Our Boston Globe Piece: Scientists As A Solution

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 26, 2009 10:14 am

scienceinside__1248524624_1135.jpgToday we have an ideas piece in The Boston Globe about the disconnect between science and American culture–and the role of scientists in the bridging the gap.

At the outset, lest we are misunderstood or misread, we want to emphasize that this does not mean there aren’t many other forces–such as poor education and scientific illiteracy and the unreliable media–contributing to the gap between science and society. However, scientists can also be a contributing factor, as we explain in the piece:

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science unveiled the latest embarrassing evidence of our nation’s scientific illiteracy. Only 52 percent of Americans in their survey knew why stem cells differ from other kinds of cells; just 46 percent knew that atoms are larger than electrons. On a highly contentious issue like global warming, meanwhile, the gap between scientists and the public was vast: 84 percent of scientists, but just 49 percent of Americans, think human emissions are causing global warming.

Scientists are fond of citing statistics such as these in explaining conflicts between the public and the scientific community. On politicized issues like climate change, embryonic stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, and the safety of vaccines, many Americans not only question scientific expertise but even feel entitled to discard it completely. The reason, many scientists infer, is that the public is just clueless; perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems if the average citizen were better educated, more knowledgeable, better informed.

Yet while scientific illiteracy is nothing to shrug at, the truth is that it’s only part of a broader problem for which scientists themselves must shoulder a significant portion of the responsibility. Decrying ignorance and scientific illiteracy, many scientists treat their fellow citizens as empty vessels waiting for an infusion of knowledge. That is exactly wrong, and exactly why so many people, in turn, see science and scientists as distant, inscrutable, aloof, arrogant. Rather than blaming, scientists ought to be engaging with the public, trying to personally make their knowledge hit home and to instill by example (rather than from a distance) the nature and virtues of the scientific mindset – while also encouraging average Americans to ask their own questions and have their say. Scientists must make it clear that while they don’t have all the answers, science is about searching for the truth, an imperfect process of doing the best one can with the information available, while knowing there is always more to learn – the epitome of humility….

Read our full article available online here.

Comments (40)

  1. Matti K.

    I wonder if Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirschenbaum would accuse the writers and novelists in say, Mali, for the state of low general literacy in the country. Basic literacy is still taught by specific teachers, not people producing prize-earning prose or poetry.

    If I correctly undeststand, “scientific illiteracy” means not understanding the basics os science. It does not mean that you lack a Ph.D. Therefore I am quite convinced one does not need Nobel-winners or even Ph.D:s to explain these basics, enthusiastic science teachers in High Schools, Junior Highs and community colleges are enough. If USA has a problem of scientific illiteracy, it is only thr0ugh this kind of grass roots work the situation will be corrected. No “rock-star”-scientist á la Sagan or an army of scientifically competent journalists will ever have a similar potential.

    I don’t understand why one must try to turn cutting-edge research scientists into better communicators, when able grass-roots science communicators (science teachers) can study more cutting-edge science.

  2. We have every reason to believe that this army of young researchers who don’t go into academia will not be viewed as credible, and therefore will only be able to teach an audience the sorts of things that are more or less already in line with their prior beliefs. This is a problem insofar as a major thing that excites scientific interest is surprise about the workings of the world, which will require convincing people of new and unexpected things.

  3. Sven DiMilo

    I read the Globe piece. I thought it was kind of muddled, and in my opinion it reflected the authors’ lack of real understanding of both scientists and the flyover-WalMart “public” that is scientifically illiterate (i.e., the “problem”).
    Just a couple of observations that seem to be missing from the discussion so far:
    1) The vast, vast majority of active modern science is either so detailed, or so esoteric, or both, that “the public” has no chance in hell of understanding what’s interesting about it, and even if they had sufficient background knowledge to understand it, they wouldn’t give a rat’s butt (is that OK to say?). Go to a library and scan the contents of the journals. I am a scientist and I don’t give a rat’s butt about 99+% of the science that is published on a daily basis. Why would “the public” care? So you are only ever talking about a small proportion of science, and therefore scientists, that is appropriate for “public outreach” anyway.
    2) Most working scientists teach for a living so they can continue to do the science that interests them. If that’s not “public outreach” I don’t know what is.
    (The ones who do not teach or don’t teach much are generally dependent on grant funding. In fact, at almost all levels of the research/teaching tradeoff hierarchy, external grants are today far more important than even publications.)

