Two New Reviews

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 27, 2009 4:51 pm

As I’ve written before, it’s terrific to see others weighing the pros and cons of the arguments laid out in Unscientific America. Today Razib and Jason have posted two reviews that bring up many important themes from our book. They add thought-provoking points to the growing discussion and both seem to agree it’s worth reading.

Over at Gene Expression, Razib weighs in on history, religion, and Sagan:

It is important to reiterate that this is a book that should not be judged by the cover, in particular, the title. It’s not a conventional rehashing of the fact that most Americans, and most humans, are illiterate in terms of the nuts & bolts of science fact. Median human stupidity is such a banal background condition of the universe so as to not be worthy of any interest. Rather Sheril & Chris sketch out the multivalent relationships between the media, government, religion and science, and how these distinct institutions relate to each other and the populace at large. The authors draw heavily upon their own diverse personal experiences. It is perhaps not a trivial fact that Chris Mooney’s fiance worked for the Writer’s Guild of America, and so he had some firsthand media connections which allowed him to easily communicate the mindset of those in the entertainment industry. After all they were his friends and acquaintances. Sheril was at one point a staffer at Congress. The funniest anecdote in Unscientific America for me was that Vern Ehlers, a physicist who represents a district in Michigan, had to rush to the floor to make it clear to his colleagues that funding for “game theory” did not mean funding for the scientific research of sports games!

Meanwhile at Evolutionblog, Jason Rosenhouse begins a three part review, critically considering some ideas on science communication from the book:

What does it mean to say that America is scientifically illiterate? One possibility is that Americans just do not know enough scientific facts, like, say, that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. There is little question that America is scientifically illiterate in that sense, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide several reasons for thinking this is not the main problem (p. 14).

I agree that this sort of scientific ignorance is more the symptom than the disease. Furthermore it is not so much ignorance per se that is the problem, but the lack of awareness of one’s own ignorance.

I would add, though, that scientists have actually been very good at addressing this aspect of the issue. There is a steady stream of popular-level science literature in virtually every discipline. The web is teeming with resources for anyone wishing to inform themselves on the basic facts of science. Magazines like Seed and Scientific American are also readily available. It has never been easier to inform yourself quickly about the state of play in science. Anyone motivated to learn the basics of science can do so quickly and painlessly, and this is because many professional scientists have gone to great lengths to make it so.

Read these full reviews at Gene Expression and Evolutionblog.

Thanks Jason and Razib. We appreciate that you’ve taken the time to discuss our book and look forward to continued dialog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America

Comments (71)

  1. John Kwok

    Posted over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog:


    Of the negative reviews I have read so far, yours is the most thoughtful and well-written. I am in the midst of reading “Unscientific America” now, and I have to agree with you that I am especially stunned by how superficial parts of it seem (I will withhold further comment until I post my review over at Amazon.). But I think it was silly of them to mention “Pluto” (Chris, you had other, better examples to draw upon your prior work on climatological research.) and I am quite perplexed with their obsession with Carl Sagan (I would have used Stephen Jay Gould as a much better example to illustrate their point.).

    Appreciatively yours,


  2. I am quite perplexed with their obsession with Carl Sagan (I would have used Stephen Jay Gould as a much better example to illustrate their point.).

    why? sagan was clearly the bigger public figure.

  3. John Kwok

    @ razib –

    Only if you watched Johnny Carson. Gould was far more productive as an essayist and book author. Moreover, he was the better scientist, since many of his interests are still under active investigation by paleobiologists and evolutionary developmental biologists to this very day.

  4. John Kwok

    @ razib –

    Both Sagan and Gould suffered at their hands of their colleagues who were jealous of their fame (I still remember a talk I heard in my freshman year from two Viking Lander planetary scientists – college professors of mine – who were gloating that they had “upstaged” Sagan since they, along with several engineering colleagues at my undergraduate alma mater, had designed Viking’s photographic systems.
    Gould should have been admitted into NAS, but his popularity and political activity were two key negative reasons why he never was.

  5. Razib: “why? sagan was clearly the bigger public figure.”

    Kwok: “Only if you watched Johnny Carson.”

