Unscientific America: 'A Must Read For Anybody Who Cares About Science'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 8, 2009 10:29 am

Michael Mann’s review of Unscientific America over at RealClimate is the most comprehensive yet! He begins:

Author Chris Mooney (of “Storm World” fame) and fellow “Intersection” blogger, scientist, and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum have written an extraordinary, if rather sobering book entitled ‘Unscientific America’. What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).

And ends:

If it were up to me, this book would be required reading for all undergraduate science majors, along with Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”. Only when we begin training scientists to understand the relationship between science and society, and their crucial role in that relationship, will be begin to solve the dilemma so eloquently described in ‘Unscientific America’.

What comes in the middle really captures the spirit of why we composed the book! Make sure to go read Mike’s full review…

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Comments (27)

  1. Well the Review from PZ Myers is up!

  2. John Kwok

    Yeah, PZ Myers’s review is up, and it’s replete with the sanctimonious claptrap I expected from him (Though I’m going to have to look critically at the Pluto as a “planet” controversy. Contrary to Myers’s lame assertion, there is apparently still a sizeable number of astonomers and astrophysicists who haven’t “bought” Neil de Grasse Tyson’s well-reasoned assertion that it’s not a planet, but really a Kuiper Belt object.). Moreover, Myers has gotten his seal of approval from one Ophelia Benson in the comments section to that post, and at least one of his Militant Atheist Borg drones has croaked that the Intersection has become “Kwok – infested” (In your wildest dreams, buddy. I simply don’t have time – nor do I wish – to “hijack” Sheril and Chris’s blog.).

    Should you read Myers’s review? Absolutely. But recognize that it is a self serving, quite sanctimonious, screed written by the “William A. Dembski of Militant Atheism”.

  3. Heidi

    @John (#2): I wish you wouldn’t refer to “militant” atheists. That’s a religious righty way of dividing and conquering us, and it’s sad that otherwise intelligent people are falling for it. Atheists need to hang together, or you know how the rest of that goes.

  4. I have no idea what “Kwok” means, but I can say with certainty that there are strong scientific arguments for Pluto retaining its planet status, and there are many planetary scientists who disagree with the controversial IAU decision. If you read Tyson’s book, you should also read Dr. David Weintraub’s “Is Pluto A Planet?” for a different perspective. And this October, Dr. Alan Boyle’s book “The Case for Pluto” will present yet another resource supporting a broad rather than narrow planet definition. I plan to write a book on this topic as well.

    Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned. I am a writer and amateur astronomer and proud to be one of these people. You can read more about why Pluto is a planet and worldwide efforts to overturn the demotion on my Pluto Blog at http://laurele.livejournal.com

  5. Michael Neville

    Kwok, it’s well known that you dislike PZ Myers ever since you were banned at his website (and no, I don’t believe your faux protestation that you were only joking about demanding that he give you a $2000 camera).

    Among other things, there is no controversy about Pluto not being a planet. Until the discussion came up, there wasn’t an official definition of what a planet is. The Astronomical Union’s definition of a planet doesn’t include Pluto.

    Anyway, I can think of real, actual controversies between scientists and the anti-science folks. The anti-vaxers have a great deal more impact on real life than whether or not Pluto is a planet. Creationists/IDers are a much bigger threat to science education than the Plutoists. Why didn’t Mooney and Kirshenbaum look at real controversies instead of the trivial “is Pluto a planet”?

  6. John Kwok

    @ Michael Neville –

    I sent PZ Myers more than one private e-mail telling him I was joking (And two friends of mine recognized that I was practicing the same kind of sardonic humor employed by a certain former high school teacher of mine, whose best known work of literature is his bestselling memoir “Angela’s Ashes”, before they asked me about Myers’s blog entries devoted to me.).

    My dislike of Myers began long before being banned from Pharyngula, beginning with his CrackerGate episode, in which, none other than Jerry Coyne admitted privately to me that Myers had indeed crossed the line with that behavior.

    Apparently there is still ample scientific controversy – even after the IAU designation – as noted by Laurel Kornfeld, whom I presume, is an astronomer and/or planetary scientist.

