Chris Mooney, co-authoring with Sheril Kirshenbaum, has impeccable timing for publishing topical books. By the time Mooney's The Republican War on Science : Revised and Updated came out, those who stay up on current events had probably reviewed enough anecdotal news stories regarding the GOP's relationship with Science and its findings to seriously consider Mooney's thesis that the GOP was truly in a policy war with science with damaging consequences both observed and predicted. Mooney's masterpiece of straight news reporting and analysis still resonates and I continue to recommend this wonderful book, both for the breadth and depth of its reporting, and its continued relevance in spite of a new Administration committed to science due to a Congress that continues to be swayed by special interests as we've recently experienced in both energy and health care legislative efforts.
Mooney's reportage in "War on Science" is also helpful to readers of "Unscientific America" given the authors spend little time in the new book arguing for the key and growing role science plays in American society, it's mostly assumed where the authors instead focus the first portion of the book on the pervasiveness of America's illiteracy towards science coupled to their argument the scientific community is failing at communicating with both the power brokers and the general public in a way that adequately promotes science. While I enjoyed learning about areas where we're scientifically illiterate, I believe the authors spend too little time speaking to the criticality of science. This results in a book I find serves as an echo chamber for current science supporters, who already know the general public is illiterate regarding Science. According to a recent Pew poll, 84% of the public claims a high regard for science while 85% of scientists believe the public doesn't understand science and far too many people oppose both the scientific method and use of its findings in education and policy. Some illumination that claiming support for science in no way equates to actually supporting science is a necessity; however few examples are offered here. I would have liked to have distributed this book to people in positions of power who have influence on our culture, but the sales job by the authors is inadequate for that task given many of my target audience ignorantly believe they already support science. More examples of how ignorance in science equates to less than optimal results would have been welcomed.
Unscientific America couldn't have been timed better. The aforementioned Pew poll published soon after this book went to market raises the appropriate alarms regarding a public who is scientifically illiterate and where a massive disconnect in understanding between science and the public exists on many topics. The poll's attention in the media should help serve as a motivating argument to consider Unscientific America's thesis. More than 2/3 of all Americans with an opinion think that government funded research is "essential" and that private industry investment in research without government funded research is not adequate. On the flip side this same Pew poll finds that 87% of scientists believe we are inadequately funding research. A seeming paradox emerges from this poll result given the authors reporting that we have an over-supply of scientists relative to job openings - one of several rewarding eye-openers the authors report that changed the paradigm of how I view science policy.
Americans understand that we face increased competition for desired jobs given an increase in global competitiveness and global trade that challenges American economic growth and security. I would therefore speculate that the vast majority of well-informed Americans would agree that for America to maintain and improve our economic situation, we need to increase the rate of scientific findings, maintain or enhance our standing in the world regarding science, and significantly improve our ability to translate research into marketable ventures, especially in energy and less costly health care. Yet here we are swimming in unemployed or under-employed scientists.
A more substantial analysis and set of arguments regarding this seeming paradox is an opportunity squandered and the major failing of the book. What are the authors' recommendations? They provide one general recommendation that I agree is imperative. But I also find it falls far short of providing confidence we've done everything we can or need to do (I leave out their recommendation given I think it's a spoiler). I think the book leaves many questions left begging regarding this paradox while also falling short in reporting other possible solutions that may have a far more fundamental improvement.
For example, one of my observations on a possible root cause and corrective action regards our inability to get more American students interested in science, or at least more immigrant students who've come from developed capitalistic societies. Could the cultural differences of immigrant students who secure science jobs in the States be a cause for why we don't see greater activity in bringing research to market given that requires more interaction with both investors and the business community? I don't know; it or other obvious considerations are never covered. [I'm a huge supporter of increasing recruitment efforts to attract foreign students to immigrate here, along with other countries' scientists. Therefore, I'm not advocating shutting them out by increasing how many American citizens go into science, I'm instead arguing that not having more scientists with soft-cultural skills may be a reason we don't see a faster rate from research to market while we simultaneously suffer an oversupply of scientists relative to jobs. I'm looking at growing the pie of jobs in the science sector, not increasing Americans' share of who staffs current American-based science jobs at our immigrants' expense.]
A third weakness, which I found far more trivial to the scarcity of analysis and prescriptive arguments, is their attack on so-called new atheists. The authors are convinced that the new atheists are buttressing the wedge between the scientific community and social conservatives. In fact the authors spend far more time on this supposed issue than they do addressing why America is swimming with scientists at a time our energy and health care costs require an increase in bringing scientific findings to the marketplace. Couple a disproportionate attention on the growth and exposure of science-literate atheists to the absence of any data supporting their argument and one wonders what this subject is even doing in the book, especially given it's such a short read.
My experience is that these so-called new atheists have instead attracted many young people to the side of enlightened thinking while offending social conservatives who were previously and will remain incapable of adapting their beliefs to knowledge derived from science. Religious people who are intellectually mature enough to support science are not going to be repelled given part of the big tent is particularly nasty to fundamentalists, who they mostly dismiss as well. Therefore I'd speculate the new atheists have opened up a new channel to develop more science-friendly people, rather than harming this cause given the people attacking them aren't going to change anyways. (I too have no data but I'm not publishing a book claiming so. I've also seen a lot of observational evidence that people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have helped young people who were indoctrinated into fundamentalism become enlightened while the people who are offended by these types, e.g., Rick Warren and his older adherents, display zero capability or history of adapting when their beliefs are convincingly discredited - so why should we care if they add one more reason for them to hate scientific methodology and its resulting findings if there's a marginal benefit to what these new atheists do? Social conservatives will just use other rhetorical opportunities to attack science and its supporters if the new atheists went back into the closet as Mooney argues they should.]
Given the book is any easy interesting read that does promote the reader thinking more deeply about this critical topic, I do recommend reading this book. I have a far better context in which to consider how we make America more literate because I read this book, but I also feel this book was a rush job lacking the effort we saw in "War on Science" where the authors didn't go nearly far enough in both their analyses or prescriptive considerations. So whatever positions I eventually develop to argue for how America can become scientifically literate, such findings will be based on content not contained in this book.
P.S. - I think Mr. Mooney is a great talent who is worthy of our consideration. Given how young he is, he's in a post-grad program now, I hope in the future he is more respectful of his audience by putting more effort into future books by providing more substantial content. I also hope he takes his critics' advice regarding there being a place at the table for the new atheists; especially given Science's emerging efforts into better understanding the brain and behavioral memes within populations originating in ancestors beyond hominids. These relatively new fields will greatly increase science's treading into areas recently reserved only for religion, so we need to have the dialogue that people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have put on the table, not hide them from view, otherwise the distance between science and the public will only increase.