    Which is exactly the point – more people watched Johnny Carson than read Gould. Sagan was the clearly the bigger public figure.

  6. Sven DiMilo

    Gould was elected to the Academy. 1989 as noted above.
    It was Sagan who was not. Was it because he popularized, or because he didn;t really accomplish enough before he started popularizing pretty much full time?

  7. Chris Mooney

    To say Gould was a bigger figure than Sagan in this context is to fundamentally misunderstand the media.

  8. John Kwok

    Chris and Sven,

    I stand corrected with Gould. Had a grad school professor who predicted that Gould would never be admitted to NAS (Boy was he wrong.). But I would contend still that Gould was still far more influential in the USA than Sagan, especially in light of his harsh critique of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, and in condemning “The Bell Curve” as fundamentally flawed, racially-prejudiced, book based on unsound scientific reasoning.

  9. John Kwok

    @ Chris –

    If you want to use the “Nuclear Winter” argument on behalf of Sagan, you are forgetting the facts that it was the Alvarez team based primarily at Berkeley (father and son Luis and Walter; one a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the other a superb field geologist) that found the “smoking gun” for the K/T impact in the form of iridium and came up with the nuclear winter scenario as the likely culprit in wiping out the dinosaurs, ammonites, marine reptiles and pterosaurs (If my memory is correct their work was published in Science back in 1981.). Sagan was influenced by their paper and used it, along with others, to state his position regarding “nuclear winter”

  10. MadScientist

    Both *seem* to agree it’s worth reading? Come on, they either agree or they don’t and if you ask them you can eliminate all doubt. Why sit in the shadow of doubt when you can bask in the knowledge of truth? Of course you can also be skewered and hoist by the truth, but scientific folk never let such risks stop them.

  11. Moreover, he was the better scientist, since many of his interests are still under active investigation by paleobiologists and evolutionary developmental biologists to this very day.

    mebee. but most evolutionary biologists think he’s a joke in regards to his theoretical contributions; e.g., john maynard smith came out and said it, but his views were not atypical (perhaps it is different in paleontology). i can’t speak to sagan’s contributions to planetary science since i don’t know planetary scientists.

    sagan’s influence wasn’t just johnny carson. it was *cosmos*

  12. MS, Jason’s review is largely negative, and he thinks it’s worth reading. Razib’s review is mostly positive, so you can presume it fairly. Also, of course, he’s posting here so you can ask him.

  13. Razib –

    It is absolutely absurd to say that Stephen Jay Gould is today or was in his time regarded as a joke by most evolutionary biologists. His “new and general theory” paper represented the views of many, and his spandrels and exaptations papers were highly influential. Punctuated equilibrium was generally well-received by paleontologists. And those were just his purely theoretical papers. He also made contributions to making paleontology a more rigorous, quantitative science, and did some excellent, more quotidian work on land snails. When he wrote a 1400 page book on evolution, many people found things to criticize, but no one ignored it.

    John Maynard Smith had plenty of detractors too. That he was very critical of Gould is hardly definitive.

    And that doesn’t even consider his major contributions to the history of science…

  14. How does Sagan apply to the situation as it stands today? Are scientists active in the public fold still treated as second class citizens by their colleagues? Does Steve Squyres get the cold shoulder at the AAS meetings because he allows amateurs access to near real-time photos from the Mars rovers? (plug for Really, does Neil Shubin get laughed at for writing a popular book (Your Inner Fish)? We have four cable channels with science or related subjects a significant portion of their time (national geographic, discovery, science, history (yes, I know much of their stuff is tripe, but they also did the very good Evolve series)).

    We don’t see scientists on CNN because CNN doesn’t ask for any. CNN doesn’t ask for any because they know that science stories don’t sell ads. Until Americans show more interest in stem cells, climate change, etc, then the media will not deliver that content.

  15. Wes

    Gould certainly was not a joke. He had a bad habit of grossly overstating his case when it came to adaptation, which resulted in some unfortunate creationist quote-mines. But in the grand scheme of things he had a lot of important points to make, and he was right that many biologists are too flippant in assuming that features must be adaptations. There’s more to evolution than natural selection, and Gould was one of the foremost in making that point. Don’t judge Gould by the way that creationists misrepresented him.