    Personally I wished that Sheril and Chris had chosen another example to illustrate the point(s) that they were trying to make, but I’ll defer final judgement until after I read their book.

  7. Mark F.

    I’ve read both PZ’s review and Mann’s review. Sounds like they read two completely different books. I have to wonder if part of why PZ blasted the book is because of the fact that the infamous chapter eight directly goes after him. His offense at this attack could very well have (either consciously or unconsciously) colored his whole attitude toward the book.

  8. Shirakawasuna

    Mark, PZ Myers says right in his review that his opinion was surely colored by the “contempt” the authors showed him. However, his review’s conclusions are right in line with Sheril’s and Chris’ previous arguments about framing, the “New Atheists”, and their general complaints about Myers.

    It’s easy to see how there are multiple, seemingly-conflicting things you can say about the book (which I have no yet read): it’s about the public’s misunderstanding of science. Everyone agrees that the public is largely scientifically illiterate, particularly when compared with other industrialized nations. Everyone agrees that the status quo isn’t working. Everyone agrees that there’s outright opposition to science from many facets of the population, whether it’s the media portrayals or evangelical Christians cherrypicking. I haven’t read the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that stuff took up a decent portion of it. If the climax is just as I expect, meaning a bunch of criticisms lobbed at public atheists/scientists not for being wrong but for being confrontational, then it’s just as useless of a text as PZ says. A simple question that’s been asked over and over and gets ignored: what should change? Atheists and scientists should be less confrontational? That’s what the *status quo* was when this entire mess became rooted in society. In the other countries with higher scientific literacy, are the scientists less adamant in their opinions, are they quieter? No, no they aren’t. Is religious thinking relegated to pleasant non-impeding corners or absent? Yes, yes it is.

    See, that’s the kind of argument I would expect to find in a book or blog post dedicated to improving scientific literacy by highlighting the problem and offering solutions. You identify the differences between countries doing well and those which aren’t and see if you can explain it that way (this is the most basic step, it won’t encompass everything). Then you find the explanations which are particular to our culture in the U.S. Open atheists is a new thing, it was not the cause but is just a scapegoat for the intellectually lazy.

  9. @ 8. Shirakawasuna
    “A simple question that’s been asked over and over and gets ignored: what should change? Atheists and scientists should be less confrontational? That’s what the *status quo* was when this entire mess became rooted in society.”

    I would disagree on your characterization here. You’re putting Atheists and scientists in the same sentence and I don’t think the two should be combined. I think there are two different problems here:

    1) Science literacy
    2) Status of Atheists in the US

    Separating them doesn’t mean I think either are more or less important. But it’s a different argument, and it might involve different methods of communicating. Personally, I do believe that attitudes toward atheists are unfair and I don’t necessarily blame the “new” atheists for wanting to be more activist. It might be necessary.

    But that’s not the same thing as science literacy, and I think it’s a mistake to conflate the two.

  10. My dislike of Myers began long before being banned from Pharyngula, beginning with his CrackerGate episode, in which, none other than Jerry Coyne admitted privately to me that Myers had indeed crossed the line with that behavior.

    Jerry Coyne said something privately to you? Excuse me if I find that hard to believe. Well, unless perhaps you’ve been trolling him as well, but in that case I don’t expect him to say anything you might want to hear.

  11. My apologies to you, John. I should have looked at your name before reading your comment. If I had, I would not have said what I did.

    I’m probably headed in your direction of being banned from Myers’ site. I’m being absolutely trashed over there for my statements about Pluto. The tone of discussion is very nasty, filled with profanity, insults, and personal attacks.

    There is an ongoing controversy over the status of Pluto. Four percent of the IAU does not represent a consensus. If hundreds of professional astronomers, including the PI of New Horizons, disagree with their decision, then the issue is clearly still a subject of debate. Also, it is noteworthy that many planetary scientists are not IAU members and therefore have no say at all in this matter–if we treat the IAU as the sole authority on this. Interestingly, the American Geophysical Union and the European Geophysical Union are holding their own discussions on the subject of planet definition.

    I am actually a writer, amateur astronomer, and student of astronomy at Swinburne University. Although I am not a professional astronomer, I have done a lot of writing on the subject and regularly consult with professionals in the field, people who I know are very credible sources.