    But as I read it, the proposed solution is not for working scientists to do the outreach anyway; it’s to develop new careers in scentific communication and then to develop the educational infrastructure to train people for these careers:

    We need an entirely new project of public outreach on the part of the scientific community. It shouldn’t require every academic scientist to go door to door – not all will be interested in this work, and not all will be good at it. Rather, it should centrally focus on training those young researchers who are not destined for academic jobs – their numbers are growing today, as academic opportunities decline – so that they’re ideal emissaries for bringing science to the rest of society.
    The enthusiasm is already there in the youngest generation of American scientists, who want to give something back. Some will become our next crop of great researchers – yet some don’t want to follow in the footsteps of their professors, and are ideal candidates for becoming liaisons between science and society. But finding careers for them in public outreach is another matter entirely. As the free market surely won’t do it, universities, philanthropists, and scientific societies must create these careers – and of course, we need the help of government as well.

    That’s all.

    All I can glean about these new professionals is that they will be trained in both science (should they have to publish research themselves? Or is the usual info-dump education enough?) and in media-savvy communications arts and magickes. Will they be writers? Sanjay-Gupta-ish talking heads? Directors of science-approved blockbuster Hollywood summer hits?

    How much of this is thought through?
    Or should I just Buy the Book?

  4. NEWS: Your detractors are still detracting, your distorters are still distorting.

    Looks like they don’t like to hear bad news or suggestions on how things might be made better. Following that same old path to nowhere is preferable to some people. I’ll be interested to see if you get any letters from people working in science in the Boston area.

  5. Lindsay

    Matt K –

    But imagine if those authors and poets went to the people and got them excited about reading by reaching out to the public? Would that not be good for their business?

    I think a lot of people miss the point of the article. If scientists took a more active role in science education, things would get better. There do need to be full time positions available for scientists to do public outreach, and I think the job of practicing scientists should be to actively SUPPORT these positions as much as they can. Everyone who is involved in science knows that

    The bottom line is if scientists want to continue to be funded by public money, it is absolutely their responsibility to make sure the public cares about it!

    And Sven, your arrogant characterization of the public using the words “Walmart” and “flyover” indicates that you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. Just because you want to think of them as a stupid mass that doesn’t give a shit about anything scientific doesn’t make it true (thankfully!). Elitism at its worst!

  6. Lindsay

    My apologies, my sentence remained unfinished:

    Everyone who is involved in science knows that scientists have a lot on their plate, so the simple act of publicly supporting someone doing science outreach would do a lot.

  7. Lindsay, I’d recommend that you give the article and our comments a closer reading. You’ll find that the the authors (both in this article and in Unscientific America) emphasize and propose a separate stream of careers outside of academia. As they explain above:

    [Outreach] should centrally focus on training those young researchers who are not destined for academic jobs – their numbers are growing today, as academic opportunities decline – so that they’re ideal emissaries for bringing science to the rest of society.

    This proposal can be criticized, for the empirical reasons I did above; and Matti K’s remarks are in perfect sync with the evidence. Since it is an explicit part of the article, it is absolutely unfair to assert that anyone who puts a bit of consideration into that matter has “missed the point”.

    To be sure, this is not the only solution they propose — it just so happens to be the one they put the accent on. There is also mention of the IGERT program, which is also fine and well, and good to draw attention to. But for me, the most interesting suggestion is the one that they spend the least time on in the book — namely, the idea that public outreach count towards tenure. I think this might have problems related to academic politics, but it also has its appeals, and would certainly be an interesting discussion to have, instead of the usual Discovery banter.

  8. Marc

    I do think that there is a legitimate question about whether it’s more effective to get research scientists to communicate better with the public – as opposed to having people with good communications skills get better at using them for scientific subjects. There is a subset of people who leave graduate programs because they have a passion for, say, science education – but that is a pretty indirect channel.

    Graduate programs already have too much content; if anything we’re pushing to streamline and reduce coursework while emphasizing research itself. I’m always suspicious of using things like graduate programs which are very good at certain tasks (training the next generation of scientific researchers) and trying to use them for other purposes. For starters, you need teachers who actually know something about the subject…

  9. Marc, you’re probably right to a large extent — the idea of watering down your PhD in theoretical or applied science for outreach purposes is unthinkable. Though it is not inconceivable that graduate programs in science education (or, barring that, streams of science and technology studies) might benefit from co-op programs.

