Unscientific America

By Razib Khan | July 27, 2009 9:17 am

unsciamerica.pngIf you are a regular reader of ScienceBlogs you will have already stumbled upon several reviews of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. Janet Stemwedel of Ethnics & Science probably has the most thorough reviews, while P. Z. Myers’ ‘exchange’ with the authors, Sheril Kirshenbaum & Chris Mooney, had the most ‘spirit.’ Chard Orzel of Uncertain Principles put up a short & sweet positive impression which covers the major points in Unscientific America very well, as well as the overall thrust of the book.
Of course as Chad noted If you read Sheril & Chris’ weblog, The Intersection, the narrative will seem rather familiar, as filaments of their overall brief can be found strewn across many of their blog posts these past two years. It is important to reiterate that this is a book that should not be judged by the cover, in particular, the title. It’s not a conventional rehashing of the fact that most Americans, and most humans, are illiterate in terms of the nuts & bolts of science fact. Median human stupidity is such a banal background condition of the universe so as to not be worthy of any interest. Rather Sheril & Chris sketch out the multivalent relationships between the media, government, religion and science, and how these distinct institutions relate to each other and the populace at large. The authors draw heavily upon their own diverse personal experiences. It is perhaps not a trivial fact that Chris Mooney’s fiance worked for the Writer’s Guild of America, and so he had some firsthand media connections which allowed him to easily communicate the mindset of those in the entertainment industry. After all they were his friends and acquaintances. Sheril was at one point a staffer at Congress. The funniest anecdote in Unscientific America for me was that Vern Ehlers, a physicist who represents a district in Michigan, had to rush to the floor to make it clear to his colleagues that funding for “game theory” did not mean funding for the scientific research of sports games!

If one aspect did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, it was the chapter on the “science wars”, the periodic brushfires in the 1990s between “post-modernist” humanistic theorists and natural scientists. Chris has a background in English literature, so I suspect that this chapter was mostly his handywork. He corrects a few glaring misimpressions which scientific types have about post-modernists, pointing out that the real bogey-men are post-structuralists. These details do matter because one of the main critiques of humanists such as Julie Kristeva is that they’re muddle-headed purveyors of gibberish who have no comprehension of the science which they try and use to add a layer of technical fluency to their “theories.” It is almost certainly true that some natural scientists go too far in painting with a broad-brush, missing the mark in many of the details with a cavalier lack of concern with technical issues of terminology which if the shoe were on the other foot they would be certainly unforgiving of.
But viscerally I simply can not dismiss the anti-science camp in the humanities so easily, partly because of my own personal experiences. I did meet humanistic types who would tell me that with a straight face that “science is just another superstition” periodically. Additionally, I suspect that some of the more irrational objections to nuclear energy or genetic engineering emerge not from specific critiques that come out of cost vs. benefit analysis, but a general antipathy toward the application of scientific techniques, which reduce and demystify the world around us. Steve Fuller, of Dover trial fame, may not be a post-structuralist, but in some ways his position seems to take succor from the “science is just another superstition” motto. In The Twilight of Atheism chemist-turned-theologian Alister McGrath exults in the post-modernism ascendant in today’s world, because he sees in it the opportunity to dethrone the claims to positive knowledge which scientific materialists often rely upon. Phillip E. Johnson, the lawyer who pioneered the tactics of Intelligent Design, is also a fan of the post-modern age. Just as social conservatives easily slip into the language of radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon to support their arguments against pornography, so the more sophisticated representatives of the religious conservative counter-culture freely avail themselves of the intellectual tools of humanist academics in their own personal war against science.
But this chapter was an exception to the rule, in general I have little dissent with the rest of the book, though perhaps that is simply due to my ignorance of the details. For example I know some would take issue with Sheril & Chris’ characterization of how Pluto was demoted from its status as a planet, but I honestly don’t know the details well enough to know if they loaded the die. The authors are generally to the Left in their politics from what I can tell, and I think it shows in their characterization of issues such as media consolidation. I doubt most ScienceBlogs readers would notice anything since they are generally to the Left as well. But this is not a strong bias, simply the natural result of initial political positions shaping how one frames arguments.
There are some points where I’m rather ambivalent, such as when it comes to the religion and science chapter. I am, in general, an appeaser in regards to religion. As an empirical matter I’m highly skeptical that one can “convert” a populace to an atheistic stance. In notionally atheist societies there are often god-substitutes, whether it be Stalin or the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Unlike many armchair web atheists Chris has a long history of involvement with the Freethought movement, so he knows a lot about the in & out of the secular vs. religion conflict and tension in America. About the possible and improbable in the domain of policy and persuasion. Nevertheless at the end of the day though I think that the New Atheists are somewhat childish in their antics, and generally wrong in the facts of how religion as a phenomenon exists in the world, I probably judge their long term effect on the populace at large as more marginal than is depicted in Unscientific America. Richard Dawkins is both a rock star and the dark prince, but only to a very motivated and interested segment of the population.
Rather than these negative issues, I think Chris & Sheril’s focus on the example of Carl Sagan as a positive exemplar illustrates the best-case-scenario of how science as a culture can integrate, interface and intersect, if you will, with the broader society. It isn’t just about educating the masses (since very few people who take courses in quantum mechanics end up with a comfortable grasp of the topic, good luck in getting the public to be clear on the relevant issues). Or “reframing” the scientific message. Or changing the viable number of career paths. Or getting more funding for science. And so forth. Carl Sagan contained within himself multitudes, the showman, communicator, scientist and public intellectual. Science can’t just be delivered with crisp precision, rather, it has to entertain and, rouse the senses and inspire awe. The mathematician John Allen Poulos has stated that he enjoys communicating math as if it is a branch of the humanities, and to some extent I think Sagan did the same for science. But why should that be so peculiar? Science is a creation of humanity, and as it came from man so it must always go back.

