Adaptation of Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | July 13, 2009 5:33 am

Today is the official publication date of Unscientific America, and the first of our articles related to the book is out, in It’s a piece focused on the entertainment industry and its role in perpetrating negative images of science–with a central focus on Michael Crichton, who also perpetrated outright misinformation about global warming.

The article starts with the film Angels & Demons, and the story of CERN, wrongly thought to be carrying out all manner of dangerous science–and then gets to the big thesis:

The experience of CERN is, more broadly, the experience of science in our culture today. It is simultaneously admired and yet viewed as dangerously powerful and slightly malevolent — an uneasiness that comes across repeatedly in Hollywood depictions. As science-fiction film director James Cameron (“Aliens,” “Terminator,” “Titanic”) has observed, the movies tend to depict scientists “as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains.” That’s not only unfair to scientists: It’s unhealthy for the place of science in our culture — no small matter at a time of climate crisis, bioweapon threats, pandemic diseases and untold future controversies that will surely erupt as science continues to dramatically change our world and our politics. To begin to counter this problem, though, we need to wake up to a new recognition: Fixing the problem of science education in our schools, although very important, is not the sole solution. We also have to do something about the cultural standing of science — heavily influenced by politics and mass media — and that’s a very different matter.

You can read the full piece here….


Comments (9)

  1. Brian English

    So how do you propose that we get religious folk to give up their beliefs in a providential God, who’s very conception is anti-scientific, apart from cow-towing to them?

    If you guys cared about truth and science, you’d repudiate you book, as hard as that would be. But you only seem to care about scoring points with the benighted and ignoring reasonable requests for dialog. I get that making money, and feeling right, is important, but against such overwhelming evidence that you’re being dicks. Seriously, why?

  2. Brian,

    First, no need to be vulgar here. Perhaps you are new to the Intersection and her many hoards of readers and commenters, but I’d ask you to go casting through Chris and Sheril’s posts before you condemn them so. There has been a long thread of how to reconcile Scince and Religion here, with a wide variety of views presented and debated (my own included). Chris and Sheril, rightly, do not seem to think it is their place to go about telling others what to do or how to do it – rather they surface issues, flesh them out, and inivte and encourage healthy debate. None of which, so far as I know, means they need to be derisively referred to using analogies to the male anatomy.

    Second, I think you are missing a huge part of their narraitve (and probably haven’t read the book). I have just started it (!), so I’ll hold off on illustrative examples until I’m done. What I know from their past writing, however, is that both of them are STRONGLY in favor of truth and science, which is why I fear you may be drawing unfounded conclusions. Rather then deny the influence of religion and pop culture (as many in the so-called new Atheist movement seek to do) on the scientific discourse of our nation, they seek to both acknowledge it, and learn from it.

    Put another way, if “being Plutoed” was the most popular phrase in 2006 (as their book purports), why not ask why, and then use those lessons to frame a better reaponse that promotes science, asks relevent follow-up questions, and seeks to further the cause of their truth.

    Wait, I’ve seen that methodology before – I think it’s called the Scientific Method.

  3. The presentation of science and scientists in film and television is an old problem… I read a rather interesting essay by Asimov on the very subject (I am not entirely sure which decade he published it in, but I think it was the 60s or 70s). Not that something being an old problem should in any way take away from the discussion… I just thought I would point it out. If anything, it just means it should come more to the fore.

    I think it’s funny that James Cameron of Terminator fame would point that out, given that (despite being a fan of the Terminator series) I’ve noticed Terminator has caused all sorts of apprehension and misrepresentation of artificial intelligence development.

  4. Heraclides

    A few very quick, bullet-style, thoughts as it’s long past my bedtime:

    – I’m uncertain that linking the Hollywood movies and the internet “woo” sites is really justified, as they seem to me to be two quite distinct issues. (This may have been your intent, but on my reading they were juxtaposed.)

    – I think most people recognise Hollywood characters as silly cardboard figures, at least in my circles (I’m outside of the USA, btw). While it’s mildly annoying sometimes, they do it to every career, really. Businessmen are all over-the-top “suits”; police and fire-fighters are stereotypical heroes beyond ordinary human fears, and so on. It might fool little kids, but that’s about it.

    – The issue with the internet “woo” sites, isn’t (just) one of refuting the points made, but one of readers recognising these sites as “woo”. Most of our (grand)parents generation learnt to recognise the sly door-to-door conman. A new form of “con” is about, and the current generation of parents aren’t good at seeing the con. How are they going to get good at seeing the con…? These people are peddling a product, after all, so it’s the same general thing as recognising a sly sales pitch that’s full of crap.

  5. Was the antimatter supposed to power a bomb or was it supposed to be equivalent to a few kilotons of TNT itself? I am not sure but I think it was the latter.

  6. Linda

    I think that Philip stated things quite well for himself, and for me too.

  7. foolfodder

    As one study author explained to the magazine Nature: “They might say the person was too ‘normal’ or too good-looking to be a scientist. The most heart-breaking thing is when they say, ‘I didn’t think he was real because he seemed to care about us.'”


  8. Ed M

    Isn’t this partially what SEED has been trying to do since its inception?

  9. Andrew Young

    Though some may find this hard to believe….~a great many~ of us who believe in God/higher power also believe heavily in science ~as Gods way to allowing us to learn about the universe. Many of us believe in evolution, perhaps aliens and life after American Idol.

    The point for me, at least, is a realization that science will NEVER reach the final answer.

    ………Stop and think about this for a second.

    If we claim we have found the smallest particle….then the next obvious question arises:

    –what is it made of?

    The problem with this cat and mouse game we have been hypnotized by, is that it never ends. I chuckle each time I hear a scientist claim we will find the “”smallet dharma””….because by its very nature, it must be composed of something, thus leading to an even smaller dharma.

    And, as a consequence, science as a philsophy thus becomes stale in this sense; if the driving force behind it is to simply dig deeper and deeper. Unfortuantely this can also leave you in a world of ….you know what.

    What the Judeo Christian mind set aims to do is to create a guideline for human interaction.

    Do not confuse this with an abhorance of science….the two are mutually exclusive.

    Just because someone like myelf believes in a God force, does not mean I reject science.

    I just believe that science is one tool to understand the universe. One tool in a toolbox.

    Now, as for this Cern collider. My issue is that I fear in the name of science, we may be dabbling in something that is over our heads at the moment.

    Ive also read very compelling arguments that the so-called “”SAFE SCIENCE at CERN”” has a great many loopholes and flaws.

    So my Christian ethical side says to me……hmm, would be potentially be hurting people if we proceed? Would it be reckless to proceed without truly opening this debate up to manknid? After all….~IF~ there was even the remote chance of blackholing ourselvse into a cheesy Disney movie….shouldnt we allow the citizens of the world a vote?

    Who, after all, are scientists…..if not funded by our very taxes, based on the societies and morals we have come to live by?

    Why not clone humans?

    Why not experiment no prisoners?

    Why not harvest the forests and oceans until they are depleted?

    …..arent the beneifts of these things helpful to you and I?

    So why not take risks with forces and physics we do not yet full understand?

    Ethics are pointless, arent they?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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