Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1.

In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (hencefore M&K) assert that America is awash in a tsunami of scientific illiteracy.  They see this as a severe threat to Americans’ ability to make reasoned judgments about matters like vaccines and global warming, and to America’s preeminence in science.

Where does the problem come from? In an earlier book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney laid it largely at the door of political conservatives.  But, say M&K, we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves.  By our failure to reach out to the public and engage them, and by our hamhanded and ineffectual efforts when we do, we have missed the opportunity to make this a truly “scientific America.” In fact, scientists themselves have supposedly spurned the public, writing off efforts to improve scientific literacy because we see the public as dumb or intractable. As M&K say on their website:

“Yes, well, this whole mindset is precisely what we wrote a book against. The blame the public mindset. The it’s not our fault, we’re the smart people mindset.”

A lot of the blame, say the authors, rests on atheists-scientists like Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers, who, by supposedly forcing people to choose between science and faith, have driven them away from accepting science. The other implicit message is that scientist-atheists should stop “troubling their own house,” keeping quiet about their atheism.

Beyond requesting the silence of atheists, Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose various improvements in the public-relations skills of scientists.  Their main call is to train a new generation of scientists who are good not only at research, but at interacting with politicians, Hollywood movie producers, and the public.  And we should start celebrating the “hip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers” like Bonnie Bassler and Pardis Sabeti.

In the next few days I’ll publish a three-part review of the book, dealing, respectively, with the nature of the problem, who is to blame for it, and what the solutions are.  But I’ll start with my overall opinion of the book, which is that it is confused, tendentious, evanescent, and preachy.  It is a blog post blown up to book length.  Yes, there are some useful parts, in particular the emphasis on science communication and the need to reward those who are good at it. But these solutions are hardly new; indeed, I could find little in Unscientific America that has not been said, at length, elsewhere. And what is new—the accusation that scientists, in particular atheist-scientists, are largely responsible for scientific illiteracy—is asserted without proof.

This lack of data is the book’s main problem. For a book advocating science literacy, it offers surprisingly little evidence to support its claims. Yes, lots of facts and figures are thrown about—there are 65 pages of footnotes—but none of them strongly buttresses the three primary claims of the book:  first, that the dire problem of scientific illiteracy in this country is holding America back; second, that a main cause of this problem is the failure of scientists to communicate their trade but their simultaneous success in communicating their atheism; and third, that the authors’ solutions to the problem of scientific illiteracy are better than many others. Indeed, the statistics on science illiteracy, which show that it hasn’t changed much in thirty years, count against the author’s thesis that it is not only a growing problem but one that was once palpably improved by science popularizers but is now exacerbated by atheists. Finally, Unscientific America is marred by its tone of preachiness, in which the authors repeatedly, and annoyingly, give the impression that they alone know the true solution, and if we would just listen to them everything will be fine.  This would be an acceptable conclusion if they gave data supporting their contentions, but they don’t, and so we’re left weighing opinions rather than facts.

In the end, Unscientific America is a frame around a big fat empty space.

What’s the problem?

Is America scientifically illiterate? I suppose, from the viewpoint of a scientist, the answer is “yes.”  Repeated surveys (e.g., here) show that, compared to what we scientists would expect, Americans are surprisingly ignorant about scientific facts. As M&K note, only half of Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun once per year, and many Americans don’t even understand what evolution is.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the authors open their book by describing the “furor over Pluto” — the public bafflement when, in 2006, astronomers stripped Pluto of its status as a full-fledged planet—to show the disconnect because the public and science.  Except to a few extremist Plutophiles, this affair was little more than a joke, a bit of public fun.   It hardly makes the case for a crippling science illiteracy.

Let’s take two more serious cases of science illiteracy, both of which M&K also mention: the vaccination debate and the global-warming controversy.  Are these problems due to public ignorance of the facts and/or to the failure of scientists to properly convey these facts? We don’t know.  The authors give no data, and, indeed, there are credible alternate hypotheses.  The most obvious of these is simply that people who oppose vaccinations and global warming have other agendas which make them less receptive to facts; these agendas could include religion, economic interests, and (in the case of vaccines) personal experience that, to some, trumps science. After all, many opponents of vaccines are educated, aware, and highly literate.  Here, as is common throughout the book, many factors could be responsible for observed patterns, but the authors assert without proof that one is predominant.

