Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future
By Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
Basic Books, New York, July 2009
Hardcover, 209 Pages, $ 24.00 New
Extended Author Q & A Here
Forty years after Apollo 11 half of all Americans believe that humans were created in their present form less than ten thousand years ago. Senators, Representatives, and influential pundits proudly deride global warming and ridicule the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change. Science sections in traditional media outlets are reduced or eliminated completely, while virtually every newspaper runs a daily astrology column. How did the most advanced scientific nation on earth end up like this, what are the consequences, and what can or should be done about it?
Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum is a must read for anyone who cares about understanding or reversing the long national slide into pseudoscience and willful ignorance that has periodically gripped America. The book neatly follows up Mooney's best seller, The Republican War on Science, into a broader, nonpartisan narrative of an entire nation enamored by the nifty gizmos and life saving applications of science, yet saddled with a long history of anti-intellectualism that periodically spills over into open contempt. It's a dose of stiff but sorely needed medicine for baby boomers and genx'ers who grew up during a short thaw in that icy antiscience trend by way of a cold war, a hot space race, and one great communicator named Carl Sagan.
The book is full of delightfully written examples of assaults on science, each ripe with opportunity for anyone wise enough to seize it. The demotion of Pluto produced sacks of angry mail, and ignited a wave of interest in planetary astronomy from kindergartens to grad schools. Hollywood needlessly butchers science and scientists on the alter of cinematic appeal, but special effects wizardry in movies like Jurassic Park by-passed the usual media filters and stereotypes to kick-start a whole new generation of paleontologists and geneticists. The Bush administration's authoritarian disregard for science was legendary, but it galvanized the scientific community into action like no other Presidency.
Enter the era of cable television and the Internet: alas, as the book honestly explains, in today's fractured information landscape, science friendly mags, TV programs, and blogs are preaching to the choir. It's just as easy, if not more so, for a creationist or moon landing hoaxer to find websites that cater to their predispositions as it is to find Science Blogs or Discover Online.
As to who is too blame, the short answer, presented with convincing research and rationale, is everyone. Politicians poorly trained in science have little to gain and much to lose by taking firm positions, a point well illustrated by the brick wall Mooney and others ran into when they tried to arrange a science debate during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Mainstream media is consumed by presenting both sides of an issue -- even when one of them is ridiculous -- while less objective media venues suffer no corresponding ethical dilemma and blasts out misinformation like a howitzer. Science writers get wrapped up in the culture war over science and atheism. Scientists and academia share responsibility for not engaging the public and the media more forcefully, or blazing a viable career path for charismatic scientists with a flair for public speaking.
Scattered throughout the book and summarized in the last chapter are ideas on how science might raise, or re-raise, its profile and once again become a vibrant, central component in American culture. My one constructive suggestion would be that those ideas were more fleshed out, but that can hardly be the authors' fault. They dwell in the reality based community where, as the book spells out, there is no unified, coordinated effort to cool off our latest national affair with know nothingism and pseudoscience.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum complement one another seamlessly in Unscientific America to deliver a hard hitting message informed by their years of experience in the public eye and behind a lab bench. The writing is superb, the narratives concise and easy to follow, and at 132 pages plus footnotes it is easily digested by readers of all ages and backgrounds. Order it, read it, and hope this book serves as a wake up call to Americans, and a catalyst to politicians, before it's too late.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine biologist and Associate at Duke University whose next book is 'The Science of Kissing'! Chris Mooney is a frequent public speaker on science and science policy and best selling author of The Republican War on Science. Chris and Sheril can be found at Discover Magazine's popular blog The Intersection. More info on the book and tour dates here, additional Q & A here, and both authors are available to respond to a few of your questions or comments below.