    But then what? Where do they get their paycheck?

  10. I don’t disagree that there should be more public outreach about science, but I think it’s not really realistic to put the burden primarily on the shoulders of scientists.

    The problem is that many scientists who have tried to engage with the public have poor experiences – they find themselves misquoted or placed in the middle of a manufactured controversy by the press, for example. While it might help for scientists to learn to talk in sound bites, that’s

    It’s also very hard for scientists to compete with those who promote creationism or climate change denial, because the denialists have the luxury of both telling people what they want to hear (they are the center of the universe, their dearly held religious beliefs are true, they don’t need to change their lifestyle) and telling people that it’s just a scientific “controversy” and that there are indeed scientists on their side (e.g., Answers in Genesis and MSM articles about evolution that look to the Discovery Institute for counterpoint quotes). Being limited by facts is a serious handicap.

    And what’s not clear to me is what should be done differently by the many science popularizers that are already working to improve the public understanding of science. You seem to focus on the “bad” scientists who criticize the public for their ignorance or religious beliefs, while ignoring the many many scientists who don’t do that, who go to classrooms. and give public lectures, and appear on TV to promote science on its own merits. How will the situation be improved by adding to the corps of scientists already in public communication, particularly when the media is so focused on framing science as either controversial or independent “revolutionary” discoveries?

  11. “Graduate programs already have too much content; if anything we’re pushing to streamline and reduce coursework while emphasizing research itself.”

    So grad students will be better trained and less educated? It strikes me as odd that reducing content is the key to emphasizing research. I’d want to have a broad understanding of a field prior to specialization, not after.

    Sounds like a better proposal would be to develop training programs to get people into the lab faster, and get over this notion that they all have to be Ph.Ds (policymakers are guilty of this preference as well). If they’re going to be doing lab tech work anyway, why not get them a certificate or a master’s and push people through the pipeline faster.

  12. …scientists ought to be engaging with the public, trying to personally make their knowledge hit home…

    You guys think that impenetrable ideological barriers are the same thing as scientific ignorance.

    That’s pretty funny… and lotsa luck to ya.

    PS, look in the mirror and you’ll see half the problem that you’ll never recognize for the same reason.

  13. Marc

    David: graduate programs typically include both formal coursework and one-on-one mentoring for research training. The former is something that students already come to graduate school with; the latter is what is essential for being a creative scientist. And they frequently don’t have very much experience with it. That’s the justification for de-emphasizing classes in favor of research. They get plenty of experience learning a subject while doing a related research project (e.g. read and understand numerous papers in the subfield.) That’s very different from taking formal classes, frequently on tangentially related subjects.

    So I would resist strongly rules which required students in my department from taking extra generic courses. I would support strongly the existence of interdisciplinary programs for students who decide that teaching, or outreach, is the thing that they really want to do.

  14. Matti K.

    5. Lindsay Says:

    “But imagine if those authors and poets went to the people and got them excited about reading by reaching out to the public? Would that not be good for their business?”

    I thought we were discussing ways how to reduce scientific illiteracy, not about making the public familiar with the nuances of cutting-edge research. The latter requires scientific literacy. As you know, one must learn to walk before learning to run.

    If I may use my orginal analogy, we do not need top writers or poets to teach the alphabet to first-graders. Even without their pep-talk, most kids find it cool to learn to read and write.

    It seems that Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirschenbaum have forgotten that countless people have had their first love affair with science in the classroom. And such things happened long before anybody knew about Sagan.

    What’s the need for a new kind of general “science communicators”, when there are already science teachers? Wouldn’t it be more wise to put the extra resources for a better education for these teachers? Or maybe even a better pay for them?

  15. Marc,

    The pattern you describe in graduate programs does not, at least to me, seem to produce students who have much general understanding of the field they are in. Decreasing coursework in favor of research experience that will expose these new researchers to the basics of a narrow specialty seems to make it harder to train people capable of examining how other fields might enrich their work – whether or not they give a whit about outreach.

  16. As I have commented elsewhere, there IS outreach. There are scientists who specialize in public understanding of science. There are entire organizations, staffed with scientists and non-scientists dedicated to this kind of outreach.

    The ability of scientists to communicate is NOT a major factor in science illiteracy and you have presented no evidence to support that assertion. In fact, the statements you make in your book (SOME of which ARE supported by evidence, whether you cited that evidence or not) refute it.

