Unscientific America

Chris Mooney, journalist and author of the eye-opening The Republican War on Science, teamed up with Sheril Kirshenbaum, a scientist involved in science policy, to write Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.

It has its good parts. But possibly because I expected more from Mooney, my overall impression is one of faint disappointment. There is too much in the book that is unimaginative and superficial. Mooney and Kirshenbaum too often approach the cultural problems of science in our present environment as difficulties calling for better public relations efforts on the part of scientists.

Their main recommendation is that scientists should pay more attention to popularizing their work, getting involved with policy debates, and otherwise coming down from their ivory tower and communicating more effectively. That is, indeed, a good idea. Few scientists of my acquaintance would disagree, though all too many might prefer that somebody else should do the job.

But making that the centerpiece and almost the only theme of a book on the unfortunate cultural position of science in the US today is perverse. Mooney and Kirshenbaum want scientists to be better attuned to our corporate, entertainment-driven media environment. We have to sell ourselves and our work, and an important component of that selling job is to avoid giving offense to those political and religious constituencies that might be less opposed to science if they felt less threatened.

This better-PR prescription seems naive at best. How much would it help for scientists to be more eager to communicate science to the general public, when our pop culture, political institutions, and economic system all work together to severely shorten attention spans and time horizons? How do scientists, even if we got our act together, penetrate the dominance of depth-free entertainment, personality contests as politics, and a plunder mentality in commercial enterprises? Our becoming more media-savvy would, I suspect, only have a marginal effect. And the book presents nothing like the substantial argument and evidence that would change my initial suspicion. It takes for granted a work-within-the-system reformism that lacks the imagination even to consider that there may be more fundamental difficulties, let alone explore if there are any more radical options.

A perhaps deeper problem with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s approach is that in constantly recommending better PR and not stepping on powerful toes, they lose sight of what not just science but any intellectual enterprise is about. For example, early on, they castigate scientists for getting involved with the postmodern Science Wars while ignoring politically more potent right-wing opposition. That may well be true from a political standpoint. But the Science Wars was not just a battle over academic politics—there were, and continue to be, important intellectual questions raised during the debates. And if science is to remain one of the few institutions around that can entertain long time horizons, we should be able to devote some attention to engaging such questions.

Indeed, such observations suggest that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are somewhat lacking in their understanding of the nature of science, which makes it especially annoying when they try to make pronouncements about the philosophy of science. One of their targets in the book are scientists who argue that science provides reasons for skepticism about those supernatural realities claimed by socially respectable religions. The authors do some expertise-shopping to selectively cite views of science that can be read as friendly to a better-PR prescription, presenting the most superficial form of compatibilist conventional wisdom about science and religion as if it was settled truth. They ought to have known better.

It may well be true that especially “new atheist” rhetoric hurts the public standing of science in a strongly religious country such as the US. It’s hard to say with any certainty, but that has some plausibility. Still, Mooney and Kirshenbaum need to do more. After all, criticism—including criticism of faith-based positions—is one of those things that cannot be suppressed in any genuinely intellectual enterprise. In the sort term, being more deferential to faith may well help. It might protect the funding levels of science. But in the long term, is that the sort of intellectual climate we want? Eventually, the scientific community as a whole might decide that bashing religion in the name of science is unacceptable. But if so, for the integrity of the enterprise, compatibilism should enjoy an intellectual victory, not just the advantages of political convenience.

This is a well-meaning book. But it does not seem thought-through well enough. It comes across as rushed; worse, it seems like a preconceived better-PR thesis is driving everything. As a result, Unscientific America elevates a useful recommendation, that scientists should be more publicly engaged, to an overly central position. Examining the ambiguous cultural position of science in the US calls for a far more complex analysis. This is an oversimplification with the wrong emphasis.