Unscientific America?
A Few Thoughts on a Book and its Critics


Chris Mooney has now written two thoroughly unremarkable books - and that's a good thing.  In fact, it's a very good thing.

His first effort, The Republican War on Science, earned fame by stating the obvious.  One of our major political parties had set itself in opposition to the scientific mainstream on so many issues that it had, in effect, rejected the scientific process itself.  Turning its pages, one almost tired of example after documented example of how political considerations had trumped scientific judgment in government policy.  Nothing remarkable - just a straightforward, common sense recitation of how science had been politicized and marginalized in American political life.

Now, he's back with Unscientific America, this time with Duke University scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum as coauthor.  And, once again, we've got a book pointing out the obvious.

Scientific literacy would seem to be essential for the health of the American research community, but if that's the case, we may be in for some rough times ahead.  Taking astronomer Carl Sagan as a model for advancing the public understanding of science, Mooney and Kirshenbaum recount the heady days of Cosmos, Sagan's remarkable documentary that heightened interest in astronomy, space travel, and science itself.  Since then, by their account, scientists as a class have been less effective in communicating the promise and power and beauty of their work to the American public.  In an age when traditional media like newspapers and television have been shedding their science journalists, there can be little doubt that their core thesis is spot on.  As they note, to make matters even worse, the scientific community itself harbors ingrained prejudices and resentments against those whom, like Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould, some regard as mere "popularizers" of the discipline. 

The remedies proposed in Unscientific America are equally unremarkable.  Work with scientists to make them better communicators and reward those who are effective in promoting public understanding.  The authors also argue that we should use our surplus of highly-trained young professional scientists to translate, popularize, and explain science to our institutions and to the general public. 

To be sure, there are problems with this book.  It's a lightweight - just 132 pages.  It's too glib - solving science illiteracy and scientific underemployment at a stroke is more than a bit of a stretch.  And the demotion of Pluto from planetary status misfires as an example of scientific illiteracy.  But none of these difficulties detract from the book's principal message, or rise to the level of genuine controversy.  Except for one thing.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum devote 12 pages (Chapter 8: "Bruising their Religion") to considering the effects of attacks on religion done in the name of science.  As they point out, scientists like Richard Dawkins, philosophers like Daniel Dennett, and science bloggers such as PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota at Morris often argue that science is frankly contradictory to religious faith.  That's a serious point of view that is worth discussion, and I've participated in such discussions myself in several venues and media. But, as Mooney and Kirshenbaum describe, in some cases, Myers and friends have advanced their arguments in ways that don't so much challenge believers as belittle and insult them.  As a case in point, they describe an episode last year in which Myers obtained a consecrated communion host from a Catholic mass and then polled his readers on the best way to desecrate it.  Not surprisingly, Myers' stunt outraged some Catholics - exactly as the blogger had hoped.  The authors of Unscientific America report on all of this.

As a result, Myers and his supporters have reacted to these 12 pages of Unscientific America with extraordinary levels of outrage (see, for example, Myers' final response to the book).  Having read much of their criticism, I reread the book and the offending chapter to search for slander and personal attacks that could merit such outrage.  But I couldn't find them.  In fact, I couldn't find anything personal about Myers, Dawkins, or any of the other so-called "new atheists."  Instead, Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the rather unremarkable point that Myers' actions in desecrating that communion host were "incredibly destructive and unnecessary."  They further observe that such events set "the cause backward by exacerbating tensions between the scientific community and many American Christians."  This assessment seems to me to be exactly right.

However, what now ensues is a back-and-forth blog slapfest between Mooney, Kirshenbaum and their critics.  And, quite frankly, I don't see the point of it.

While Myers and others may advance the argument that religious faith is the arch-enemy of scientific rationalism, this doesn't imply that insult and ridicule are appropriate tools with which to defend science. Similarly, the blunt tactics of such folks are no reason to reject the "new atheists" as advocates for science, as Unscientific America seems to do, and as others have explicitly suggested.  Scientific rationality is too important a cause to limit participation in its defense.  We need each and every voice in our society to speak up for science, no exceptions.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum are right that the tactics of bloggers like Myers have surely reinforced creationist claims about the nature of the scientific enterprise.  It is for that reason that the producers of Ben Stein's notorious anti-evolution movie "Expelled" were delighted to feature PZ Myers in that film.  Myers' anti-religious views made a perfect foil for the scientific and historical nonsense dished up by "Expelled," and that's the unremarkable point highlighted by Mooney and Kirshenbaum.  They had the nerve to point that out, and that's why we've got a brawl in the scientific blogosphere.  It's a brawl, unfortunately, that will only serve to weaken the public case for science, no matter who hangs in there for the last word.

But the real story, even if their book is a bit superficial and if they've bruised a few egos along the way, is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum bring a message this country needs to hear.  Fortunately, that message has already leapt into the mainstream media, and the story of Unscientific America is beginning to be heard where it matters most - in the public consciousness of the nation.  There are times when stating the obvious is the most important thing one can do.

July 24, 2009

Kenneth R. Miller
Professor of Biology
Brown University