    As journalists/authors, you have the power to contribute to increasing science literacy in this country. IMO, you will not do so until you rethink this issue – seriously rethink it.

  17. NewEnglandBob

    What an awful piece. Scientists perform science – it is their main task. Teachers teach. You fling blame on scientists for what they are not incentivised to do.

    And then there is your solution which is to have OTHER people teach science. well, DUH.

    You blame the scientists and then state “Americans should be far more engaged with scientists and what they’re doing. ” Well, which is it? the scientists fault or the average American’s fault? Then you revert back to saying scientists must change.

    This is bad journalism and a misrepresentation of the problem. I expect you to delete this comment just like you did my last one.

  18. Jon

    Solution: Blame the stoopid public, add bluster.

  19. The “average” American. Maybe that’s part of the problem. An average isn’t a person, it’s a convenient abstraction.

    Seems to me that scientists have a choice, they can try to engage the public or they can continue to watch things go down hill. And it’s their choice which one they choose to do. Let’s hope the ones who choose to attempt an engagement with the public are the smarter ones who realize it’s more important than their pride and the pleasure they might get from lording it over the people who elect the people who fund the programs that employ them.

    The cargo cult aspect of this is sort of fascinating to watch in a rather morbid kind of way. While I doubt research money will entirely dry up, lots of it could. Maybe the ones who are the least arrogant and explain themselves clearly will be the ones that get funded. Maybe it will be survival of the smartest, or maybe the least arrogant and proud. At least in so far as non-military, general research of unknown profitability. You always could count on the military to get its money, though not even that is perpetually secure.

  20. TB

    There is always resistance to change – the key is to seperate genuine concerns from irrational fears. Not just this article but the book itself detail how the present systems of communication are inadequate for keeping the public informed about scientific advances. Aserting that they provide no evidence for these things is absurd – Sheril worked on Capitol Hill and witnessed things first hand. They related the story about funding for game theory. And the plight of science journalism is plain to see.
    It’s not surprising nor is it unreasonable to suggest that some structure inside the field of science be developed to fill the vacuum.
    As for where the funding might come from, I tossed out the idea of building such structures around public science museums – places that already are adept at public outreach and fundraising a in the previous thread.
    But let’s be clear about something – this recession has been the worst since the great depression. Jobs are terribly hard to come by – especially for new college graduates. And that’s not going to change for any institution funded by the public, anytime soon. It’s going to be more important than ever for people to engage and push support for funding scientific research. That means engaging with the public and politians, and maybe even giving back to the community in order to get funding by the community.

  21. TB, I feel as though nobody on this blog quite knows how to react to constructive suggestions, and this creates a nervous vacuum that is quickly filled by concern trolling.

    That having been said, I’m not sure how I feel about your suggestion, as opposed to Matti K’s. It’s not a bad idea, but it seems outside the purview of the museum’s purpose. And it isn’t as though museums are booming with success, as far as I know. Finally, and worst of all, museums are sensitive to flak in ways that other systems are not — Newt Gingrich’s assault on the Smithsonian for its Enola Gay exhibit in the mid-90’s is a case in point. On the other hand, people feel like they own the public schools, while they’re more ambivalent about museums.

  22. TTT

    So, hey, Chris & Sheril?

    The comments on your Boston Globe article are full of eco-denialists insisting that global warming is a giant hoax.

    When can we expect to see your skilled, respectful outreach that will convince them it is real?

  23. Start with a statistic that does not remotely support your argument. Good thinking. Then maybe nobody will notice that you don’t have any facts at all to back up your assertion. But at least you started with a statistic! Who cares what that statistic refers to, right?

    I think Globe commenter badrescher said it best:

    “User Image
    badrescher wrote:
    I am dumbfounded by this article. I once thought you were brilliant and I think the book has a few gems in it despite 2 glaringly BAD chapters, but this is WAY OFF. It’s also insulting & arrogant.

    You think that the reason Americans are generally scientifically illiterate is because scientists do not hire PR people and act like celebrities?

    There are many factors responsible for it:
    – lack of interest
    – poor critical thinking skills
    – lack of education
    – entrenched beliefs which are threatened by scientific findings
    – people like you. Perhaps you have not misquoted or misrepresented research yourself (I really don’t know), but 75% of science that is reported in the media is misrepresented, misinterpreted, and otherwise mangled by “science journalists”. They misquote scientists and spin research to create angles they think readers want.