  12. John Kwok

    @ Laurel –

    No offense taken. I am sorry to learn of your own difficulties with PZ Myers and his resident “Militant Atheist Borg Collective” acolytes, but he is someone who doesn’t tolerate much dissent (How ironic for a self-proclaimed “godless liberal”, don’t you think?). Again, my condolences for having to contend with the usual “tone of discussion” over at Pharyngula (While he refuses to admit this, he did lose some credibility with other long-term bloggers when he decided to ban me from his online pig pen.). He’s also a shrewd judge of character by calling me “insane” at his blog (Goodness gracious, maybe I ought to reinstate my threat of asking him for expensive photographic equipment – which contrary to Neville’s ridiculous assertions was indeed a joke and I did tell Myers I was joking even as he was continuing to lie about my threat at Pharyngula – or else he might run the risk of a potential libel suit from me.).

    On a more positive note, I do appreciate your comments as being a bit insightful and informative with respect to Pluto’s status as a “planet” (While I understand and appreciate some of Neil de Grasse Tyson’s arguments, I do wonder whether he’s indulged in too much “hairsplitting” with respect to Pluto.). Myers’s denial of the ongoing controversy is what I expect from someone who has chastised eminent theistic evolutionist Ken Miller more than once, having observed as far back as September 2006 at his blog that Ken Miler is indeed a “creationist” (That’s rather slanderous IMHO in the light of the fact that Ken has done far more work in the ongoing efforts to defend the teaching of evolution against attacks by evolution denialists of all stripes, culminating in his testimony at the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial, a major legal defeat for Intelligent Design creationism.).

    @ Infophile –

    Yes, Jerry Coyne and I have each other’s private e-mail addresses, and I think he is still sufficiently reasonable enough not to disclose mine to anyone without my permission (Nor would I do that either.).

  13. Ben Nelson

    Laurel, I think you’ve presented an interesting series of considerations.

    Your point about the taxonomical weirdness involved in the relationship between “dwarf planet” and “planet” is well taken. The counter-argument is that there aren’t any hard and fast rules for the composition of morphemes into a word, let alone words into a phrase; it is not uncommon in the English language to find terms that are composed of units that are misleading about genus and species. But that’s not illegal: we might treat “dwarf” as a degree term. (You give the example of “grizzy bear” to bear, but I could equally well give the example of “almost arrived” to arrived.) Still, one does have some pragmatic expectations of what makes for optimal clarity in composition, especially when dealing with professionalisms, and I think everyone can agree that non-subsective terms are messy.

    However… Brown (Caltech) estimates that there are probably somewhere between 53 and 80 dwarf planets in the solar system. That’s quite the pantheon of would-be “planets”; very very messy. Furthermore, the desiderata for classification seem reasonable, so it isn’t any good to suppose they’ve arranged their conceptual scheme in an arbitrary way. If it is true that scientists are putting primacy on the location of things relative to the sun, it would only matter indirectly. I would guess that considerations related to gravity (and orbit) are the ones they consider the most interesting. If, following your comment on Myers’ blog, we were to somehow find a Mars-sized planet at the fringes, it would most assuredly have either Pluto’s elliptical orbit or worse, and so it would cause no-one in the post-2006 camp to sweat when denying the New Mars the status of planet.

    Still, of course you can arrange your terms in other ways, to arrive at other definitions. It’s a conversation we can have, if we like.

    But this gets beyond the point. Ultimately “planet” is a matter of art and left to the scientists. If they happen to disagree, then that’s up to them, and we’ll find out soon enough. I don’t see how the “everyman resonance” argument has any bearing, apart from (maybe, sometimes) coinciding with typical pragmatic considerations.

  14. Darren Garrison

    “A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds.”

    The logical extension of that position is that all moons in the solar system that are in hydrostatic equilibrium must now be called planets because they would be called planets if they weren’t orbiting, well, planets. Is it your position the Luna, the Galilean moons, and several other gas giant moons now be called planets?

  15. Why would having 80 dwarf planets in the solar system be a problem? Yes, it may be messy, but one can say the same thing about there being billions of stars and billions of galaxies. If that is what there is, then that is what there is. We don’t limit the number of elements in the Periodic Table for the sake of convenience.

