Getting Back to Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | September 11, 2009 8:10 am

I’ve been kinda busy, what with the wedding and honeymoon and moving and all, and so have not been able to respond as I’d like to some folks, such as Sam Harris, who have criticized the book. As I settle here in Cambridge, I hope that will change. As we will be continuing to do media and talks about the book–I’m doing one next Wednesday right here in my new town, at Porter Square Books–there should be plenty of time for all this.

Meanwhile, my sense is this: Some people hate Unscientific America with a passion. Others really, really like it. The reviews show as much; we have some extremely negative ones, but also some extremely positive ones, and then everything in between. What other book gets reactions like this, that so completely and evenly run the gamut? I’m sure that there are some, but I don’t know them off hand.

PZ Myers is now asking, “Is this book dead yet?“; as noted before, he apparently doesn’t even want you to read this work that criticizes him. But the reviews themselves suggest a fascinating array of reactions, far more diverse than the now predictable New Atheist dismissal. Going forward–and, I hope, starting next week–we’ll continue to provided some replies to critics, as well as making our case in talks and media. There will be a lot more to say, and as Sheril finishes her manuscript, and I learn the ropes here in Cambridge, we look forward to saying it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America

Comments (36)

  1. John Kwok


    For once the commentary over at PZ’s blog is far more adult than what I have read with regards to their reaction to “Unscientific America”. Especially noteworthy is Glen Davidson’s opening comment with regards to the advent of more “Carl Sagans” as a means of fostering greater scientific literacy. In a similar vein, would be interested in reading your rebuttal to my review.



  2. Cain

    I’m so excited this subject is coming up again…

  3. Paul

    Rookie author mistake. And you have three books to your name why haven’t you figured this out yet.

    Don’t reply to critics.

  4. J.J.E.

    Hey, I don’t blame them. Their comment counts have been dipping lower than your standard “Peer reviewed blogging” posts on Scienceblogs.

  5. Yeah, this is a dead horse that doesn’t need any more beating.

  6. I keep waiting for PZs blog to sink into obscurity as one more rant-fest, the Rush Limbaugh of science blogs, the wingnut fringe of atheism, as it deserves.

    “Is that blog dead yet?”

    Alas, it’s not going to happen, any more than the “Health care for all is Nazi” and “birthers” and “death panel” wingnuts are going to sink into obscurity. People love their confrontation, even when it’s half-cocked.

  7. although i do read PZ’s blog i must say if he thinks he is above being critisized he can go screw himself. i am not taking sides in this cuase i did like the book, and would love to get it signed. but chris perhaps would should title your next book the republican war on sanity. hell you could write a whole book about the conservitives and their excapades in just the last year. though i image that after the end of this administration some one will write such a book on, even if it doesnt have that title,

    i am half way throught the RWOS

  8. Always happy to read something negative about PZ and the New Atheists. I’ll be following you! New Atheists remind me a lot of college, not adulthood.

  9. Barry

    Yes, some hate your book, and some like it. But why would you ask “What other book gets reactions like this?” Here’s a very short list of easily recognized titles that fit that description: The Origin of Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Da Vinci Code, and of course, Lolita. Did you think you would be the first in history to write a book that everyone likes? Forget about Myers, Harris, and the others and just write another book. Or were you planning to use one of them as a co-author to try and avoid controversy?

  10. NewEnglandBob

    The quality of comments here is very low. But that is not unusual.

  11. Correct me if I’m wrong, I think PZ would be happy if people read UA to laugh. I don’t think he advises buying it, though, which is quite a different matter.

  12. Marion Delgado

    I won’t quite go so far as “don’t” reply to critics. These are policy and philosophical and social issues at stake.

    But I would do 9 parts let the book speak for itself to 1 part respond to the critics.

  13. Marion Delgado

    For one thing, after a point, Chris, you’re simply modeling BAD FRAMING.

    Which is already my firm conviction about Matt Nesbitt – I wouldn’t trust him to frame a playhouse.

  14. Jon

    New Atheists remind me a lot of college, not adulthood.</i<

    Nicely put.

  15. magistramorous

    Well, I’m one of those who really really love it. I think you and Sheril best understand how non-scientists think and how to reach out to them. I thank you especially for offering an alternative to the creationists-are-idiots-who-are-not-even-worth-trying-to-understand attitude adopted by so many of the New Atheists (boy, was that a long adjectival clause). Your advice should come in handy as I prepare for my own battle against young-earth creationism. The biotech company I work for recently purchased the Creation and Earth History Museum from ICR and I plan on convincing as many people as possible of the real truth without bruising their religion, to the extent possible.
    Wish me luck,

  16. John Kwok

    @ SkeptikSnarf –

    The only problems with your view of conservatives are the facts that:

    1) Substantially more Americans who don’t consider themselves conservatives just happen to be evolution denialists too.

