My review of Unscientific America

I promised to put a full review of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America on this website, and what I will do is steer you toward my review of the book that just appeared in Science. You can find it here.

NOTE:  With the permission of the folks at Science, I can now post the links to the summary and full article here for those of you who don’t have online access to the journal:

Summary here.

Full Text here.

_____________

Coyne J. A. 2009.  Selling science. Science 325(5941):678-679.

46 Comments

  1. TheBlackCat
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Short, simple, and too-the-point. Very well done.

  2. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    While reading this, I had a mental image of a mushroom cloud rising over “The Intersection.” Nice work, Jerry.

  3. Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Not QUITE the same as posting it here…I’d love to read the review, but I wouldn’t love it quite enough to pay $15 for the pleasure (a rather steep price per article). I can buy a book for that money!

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 6, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I can buy a book for that money!

      THAT would be a waste of the money.

  4. Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Can’t access it though.

    I guess it’ll have to wait till the paper version is out.

    Is someone knowledgeable going to review Meyer’s latest piece of junk, by the way? I can see why one might not wish to do so, what with his “arguments” being little more than that the DNA code “looks like it was designed” and that we should invoke present-day processes for the past in accordance with (over)strict Lyellian uniformitarianism, and since “intelligence” (he ignores that it’s human intelligence alone, so far as we know) makes codes today, intelligence must have made life in the past (he reduces life down to code-making).

    It’s pathetic, but it’s what they’re flogging today, so it wouldn’t hurt to cover at least its major flaws.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. Sven DiMilo
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Paywall, man.
    Can somebody copy/paste?

  6. Oded
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Aw, cmon, you’re kidding, $15 to read a review… Sorry, no way…

  7. nick bobick
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Is there any problem with posting it here so that your many readers who do not have online or paper access to Science can read it?

  8. Posted August 6, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    C’mon, Jerry. At least give us some clue what you said.

  9. Peter Beattie
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Just a few tidbits (fair use, surely):

    “Ironically for a book that aims to improve science literacy, Unscientific America is woefully short of evidence to support its claims.”

    “[M&K] also fail to support their contention that the knowledge gap between scientists and the public is increasing.”

    “Instead of data, [M&K] rely on anecdotes.”

    “All this suggests that the problem of an “unscientific America” may be far more complex than the authors let on.”

    “One could argue, in fact, that overcoming America’s resistance to evolution could be accomplished more effectively by weakening religion than by teaching Darwinism.”

    “But the authors fail to tell us how such training should be implemented and, more important, why … more outreach is the best solution—or even an effective solution. What good is producing more “renaissance scientists” if nobody listens to them?”

    “[F]iguring out where and how to intervene will take a lot more work than the shallow and unreflective analysis of Unscientific America.”

    Nothing radically new, but a helpful summary (in a little over 1,000 words) of some of the main problems.

  10. Hempenstein
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    When a copy is freely accessible somewhere (it isn’t yet), Googling, with quotes of course:

    “Surely educated Democrats and Republicans experience similar exposure to scientific facts.”

    will find it.

  11. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear, I see it as freely accessible but I may be connecting through our institutional subscription. I will post it on the website ASAP, as promised!

    Jerry

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 6, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, for the well written review and for posting it here.

  12. Physicalist
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    *Ouch*

    Man, that’s putting some hurt on.

  13. Brian English
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Any response from the colgate kiddies yet? They only put up reviews that they can gloss as supportive don’t they?

    • Posted August 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      Brian, I am sure that they are now weary of facing valid criticisms of the book; and are now on their book tour talking about how badly science is taking it in the chin in the United States, and that it is all the scientists and the atheists fault. I don’t know that they will directly respond.

      • Brian English
        Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think they’ll respond either. More a rhetorical swipe at the toothy ones. They’ll post those that agree with or can be massaged to agree with their case, and ignore the rest. Truth be damned. 🙂

  14. foxfire
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, the closing paragraph of your review is so powerful and from my perspective as a non-scientist, so relevant, that I’ll take the risk of posting my opinion on the subject in this forum. For those who can’t see it yet, here is that paragraph:

    “More than at any time in my life, I see Americans awash in popular science. Bookstores teem with volumes by Stephen Gould, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, Edward O. Wilson, and Jared Diamond; natural history museums have become user friendly; and entire television channels are devoted to science and nature. Science education is readily available to anyone who is curious. And yes, we scientists need—and want—to share our love of science with the public. Still, we must compete with the infinite variety of claims on people’s time and interests, including sports, movies, and reality shows. No matter how much atheists stifle themselves, no matter how many scientists reach out to the public via new media, we may not find the appetite for science infinitely elastic. This does not mean, of course, that we should refrain from feeding it. But figuring out where and how to intervene will take a lot more work than the shallow and unreflective analysis of Unscientific America.”