    I would recommend using the definition of star as an example. There are many subclasses of stars, and those subclasses have subclasses of their own. There also are dead stars such as white dwarfs and neutron stars as well as brown dwarfs that are usually still considered stars given that they fuse deuterium. Why not do the same for planet–have one broad over-arching category with multiple subcategories? The broad umbrella of planet should give equal value to both where an object is and what an object is. The IAU definition fails to do this.

    I would like to see writers, linguists, and amateur astronomers involved in this debate as well. The two former categories include people well-versed in the use of language and how it is best used to make meaning. That is why the IAU included Dava Sobel in its original planet definition committee. The latter group, amateur astronomers, are usually the ones who do the most interacting with the public and act as bridges between the general public and professional astronomers. Many amateurs are doing research, discovering comets and deep sky objects, and are extremely knowledgable in the field (no, I’m not talking about myself, but more than a few people in my astronomy club do fit this description). Their input would contribute a valuable perspective to this discussion.

  16. Shirakawasuna

    TB, I have to disagree with your disagreement :). You said:

    “I would disagree on your characterization here. You’re putting Atheists and scientists in the same sentence and I don’t think the two should be combined. I think there are two different problems here:
    1) Science literacy
    2) Status of Atheists in the US”

    I think the issue is a bit simpler than that. It’s a direct criticism of atheist scientists who attack religion as part of the problem. It’s a specious one and one that Chris and Sheril have never been able to back up with anything other than appealing to their own authority as science communicators. Matt Nisbet has similarly avoided rigor, and they’ve teamed up in the past to make similar comments to those which surely appear in their book (again, haven’t read it and don’t plan to spend money on it).

    So yes, there’s science literacy. And a lot of these vocal atheist scientists, like I said before, consider religious thinking itself to be part of the problem and criticize it. They think that’s the right thing to do when confronting unreason. They also appeal to the scientist’s general role of giving you the unvarnished truth as you see it, including when you think science conflicts with propositions be they various religions or homeopathy.

    Obviously Chris and Sheril disagree, they don’t think that’s a good way to go. However, how they back that up is always pitiful and turns out circular, so we never get anywhere: that’s how I interpret PZ’s “useless” conclusion.

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that we need both strong, full-disclosure critics who voice their opposition to unreason (thinking it is damaging to science and scientific literacy) as well as the Neil deGrasse Tysons, who do not present their underlying opinions about science in the context of religious views for a variety of reasons, choosing to focus on the ‘positive’ and the overlap between moderate religious people and science. I just don’t see any suggestions for what PZ should do instead other than the implied ‘shut up’….

  17. Does anybody care about the science of human population dynamics?

    Imagine for a moment that we are looking at an ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore where it crashes finally at our feet. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of the human species worldwide is like the wave and the reproduction numbers of individuals in certain locales are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former.

    Abundant research indicates that most countries in Western Europe, among many other countries globally, have recently shown a decline in their rates of human population growth. These geographically localized data need not blind us to the fact that the absolute global human population numbers are skyrocketing. The world’s human population is like the wave; the individual or localized reproduction numbers are like the molecules.

    Perhaps a “scope of observation” problem is presented to everyone who wants to adequately understand the dynamics of human population numbers.

    Choosing a scope of observation is a forced choice, like choosing to look at either the forest or the trees, at either the propagation numbers of the human species (the wave data) or localized reproduction numbers (the molecular data). Data regarding the propagation of absolute global human population numbers is the former while individual or localized reproduction data are the latter.

    From this vantage point, the global challenge before humanity could be a species propagation problem. Take note that global propagation numbers do not vary with the reproduction data. That is to say, global human propagation data and the evidence of reproduction numbers of individuals in many places, appear to be pointing in different directions. The propagation data are represented by the wave; the reproduction data are represented by the molecules moving against the tide.

