28 February 2017

Unscientific America, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

Posted by Callan Bentley

This is the second of the books about science communication / science in society that I’ve been meaning to read for years but never gotten around to. (The first was Randy Olson’s.) I’m now motivated to read them in light of the dramatic switch in the governance of my country, in hopes of gleaning lessons that will allow me to effectively promulgate reason and evidence-based decision making.

The book documents science illiteracy among the citizens of the United States of America, and in particular among its entertainers, journalists, and public servants, and puts the current state of affairs into an historical context that dates back to World War II. It also details the modern tone-deafness of scientists when attempting to communicate their ideas beyond the academy, and the surprising vehemence with which talented communicators are sometimes treated. The example of Carl Sagan is discussed in some detail, including his refusal from induction into the National Academy of Science. There are certainly some good lessons to be found among these pages, but much of it feels dated. The book was published in 2009, right after Obama’s election to the White House following eight years of the relatively anti-science Bush administration. Much discussion is invested in ScienceDebate08, an initiative the authors helped foster to attempt to raise science’s primacy in political discussions, but really that ‘event’ does not seem particularly significant from the vantage of 2017. (And it didn’t even manifest as a real event, so much as a Q&A posted to a website.) Regardless: So much has changed in the eight years since then, that I would love to see an equivalent book be published today to deal with more modern manifestations of the issue, and a context that includes the current administration and the campaign that led to it. Perhaps Mooney and Kirshenbaum could be convinced to write a sequel, “Still, Profoundly Unscientific America, Post-Truth Edition.”

I wish I had read Unscientific America when it was published eight years ago. It would have been very useful to me then, and I hereby kick myself for not paying attention to this resource when it would have been most valuable.

If like me you opt to pick it up to rectify your own neglect, note that it’s not as long as it looks. One third of the pages are “notes,” citations in some cases but semi-lengthy discussion, justification, and clarification in other cases. It’s actually a relatively brief overall treatment.