If 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.