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Rebranding Science: Unscientific America Values Style Over Substance

August 24, 2009

“They say rather than cursing the darkness, one should light a candle. They don’t mention anything about cursing a lack of candles.”
– George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?

In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (the latter of whom I consider a friend) are deeply concerned that the American system is unsustainable so long as scientific results and recommendations are not appreciated by the general public or by the politicians that represent us. And there is good reason to be concerned. In their book they cite the results of a 2008 report from the Keystone Center demonstrating that most members of Congress have little interest in or use for scientific results. However, considering that 46 percent of the public holds an “anti-evolutionist, young-Earth creationist, and scientifically illiterate” point of view and that only half of the adult populace even knows the Earth orbits the sun once per year, it appears they are merely following their constituents in this regards.
Few among the scientifically trained in this country, or around the world, would find these results surprising. Ever since international studies comparing mathematics and science achievement began the signs have been ominous. PISA, the Program for International Student Achievement, found the United States trailing behind most other developed countries, particularly during the Bush years. From a high in 2000, where we were slightly above average, the United States tied with Latvia for 27th place in 2004 and, by 2006, we had fallen to 29th (even despite the No Child Left Behind Act). The trouble is what to do about it?

Unfortunately, while Mooney and Kirshenbaum are long on causes for how we came to be in this mess, they are short on solutions. They blame academic overspecialization, lack of political will, media deregulation, Hollywood, the blogosphere, atheists, the Bush administration and anti-intellectualism in American culture as all contributing to the decline. This list is nothing new (except for the part about blaming atheists) and many scientists have been pointing out these concerns for years. However, despite this litany of causes the overriding message throughout Unscientific America is, strangely enough, to berate the messenger. In a variation on the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself” the authors insist that it is the American scientist that needs to change in order to avert our looming crisis. The change that’s needed, apparently, is a rebranding.

Science has become much less cool, scientists have ceased to be role models, and kids aren’t rushing home anymore to fire rockets from their backyards.

According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum scientists show a “troubling disconnect” from society, are “self-isolating,” too “condescending” to the public, overly “idealistic” in politics, have a worldview and life experience “vastly distinct from those of the public at large,” show an “unwillingness or inability to suspend disbelief” in their criticism of Hollywood, show “befuddlement” over the religious right and, in general, need to be “more well-rounded” and “more cultured” in order to convey the message they’ve failed to get across.

Too many smart, talented, influential people throughout our society don’t see the centrality of science in their lives; and too many scientists don’t know how to explain it to them. . . the fact remains that scientists, and the people who care about their work, know best what is being missed, why it matters, and indeed, how the science-society gap places our entire future at risk. Moreover, they have the talent, the knowledge, and in many cases the resources to turn things around. So what are we waiting for?

Their solution then: “It’s time to have more vision.” That vision, given the number of times each is mentioned, comes down to Carl Sagan and ScienceDebate2008. Somehow if people talk more about science in a different way people will wake up, focus more in school, and switch the channel from ESPN to NOVA. While there’s no doubt that Carl Sagan was a brilliant communicator, the trouble with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s argument is that it doesn’t hold up to the most basic scrutiny. For example, while frequently celebrating the power of Carl Sagan to bridge the culture divide and build a common scientific understanding, they also quote him at the end of his life fearing the worst for our society’s scientific illiteracy.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time . . . when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority.

And later:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

So which way is it? Was Sagan the champion we need to resurrect or was he a tragic figure that was ultimately overwhelmed by the forces that surround us?
As for ScienceDebate2008, while an increased focus on scientific issues in politics is important, the words that come out of politicians mouths and the reality that follows are frequently at odds. Unless there’s an electorate that demands action on scientific issues (such as the current environmental movement) there will be little political action, ScienceDebate or no ScienceDebate. Indeed, most of the discussion about ScienceDebate2008 in their book appears more about self-promotion than any real effect it might have had on the political dialogue.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum have a few useful suggestions (which I’ve discussed previously) but the bulk of their proposed solutions to the problem of scientific illiteracy are vacuous and completely insular. Given the United States’ poor ranking internationally, they fail to even consider looking at what other countries are doing right. They spend an entire chapter focusing on how Hollywood has a poor track record of presenting science realistically but don’t even mention the policies that other countries have adopted to maintain a scientifically literate population or look to larger sociological circumstances that might hold the key.
For example, while the United States has a low international standing in science and mathematics, we also rank far below other countries in reading and critical thinking. This speaks to a poverty of education in general, not simply that scientists are no longer good role models or have trouble speaking in sound bytes. In the 2006 PISA study of international science literacy it was found that 18% of the variation in U.S. scores was due to socioeconomic circumstances, more than twice that of top-scoring countries such as Finland or Canada. The United States had the top-scores in the world for those with access to quality educational resources, but the preponderance of low scores lowered the country’s overall average.