  16. Gina Mel

    How does Sagan apply to the situation as it stands today? Are scientists active in the public fold still treated as second class citizens by their colleagues? Does Steve Squyres get the cold shoulder at the AAS meetings because he allows amateurs access to near real-time photos from the Mars rovers? (plug for
    It should be remembered Sagan did pretty well for himself. As Jason’s review points out Sagan got an endowed chair at Cornell after being denied tenure at Harvard. Being denied tenure was before Sagan became a popularizer of science. Harvard has some crazy high standards for tenure. Cornell has some pretty high standards though as well. Sagan also did win an award from the national academy for his work popularizing science. Membership in NAS is based on research. Did Sagan’s work measure up? I don’t know. Should NAS open up membership qualifications to more than original research contributions? Interesting discussion to have but currently not the NAS was have or had when Sagan was up for discussion.

    From the reviews of people who know the details of what Chris and Sheril talk about in Unscientific America, I am getting that the authors presented the facts that supported their thesis. Matt Nisbet has called into question the idea of a golden age of science appreciation in the US (the Fall from Grace narrative according to Nisbet). Ian Musgrave points out complexity in the Pluto discussion that includes scientists being concerned about communicating to the public. Heck Neil deGrasse Tyson, someone who is following Sagan’s footsteps and knows a thing or two about communicating science to a wider audience, was one of the people leading the charge to demote Pluto. As noted before, Jason pointed out the complexity with regards to Sagan that was not included in the book.

    Taken all together, it seems the authors simplified stories to fit their narrative, ignoring details that called into question that narrative. It probably makes for a better read and if you don’t know any better regarding the details, more likely you are going to agree with their narrative. Given this book is a call to action, they are trying to motivate people to act upon that narrative.

    However, if you do know some of the details, it can make you raise your eyebrows about the entire book and the narrative itself. Double edged sword to say the least.

    You can see that in this post. Sheril states regarding both Jason’s and Razib’s reviews: “They add thought-provoking points to the growing discussion and both seem to agree it’s worth reading.”

    The latter part makes Jason’s review seem positive of the book however in Jason’s actual review he states: “Short review: Mixed, but generally negative. Much of the book is very superficial and I don’t think their proposed solutions are practical.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

  17. If I were doing a list or meme on most popularly influential scientists in my life time, the list would be:

    Steven Hawking
    Sylvia Earle
    E.O. Wilson
    Neil Degrasse Tyson

    And that woul dpretty much be it. Now, out of all the thousands of scientists out there – many of whom do stellar work which I read in a variety of journals – why is my list only 6 people,several of whom are dead? Short answer – these folks are the only ones to break the science/pop culture divide, and some of them not completely. Each has detractors – all scientists do. It doesn’t mean they are less worthy of our consideration.

  18. Chris Mooney

    Philip H–
    Hawking ought, perhaps, to be second. So many people brought A Brief History of Time that he became quickly legendary, and indeed, a non-trivial slice of the public actually knows his name….I also think Dawkins does belong on this list somewhere.

    Going through Simpsons/South Park episodes to see which scientists have appeared is another way of compiling such a list.

  19. SteveF

    @ razib

    mebee. but most evolutionary biologists think he’s a joke in regards to his theoretical contributions; e.g., john maynard smith came out and said it, but his views were not atypical (perhaps it is different in paleontology).

    Well, Gould’s Spandrels paper has been cited 1933 times. That makes it a pretty important paper. So I guess not all evolutionary biologists would agree with your assessment! Not to mention Ontogeny and Phylogeny, which was a major influence behind evo-devo.

  20. TTT

    Don’t confuse scientists who are FAMOUS with those who are INFLUENTIAL. Most people probably know the name of Stephen Hawking in the same way they know the name Albert Einstein. They couldn’t understand the concepts regardless.

    I still say that Chris & Sheril’s idealized fixation on Sagan is a mistake. General scientific knowledge today is better overall than it was in Sagan’s day, simply because of brute numbers: more people to learn, more scientists to teach, more options and media for teaching. It also renders their approach very dated–like all this misty-eyed retrospecting on Walter Cronkite, or how conservative activists say the best route for America today is to say everything Reagan said 30 years ago (or 40).