    I am also unhappy with the way you tossed in the NSF-IGERT program as if it has ANYTHING to do with your point. I was an IGERT fellow myself, and I can tell you that scientific literacy is NOT the goal of the program. Students in PhD programs KNOW THEIR SCIENCE ALREADY. The program is designed to provide training in research which emphasizes interdisciplinary work. It is not an “outreach” program and it does not train scientist in “talking to the public”.

    Telling people how science affects them personally – isn’t that YOUR job? The jobs of TEACHERS? (not all scientists teach)

    If people are intimidated by scientists, that’s THEIR hang-up. Most scientists are VERY approachable, many DO open their labs to the public, volunteer for outreach, give talks open to the public, etc. If that’s not good enough for you, tough. Scientists are pretty busy already – DOING SCIENCE.”

  24. José

    Having the knowledge equivalent of a PhD is more along the lines of what’s necessary to refute them, and even then, the task requires considerable research and intellectual labor, far more than most people have the time for.

    What? You need the knowledge equivalent of a PhD to refute anti-evolutionists? Really? And I thought all it took was a basic knowledge of the subject and the will to explain why their silly arguments are false. I’m going to start putting “equivalent of a PhD” on my resume.

  25. Heraclides

    I think that Americans need to grow some balls and fix their high school education first :-) It seems to me that almost everyone either ignores this or seems to have placed it in the “too hard” basket before even really looking at it. At least that’s this outsider’s impression (I’m not from the USA). Adult science literacy is difficult to achieve if people don’t know the very basics upon which to learn the new stuff. You get these basics from high school…

    I’m not against adding some science communication courses for those who want to take them as a new direction. It’s not a bad idea, but I don’t think they’ll make as much difference as Chris and Sheril (in the youth and idealism) seem to think that it will. These ideas aren’t new after all, there are books with essentially the same thoughts from many years ago. One issue is that science communicators have to work thorough the existing media organisations.

  26. — 75% of science that is reported in the media is misrepresented, misinterpreted, and otherwise mangled by “science journalists”. They misquote scientists and spin research to create angles they think readers want. Skepacabra

    There was a short but interesting report in the Boston Globe a couple of years back because it was about just this issue, how something that gets into the media, purporting to be science and becoming common received wisdom, that men as a whole have sex with more women and women as a whole have sex with fewer men.

    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/08/12/statistics_on_sexual_partners_cant_be_right_specialists_say/

    It takes some fairly elementary mathematics to discern that applying the idea to the general population isn’t only illogical, it’s literally irrational. But it has gained hold in the culture of the news media and even in some rather sciencey popular science. And how did it happen? The report begins by giving a clue:

    “Everyone knows men are promiscuous by nature. It’s part of the genetic strategy that evolved to help men spread their genes far and wide. The strategy is different for a woman, who must go through so much just to have a baby and then nurture it. She is genetically programmed to want just one man who will stick with her and help raise their children”

    Why would such a story be constructed? Well, it begins in the traditional double standard about sexual activity, men get to be studs, women get to be called names. But that “genetic strategy” idea didn’t just happen. Someone with a PhD, actually a significant group of PhD’s began to replace story telling for rigorous science. And that’s not the fault of the public in general.

    Public funding of science is going to have to be largely on the same basis that a scientist in one field presumes the validity of science in an unrelated field or a congressman who doesn’t sit on the relevant committee does. They are going to have to do it on faith that it’s worth while. They’re never going to know more than a small fraction of the information necessary to understand it, they won’t have the math or preparation necessary to understand the large majority of it. Like it or not, that’s the way life is. It might help if scientists didn’t sell unsupported and irrational ideas like the one in the news report. But notice this, that story was culturally successful because it appealed to a particularly wide spread notion, a really bad one at that, and it was turned into pop-science. If you can sell a bad idea to little complaint by the elitists here, you should be able to sell at least public acceptance of legitimate science.

  27. I should have said: “it was turned into pop-science by simple writing by purported authorities who the public should be able to trust”.

    They should be able to trust scientists because science is supposed to junk bad ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. And that has obviously broken down very badly within some branches of science.

    The media, by and large, have stopped reporting anything, replacing it with ideological agendas, R says D says (and oddly there seem to always be two+ Rs to one D) phony opinion polling and, cheapest of all to put on camera “predictions”. It’s not just science reporting that’s in a shambles, its all reporting.

  28. NewEnglandBob

    So the problem is journalism, not scientist.