American variation in science literacy is enormous. Data from Salzman & Lowell (2008)

This was noted by Education Week (pdf here) soon after the 2006 PISA study was released (which showed the US ranked a dismal 29th):

The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”

Following up on these conclusions, Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell stated in their commentary “Making the Grade” for the journal Nature:

Paying attention to the problems at the bottom is as important, if not more so, than focusing on the top. The most innovative technology has limited use if the more than 70 million workers without college degrees do not have the skills to use it effectively. The nation’s low performers and schools should be a headline concern and the remedies are often to be found in schools only a neighbourhood or town away.

The reality is that this economic disparity has been growing consistently over the last three decades, during the very period that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have noticed a decline in scientific literacy. While they emphasize how this trend could result in future economic problems for this country, they don’t seem to consider that it might have been the cause in the first place. It at least deserved a mention. As powerful as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins may be, I suspect that this rising economic disparity might be nearly as influential.
In focusing on science communication alone, rather than unequal access to scientific tools, Mooney and Kirshenbaum have chosen to focus on style rather than substance. They present a host of wrongs but think that mere cosmetic changes will reverse two decades of decline. It is unfortunate that two writers who have previously done such a marvelous job of communicating science would present such a poor case in their latest work. This topic is one that holds great importance for the future of our country. Unfortunately, Unscientific America was a wasted opportunity to enliven the discussion and motivate a concerted drive towards a common future.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Nova permalink
    August 24, 2009 4:16 pm

    The United States had the top-scores in the world for those with access to quality educational resources, but the preponderance of low scores lowered the country’s overall average.

    That may well be true, but the graph posted doesn’t show that. The spike caused by the US because of its high numbers of top scoring students appears simply because it has a high population, so a Netherlands 15 million pop multiplied by 1.5% returns a far lower number of top scoring students than a US 300 million pop multiplied by 1.5%. If the Netherlands had the same actual number of top scoring students as the US its percentage would be somewhere way up at about 20.

  2. Eric Michael Johnson permalink*
    August 24, 2009 4:58 pm

    @Nova: Yes, there was no graph that I could locate showing the range of variation by economics. However, this graph shows that, while the US still has the largest number of high scores, we ultimately rank 29th based on the much larger number of low scores. We have just over twice the population of Japan and so are roughly equivalent on number of high scores per capita. They excel by having fewer low scores than we do, which is likely influenced by their reduced socioeconomic variation. Details on the socioeconomic component can be found in the 2006 PISA results (Chapter 4).

  3. Dspohn permalink
    August 24, 2009 5:07 pm

    Thank you for this cogent analysis. I haven’t read Unscientific America, and I don’t intend to waste my time on it. From the other reviews I’ve read, even the positive reviews, I had concluded the book’s main problem was exactly what you pointed out: No solutions offered.
    I used to have a boss who often said “Don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution.” If Mooney and Kirshenbaum had the same boss their book might be worth reading.

  4. August 24, 2009 5:20 pm

    Thanks for an interesting review of Unscientific America that does not dwell exclusively upon the authors’ antipathy towards outspoken atheists! I share your disappointment, however, in their proposed solutions. In particular, I think part of the problem is that we do have well-spoken voices popularising science. The problem, from the Mooney-and-Kirshenbaum point of view, is that those voices have names like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I firmly believe that this is not in fact a problem. They are articulate, often to the point of eloquence, and passionate. They write clear descriptions of how science works which also share the joy and wonder that science has to offer. Muzzling them is the last thing that we should be doing.
    The problem that Mooney and Kirshenbaum approach but do not tackle is the all-or-nothing worldview that causes people to shy away from everything that our best scientific voices have to offer because they disagree with one aspect of what they say. Taken to its extreme, this means that people will only listen to those with whom they already agree with in total. This sounds like a caricature, but it is not unrealistic: it is the very basis of much fundamentalist argument. As long as people live in fear of the “slippery slope” they will not venture outside the comfortable and unchallenged realm of black-and-white certainty. Silencing, discrediting, or distancing the public presentation of science from eloquent scientists who also happen to be outspoken atheists will do nothing for people suffering from this worldview: their minds are already made up. The rest of us have the maturity to take people’s viewpoints as a mixture of some things with which we will agree and some with which we will disagree. I think probably most atheists have religious friends with whom they agree to disagree — as one myself, I have had some really engaging and challenging discussions with my religious friends. Even those who (in their words) could not read more than a couple pages of The God Delusion without throwing the book across the room are still capable of appreciating what Dawkins has to say about biology.
    So the problem really is the fundamentalist worldview. I would argue as well that the problem is compounded by accomodationists who refuse to challenge the fundamentalist worldview. That worldview is a good part of Unscientific America, and its students will not — cannot — improve until that worldview has been relegated to the fringe where it so richly deserves to be. The most important part of addressing that is in improving the educational system. Once students are allowed to develop the maturity to explore the world on their own terms, they will be able to accept the science presented by our best communicators whether or not they agree with everything else that they say.

  5. August 24, 2009 5:28 pm

    The reality is that this economic disparity has been growing consistently over the last three decades, during the very period that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have noticed a decline in scientific literacy. While they emphasize how this trend could result in future economic problems for this country, they don’t seem to consider that it might have been the cause in the first place.