    In the year 1900 world’s human population was approximately 1.2 to 1.6 billion people. With the explosive growth of the global human population over the 20th century in mind (despite two world wars, ubiquitous local conflicts, famine, pestilence, disease, poverty, and other events resulting in great loss of life), what might the world look like in so short a period of time as 41 years from now? How many people will be on the planet at that time? The UN Population has recently made its annual re-determination that the world’s human population will reach 9.2 billion people around 2050, and then somehow level off. No explanation is given for how this leveling-off process is to occur.

    We can see that the fully anticipated growth of absolute global human population numbers is about 8 billion people for the 150 year period between 1900 and 2050.

    Whatever the number of human beings on Earth at the end of the 21st century, the size of the human population on Earth could have potentially adverse impacts on the number of the world’s surviving species, on the rate of dissipation of Earth’s resources, and on the basic characteristics of global ecosystems.

    For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature. The potential causes of global human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure, or numerous that a strategy to address the problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species has been assumed to be unknowable. Their preternatural, insufficiently scientific grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of global population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers through Century XXI and beyond.

    Recent scientific evidence appears to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers are indeed knowable, as a natural phenomenon. According to unchallenged scientific research, the population dynamics of human organisms is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other organisms.

    To suggest, as many politicians, economists and demographers have been doing, that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics have so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems not quite right.

    If I may continue by introducing an extension of my perspective.

    According to the research of Russell Hopfenberg,Ph.D., and David Pimementel, Ph.D., global population growth of the human species is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and this recent, astounding growth in absolute global human numbers gives rise to the misperception or mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more.

    Data indicate that the world’s human population grows by approximately two percent per year. All segments of it grow by about 2%. Every year there are more people with brown eyes and more people with blue ones; more people who are tall and more short people. It also means that there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like the well-fed segment of the population. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.

    Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s evidence suggests that the magnificently successful efforts of humankind to increase food production in order to feed a growing population has resulted and continue to result in even greater human population numbers.

    The perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a widely shared and consensually validated misperception, a denial both of the physical reality and the space-time dimension. If people are starving at a given moment of time, increasing food production cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late; however, this does not mean human starvation is inevitable.

    Consider that human population dynamics are not biologically different from the population dynamics of other species. Human organisms, other species and even microorganisms have essentially similar population dynamics. We do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food as we do in many “civilized” human communities today because these non-human species are not annually increasing their food production capabilities.

    Please take note that among tribal peoples in remote original habitats, we do not find people starving. Like non-human species, “primitive” human beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment. History is replete with examples of early humans and more remote ancestors not increasing their food production annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands upon thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food.

    Prior to the agricultural revolution and the production of more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical capacity to sustain them because global human population growth or decline is primarily determined by food availability. Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human organisms; and, in one and all cases, no food equals no humans.

    Thank you.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
    http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176

  18. As per “The Demon-Haunted World” Prof. Richard Lewontin wrote a very thought provoking and very sobering review which is found here:
    http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2008/11/billions-and-billions-of-demons.html

    For example, Lewontin notes:
    “What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.”

  19. Ben Nelson

    Laurel, the size of the concept’s denotation is, I agree, somewhat irrelevant except insofar as we’re trying to fit to past popular usage. If we cared about popular opinion, then indeed, the argument would be decisively against keeping “planet” as it was, since the inclusion of hundreds into the denotation would simply be rejected by popular opinion, familiar as it is with the standard model. (At least some of the UA “evidence” boasts exactly this kind of reasoning.) Unless you believe there would be no outcry against a 300 planet system, you cannot consistently invoke popular opinion (except perhaps to bring in associational content).

    But it is messy only relative to what our goals in using the concept are, and there’s nothing self-evident about those goals. That’s why the question of “What does ‘planet’ mean?” must be answered by concrete criteria which establish a taxonomy on the basis of what kinds of inferences those in the profession believe are most interesting from an astrophysicist’s point of view. The choice of gravity and orbit are perfectly non-arbitrary, entirely at the center of the interests of the field, and pretty well expected.

    I believe that there is a genus of which the planet is a species: solar system bodies. Not a very punchy title, I admit, but serviceable for the time-being. Planets, small solar system bodies (3SBs), and dwarf planets are all SSBs.