    Here are some thoughts on the matter:

    People need to understand how science works, in particular that scientific hypothesis can change over time as new data is obtained and that these hypothesis can be counter-intuitive. How would one teach those concepts to kids? How does one teach people to accept that there is no certainty in life? Perhaps enlisting Bernie Madoff to explain the downside of wanting to just believe (for a few moments of relief from his current environment) would make interesting TV.

    Use the resources you haven’t even begun to tap. People like me. How can we help? what can *we* do to promote the understanding of science? Is there a “Friends of Science” organization that one can join and feel like a “first-class” citizen, not like some drag-along baggage that is allowed to join because they get the point although they can’t produce anything useful?

    Jerry, you forgot to include Neil deGrasse Tyson in that paragraph quoted above. He is quite contagious when it comes to explaining and communicating the delight of science.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Scott
      Posted August 6, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      “People need to understand how science works, in particular that scientific hypothesis can change over time as new data is obtained and that these hypothesis can be counter-intuitive. How would one teach those concepts to kids? How does one teach people to accept that there is no certainty in life?…”

      Perhaps we should start by introducing some critical thinking into the science curriculum– instead of lectures that demand of students only that they be efficient stenographers and, at exam time, highly proficient regurgitators of factoids, maybe we should place a higher priority on getting our students to reflexively ask: How do we know this is true? What is the evidence?

      Many will argue that the demands of time make such an approach unworkable, that the knowledge base our students require is so massive and diverse that an evidence-based approach to science education is just not feasible… and to that I say FU@K You!!

      K-12 and undergrad courses are presently taught in such a way as to produce “knowledge” that is a mile wide and an inch deep. I assert that if teach them to think, knowledge will easily follow.

      • Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        we should place a higher priority on getting our students to reflexively ask: How do we know this is true? What is the evidence?

        Are you saying that this is not being done? I rather doubt it, having had to complete as many lab hours as lecture hours in biology in order to get course credit. They included a lot of “how.”

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:56 am | Permalink

        Personally, the only opposition I have seen to the development of evidence-based educational techniques has been from the woo-woo clique who like to promote nonsense like “learning by osmosis”. Unfortunately that clique doesn’t seem to be going away in a hurry; there is still quite a war on between intelligent teaching researchers and the woo-woo crowd. There is an awful lot of literature out there though; however progress does remain slow since it can take years to plan an experiment and years to run it and interpret the results and it is often only one or two people behind each experiment. At least in the space business we’ve got huge teams and if we lose someone we’ve got plenty competent scientists to carry on the work. It doesn’t quite work that way with teachers.

  15. Scote
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    “Mike

    Are you saying that this is not being done? I rather doubt it, having had to complete as many lab hours as lecture hours in biology in order to get course credit. They included a lot of “how.””

    No, I really don’t think it is. Critical thinking skills should start in elementary schools. And just asking how something works (“regurgitate what we just told you”) we need to teach defensive critical thinking **skills**, not just asking how biology works but how we **know** that is how biology works, etc.

    If we effectively taught critical thinking skills we wouldn’t have so many people who think that the earth is 6,000 years old.

    • Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      At the start of every science class I’ve taken since elementary school (I’m a high school junior right now), we have gone over the scientific method. We have discussed the difference between theories and hypotheses. It’s not “critical thinking”, per se, but it’s a start.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted August 7, 2009 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        What specifically did you discuss about scientific method?

      • Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        The first section of the book usually features some sort of chart explaining each step: observation, prediction/hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion, theory. In class, we discuss how an experiment must be repeated and results duplicated over and over before it can become a theory, and that theories are always changing depending on new information.

    • John Swindle
      Posted August 7, 2009 at 2:03 am | Permalink

      It’s easy to forget that half of our population has below-average intelligence. We may always have some who prefer their feel-good beliefs to a reality-based life. At best, we can aim for a system that reduces such silliness.

  16. Anthony Pham
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Poor business models FTL

  17. Michael K Gray
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Nope. As a member of the great unwashed, I still cannot access Jerry’s words-o-wisdom.
    I shall simply have to imagine what he might have said in response to these now-vapid publicity whores who prostitute their intellectual integrity for a short-term bit of fame and book sales…

    • Posted August 7, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      My Open University (UK) account should give me access, but the on-line library seems about 1 month behind the times.

      Oh well, someone will re-post it somewhere.

      • Posted August 7, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        Like pharyngula, for example?