  21. Peter Beattie

    Just to pick out one central sentence from Jason’s review:

    M&K pay lip service to these social forces, but they are far more interested in blaming scientists themselves for America’s scientific malaise.

    The first part was first mentioned, I think, in Janet Stemwedel’s first post on UA; M&K never addressed the issue. The second part is, of course, exactly what PZ and Jerry Coyne have said. In other words, it is exactly what M&K have repeatedly accused PZ and Jerry of horribly misrepresenting. So what, really is the difference? Is it that they know Jason personally and not PZ, or does it only seem to pay dividends in publicity to antagonize the owner of the most popular science-related blog on the interwebs? Any other plausible explanations?

  22. I agree with Chris. Whether you agree with him or not, Dawkins should be on the list. I also agree that Hawking is iconic for many, admittedly as much because of his astonishing disability and survival as for his extraordinary scientific achievements and mind. The physicist Leonard Susskind says that the only time he has observed a complete, religious-like silence in a scientific or public audience is when Hawking comes on stage and his disembodied computer voice starts speaking. Susskind says that he has observed audiences of more than a thousand people not utter a single word for minutes while Hawking communicates. It’s remarkable.

  23. John Kwok

    Jason, Wes and SteveF –

    Thanks for contributing your views on Steve Gould, all of which I endorse completely. If nothing else, you had merely reinforced my assertion that Gould was probably far more influential in his field of science than was Sagan in his. Moreover, Gould’s thinking is firmly rooted as part of the intellectual “background” for last summer’s evolution conference at Altenberg, Austria, chaired by philosopher and evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, which included two friends of Gould’s, Harvard evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin and Chicago invertebrate paleobiologist David Jablonski. Pigliucci is in the midst of editing the proceedings volume of that conference.

  24. Lists are for shopping, no one can tell who will be considered significant in the future. I have a feeling several of those on that list might drop into obscurity but that’s for the future to worry about.

  25. “they are far more interested in blaming scientists themselves for America’s scientific malaise”

    Who would have predicted that scientists are more thin skinned about this issue than classical musicians?

    You either take the responsibility to relate to your audience or you accept that you’ll have a smaller audience in music and the arts. Maybe that these things we’ve always dealt with come as a shock to science because it is so dependent on governmental or corporate support. Looks like the environment has shifted, adapt or die.

  26. FredW


    You keep getting your facts wrong, over and over and over again. Richard Lewontin was not at the Altenberg meeting.

  27. Sven DiMilo

    Gould was probably far more influential in his field of science than was Sagan in his

    Too bad that’s not what’s being talked about.
    Communicating science effectively to the non-scientific public is the topic at hand.

  28. John Kwok

    @ Sven –

    I submit that he was a much better communicator of science than Sagan was. He wasn’t as popular, however, since he never appeared on Johnny Carson or created a series as memorable as “Cosmos”.

  29. John Kwok

    @ FredW –

    Lewontin was supposed to have been one of the key participants. I know Pigliucci and will ask him ASAP.

  30. John Kwok

    @ Philip H –

    My own list would be as follows:

    Stephen Jay Gould
    Carl Sagan
    Richard Dawkins
    James Hansen
    E. O. Wilson
    Stephen Hawking
    Neil de Grasse Tyson
    Jared Diamond
    Brian Greene
    Sylvia Earle

  31. Sorbet

    Gould’s books were too difficult for many ordinary laymen to read. Television is a far more effective medium for reaching ordinary laymen. That is what Sagan accomplished.

  32. JRQ

    I realize this is just anecdotal, but to someone like myself, who relied mostly on the mainstream media and regular public school coverage for exposure to science growing up (no scientists or academics in my family or immediate community — certainly no “eminent alumni” coming out of my high school), the idea that Gould was remotely as prominent a science communicator to the general public as Sagan is absurd. Gould was known by already-science-curious laypeople in the educated class. Sagan was known to anyone who watched the tonight show.