    2) Noted conservatives like conservative biologist Paul R. Gross (co-author with philosopher Barbara Forrest of “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”), the National Review’s John Derbyshire, the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and George Will and Rolling Stone’s (and The Weekly Standard) P. J. O’Rourke accept evolution as valid science (Though my praise of Will in this regard should not be miscontrued as an endorsement of his inane thinking with respect to anthropogenic global warming. Both Carl Zimmer and Chris Mooney have been absolutely right in going after Will.).

    3) I am a conservative too, so does that mean I ought to have my sanity checked?

    Sincerely yours,


  17. John Kwok

    @ Rob Knop –

    Now that PZ is a contributor to a leading British newspaper – I think it’s the Guardian – he’s guaranteed himself additional Pharyngulites from across
    “the pond”. Am sure Pharyngula will live long and prosper now (unfortunately).


  18. John Kwok

    @ Jon –

    For some reason I see images of “Animal House” re-playing in my mind whenever I read the most pernicious agit-prop emananting from New Atheists.

  19. Marion Delgado

    A belated congratulations to Chris on getting married and enrolling at MIT!

  20. Chris

    “the now predictable New Atheist dismissal.”

    Nice try, but nobody is fooled. The bad reviews from “New Atheists” weren’t dismissals, they were detailed, thoughtful, well-reasoned bad reviews. How childish and petulant you do appear, throwing mud at the “New Atheists” every chance you get and then pretending that all reviews by them are automatically worthless.

  21. PZ depending on David Colquhoun doesn’t do much for me. I’m kind of tired of Brits explaining to the world what the United States is all about.

    —- What other book gets reactions like this, that so completely and evenly run the gamut? CM

    An Inconvenient Truth?

  22. —- The quality of comments here is very low. But that is not unusual. NEB

    Like the one NEB made late this afternoon at Coyne’s website?

    “I read the first 12 lines. They look identical to creationist web sites.”

    Followed by this response about those first 12 likes which NEB had claimed to read:

    The first twelve?

    These lines you mean:

    Jesus loves me, yes I know
    Cause the Bible tells me so
    That is all I need to hear
    And so I know I’ll never fear
    Nothing else is in my head
    Except a book by guys long dead
    Science isn’t telling me
    What I can and cannot see
    I never, ever take a look
    Since I only own one book
    Jesus is my only thought
    When others ask me what I’ve bought

    And this one:

    Saint Brian
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    They look identical to creationist web sites.
    You should have read them then, instead of just looking.


    Just to show how seriously you should take New England Bob’s reading and critical abilities.

  23. Jon

    I’m kind of tired of Brits explaining to the world what the United States is all about.

    And we over here think that anyone with an Oxbridge accent must automatically have something to teach us (e.g., for some reason Christopher Hitchens still appears on my television screen, even though he’s been right about zilch for several years now).

  24. — for some reason Christopher Hitchens still appears on my television screen, even though he’s been right about zilch for several years now. Jon

    If I was the kind of person who saved their Nation magazines and put them into binders they might show a degeneration in Hitchens’ personality over the last quarter of a century. Though I never remember thinking he was all that reliable, too high a debating club style glitter to substance ratio. When he jumped on the new atheist band wagon a while ago – I guess he hadn’t found another celeb centenary around which to base a book that year – I warned atheists to be careful clutching him to their bosom. He’s a snake with a record of turning on people who thought they were his friends. But ideology trumps experience and the record with the new atheists.

    I’d think he was mostly in it for the money derived from being an intellectual fop. That’s why he’s gone neo-con.

  25. ShowsOn

    WOW, I can’t post criticism without it being trapped in moderation for hours and then deleted.

    I look forward to the questions at this link being answered:

    So far they have just been completely ignored for the last two months, which seems to be evidence of an inability to engage with complex arguments and criticism. I note that it is far easier to pretend criticism simply doesn’t exist rather than actually engaging with it, and just referring to it as a dismissal by a “new atheist” whatever the hell that term means.

  26. John Kwok

    @ ShowsOn –

    Her comments are utterly inane and thus, not worthy of an answer.

  27. Screechy Monkey

    “he apparently doesn’t even want you to read this work that criticizes him”

    This, along with the “read it and make up your own mind” argument, is becoming really tiresome. Millions of books are published every year. Many of us look to book reviews (among other things) to decide which few of those millions we should spend our time and money reading.