    I am not clear on what exactly writers, etc. can contribute to the debate except to try to salvage some associational content to the concepts. Granted, in some cases, as in the case of system bodies, it might be useful to have a unique term. But this is a question of choice of labels to best describe whatever connotation or denotation has already been decided, so I guess it would not be a powerful enough admission for your tastes.

  20. @ Darren Garrison: Solar system moons in hydrostatic equilibrium have at times been referred to as “secondary planets” as they orbit other planets in contrast to “primary planets,” which orbit the Sun directly. Geophysically, these moons are no different from planets. They can still be referred to colloquially as moons or satellites, but one could argue that calling them “secondary planets” takes into account both their location and their composition.

    @ Ben Nelson: I am not invoking popular opinion except to say that people generally respond more positively to adding planets than taking them away. However, my central point is that being in hydrostatic equilibrium is the characteristic that distinguishes objects as planets, and if that leads to there being 300 planets in the solar system, people will gradually have to get used to that new paradigm. If it’s easier for them to use subcategories and say our solar system has four terrestrial planets, two gas giants, two ice giants, and 300 dwarf planets, then that is fine. I am not an advocate of memorization; I believe it is far more important to teach what the parameters defining each subcategory are.

    I believe the choice of gravity and orbit to define planet are necessary but not sufficient because, as I said earlier, they do not take into account the geophysical composition of these objects, which must play a role in defining what they are.

  21. @ 16.   Shirakawasuna Says: 
”TB, I have to disagree with your disagreement :). ”

    First, I want to say thank you for the measured reply. 🙂 I appreciate that.

    “Shirakawasuna Says:
    You (TB) said:
    “I would disagree on your characterization here. You’re putting Atheists and scientists in the same sentence and I don’t think the two should be combined. I think there are two different problems here:
1) Science literacy
2) Status of Atheists in the US”

    I think the issue is a bit simpler than that. It’s a direct criticism of atheist scientists who attack religion as part of the problem. It’s a specious one and one that Chris and Sheril have never been able to back up with anything other than appealing to their own authority as science communicators. Matt Nisbet has similarly avoided rigor, and they’ve teamed up in the past to make similar comments to those which surely appear in their book (again, haven’t read it and don’t plan to spend money on it).”

    I don’t know all that’s been said, but I think in general there’s a lot of confusing information out there – maybe on both sides. Communication has not been effective. So I do plan on picking up the book because I think the whole of the book will do a better job of helping me understand their position than reading polarizing views on the internet.

    But that doesn’t really address the point I tried to make.

    “So yes, there’s science literacy. And a lot of these vocal atheist scientists, like I said before, consider religious thinking itself to be part of the problem and criticize it. They think that’s the right thing to do when confronting unreason. They also appeal to the scientist’s general role of giving you the unvarnished truth as you see it, including when you think science conflicts with propositions be they various religions or homeopathy.”

    What I believe is that there is a perception that some don’t differentiate religious beliefs that conflict with what science discovers and can discover, from religious beliefs that accepts what science discovers. One is a problem for science AND atheists, the other is just a problem for atheists.
    And I think the criticism comes if someone tries to wear an atheist hat and a science hat at the same time to criticize something that may not be in conflict with science.
    They’re different conversations, different agendas. I have read remarks that on the one hand criticize fundamentalist thinking and then belittle religious thinking that is not fundamentalist and doesn’t conflict with science. When I see that happening, to me the primary purpose of that communication is to advance atheism, not science.
    If atheism wants to argue with religion, I have no problem with that, but I also have no interest in it. That conversation is not the same thing as science literacy to me, and I think that’s the source of criticism – however they may appear to be the same, atheism is not a requirement for science literacy.

    “Obviously Chris and Sheril disagree, they don’t think that’s a good way to go. However, how they back that up is always pitiful and turns out circular, so we never get anywhere: that’s how I interpret PZ’s “useless” conclusion.”

    Well, without having read the book, I don’t know that it’s valid criticism. On a personal note, I should tell you that I don’t consider PZ to be a valid resource anymore. “Crackergate” didn’t offend me. It was actually when he laid blame on Ken Miller for the deluded family that kept their child from medical attention because of their religion. Things Miller says are not above criticism, but after casually following what Miller has done for science education over the years, I found PZ’s statements unreasonable and even irrational.

