Unscientific America: Page 5

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 31, 2009 10:08 am

We’ve now posted the Table of Contents and pages 1, 2, 3, and 4 of our forthcoming book Unscientific America. Here’s the final peek we’ll feature at The Intersection:

uajacket.pngin politics, the news media, the entertainment industry, and the religious community.

In the political arena from 2001 through 2008, the United States was governed by an administration widely denounced for a disdain of science unprecedented in modern American history.  Judged next to this staggering low, President Barack Obama’s administration gives us great reason for hope. But science continues to occupy a ghettoized space in the political arena, and few elected officials really understand or appreciate its centrality to decision-making and governance. Too many politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, fail to see the underlying role of science in most of the issues they address, even though it is nearly always present. In fact, politicians tend to be leery of seeming too scientifically savvy: There’s the danger of being seen as an Adlai Stevenson egghead.

We’re still struggling with the problem that historian Richard Hofstadter outlined in his classic 1962 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,  which documented how the disdain of intellect became such a powerful fixture of American culture. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to scientists, and this has been the case to varying degrees since our nation’s inception. We’ve even rewritten the biography of one of our most cherished founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, recasting him as a tinkering everyman when in fact he was a deep-thinking scientist of the first rank.  After visiting the country in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville similarly remarked upon Americans’ interest in the practical rather than the theoretical side of science, observing a people more intrigued with the goods delivered at the end than the intellectual challenges and questioning encountered along the way.  For a very long time, American scientists have found themselves pitted against both our businesslike, can-do attitudes and our piety. When John McCain and Sarah Palin ridiculed research on fruit flies and grizzly bears on the 2008 campaign trail, they were appealing to precisely this anti-intellectual strand in the American character. They thought they’d score points that way, and they probably did.

And if you think politicians are bad, let’s turn to the traditional news media, where attention to science is in steep decline. A 2008 analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that if you tune in for five hours worth of cable news, you will probably catch only one minute’s coverage of science and technology—compared with ten minutes of “celebrity and entertainment,” twelve minutes of “accidents and disasters,” and “26 minutes or more of crime.”  As for newspapers….

Of course, that’s only the beginning.  Unscientific America hits in a few weeks and you can preorder here.

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Comments (12)

  1. jon

    The only thing unscientific about America is the hoards of sheep who believe natural selection adapts populations genetically — without even a single scrap of scientific evidence via controlled studies to show that this is true. Darwinism is the biggest fraud to dumb down in America ever imposed on this nation.

  2. Tom

    “without even a single scrap of scientific evidence via controlled studies to show that this is true.”

    That’s completely false. To pick the simplest and most accessible example, high school biology students do controlled studies with fruit flies every year that prove genetic mutations change populations, and that some of those mutations are beneficial to the population and likely to be carried on, while others are not beneficial.

    And this by the way is the *simplest* example of a study that proves the mechanisms of natural selection. There are plenty of far, far more long term, detailed and complex ones.

  3. It starts right in childhood. Why are jocks and cheerleaders seen as somehow “better” than brainy kids, who are labeled “nerds” and “geeks?” The kids pick up these messages from the culture all around them. It’s the overpaid athletes and models who get the millions and constant attention while scientists struggle and can’t find jobs. Then people wonder why we haven’t made any progress in treating cancer and why we’re falling behind China and India in our space program. Let’s start by teaching kids that reading and “brainy” activities are cool and desirable, and maybe they’ll have a better atmosphere than the current high school nonsense, which reflects adult society at large.

  4. jon


    1) please show me any of these mutations are random and not directed from within.

    2) please show me that these mutations are beneficial to the organism

    3) please show me how natural selection proliferated them over any other mutations

    you’ve got an assignment. I want science, not fluff.

  5. A random passing physicist

    1) Why would all the *harmful* mutations be directed?
    2) Go do the experiment and see.
    3) The ones for which it wasn’t beneficial fail to breed as much.

    Genetically, natural selection is the same as selective breeding, which has been a well-known human technology for at least 6,000 years. The only novel part is the idea that if a hostile natural world tends to eliminate some some characteristics more than others, that this will have the same effect as deliberate breeding for survival characteristics.

    The details of the genetics are well-known but irrelevant, unless you choose to deny that artificial breeding can work, too.

  6. It’s funny to see that the first comment is a living (non-evolving) proof of what Chris and Sheril are saying in their book. Unless, at least, “Jon” is a mole intelligently designed by the authors… :-)

  7. A random passing physicist


    It’s not clear yet whether Jon’s issue is with the principles or the conclusions of science. If the problem is that he has never been presented with the detailed evidence for evolution, but considers that it should be before he can be expected to believe in it, that’s a properly scientific attitude.

    I’m not hopeful, but I’ve seen it happen before.

  8. TraumaPony

    Looks awesome. I shall buy it when I have enough money :3

  9. @Random: I’m not hopeful either, because I think “Jon”, or a lot of people like him, have indeed been “presented with the detailed evidence for evolution”. But he refuses to see it has evidences. That’s what a belief system do.

  10. jon

    by the way, it is not up to me to prove that harmful mutations are directed: it is up to science to prove that the adaptive, beneficial mutations are not.

    so let’s see it.

  11. Bill C.

    Jon, did you just argue that it’s up to science to prove a negative? Come on.

  12. A random passing physicist


    That’s fairly easy to do too. You can use a radioactive source to randomly scramble the genes at a much higher rate, and show that natural selection still has the same effect. You can compare artificial selective breeding against increased mutations to show that it is the selection that has the effect, not the mutations. You can show that useful mutations occur by small increments, as randomness would predict, by comparing the genomes of closely related species and seeing how the useful innovations are usually only one or two ‘characters’ different from an existing non-innovative alternative. You can show the effectiveness of artificial analogues of evolution like genetic algorithms where the mutations have been made randomly. And as I already said, the fact that the vast majority of mutations are either totally ineffective or harmful indicates that whatever caused *those* mutations doesn’t know what it is doing.

    And looking at naturally evolved organisms, there are obvious design faults and flaws that show that if they were designed, the designer must have been intensely stupid. (So on the whole, it would probably be in the believer’s interests to prove that their God *wasn’t* responsible!) There were often much better designs available, perfectly obvious to a human. But if you can’t get to them by a sequence of individually advantageous small steps, they don’t occur. This is exactly what you would expect from random variation combined with natural selection, and the opposite of what you would expect with an intelligent designer.

    But like I said, the genetic details like whether mutation is random or not are actually irrelevant. Evolution by natural selection isn’t about the mutations, it’s about organisms being better or worse at surviving, and the better ones multiplying faster than the worst ones. It is selective breeding by the organism’s environment.

    Science doesn’t have to prove that beneficial mutations aren’t directed. All it has to prove is that even if they aren’t directed, natural selection still works. If it is likely to happen naturally anyway, there’s no reason to think it doesn’t.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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