    If the reviews misrepresent the book, or miss the point, or are otherwise flawed, by all means point that out if you like. But this “our critics don’t want you to read us” routine is really shallow stuff; it’s part of the job of critics to opine whether a book is worth our time and money or not.

    The fact that PZ is criticized in the book doesn’t make this argument any more valid when it’s applied to him. It’s not like you wrote some detailed expose of facts that he’d like kept quiet. And if PZ is trying to draw attention away from your book, he’s doing an awful job of it by continuing to mention it.

  28. Anthony McCarthy

    ShowsOn, you want to control the message of a blog, start one of your own. OB has posted innumerable questions and comments here and, I assure you, even supporters have had comments in moderation and at times the authors of the blog choose not to include them. Which is their right.

    OB accused me of near libel for suspecting that she might be trying to suppress the book and gain attention for her and, I’d expect, her books.

  29. gillt

    The only thing that doesn’t “evenly run the gamut” is the consensus on the book’s lack of substance.

    That and the Pluto argument.

    OT, if you’ve enrolled in MIT’s science writing grad program, it’s not too get your money back.

  30. Hi Chris, I look forward to seeing your talk next week in Waterloo. Just to let you know, if a Q&A happens, then I plan on asking one of the questions linked above at B&W (chosen for appropriateness depending on the substance of your talk). I give you forewarning so that you have ample time to decide how to put your best foot forward and to make for the most productive dialogue. Cheers.

  31. —- The only thing that doesn’t “evenly run the gamut” is the consensus on the book’s lack of substance. gillt

    If there was consensus on the issue, it would have to “evenly run the gamut”, a term stolen from music, by the way. “Run the gamut” means to cover the whole range, “consensus” means general agreement or unanimity.

    Just thought I’d mention that for the fans of substance.

  32. Main Entry: con·sen·sus
    Pronunciation: kən-ˈsen(t)-səs
    Function: noun
    Usage: often attributive
    Etymology: Latin, from consentire
    Date: 1843
    1 a : general agreement : unanimity … b : the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned
    2 : group solidarity in sentiment and belief

  33. Benjamin S. Nelson. New atheists are not “most of those concerned”, new atheists aren’t a large enough group to be able to form a consensus viewpoint. They neither form a consensus nor cover the gamut. Happening to have Thomas Morley’s elucidation of the gamut at hand, their unanimity wouldn’t get you to re above Ut, never mind the first note of the secunda deduction.

    I’m decreasingly surprised that anything but the least subtle point is too subtle for the new atheists.

  34. gillt

    McCarthy: “If there was consensus on the issue, it would have to “evenly run the gamut… “Run the gamut” means to cover the whole range, “consensus” means general agreement or unanimity.”

    So a consensus means unanimity of opinion on a subject, therefore a consensus means to evenly cover the whole range of opinions on a subject.

    McCarthy confusing himself with his own words again. No surprise there.

    I was referring, as was Chris most likely, to the Amazon reviews of UA, which reached a consensus of opinion, in my view, on the lack of substance in the book.

    For McCarthy to label all reviews that hold this opinion as those penned by New Atheists is simply, to put it bluntly, a witch hunt.

    Like someone else with the same last name, McCarthy sniffs out and gleefully exposes particular ideologies he holds to be dangerous to society…and all without a scintilla of evidence on his side. Apparently lacking self-awareness, McCarthy will mock New Atheists as impotent members of a minority and in the next breath proclaim them to be poisoning the dialogue with their loud braying. These are time-tested tactics used to demonize a group of people. Lies, subterfuge, chicanery are all fair game when dealing with minority groups, aren’t they McCarthy. If someone needs to be outed it’s the wanna-be Cotton Mather of this blog. At least he wrote legibly.

  35. So consensus on the book means the blog traffic generated by a bunch of avocational new atheists trying to protect their franchise by whipping non-readers into pretending they’ve read the book.

    I’m hearing more normal atheists and others putting distance between themselves and new atheists every week, if not day.

    Not to mention some who seem stuck in between making a choice and their fear of being on the outs with them. My favorite was the one who linked that that post by Coyne I link to above, from a self-described agnostic who seemed afraid to make a judgement on Coyne and who ended up praising him for being an “ass hole”, along with several prominent creationists. Though, to be fair some of Prometheus Unbound’s posts about Jerry are a bit more forthright.

    — These are time-tested tactics used to demonize a group of people. Lies, subterfuge, chicanery gillt

    As gillt should know because it’s exactly the new atheist strategy as expounded from AH- PZ. With crying like babies when someone turns a fraction of it back onto them.

  36. I should give a link to the Prometheus Unbound post I refer to.

    NOT that the new atheists are generally in the habit of reading what they then comment on.


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About Chris Mooney

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


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