    When I was getting sciencey in elementary school in the mid 80s, Sagan was a household name. I was even a paleontology buff, and moreso than any of the other kids I knew — I probably got more exposure to natural history than anyone else at my school, mostly because I sought out natural history programs on TV and books at the Library…and still, I had never heard of Gould (or Dawkins, Mayr, Lewontin, Wilson, et al.) until I took a class on Evolution years later in college. I’m fairly certain the only scientists I could have named growing up were (1) Carl Sagan and (2) the Geologist I met when I attended a “College for Kids” geology class one summer at the nearby university.

  33. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet –

    I respectfully disagree. He was among our very best literary stylists, and probably even a better writer than Frank McCourt (If I have to make as objective a comparison as possible.).

  34. JRQ

    Gould’s writing is fantastic and engaging — which a layperson will discover IF s/he is a person who can be bothered to read scientific non-fiction. But the segment of the public scientists need to reach simply do not tend to read that kind of thing, if they read anything for enjoyment at all.

  35. John Kwok

    @ JRQ –

    Yours is a point well taken. But Gould did influence the “Intelligentsia” on two noteworthy occasions. First, in his harsh attacks on E. O. Wilson and Wilson’s concept of Sociobiology which was done in league with his Harvard colleague and fellow Marxist, Richard Lewontin. Second, was in his memorable “dissection” of “The Bell Curve”.

  36. I think you might find quite a few people read Panda’s Thumb and Wonderful Life too. I learned a lot about the diagramming and the drawing of fossils I hadn’t known before from Wonderful Life. I think that was where I read his elucidation of cladistics too.

    I think Gould was the premier popular science writer of his time. His reviews were quite good as well.

  37. JRQ


    You’re correct, but I don’t think you appreciate the difference between communicating science within vs. across social classes. Those portions of the scientific public who lie outside the intelligentsia are sitting across not just a cultural divide, but a social and economic class divide. The “intelligentsia” at least appreciate the value of scholarship. The vastly greater portion of the non-scientific lay-public doesn’t have much concept of what scholarship even is, why anyone would think its important, or why they should care. Sagan crossed that divide (somewhat) successfully for a time, by becoming the public face of discovery and wonder. I don’t think Gould ever achieved that.

  38. JRQ


    Sure, but in order to read those books, you have to (1) have that sort of non-fiction writing on your personal interest radar, and (2) have heard about them or seen them somewhere. I am not convinced Gould’s writings have ever reached the awareness of the vast majority of lay-people, except for those who LEAST needed to be reached.

  39. JRQ, If you are expecting that the majority of The People are going to have a full and comprehensive knowledge of science, you are waiting for something that isn’t ever going to happen. NO ONE, not even the most erudite scientist or the most avid follower of science has a comprehensive knowledge of even the most important topics in science. That goal is entirely unrealistic. The support of science and its funding can’t depend on it because it never has existed and it isn’t ever going to.

    TV and other mass entertainment is the huge, overriding problem that all serious culture has. That’s as true of politics, the more challenging of the arts, liberal religion, serious literature, Jazz, etc. have to confront. Junk eats up entire lives, it is eating all serious and challenging aspects of cultural life.

    Asking an author like Gould to single handedly win over the frivolous distractions that are so easily consumed is unrealistic too. But he was the most successful writer of popular science in English during the past fifty years.

  40. Sorbet

    I am not disputing the literary quality of Gould’s writings- he was one of the best- but rather his ability to reach ordinary people. Ordinary people who may not read non-fiction usually still watch TV. I would think that Sagan reached a broader audience in this context. And based on what several friends say, I can definitely say that he reached a broader audience in India and China through the medium of television compared to Gould.

  41. foolfodder

    From my (British and therefore probably irrelevant) perspective, Sagan > Gould. I think my parents got the book Cosmos when I was a child. The first time I really knew anything about Gould was when I read something of Dawkins about him.

  42. SLC

    With regard to the review by Prof. Rosenhouse, I don’t think it is fair to say then he has supported reading the book, particularly as he has posted only 1 out of his projected 3 part review. His review so far seems rather more negative then is implied by Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirshenbaum.

  43. Heraclides

    On another tack, isn’t this book self-published? Who where the editors, or did they dispense with that?

  44. SLC, read the review. “And even though I am generally disappointed in the book (and frankly horrified by the New Atheist chapter, as I shall describe in the next post), I do still think the book is worth reading.”