      • Posted August 7, 2009 at 5:46 am | Permalink

        Ah, I managed to download it. Good review!

  18. Raiko
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Nice review. It’s a straight knockdown with facts – THAT is science. 🙂

  19. bilbo
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, honestly a very good review. My only concern is that you seem to paint scientists as a blemish-free group in this problem, as if we’ve done everything we can, and now it’s the public’s turn to do the work. Publishing information in books (even very good ones) and hoping people will read them is a lazy approach to education, and I think it’s a point that M and K (and many others) rightfully make.

    I tihnk the biggest problem comes from the fact that we, as scientists, have taught ourselves or have been taught to actively seek out knowledge. And it’s something we take for granted. It takes a catalyst to get that kind of love for knowledge going and we, again as scientists, should try to spread it. Saying “we’ve done enough” is an incredibly ignorant approach and, in my opinion, is part of the entire problem.

    • articulett
      Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      You do realize what that it’s your opinion that Jerry “paint(s) scientists as a blemish-free group in this problem.” There is nothing he writes that supports that opinion.

      And your contention that he’s saying “we’ve done enough” is a complete straw man.

      Try reading the words that are actually in the review instead of listening to the voices in your head. He pointed out that M&K have not even supported their contention that there IS a problem… much less offered any real solutions. They relied on anecdote and spin… just as you are doing in your comment of Jerry’s review.

      Where is the evidence of “unscientific America” other than in the Republican religious right? Statistically, scientific ignorance is directly correlated with religiosity, and so it seems that M&K’s solution completely ignores the problem. Is Francis Collins any better at getting people to accept evolution that those mean ol’ atheists? Somehow, I doubt it.

      In fact, I bet the “new atheists” they imagine to be part of the problem are actually responsible for GREATER scientific literacy in America because they don’t need to muss up understanding so that it fits with the magical stories people feel saved and special for believing in.

      Before giving your opinion on his review, it might help to actually read the review and quote what was actually said rather than commenting on the message your biased mind heard!

      If peoples’ failure to accept evolution is a evidence of “unscientific America” as M&K contend, then religion is clearly much more a cause of this ignorance than the “new atheists” or the ham-handed approach of scientists. It’s not really the fault of scientists that the truth can’t offer “promises of happily ever” for accepting it.

      When the only people having real trouble with understanding some scientific teachings are religious folks, then maybe it’s time for scientists to teach that faith is NOT a means of scientific knowledge– surely this is more of a real solution than the pretty-packaged accommodation pablum M&K suggest.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Try reading the words that are actually in the review instead of listening to the voices in your head

        – Priceless. The rest of the comment is very good also 🙂

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 8, 2009 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      I have finally managed to read Jerry’s brief review, and have no idea which one you read, but it certainly was not the one that I read.
      Are you able to provide a link, or excerpts to which you can add your critical comments?

      From what you write, we read two totally different manuscripts.

    • Matti K
      Posted August 8, 2009 at 2:47 am | Permalink

      Blaming research scientists for general scientific illiteracy is like blaming Wole Soyinka and his Nigerian colleagues for the illiteracy in Nigeria.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

      In the developed countries there is a wast army of science teachers who are perfectly capable to disseminate general science to the public, if the politicians so choose.

      In USA, it seems that religious organizations and individuals are the main culprits for the neglect of science education or even anti-scientific education policies. In order to change the policies, one should try to change the thinking behind them.

      Secularization is not a one-generation project, but it won’t proceed, if scientists rise their hands when confronting religious nonsense. The latter is what Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirschenbaum seem to prefer.

  20. Posted August 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    the problem of scientific non-literacy is NOT “un-simple”. If you are a middle school or high school teacher, go ask your local university PIs for old science equipment (electrophoresis setups, etc) they are tossing out and ask them to donate it to your local middle school/high school science classes. Then, ask the nice PI if they will lend a few hours for their grad students time (note: this counts as “science outreach” which is included in many grants) for giving the teachers protocols and some general advice. for reference, see: http://www.fhcrc.org/science/education/educators/sep/

  21. Posted August 7, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    straight to the point

  22. Rich
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Come on, $15 to read it. Give me a break. Some Information Age. For the rich maybe.

    • articulett
      Posted August 7, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      I found a way to read it for free by reading through the comments on this page–you can too!


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] about their intelligence or education. But this is a good illustration of a point made by Jerry Coyne — the problem of scientific illiteracy is not a simple one, and in particular it’s not […]

  2. […] about atheistic views can be a bad idea. But, as Prof. Jerry Coyne deftly points out in his review of Unscientific America, there’s really very little evidence for this view. How do we know […]

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