January 19, 2020

Review: Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.

All too often these days, we’ve heard it said that America is in danger of losing its competitive edge in the world scientific arena. This is inevitably blamed on education, political agendas, or general apathy. A quick sound bite will usually then proceed that claims X percentage of Americans do not accept evolution, or the Big Bang, or some other scientific fact.

But what’s really behind the numbers? Where is the true danger and what is pure hype? And what can educators, the public, the media, and scientists themselves do to combat this alarming trend? Enter Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Out from Basic Books earlier this year, Unscientific America paints a holistic view of where science education and literacy is at and where we may be headed. Mooney is the host of the popular Point of Inquiry podcast and both are ardent science promoters. Unscientific America is a smart look at how the public views science and digs much deeper to root causes and remedies than the average media sound bark. No one is safe; the media, Hollywood, the conservative right, atheists, bloggers, and even scientists themselves are held up to careful scrutiny.

A theme that runs throughout the book was one first echoed by Carl Sagan in his final and arguably most crucial work, The Demon Haunted World; a two culture society world is emerging, one with an elite highly trained few operating in a vacuum juxtaposed against a large consumer culture. In order to effectively bridge this gap, more collaboration between scientists, educators, the media, and even politicians is vital. The authors also pinpoint the problem of scientists often being “source-oriented communicators” who like to speak jargon with their own kind, while politicians tend to be “receiver-oriented communicators” focusing on an audience. I can vouch from experience that science writers and scientists alike have their radar up for any potentional “woo”-factor when someone new approaches them, and Astroguyz is no different in this regard at times. Still, they say that “making it” in sciece media can be gauged by the number of crackpots at your door or in your inbox… perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the latest guy who says he biult a perpetual motion machine in his basement. After all, he is excited, if a little misguided, about science…

Unscientific America also traces the history of modern scientific understanding through Sputnik and the large emphasis on science that followed in the wake of the Space Race to its decline following the rise of conservative fundamentalism in politics up through the Internet Age and the most recent presidential election. The authors point out that although science blogs do serve a crucial role in science media-cross checking, they also tend to fall into the realm of ‘blogging for the sake of other bloggers’. Perhaps much of the Internet does serve simply as an electronic watering hole where the like- minded can gather and simply congratulate and reassure each other, and this extends well beyond mere science blogging. What’s really needed for science blogging to take that next step is the ability to do the “leg work” of true investigative reporting, an endeavor that still can extend beyond reading a wiki page. We need a way to run a news organization on Google AdSense…

But beyond gloom and doom, Unscientific America gives cause for hope by pointing to such great examples as Sagan. It’s hard to believe that Sagan got a lot of flak from the scientific community for his role as a popularizer of science, when many of us (myself included) point to him as a primary influence. Neil Degrasse Tyson (discovered by Sagan) also comes to mind. He hit the nail on the head during a recent interview when he told the reporter that they don’t get a pass when it comes to science literacy… after all, scientists still have to know nouns and verbs, right?

The authors rightly point out that simply minting more scientists and engineers won’t solve the problem, as we already have too many PhDs and post-docs in limbo vying for too few positions. A tenure track is a risky proposition, as many of their peers are already successful doctors and lawyers… just how many scientists do you know or live on your street?

We could say lots more about this book, but we think we’ll stop with simply that it is essential reading. As we gear up for our final push to become a science educator, we’ll keep its words of wisdom in mind. I’ve always said that I’ll be happy at the end of the day simply if students understand the difference between astronomy and astrology, but in fact it’s a much more complex and convoluted issue. What we need now is not more polarization, as we tend to do with any issue in this country, but more collaboration, a synthesis a commonality between science and society. Rare is the person or that can truly relate science to the public, but Unscientific America has definitely embraces the spark!


  1. emma says:

    If the anti-scientific thinkers truly understood how the way we live today, including our housing, our medical care, our TVs and computers, gas and electricity, food we buy, etc., etc., they would owe much of their existence to science.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Dickinson, Chris Calubaquib. Chris Calubaquib said: RT @Astroguyz: http://bit.ly/9qeDLQ Review: Unscientific America by C. Mooney & S. Kirshenbaum. Can the science bloggers save us? #science [...]

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  3. [...] that those that shout longest and hardest are ultimately deemed “right”. Like Denialism and Unscientific America also reviewed in this space, Denying Science paints a curious but disturbing trend accelerated by [...]

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