly to be a 'call to action' in which the same arguments/assumptions are repeated many times and where evidence and its sources disappear into the background.  The caricature-like depictions of scientists and of their work in the entertainment industry are undeniable.  Over-simplification of products and methodologies of scientific enterprise in the news media is similarly difficult to refute.  Yet both are known; and the American public has no need to be reminded of them if nothing can be added as solution. If a 'ScienceDebate2012' initiative is to exist, should a deeper and unbiased understanding of scientific enterprise guide it?  

 

© 2009 Maura Pilotti

 

  

 

 Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York


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