    The larger part of the problem is due to politicians and the right wing (especially the religious right) who are determined to interfere in everyone’s lives to control them and discourage or prevent everything that does not agree with their tiny mindset.

    This is often stoked by mid-America fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the televangelical clergy.

  29. TB

    @21. Benjamin S. Nelson Says:

    “TB, I feel as though nobody on this blog quite knows how to react to constructive suggestions, and this creates a nervous vacuum that is quickly filled by concern trolling.”

    I’m not quite sure who you’re referring to with that, but I see some examples where it’s true.

    Regarding the museums’ role: yes, it’s got some challenges. But as long as they’re specifically involved in the political arena as informational recources and not as lobbyists (that would be the PAC idea), then it could work.

    There’s already a kind of infrastructure in them that could be expanded.

  30. NEB, you want to over simplify the problem. It’s not a simple matter of selling a product that scientists produce. Science needs public funding and to get that it needs support. And not all science is as important as other science. And some science, even that done by people at prestigious universities is bogus, as the example in the report by Gina Kolata shows. Add onto that an ill advised and easily distorted title or sentence from the scientists of even valuable and you’ve handed the demagogues more than half of their work.

    You might want to look at what happened in the National Endowment for the Arts, where some pretty silly stuff got seriously considered for funding and a small number of trivial projects were used to attack something vitally important for a lot of people. You can argue for the merits of any one of those projects, some of them I thought were pretty trivial. Look at how those were used by some of the same people who attack legitimate science. Whether or not someone gets a government grant to smear chocolate on themselves is relatively unimportant (as someone who likes a lot of avant guarde art, the idea of applying for a grant to do it seems like a sell out to me). Science being funded and supported is more serious.

    You might want to consider how much hay has been made by the right in the United States over funding for the World Toilet Summit, an ill chosen name for a pretty serious meeting on a very serious problem.

    Scientists shouldn’t be handing their opponents their PR ready made. As another commentator implied, being arrogant about those whose support you need is handing them the rest of their press package. Which doesn’t strike me as being very smart.

  31. SLC

    Jason Rosenhouse over at the evolution blog is publishing a review of Unscientific America. He doesn’t like it much.

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2009/07/reviewing_unscientific_america.php

  32. TB

    @ 23. Skepacabra Says:

    “Start with a statistic that does not remotely support your argument. ”

    He started with three statistics – two on general science knowledge and one on how different public opinion is from scientists on a specific issue. All three speak to science literacy, two refer to knowledge that could have a direct influence on public policy.

    They absolutely help make a case for new approaches to science literacy.

    “despite 2 glaringly BAD chapters”

    Gee, I wonder what two chapters those could be? I realize you’re quoting someone else, but you quoted them.

    You know, I don’t have a problem with people who are fans of something. But just come out and say it, OK? It means you’re biased in favor of something and that’s fine.

    “I was an IGERT fellow myself, and I can tell you that scientific literacy is NOT the goal of the program. Students in PhD programs KNOW THEIR SCIENCE ALREADY. The program is designed to provide training in research which emphasizes interdisciplinary work.”

    And that focus on interdisciplinary work is exactly why the program was mentioned. Just because it doesn’t focus on communication now doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate communications programs. And, see how I typed all that without resorting to all caps?

    Let me address a couple of other canards hanging around this blog, (but not necessarily held by Skepacabra) :

    – “Scientists are busy – many of them teach.” So, instead of time in the classroom, there would be time spent on projects designed to inform the general public. And the two activities would be treated equally in terms of employment and tenure. Plus, in order to make this happen you would actually be adding positions, which would provide more employment for scientists.
    – “Can’t take scientists away from research.” Interestingly, they make this point in the book, that research shouldn’t suffer due to outreach efforts.
    – “The public is too stupid to care about science.” Most of the public aren’t currently attending school, where they get exposed to science on a regular basis (we hope) and in such a way that makes it personally important (grades). The kind of effort being put forth by the authors is one intended to address the vacuum of science literacy after people leave school. The last time I was in school was 1984, and I guarantee you there was no discussion of stem cells in any of the classes I took.

  33. TB

    @ 31. SLC Says:
    “Jason Rosenhouse over at the evolution blog is publishing a review of Unscientific America. He doesn’t like it much.”

    What a shock. He doesn’t like it much because he thinks the way to change because: “The point is that in those areas where we can say that scientific ignorance is leading people towards bad decisions and bad public policy it is because there are powerful social forces working very hard to make sure people remain ignorant.”

