Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future Hardcover – Jul 14 2009
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“Non-scientists, and that includes most of us who work for newspapers or other media, owe it to themselves to read at least one book this year about the scientific issues facing the world. My pick is Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America.”
“[An] important book”
“A tour-de-force…engaging…this book should find readership beyond just science students to all students interested, or becoming interested, in current issues important to politics, education, and the general state of our nation."
About the Author
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science, and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He contributes to many publications including Wired, Slate, and The American Prospect. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine scientist and Research Associate at Duke University. Previously, she has served as a congressional science fellow and pop radio disc jockey. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Together, they blog at The Intersection (http://www.scienceblogs.com/intersection).
Top Customer Reviews
I disagree with the previous review that says this book does not apply if you do not live in America. Although a lot of US-specific examples are cited, we are certainly facing similar challenges as scientists in Canada. (Even Nature recognizes that science policy is a problem in Canada: see [...].) Many of the same actions must be taken by Canadian scientists if we want our work to be considered important by the public.
My only problems with this book is that the "Notes" actually contain a lot of additional text, rather than just references, which might have been more conveniently placed in the main body of the book. Also, I would have liked to see more concrete suggestions of what individual scientists can do to help bridge the science-culture divide.
Here's hoping that this book mobilizes more scientists to make their work (and rational thought in general) more relevant to society!
Second of all, this is a book that needs to be read at the exact moment that it was published ,so if you buy it in a year, forget it , it will be already badly outdated.
Third of all ,if you can't stand politics of all sorts, Geez , are you in for a long read....and you thought you were going to read about science!
Fourth...this book doesn't contain 220 pages of information, at best there might be 50 pages worth anything, thereis some pretty good insight, but also lots of stuff you have already read before (from the same author); and then it is just the same stories over and over and over again until it finally ends.
This book feels a lot more like a long cover story that repeat itself way too many time (oh, sorry have I already said that?)
What could be like a good starting point about how America is loosing it (be realistic buddy) is just in the end some sort of pep talk that I can't just bear with after a while.
Who is this book for anyway? people with an unscientific mind will not waste their time reading it , so why bother.
This ,as I might have already pinpointed to you, should have been published in a newspaper, week end edition , special report that could have been edited to 50% of it's present already thin coverage.
The Dark Cyclist in Canada
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book does make some excellent points and the authors do seem to have a pretty good grasp on what is good science and what is not; however, in the end, scientists get too much of the blame, and those who promote science denial, or bad science get let off the hook too lightly. It is true that bridging the gap between the experts and the general public in an effective way is a big concern found among many who write on this topic, but it seems as though this book is too willing to chalk the problem up either to improperly trained scientists or some sort of institutionalized bias in the media world. One of the strongest aspects of this book is the fact that the authors clearly point out, in a number of places, that the technological arrangement and delivery of media currently allows for a number of dangerous tendencies, such as: the focus on profit over substance which tends to eliminate serious scientific coverage, the fragmentation of delivery into many cable channels or an infinite number of websites which allow people to tune out things they don't want to hear or read about, and the ability for anyone to create a TV show or post something to the web, which allows for many disinformation sites to become places where like-minded science deniers can pat each other on the back. In spite of these keen observations, the book has some shortcomings. It seems to suggest that scientists need to accept a number of big compromises. The authors suggest that due to the way movies are made, scientists have to accept bending of science or scientifically ludicrous ideas in movies so that they can be entertaining and sell. They are also very hostile towards the so-called new Atheist movement and insist that science has to accept a co-existence with religion.
In the end, this book will probably be somewhat disappointing to those who appreciate the modern scientific heritage of this country and are gravely concerned about the anti-scientific direction some segments of society seem to be taking. On the other hand, the book does make a number of very thought-provoking observations and seems to suggest one possible path to bridge the gap between science and the general population that could bypass a cultural war and situation in which one side's victory implies the other side's defeat. The best bet is to keep in mind that this book was written by two people whose careers are deeply involved with public perception and the marketing of ideas. As such, it is not a bad take on an issue of great concern and importance.
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.
The diagnosis of this book is this: The USA is losing the charm of science and scientific literacy.
And it makes a simple proposal: Scientists need to be better at promoting science.
That seems obvious enough. There are actually a range of books out that make that case and give constructive advise to scientists how to be a better communicator (such as Randy Olson's "Don't be such a scientist" or "Am I Making Myself Clear?" by Cornelia Dean).