  45. John Kwok

    @ JRQ –

    Gould did a very good job of reaching out to even those of lower middle class means via his essays in Natural History and Discover Magazine. For example, I was familiar with Gould’s writings by the time I had finished 8th grade, a few years before I met McCourt.

  46. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet –

    Where it counted, Steve Gould was as a much a celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s as Brian Greene, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins are today. I respectfully submit he was a better writer than all of them, with the possible exception of Dawkins.

  47. John Kwok

    @ FredW –

    Thanks for pointing out the error. It was just confirmed by Massimo Pigliucci. Lewontin had been invited, but he wasn’t able to accept.

  48. — The first time I really knew anything about Gould was when I read something of Dawkins about him. foolfodder

    You can lead a horse to fodder but you can’t make him think.

    There’s a very large collection of Gould’s occasional writing online.

    I’ve intended to read his last book for a while now but haven’t gotten to it.

  49. Marion Delgado

    I think Unscientific America is a good start, and not at all superficial. Bringing up Pluto is simply honest, outside the bubble that was a huge news story.

  50. Marion, a fine opinion, as opinions go; but what are your reasons for holding it? What relation between the critique of the Pluto Affair and intellectual culture / the third culture do you find laudable? What suggestions, on a going forward basis, do you believe the IAU ought to take heed?

  51. Sorbet

    McCarthy’s animosity towards someone who made a very simple and sincere comment is miserable. Talk about him calling others intolerant!

  52. John Kwok

    @ Anthony –

    I agree with your assessment of Steve Gould’s popularity, but virtually every invertebrate paleobiologist will tell you that he screwed up royally in his description of the Burgess Shale Fauna in “Wonderful Life”.

  53. JRQ


    Your missing the point by a rather wide margin — this has nothing to do with “expecting” the public to know everything about science, nor am I complaining about “junk culture” — in fact, your dismissal of TV as a “problem” and popular culture as unserious and unchallenging is rather astonishing given your willingness to support M&K’s criticism of scientists as condescending to the public. Calling people’s artistic and cultural tastes junk (whether it is true or not) has EXACTLY the same effect as criticizing their religion, and is certainly not any more helpful for building bridges between cultures.

    There is a class divide that most people in this discussion are not grasping: the general public (to the extent that generalities can be drawn at all about such a diverse thing) does not share the educated class’s love of scholarship and writing. IT doesn’t matter how good writer a person is — nonfiction science reading is not something people bother to do unless they are already curious about science, and if they are already curious enough about science to seek out science writers, they aren’t part of the subpopulation that is the problem. Sagan was effective because he did more than write. How many people would have read Cosmos if there hadn’t been a TV series? If Sagan hadn’t been a name they recognized from TV exposure? Sagan succeeded because, rather than sneer at TV, he embraced TV as a mode of cultural transmission. For crying out loud, Mythbusters has probably reached more of the general public than any of Gould’s writings did.

  54. JRQ


    Pluto a huge news story? Not on your life. No one but science geeks cared about the Pluto affair. There was nothing resembling the level of “public outrage” that M&K claim. There was mild-to moderate curiosity and debate among the already-science-literate and semi-literate. There may have been outrage among the astronomy buffs. But again — none of those particular groups of people are the ones who make up the portion of America being labeled as “unscientific.” The folks who thought Pluto was a big deal emphatically are NOT the same folks who, when asked about evolution, insist they “didn’t come from no monkey”. The Pluto section of the book is completely unconvincing.

  55. —- McCarthy’s animosity towards someone who made a very simple and sincere comment is miserable. Talk about him calling others intolerant! Sorbet

    Sorbet, it wasn’t the best joke in the world but it’s hardly intolerant to point out that if someone hasn’t read something it’s not the fault of the author who went to the trouble of offering it.

    I’m intolerant of new atheists because they are inherently bigoted. But that wasn’t a point about new atheism, it was a point about people not reading what’s available to them. I’ve got to also say, I’ve become entirely intolerant of American TV.

  56. NewEnglandBob

    JRQ @54 – well said.