  • bioIgnoramus

    Part of the problem is that so many scientists are, if I may paraphrase, twits.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Another part is that so many “scientists” aren’t actually scientists.
    Rather a lot of research is conducted not because it can teach us anything, but because the people conducting it need an excuse to be paid.

  • http://neurowhoa.blogspot.com NeuroWhoa!

    You know, this is the best review of the book I’ve seen so far, a class apart from the ceaseless bickering about it at other well-known blogs. Great work.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “Vern Ehlers, a physicist who represents a district in Michigan, had to rush to the floor to make it clear to his colleagues that funding for “game theory” did not mean funding for the scientific research of sports games!”

  • http://hownottowinawar.wordpress.com Benjamin Nelson

    Like you, I think that the poststructuralist philosophies had an important impact, for precisely the reasons you listed. But it’s unfortunate that you abstain from comment on the most controversial parts of the book, saving your ire for the relatively miniscule part of one chapter on postmodernism and poststructuralism.
    Of course it’s your prerogative to abstain from speaking to issues with which you’re only modestly familiar. But if we’re interested in the place of science in culture, the Pluto issue does not require an in-depth knowledge of astrophysics. You just need a modest acquaintance with that grab-bag of criteria that were salient in the Pluto case, which is only a few clicks away.
    Probably nobody thinks that atheists will mysteriously convert theistic brains. Implicitly, I believe that people do think that the very idea of a third culture depends on teaching people how to think, and that thinking demands being able to learn how to deal with and overcome real philosophical challenges. So, whither childishness?

  • ponderingfool

    There are some pretty twisted views of science in the humanities/social studies. The “Women, Power, and Politics” class I had read a work where they brought up the uncertainty principle. The authors completely got it wrong. I pointed it out in class and that the rest of the authors’ thesis based on the misunderstanding was thus equally wrong. No one else in the room, including the professor who was/is very bright, had the education necessary to call BS in this case. Another work we read had a view of science that was stuck in 19th century, once again no one in the room save myself had the education necessary to refute the work.
    Carl Zimmer is right being educated doesn’t mean you are well rounded especially with regards to science. Your co-Sciblogger Chad has lamented the fact you can be considered educated without any basic understanding of science but if you understand science and are not up on classic literature you are viewed as uneducated.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Your co-Sciblogger Chad has lamented the fact you can be considered educated without any basic understanding of science but if you understand science and are not up on classic literature you are viewed as uneducated.

    It’s the same with mathematics. The key similarity, I think, is that science generally and math specifically can be derived from basic principles – and so can not only be re-derived if lost but the same conclusions can be generated by many different people. With literature, the content is fundamentally arbitrary, and so those who are expert in it have a monopoly on its teaching.
    Teachings founded in objective reality do not reflect upon the status and influence of those who propagate them. Teachings that are not founded in reality are adopted because their teachers have influence, and in order for their teachers to have influence.

  • Stagyar zil Doggo

    As an empirical matter I’m highly skeptical that one can “convert” a populace to an atheistic stance.

    Perhaps. But that don’t mean we can’t improve upon the current value which lies around the 10-15% mark in the US. And this number surely includes a significant proportion of non-theists who nevertheless have a very non-science based world view.
    Could you comment on the principal disagreement between S&K and the loud Atheists, which seems to be over the former’s contention that the latter “hurt the cause of science communication” by -
    a) claiming a scientific basis for their criticisms of religion and
    b) positing Atheism to be a logical consequence of science.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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