I do not disagree with this, but think it's too narrow. I also do not think this book gives a sensible enough description of the state of affairs.
For example the first chapter makes the case that the Pluto-story was somehow a PR blunder for science. We are invited to consider the mocking of Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert as evidence. I would rather suggest the opposite. Having a science topic on Maher and Colbert is a win, and there is no way to have it on Colbert without mocking being part of it. But not just that, the fact that wonderful science promoters such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye made great use of the story to engage the public is nowhere to be found. In fact neither of these fine advocates for science appear anywhere in the book.
I can also not really follow their assessment of the state of science outreach. Going to the science shelf in my local book-store I cannot help notice a very healthy rotation of wonderful books appearing and not only that, them also being very successful. The book omits this from the discussion. One never hears of the wonderful writings of Natalie Angier, Simon Singh, Oliver Sax, Brian Greene, Dava Sobel, Deborah Blum, Dan Levitin and many others. And on cable we have a range of science-oriented channels to pick and there are wonderful shows promoting experimental and evidence-based thinking (think Myth-busters) that are sure to excite young audiences. Much more is going on than the book describes, and hence the book ends up with a much gloomier picture than I think is real.
The book promotes Sagan as role model for science outreach, which is good. But the book also dislikes Dawkins (apparently entirely for his atheism), which is strange in many ways. Dawkins is without doubt one of the most prolific and sophisticated science popularizers of the last 30 years. And his atheism really is not very different from Sagan's. Both called faith a delusion and promoted instead an evidence-based attitude.
I have problems with the treatment of other topics as well. For example there is an ongoing political movement that seeks to undermine science teaching and public information on a number of scientific topics at all levels. This movement and the resulting PR and legal battles, and the efforts to deal with this, get a very brief and misleading treatment. One hardly learns anything about the organizations behind those efforts. For example to discover what the "wedge strategy" is, one has to find an end-note. It is not discussed on its own merits and in a sensible context, but rather it is used to construct a negative case against Dawkins's work.
The book failed to convince me that a lack of trying by advocates of science is the problem and it also failed to describe other forces at play. Perhaps scientific literacy is embattled not just because science outreach is not at the right level? The reader of this book would not even be informed that such a question is perhaps sensible.
There are other cases made in the book that I would not agree with, and the end-notes often provide insufficient support for claims made.
The conclusion, that scientists need to be better at public outreach is too narrow and too naive. While it is obvious that scientists can and should help, I do not believe that it is enough. If scientists are the only ones showing concern when textbooks are rewritten, then there is a problem. The general public, parents, politicians, judges, educators and administrators in K-12 education, all need to take responsibility to make sure that America makes gains in scientific literacy.
Overall there are a few worthwhile ideas in the book, but they are overshadowed by its flaws, its omissions, tendentious and questionable arguments and ultimately a too narrow a message. I do not think that the uninitiated reader will get a good picture of the facts, problems, and possible solutions reading this book and in this sense I am inclined to think that it does more harm than good for the goal of promoting scientific literacy.
American citizens, if their kids are any indication, view knowledge in the context of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire", a stream of factoids, unrelated, much like a list of names in a telephone book.
"Unscientific America" tell the reader why this sorry state of affairs has occurred. I suspect, the same or worse applies for the average American citizen knowing about our Nation's history, basic elements of world culture, or the arts. My foreign students look at Americans with bewilderment and wonder on how they could be so ignorant living in such privilege and plenty.
And then, they happily out-compete them.
Climate change has been extensively researched and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the observed modern day global warming is unprecedented and is very likely caused by humans. Although there is strong consensus among climate experts, many in the general public still think that these scientists are unsure about climate change and the role that humans have played in modern day global warming. Moooney and Kirshenbaum reveal that one problem is that the real science is primarily represented in peer-reviewed science journals but that these journals are typically not accessible to the general public. Global warming misinformation is primarily published on Web pages, blogs, television shows, radio, and other forms of mass media, all of which are much more accessible to the general public than scientific journals. The result is that the misinformation is reaching more people than the real science.
As M&K point out, the world needs more Carl Sagans - scientists that are able to bridge this information gap. However, the Carl Sagans have been ostracized by their peers for talking down the science. For me, personally, it has been an epiphany. I no longer point the finger away from myself. This book has caused me to develop an extensive Website to educate the general public on climate change ([...]) and to be a daily poster on various climate-related blogs.