  57. Sorbet

    Your visceral hatred of Dawkins and anything remotely associated with him was obvious in your statement; you smeared mud on someone simply because he had the temerity, in your view, to say that it was through Dawkins that he heard of Gould. That he is English and therefore this could be very much possible is a point that seems to have escaped you. Sorry McCarthy but you are no less bigoted toward the New Atheists than you claim they are toward you.

  58. — this has nothing to do with “expecting” the public to know everything about science, nor am I complaining about “junk culture” JRQ

    Before any realistic view of the problem of the public’s understanding of science is attained, you have to consider both whether or not scientists are making the effort to explain science to the public and what the public actually spends their limited time doing.

    THAT is the great limiting factor, no matter what you do, people don’t have any more time than they have. You can’t make more of it. If they are spending their time on junk media, they can’t make it up later on other things. Scientists had better take that into consideration as they complain about the issue and to act accordingly.

    Considering how much of the time of the “science” blogosphere has spent on the alleged danger to science posed by “religion” and considering the time the public, in general, spends on religion vs. TV it’s quite absurd.

    Science is a kind of relatively rigorous, serious activity that requires a lot of time and attention to understand. It’s not the only rigorous and serious activity that is in trouble in the United States and elsewhere, that list I made is only a partial list.

    — in fact, your dismissal of TV as a “problem” and popular culture as unserious and unchallenging is rather astonishing given your willingness to support M&K’s criticism of scientists as condescending to the public. JRQ

    You can both have TV being irresponsible and scientists exacerbating the problem with their inability to explain themselves to non-specialists and an all too common attitude that refuses to make the attempt. The long history of scientists who explicitly demand that the public do what the public clearly isn’t doing is also part of the problem. It reminds me of the Russian writer I once heard, on PBS, who railed against the American public who hadn’t read his books. Which hadn’t yet been translated into English!

    I suspect that the authors took one of the other experiences they had in blog controversy on this issue into consideration when they wrote on that topic. The arrogant dismissal by scientists that they weren’t going to lower themselves to address the public in terms they could understand was quite an education to me as well.

    — Calling people’s artistic and cultural tastes junk (whether it is true or not) has EXACTLY the same effect as criticizing their religion, and is certainly not any more helpful for building bridges between cultures. JRQ

    No. It’s not. I wasn’t arguing that the majority of the population change their taste in music, which would be as silly as it is futile. I said that if a composer or musician chose to make music that was going to get a small audience they had to accept that. One of my favorite American composers, Arthur Berger, was once asked what kind of music he wrote. “Unpopular music” was the witty and honest answer. Milton Babbitt’s famous essay “The Composer as Specialist” was another explicit call for modern composers to compose the music they wanted to without the expectation of a large audience. Neither of them railed against the audience they weren’t getting and I don’t either. In fact, they were acknowledging that their choices precluded the kind of public support that science depends on. Most people don’t like music that requires hard listening. That’s always been a specialized taste. And a lot of us also listen to popular music. Babbitt, usually considered one of the most esoteric composers is also famous for having a broad knowledge of popular music. I could give you one example after another that goes both ways, popular musicians have sometimes even subsidized performances of “difficult” classical music.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that if someone is listening to bubble gum music, they’re not listening to something that might require their fuller attention for longer periods of time.

    While I have argued that students in public schools be given the opportunity to be exposed to rigorous classical music, I wouldn’t fault them for deciding that it isn’t their taste. I don’t expect their support for the kind of music I make and like. Science, if it wants public support and public acceptance, doesn’t have that option.

    America TV isn’t about its content, it’s about making money. With an audience trained to disdain complexity and challenge, trained by watching TV, they can get away with the most frivolous garbage possible. And, since they don’t really want The People to govern themselves, they won’t give them accurate information about reality. Sagan’s work was in the period when TV producers were still under some pressure to serve the public interest. That time is long gone and even public TV largely doesn’t feel the pressure to do that in the United States. I favor a return to the fairness doctrine, public service and various other requirements for broadcast, cable and other mass media. I don’t think democracy can survive an ignorant, entertainment addled public. And the survival of the possibility of democracy is an over riding value that trumps the “right” of the media to lie and degrade the body politic.