    Onward culture warriors!

  34. TB

    @ 31. SLC Says:
    “Jason Rosenhouse over at the evolution blog is publishing a review of Unscientific America. He doesn’t like it much.”

    What a shock. He doesn’t like it much because he thinks the way to change because: “The point is that in those areas where we can say that scientific ignorance is leading people towards bad decisions and bad public policy it is because there are powerful social forces working very hard to make sure people remain ignorant.”

    Onward culture warriors!
    BTW I love your blog!

  35. After finding out how carefully he read Jerry Coyne’s review of another book he used to attack Chris Mooney, I wouldn’t consider Jason’s review of anything to be authoritative. The guy is not a serious thinker.

  36. TB

    @ 34 TB Says

    I did not write “BTW I love your blog!”, and don’t click the link associated with the initials TB at #34. It’s some kind of spam.

  37. Strangel

    My comment from Boston.com.

    Strangel wrote:
    I can’t even read Mooney and Kirshenbaum anymore. Science is not an aristocracy whereby the elite can impose their education on the citizens. It is the responsibility of every homosapien to pick up a book, take a class, ask a neighbor; Do their own homework.

    I spend a majority of my free time educating those who have been deceived by an imposed “truth” put upon them by people acting in an aristocratic manner (as do innumerable others). Very few of the deceived do their own homework and the rest refuse to do any at all.

    As long as our own government refuses to educate themselves in science why would a citizen feel obligated to?

    (Unbelieveable… I was asked to remove the first two syllables of homosapien… we’re doomed as a species…)

  38. @32

    TB, I just went for the whole quote. I haven’t read the book. Also, the point I made about the statistics cited is accurate. Yes, they relate to scientific literacy but as I said, they do not remotely support M&K’s solution in any way. In the article these statistics are only exploited as a jumping off point for Chris to assert his particular opinion. Now I have no objection to Chris expressing his opinion in print as long as opinion isn’t being passed off as facts backed up by statistical data.

  39. — Science is not an aristocracy whereby the elite can impose their education on the citizens. It is the responsibility of every homosapien to pick up a book, take a class, ask a neighbor; Do their own homework. Strangel

    And what do you think the results will be if science, in the face of clear evidence that people are not going to take the responsibility you have assigned them? Assigned rather pedantically, if not aristocratically, I might add.

    That is the real world condition which the funding of science and the support of science either deals with, or it watches the results of a harried, busy, ill-educated, media-distracted public stop caring about science and its funding. You watch as any demagogue who finds it useful to them to attack science and its funding.

    Your proposal that scientists leave the explanation and promotion of their work to others is an argument for the status quo. The only alternative being widely practiced by those with science degrees is to insult the public and tell them they’re superstitious. Would you expect to sell Sham-wows that way?

  40. @32 “‘despite 2 glaringly BAD chapters’
    Gee, I wonder what two chapters those could be? I realize you’re quoting someone else, but you quoted them.

    You know, I don’t have a problem with people who are fans of something. But just come out and say it, OK? It means you’re biased in favor of something and that’s fine. ”

    I wrote that and it’s pretty arrogant of you to assume that I’m a “PZ fan” simply because I had serious problems with the same number of chapters.

    FYI, one of them was need “The internet won’t save us”, but the other was NOT the religion chapter. I don’t give a rat’s tail about whether or not PZ is insulted. He put it out there and, from what I can tell, he can handle the heat. Yes, I read his blog – about 25% of it. If that is what “fan” means, so be it.

    The other chapter I disliked intensely was “Why Pluto Matters” because in it the authors give the distinct impression (in fact, they pretty much state it outright) that science and scientists should consider the public’s feelings when deciding matters of science.

    Scientists should not even consider THEIR OWN feelings. That’s WHY they use SCIENCE.

    And I also don’t give a rat’s tail if you don’t like my use of capital letters for emphasis.

    By the way, science literacy in this country is going UP, not down. And you can present statistics to support the opposite if you feel compelled; I won’t bother to pick them apart. It’s not that important of a point. I completely agree that it should be rising at a much higher rate than it is and it is far too low for my comfort level. However, scientists not being “sexy” is NOT the problem.

    No, the scientifically illiterate are not just a bunch of stupid people, but intelligence is not the only factor in critical thinking ability. We still need to look more closely at EDUCATION – at the elementary level.

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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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