Unscientific America Untangled

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 13, 2009 9:12 am

There’s nothing that makes authors happier than seeing reviewers weigh the pros and cons of an argument in their book and now SciCurious and Janet Stemwedel have posted their reviews of Unscientific America! Sci pays close attention to the role of scientists, Hollywood, and religion. She does a terrifically comprehensive review that discusses the paramount themes in our book:

While it’s true that there are a lot of people out there who simply
don’t want to learn about science, it’s also true that communication is
a two-way street. Scientists can’t sit back and expect their results to
speak for them. While that does indeed work with other scientists, it
doesn’t tend to fly with the lay public. And many scientists don’t WANT
to communicate. Sci cannot tell you how many scientists go into lab
work “so they don’t have to deal with PEOPLE”, or because they just
HATE reading and writing. Teaching at the graduate level, even of
future scientists, is often performed unwillingly and with as little
effort as possible. Scientists know that their future, their career, is
to be found in successes at the bench. I don’t think we can be blamed
for wanting to pursue our careers, especially when “community outreach”
counts for so very little in the pursuit of jobs or tenure.

So Sci likes the idea of incentivising public outreach, and training
scientists in public speaking. Aside from getting our ideas out to the
public, it would certainly help Sci stay awake at lectures and
conferences! And making communication skills count for something might
make scientists look on those who communicate well with less suspicion.
As most people who read this blog (and many other excellent science
blogs out there) can tell, if given time and the incentive, scientists
can indeed communicate complex ideas so that those with relatively
little background knowledge can understand them. And there is not
necessarily a lack of interest. When people realize how important
science can be in their daily lives, they are often interested and
eager to learn.

And communication abilities would indeed be very useful in getting
the word out to policy officials as well. Many scientists these days
are extremely specialized, and often look askance at those who
“simplify” their stuff for the public. But if the public, and
particularly the policy makers, are going to understand why the science
relates to them and why they should fund it, they need to have a basic
understanding of what’s going on. Sci agrees with the authors that this
should probably be happening at both the level of better science
education at the K-12, and better outreach on the part of scientists.
Ultimately, if we want to have our work funded, understood, and
appreciated, we’re going to have to make ourselves understood to people
outside of science.

Likewise, Janet offered her thoughtful review, focusing on the role of scientists:

Until activities like public outreach are recognized as part of the
official job description, however, participating in those activities is
likely to be viewed as time spent doing something other than research,
grant writing, and publishing in the peer-reviewed literature — the
stuff that really counts. For a scientist who is still moving up the
food chain, there is always a whiff of danger in straying too far from
the official duties. Given that research and publications are what
tends to bring in the outside research funding (which universities have
come to depend upon to run research programs), this is what
universities will reward, and this is what academic scientists who want
to keep their jobs will have to make the most visible part of their
professional activities.

The reward structure is science will not be changed from below.
Those who have established themselves, who wield the power in hiring,
tenure, and promotion decisions, who allocate resources and make policy
within academic science, are the ones who might be able to change the
system to reward other kinds of scientific work. So while there might
be a mood at the scientific grassroots level to engage the public, it
won’t be viewed as a central part of the job until enough of the folks
higher in the science hierarchy understand such engagement to be in the
best interests of the scientific community and of the institutions in
which they practice science.

Thanks to Sci and Janet for taking the time to read and consider the arguments in our book! Read their full reviews at Neurotopia and Adventures in Ethics and Science

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Unscientific America

Comments (5)

  1. gillt

    I’m a scientist still moving up the food chain and I’ve been to a number of panel discussions and career seminars on scientific outreach and communication careers geared toward current research scientists.

    Here’s something they all have in common:

    1. The speakers tell us that careers in science communication can be exciting, though few and far between, pay poorly, and are unstable.

    2. People looking to hire are only interested in someone with a PhD, which basically means you have spend 3-5 years of your life in some esoteric sub-field before you’re considered qualified to discuss general science to the public. For example, the AAAS fellowship is only offered to scientists with a PhD. Every scientists who switches careers to become a communicator isn’t communicating on their hyper-narrow graduate project. Yet the demand for a PhD is all but absolute.

    3. The speakers always relate their personal account of how they went from the bench to Capitol Hill or behind an editors desk at Nature. They are stories full of anecdote and quirkiness and a great deal of luck and coincidence, which is nice but useless information. There doesn’t seem to be any structure or rough path to follow. The most common recommendation I hear on how to get into communication is “Start a science blog.” In other words, “I have no idea.”