Indeed, statistics on the correlation between politics and positions on these issues suggests that more is at issue than just apprehension of facts.  M&K note this correlation:

. . college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believer that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.

If science illiteracy is due to this Cool Hand Luke (CHL) Effect—the failure to communicate—have the facts about climate change been communicated more effectively to Democrats than to Republicans?

It’s no surprise that religion, or political stance, makes people resistant to accepting facts. The most familiar example is the resistance of religious people to accepting the fact of evolution. For many of the faithful, this does not reflect lack of knowledge. Rather, they are resistant to accepting the facts, and it is not because of a lack of science communication, because many creationists have been given the evidence for evolution, and not just by atheists, either!

Before we can claim that any public refusal to accept science reflects the CHL effect, then, we need data. Over at her website, Christina Pikas adduces some data showing the opposite, that it is not the lack of scientific knowledge that explains  “why the public doesn’t support some scientific endeavors” like genetic engineering or stem-cell research. Clearly, before we can fix the problem, we have to properly diagnose the problem.

M&K claim repeatedly that the problem of scientific illiteracy is getting worse, e.g.:

For all these reasons the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.

But is it?  The authors give no evidence beyond a decline in the number of science columns and supplements in American newspapers. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the public has grown more science illiterate, and anyway this likely reflects economic strictures rather than a change in the appetite of the public for science or in the willingness of the media and scientists to feed it. In fact, the one statistic that M&K do adduce about temporal trends in science literary shows that it hasn’t changed over time (this comes from a 2008 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation):

Roughly 46 percent of the public holds this anti-evolutionist, young-Earth-creationist, and scientifically illiterate view [the view that God created humans within the last 10.000 years]. That number has held constant since 1982, the first year in which the question was asked, apparently untouched by the waxing and waning of popular-science efforts, whether through magazines or best-selling books.

I suspect that one would find similar results using other assays of science literacy, though I couldn’t find any data.  Surprisingly, though, the authors don’t seem to grasp the implication of this constancy for their theory.  Throughout the “golden decade of the 1990s,” which M&K see as a high spot of science communication (this is when Carl Sagan and Steve Gould held sway) up to now, when atheist-scientists are afoot, there has been no change. Where, pray tell, is the evidence showing that the science-public disconnect has increased?  It must have done so, of course, if the authors’ claim is true that the New Atheists (who began publishing around 2004) markedly increased  the disconnect.

Is the problem especially bad in the US? M&K are confusing on this issue.  In one place they say this about the gulf between scientists and the public:

This divide is especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world’s scientific leader—at least for this moment–and home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care.

But then they say this as well:

To begin with, citizens of other nations don’t fare much better on scientific literacy surveys, and in many cases fare worse. Residents of the European Union, for instance, are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, at least according to one metric for measuring “civic science literacy” across countries.

Well, which is it?  And is scientific literacy correlated with science acceptance among countries?  At least for evolution, it is not.  If the US is either on par with Europe, or slightly better, in scientific literacy, why do so many fewer Americans than Europeans accept evolution? (Hint: it may have something to do with religion.)

Finally, M&K make much about how America is slipping in the international race for science prestige, although they admit that we’re still #1:

The United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.

The “evidence” they adduce consists of these two pieces of data:  China’s rate of increase in Ph.D. production is greater than that of the US, as is the proportion of Chinese bachelor’s degrees that are in science and engineering.  Well, that’s what one should expect when a rural country suddenly becomes urban and aspires to world-class technological sophistication.

But does this mean that we’re falling behind? Is the index of “being ahead” the proportion of total degrees in science, or the number of Ph.Ds minted? Is that highly correlated with the amount of scientific advance or innovation?  And even if we were slipping, why, exactly, should we care? M&K don’t answer these questions, perhaps assuming that it’s obvious.  But it’s not. Are we supposed to care that our country remains number one for symbolic reasons? Or does this purported “slippage” mean that our quality of life is endangered? (And if that’s the case, what is the evidence?) Science is an international community, and shouldn’t we applaud China’s getting up to speed, since international competition in science is, in the end, good for everyone?  Again, there are no answers here, just the repeated claim that this is something that’s really, really bad.

To be fair, I myself have raised the alarum about America falling behind.  Nevertheless, upon reflection I’m not so sure that this perceived slippage should cause us to get our knickers in a twist.  America remains a scientific Mecca, despite other countries catching up, and increasing numbers of foreigners come here for scientific training. In the end, I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.