    So, I’m going to get the book and decide for myself.

    “Personally, I’m of the opinion that we need both strong, full-disclosure critics who voice their opposition to unreason (thinking it is damaging to science and scientific literacy) as well as the Neil deGrasse Tysons, who do not present their underlying opinions about science in the context of religious views for a variety of reasons, choosing to focus on the ‘positive’ and the overlap between moderate religious people and science. I just don’t see any suggestions for what PZ should do instead other than the implied ’shut up’….”

    Well, I don’t think Chris has told PZ to shut up. And I think that’s part of the problem – mischaracterizing criticism as censorship. If the criticism is valid, and PZ can’t figure out another way to say what he wants to convey then that doesn’t mean the criticism is wrong. It might mean that PZ hasn’t figured out a way to effectively communicate his message.

    Now, let me go back to something earlier. You said:
    “It’s a direct criticism of atheist scientists who attack religion as part of the problem. It’s a specious one and one that Chris and Sheril have never been able to back up with anything other than appealing to their own authority as science communicators.”

    Technically, it may be true that they haven’t effectively backed up their assertion, I don’t know. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the assertion can’t be backed up. I did a little searching, and I found some interesting perspectives on effective communication. I realize having three links in here is going to delay this post, so I’m going to break these up into separate posts.

    The Conservation Professional’s Guide to Working with People By Scott A. Bonar
    http://books.google.com/books?id=BQqqypfx1mIC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq=communication+techniques+insults&source=bl&ots=TjMgkqGCr6&sig=nTAXGv-VbwseCjbSBNOWBPJe8XQ&hl=en&ei=GwNWSs3JBIn-MeSxwZ0I&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5

    Interesting take by a science professional about how to communicate effectively to get his job done.
    (continued)

  22. http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/commimp.htm
    “The more hostile communication is, the less accurately it may be heard. Hostility produces a defensive reaction by the receiver, who is then less likely to pick up nuances that give a message greater clarity.”
    (continued)

  23. http://www.fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=601
    The program recognizes that people too often let their ego, emotions, attitude and position of authority do the talking instead of their head. “If you can get these factors out of the equation and listen, appraise and talk with empathy, but with quiet authority, you can get people to follow what you request,” says Shanahan.”

    I especially recommend this one for those scoffing at the idea of “being nice.” This is about effective communication for people whose life may depend on it.

    That’s just the results of some quick searching. Based on what I found, there’s a lot out there on effectively communicating a message, and it seems bolster what Chris has said. But I’m willing to read sources that can assert the opposite.

  24. Ben Nelson

    Laurel, ultimately I neither agree nor disagree — I don’t claim to have much stake in the matter, except to agree that non-subsective terminology is both easily avoidable and on balance more attractive. If tomorrow the IAU were to call dwarf planets “major bodies” or “near-planets” somesuch, that would fit your taxonomic criteria just as well as bloating the denotation of “planet”, would it not?

    But the central point for Mooney and Kirshenbaum must be that popular opinion matters to these events in some non-whimsical sense. Is it fair to say that you and they may not be in the same orbit, so to speak?

    TB, I think distinctions are quite helpful at this point. As was recently remarked, calibrating to one’s audience is vital. If the purpose of communication is to form effective beliefs about some topic, then you have to supply motivation to care. Motivation must be tailored to the temperament of the person. Some people have authoritarian personalities and are likely not going to care if the issues are presented to them in civil discourse. They want ideas that allow them to dominate others, the kinds of conceits that let them lord themselves over their peers. Maybe they won’t get the picture the first time around, true, but that’s how these things go. By contrast, anti-authoritarian/anomic personalities can probably not be convinced of anything outside of civil dialogue. And autonomous people will just engage in debate and figure things out for themselves; motivational pleas end up coming off as either condescending (when too nice) or silencing (too nasty).

  25. Aph

    Other than that weird Kwok fella complaining that he can’t hang out on another blog this was an enjoyable post and series of comments.

  26. TB

    @ 25 Alph

    I know! Let’s not tell anyone about it – maybe it’ll stay civil!

  27. Ben Nelson

    Error: I should have said “less” attractive, not “more”. Less is more.

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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.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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