    Economic disparity is actually just another parallel effect of the real reason that the majority of US citizens are credulous ignorant fuckwits: educating citizens to be rational critical thinkers doesn’t make corporations any money. So long as the US continues to be ruled by a corporate oligarchy, there is no fucking hope of increasing scientific literacy among non-scientists.
    And the idea that scientists themselves can do anything about this unilaterally is beyond laughable.

  6. August 24, 2009 7:53 pm

    Very insightful review, Eric – thanks. I hope you succeed in moving the debate from style to substance, at least a little bit. Root causes of scientific illiteracy are obviously complex and lie in a much larger context than mere science and how it is communicated. And the same could be said of a number of other issues plaguing American society – like the health care crisis. So who is up for the real deeper social change its going to take?

  7. Barn Owl permalink
    August 25, 2009 4:09 am

    This speaks to a poverty of education in general
    IMO, this is a key point that’s missed not only (apparently – I haven’t read Unscientific America and am unlikely to do so) by Mooney and Kirschenbaum, but by many bloggers and journalists as well. Anyone with a modicum of basic observational skills, and who hasn’t been hiding in some sort of privileged enclave (intellectual or physical), should be aware that scientific illiteracy can’t be attributed simply to poor communication and to an us (rational, educated scientists)/them (the ignorant religious) divide. To ignore the contributions of US socioeconomic disparities to this education problem is an unproductive and self-involved attitude at best, and a potentially divisive and destructive one at worst.
    Anyone who observes, listens to, or interacts with teachers and children in schools located in impoverished and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas knows that the barriers to science education aren’t limited to wacky religious influences and the poor communication skills of boffins. You don’t have to be an expert in developmental psychology to realize that inadequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, an unstimulating environment, overworked or abusive parents, childcare or work responsibilities at a young age, neighborhood poverty and violence, and the condescending, dismissive attitudes of the privileged are going to have serious negative effects on the ability of a child to learn anything, not just science. None of this will be fixed by some lame attempts at science “outreach”, no matter how stylish or droll or highly publicized.
    As an aside, I also think the graph is next to useless. Edward Tufte would be disappointed.

  8. frog permalink
    August 25, 2009 3:02 pm

    Well, if you’re analysis is correct, you do see why not only K&M — but almost all analysts — can not possibly see it. If the problem is one of inequality, and a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive one at that…
    Well, then, you’re questioning the entire infrastructure of the American system. You’ve just stepped into Chomskyland.

  9. John Gathly permalink
    August 26, 2009 12:14 pm

    Oh that Chomskyland. Don’t go there. It’s filled with educated people who care about social justice.

  10. Radge Havers permalink
    August 27, 2009 8:26 pm

    “In focusing on science communication alone, rather than unequal access to scientific tools, Mooney and Kirshenbaum have chosen to focus on style rather than substance.”
    I tend to agree, but I can’t help thinking that there are elements of a chicken and egg dilemma at work here. The structural failures at this point seem to be as much a cultural logjam as a set of problems that need to be solved with logic and elbow grease. There has to be some sort of communication between those with worthy intentions and the numbers required to get up and act.
    Put another way, just look at the amount of energy that goes into making sure doing nothing happens with health care — or global warming. At the very least you have to convince key players or the people who influence them, any or all of whom it must be said, may not want to be convinced. Then better learn how to effectively organize and siphon off some of that brain power into playing smart politics and getting something done before it all unravels.

  11. August 28, 2009 8:26 am

    How in the world do they (the authors of the book in question) jsutify blaming atheists for scientific unpopularity with the public at large? Scientists has a well-known liberal, secular leaning. The ability to shift through what is an observable fact and what is a tradition or myth makes science worth something to the public and academics. If all scientists were ardent evangelical Christians, for example, less would be questioned, and more would be taken with the rationale “oh, things are this way because they have always been this way”. Why question the nature of the universe when people see validity in the explanation “oh that, an old man with a big beard who lives in (metaphysical?) space did it 6,000 years ago?
    Listing a secular worldwide among the causes of the decline of scientific literacy is absurd.

  12. Andrew Goodin permalink
    August 29, 2009 8:47 am

    “Somehow if people talk more about science in a different way people will wake up, focus more in school, and switch the channel from ESPN to NOVA.”
    This “talk” is exactly what’s causing science to be “self-isolating” and “condescending!” How many readers of this blog got into science because of someone talking about it? Talk is boring! To impact scientific literacy the public needs to experience science. The public perception of science is that it’s something that white males in lab coats do with crazy glassware and colorful chemicals. If the public understands that they run experiments and make data-driven decisions every time they figure out the fastest route to work, switch to Colgate, or test a different parenting method, perhaps this would help them to embrace the process of science.

  13. September 20, 2009 12:46 am

    “Unfortunately, while Mooney and Kirshenbaum are long on causes for how we came to be in this mess, they are short on solutions.”
    Where is it written that every critique must offer solutions to the issues at hand? Must every diagnostician be a clinician as well? Should we remain silent before identifiable problems for which we have no suggested responses?
    I’ve never understood this line of attack. Marx, for one, probably would have been well-advised to limit his writing to analyzing the problems of Capitalism, rather than offering solutions to them as well.

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