M&K have noticed what many have before: the American public is surprisingly ignorant of basic facts of science.  But what Unscientific America fails to prove is that this ignorance has had inimical effects on the public good, or on the advance of science in our country.  Moreover, their claims of a growing breach between scientists and society are backed by almost no data.  Finally, they do not make a convincing argument that our country is in imminent danger of losing its standing in international science, or that this would be a terrible thing if it happened.

These are the foundational claims of the book — the claims that give rise to M&K’s assertions about what caused this illiteracy, and to their prescriptions for fixing it.  In the next part we will see that this lack of evidential support also dogs their discussion about the major causes of scientific illiteracy.


  1. Posted December 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I must say at the outset,that these comments are the most well written I have seen in a long time.I guess that roughly correlates with the fact that not one of them is by a creationist or ID type.I would like to get to the issue of why people believe untrue things so strongly.Its cultural to a large extent.Fear of shunning by their community.There is also the idea that many of the promises of religion are just so dammed cool-ESP,Eternal life,lovepeaceandhappiness,etc.I guess you could say Marx full commentary about the conditions people face in the face of godless capitalism (which I can assure you from personal experience is one mean sonofabitch)is really accurate.Also,I have found from reading some of the sites (Answers in Genesis )that they are really pretty good at obfuscating.I find myself getting convinced,and need to get cured by reading you guys.I quess Im just not as smart as some of you guys.When I read Victor Stengers book God the failed hypothesis,I found myself lost when he explained the cosmology.When I read cosmologists talk about the Universe being flat or when stenger claims the energy of the universe is exactly zero,Im thinking what the **** are they talking about?and that is from somebody who totally gets it that the bible is nonsense.You can see when scientists go off on tangents like this they they are wasting our time.I heard a fellow worker of mine once say that he thinks they dont know what they are talking about.Hes a right wing Jesus freeak IDiot,who thinks that animals are here for peoples use(he once said so explicitly)Try telling that to a black widow spider.What exactly is Gods plan for the black widow spider to serve humanity.But having said that,I have to agree with him on that comment about cosmologists.It does indeed seem sometimes to the uninitiated that they dony know what the**** they are talking about.And I am sure that you will all agree that there are a great deal of unknowns about the history of life,and the universe.I find myself looking at my body and wondering how did it manage to come together the way it does.I have read nothing in the scientific literature that completely explains how it all happened.I have always said that there is no scientist or religious dogma on the face of the earth that can explain the mystery of existence.Yes it seems there is no purpose to life.Its just a deep mystery that we may never be able to explain.

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1. In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (hencefore M&K) assert that America is awash in a tsunami [...] [...]

  2. [...] My guess is that the author of this article is still smarting over getting his book slammed by a “new atheist”. [...]

  3. [...] Why I think honest science cannot be reconciled with religion & religion is largely to blame for science illiteracy After a number of blogs now discussing Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s (M&K) position in their blog and in their latest book as well as discussing the continuing scientific debate over whether science necessarily conflicts with religion, whether scientists should bluntly criticize religion, and whether outspoken scientific atheists are responsible for increasing the scientific illiteracy by alienating believers, I decided to summarize my position. This comes after what I feel was latest PZ Myers’ complete demolishing of M&K’s position and Jerry Coyne’s review of their book. [...]

  4. The Baby And The Snowblower…

    Unscientific America from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum has been getting a bit of buzz and has opened a few discussions about religious accommodationists in the pro-science and pro-secular communities. Here’s my take, with one bad metaphor…

  5. [...] there’s been a lot of talk about Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Unscientific America. I have [...]

  6. [...] Coyne began to review our book, and strongly misstated our views. While we won’t respond to him on every detail, we’ll [...]

  7. [...] Unscientific America, as an example of this debate. The book has predictably been lauded or derided depending on which side of this debate a given reviewer is on but, regardless of your personal [...]

  8. [...] science of ballyhoo”. Lets beware of the this science. I suggest everyone starts by reading Unscientific America, about a populace that do not really belive in [...]

  9. [...] the review first came out in August, we were surprised to see it, as Coyne had already attacked our book online, and we had felt compelled to blog a response that corrected several of his errors and [...]

  10. [...] the book had mentioned. Despite the book’s rather moderate stance, discussions (see here, here, and here for a sampling) between both the authors and New Atheist bloggers got ridiculously [...]

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