Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future is the new book by Chris and Sheril of The Intersection (formerly on ScienceBlogs, now at Discover), and they were kind enough to include me on the list of people getting review copies. It turned up on Friday (after I’d already started Newton and the Counterfeiter). I read it this afternoon, partly at lunch with SteelyKid (who, alas, was woken up by somebody else’s ill-mannered child), but mostly in the back yard on a surprisingly pleasant afternoon. It’s a quick read– only 132 pages of text, plus 65 pages of (unmarked) endnotes.

This is a difficult book to review, because I already knew pretty much exactly what was in it. If you’ve read The Intersection these last few years, you do to– the core argument of the book is essentially what Chris and Sheril have been advocating on-line for some time now: the standing and influence of science in our society is in decline for a variety of reasons, and it’s partly the fault of scientists:

Our culture has changed vastly since the mid-twentieth century. Science has become much less cool, scientists have ceased to be role models, and kids aren’t rushing home any more to fire rockets from their backyards. It would be unproductive and also unfair to blame scientists alone for this sad state of affairs. For every scientist who shuns or misunderstands the broad public, there’s another who deeply wants to find better ways to connect and who may exert considerable energy and ingenuity to that end. And we’ve already seen how other crucial sectors of society fail to give science its due.

Still, it is undeniable that the troubling disconnect between the scientific community and society stems partly from the nature of scientific training today, and from scientific culture generally. In some ways science has become self-isolating. The habits of specialization that have ensured so many research successes have also made it harder to connect outside the laboratory and the ivory tower. As a result, the scientific community simultaneously generates ever more valuable knowledge and yet also suffers declining influence and growing alienation. too many smart, talented, influential people throughout our society don’t see the centraility of science in their lives; and too many scientists don’t know how to explain it to them.

There’s nothing here that will surprise readers of their blog. That’s ok, though, because the audience they’re aiming for is not the heard-it-all-before blog readership, but a wider audience of people who read smart and well-argued non-fiction. For those people, this will be new and fresh, and it’s a very well-constructed book. Even as somebody who has heard essentially all of this before, I was impressed with how well this book lays out their argument.

Unscientific America is divided into three main parts, as is traditional for this sort of book. The first section summarizes the historical context, presenting a short history of the rise and fall of the American science establishment. The second section breaks down the main sources of the current problems facing science– disconnects between the “culture” of science and four other “cultures” in American society: “political culture, media culture, entertainment culture, and religious culture.” The final part lays out some suggestions for how to move forward in a productive way.

There are two larger-than-life figures who dominate the whole book: C.P. Snow and Carl Sagan. Snow, of course, is the author of the famous “The Two Cultures”, lamenting the lack of communication between scientific and literary intellectuals. In many ways, what Mooney and Kirshenbaum are trying to do is to update Snow’s argument and shift it into a modern American context.

Carl Sagan is a recurring figure in the book as both an example of what a talented science popularizer can accomplish, and a warning about the poor regard for popularizers in the culture of science. They hold up Sagan’s heyday in the early 1980’s as a sort of high-water mark for science in popular culture. Starting with the failure of his nomination to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, because the illustrious scientists making up that body felt he oversimplified things in his popular writings, science has been on the decline.

Most of the bloggy commentary on the book will focus, alas, on Chapter 8 and Chapter 9, dealing with religion and science blogging, respectively. This is a shame, as those sections are a fairly small piece of the overall argument. They say some harsh things about PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, though, which is sure to throw everybody into a tizzy.

To my mind, though, the really important parts of the book are Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, on political and media culture, respectively. They lay out in great and depressing detail just how the culture of science fails to match up with the ways that politics and the mass media work, and how it got to be this way. The problems really are huge, and if anything, they’re getting worse, not better.

They close with some suggestions regarding ways forward from here, which deserve more discussion than I can really give them in this review post. I don’t entirely agree that what they suggest will work, but their suggestions are at least plausible, and they make a reasonable case for them. And at least they’re putting something on the table to be discussed.

This is a very good book, well argued and engagingly written. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and a lot of food for thought about the history and future of science in America. I suspect I’ll be boring you all with posts about different aspects of the book for most of this week. I recommend, though, that you pick up a copy and check it out for yourself. Even if you’ve read their blog, Unscientific America presents the most complete and coherent version of their basic policy argument you’re likely to find, and it’s well worth reading.