    4. The seminars are always packed with an audience of young eager post-docs. So the desire is there, it’s just being met with a reasonable guideline for achievement.

  2. Gina Mel

    Does the book address as to why research universities are so focussed on research at the expense of other duties? Wouldn’t dealing with that be vital to changing the system to allow more room for outreach, teaching, etc.?

  3. Peter Beattie

    » Sheril Kirshenbaum:
    There’s nothing that makes authors happier than seeing reviewers weigh the pros and cons of an argument in their book

    Then I fail to see why you’re unhappy with PZ’s review. Of course, he’s critical, even polemical in places and harsh, if you want; but he also agrees with you about half a dozen times. One major conclusion that he draws is that you don’t offer any solutions. Let’s look at that.

    The first review, which you describe as “terrifically comprehensive”, doesn’t even mention a single solution to the problem. If the review really is comprehensive, would it then be fair to say that there are probably no specific solutions in the book?

    The only thing Sci says that comes close to your apparent suggestions to bridge the gap is this:

    it seems rather unrealistic to ask scientists, who are often very idealistic in the pursuit of truth and reality, to hide their opinions and play nice for the sake of popularity. And, as some have pointed out in previous discussions on the topic, scientists have tried to play nice before, and been soundly rebuffed. Why should they play nice now?

    Which is exactly the same point that PZ has made.

    As to the “thoughtful” review, you seem to have quoted the only bit that is not in some way critical of the book. In terms of solutions, if I may just focus on that, Janet says, “they gesture in the direction of a solution to that problem”. She says you hold out the 60s as an example of a time with a better connect between science and the public, “Yet I struggled to get clear on exactly what the pro-science utopia to which they wish to return looks like.” She kind of shares your sentiments but “it would be helpful if Mooney and Kirshenbaum spelled out exactly what [the benefits] are and why they matter.” But it’s not just solutions to the problem that she seems to have trouble in finding and identifying, even as far as the problem is concerned, “I’m still waiting for a clear statement of what precisely is at risk due to this [science–society] gap, especially to the non-scientist.”

    In the next criticism, she combines yet another point that PZ has made with something I, among others, have tried to get a response from you to:

    Yet the emphasis seems to be on helping the public see that scientists are trustworthy, maybe even cool, rather than on helping non-scientists build a good working understanding of scientific methodologies for problem solving, or a toolbox for evaluating the credibility of claims

    Insofar as you seem to dismiss better science education as the “silver bullet” in this discussion—by the way, has anyone ever claimed it was?—Janet says, “I think this assumes a pretty narrow understanding of education as only happening in classrooms”. But even if she were to concede the point to you, “better outreach (which Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend) seems equally prone to failure.” The one thing that remains would seem to be to train scientists in communication, but: “Throwing these additional communication, outreach, and lobbying tasks on every scientist’s shoulders seems a little nuts … .” It might be a good idea, she says, but you’d have to convince people of it: “I believe such an argument could be made, but I couldn’t find it in this book.”

    Her summary is this:

    What I found simultaneously engaging and frustrating about Unscientific America is that I share Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s hunch that things would be better if the American public were less alienated from science and scientists … but I wanted to see the particulars. … I believe these arguments can be made … but I found Unscientific America didn’t make them.

    I have to admit, if these really are comprehensive and thoughtful reviews—and why should we doubt the reviewed book’s authors—then not only PZ’s conclusion seems to be about right (“offers no new solutions”) but also Ophelia Benson’s (“they don’t tell us; they just make an announcement”). And maybe this goes some way to explain why Chris was so singularly reticent to give away even one sentence on what specific solutions might look like.

  4. Svaals

    While the public may care about science, as stated previously, most scientists at the bench cannot justify leaving official duties to communicate to the lay public. This is the gap that media should fill, and is a gap that is currently being filled with garbage. There are a few gems, but mostly it’s sensationalism or politically driven skepticism or rampant idealism.

    Because of the generally poor state of news media in all fields, the job of communicating effectively to the public is more complicated than most scientists and science writers care to think about. It takes a certain amount of humility to recognize that well-researched science journalism will be trumped on cable news with stories featuring the dressed up dogs, singing tweens, and ignorant and idealistic skeptics.

    Sadly, I think, this problem will persist no matter what changes are made in academia, at least until news media has made an attempt to quench sensationalism and misinformation.

  5. Gina Mel

    Sadly, I think, this problem will persist no matter what changes are made in academia, at least until news media has made an attempt to quench sensationalism and misinformation.
    And that will happen when major news media stops being for profit.


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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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