  59. JRQ, I’ve got a longer answer in moderation correcting several assumptions you have made about what I said, not too many would think they were going to attract people who weren’t enthusiastic about their music by insulting them and their intelligence. And they don’t continue to be surprised if their music attracts a small audience after a while. It’s surprising that a lot of scientists don’t seem to understand that.

  60. Sorbet

    Kwok, do you really think that significant portions of the lower middle class avidly read Natural History or Discover? Do you think this number among them was higher than the number watching Cosmos on television? I am willing to be convinced if there’s evidence of this.

  61. I’m looking and I’m not seeing anything like “Cosmos” on TV this week. I think the conditions that produced it are not there anymore. I’m trying to think of a series of that scope on any topic that PBS has done lately, any suggestions?

  62. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet –

    If you’re growing up in a big city like New York City, and have an interest in science, then Gould quickly becomes your “prophet”. He was my “hero” from junior high school onwards.

  63. John Kwok

    @ Everyone –

    My review of UA is now at Amazon. It may surprise you to hear I gave it only three out of five stars.

  64. Sorbet

    What about if you were growing up in San Francisco or Seattle?

  65. Sorbet

    And by the way I don’t consider you a member of the lower middle class.

  66. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet –

    You know nothing period about my economic circumstances when I was a junior high and high school student. You have no right to comment. In fact, I was probably barely above the poverty level then.

  67. Peter Beattie

    Jason Rosenhouse has the second part of his review up at his blog. I’m looking forward to the continued dialogue!

  68. JRQ


    You (apparently) attended one of, if not THE, best known public high school in the country, which specializes in science and math, and can boast one of the most eminent collections of alumni of any secondary educational institution in the world. You lived in the city that housed Gould’s Museum. You, at some point (if i’m following correctly your bio that you have several times volunteered), entered graduate school to study in the same field as Gould. Whatever your economic circumstances, it is hard to imagine anyone with a background more conducive to Gould-awareness than yours.

    You simply do not appreciate how little-known Gould was and still is among those who (1) aren’t from New York or have never been to the Natural History Museum, (2) attended a regular ol’ medicre public high school with the typical dearth of science-oriented peers, and (3) don’t read scientific non-fiction for fun. These people are a vast, vast, majority of the US general public, and the vast, vast majority of those being targeted by M&K as “Unscientific America”. If any scientist after Einstein’s time has ever reached their consciousness, it was Sagan. Gould wasn’t (and still isn’t) anywhere close.

  69. Sorbet

    -And by the way I don’t consider you a member of the lower middle class
    I don’t who the hell it was who said that but that wasn’t me. It was an imposter.

  70. Dov Henis

    Not only Unscientific America. Also Unscientific England:

    A Sad 2010 Display Of Expertise-Assessment By A Science Institution
    (unsubmittance of simplified cosmos-life evolution manifest)

    A. From proceedings B team at, 18-Dec-2009

    Dear Dr. Henis:

    Your manuscript entitled “Cosmic Evolution Simplified” has been successfully submitted online and is presently being given full consideration for publication in the Proceedings B.

    Your manuscript ID is RSPB-2009-2339.

    Thank you for submitting your manuscript to Proceedings B.

    Yours sincerely
    Proceedings B at

    B. “Cosmic Evolution Simplified” is at

    C. From proceedings B team at, 06-Jan-2010

    Dear Dr. Henis:

    Your manuscript, RSPB-2009-2339, entitled “Cosmic Evolution Simplified” has been unsubmitted from Proceedings B.

    This is because the paper does not fit within the remit or style of any of the articles published in Proceedings B. Proceedings B publishes research articles and reviews of a broad, biological content.

    You may contact the Editorial Office if you have further questions.

    Yours sincerely
    The Proceedings B Team

    D. To Proceedings B Team, 06-Jan-2010

    Dear Team,

    1. At my age (85) I would’nt change my writing style, so I understand your “style” reason.

    2. However, are you sure you are able to cite even one, just one, more “broad, biological content” article than this unsubmitted unstyled article? (try way back to I.Newton)…

    with best new year greetings,

    Dov Henis

    E. A sad 2010 display of science expertise-assessment by a science institution…

    Fwd by
    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)


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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 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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