Two months have passed since the prominent journal Science published a highly misleading review of our book, Unscientific America, by Jerry Coyne. From the very first sentence, Coyne misrepresented the text, charging that according to Unscientific America, the problem of American scientific illiteracy “derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public.” This is not what we argue, nor what we think, nor a position we could possibly defend.
When the review first came out in August, we were surprised to see it, as Coyne had already attacked our book online, and we had felt compelled to blog a response that corrected several of his errors and misrepresentations.
However, we did not immediately respond to Coyne’s Science review, both because we didn’t want to blog our response to something published in a journal and also because we were very busy. Chris got married. Sheril completed a manuscript. But we were not the only ones surprised by what Coyne had written; Joshua Rosenau, who had read our book and reviewed it, felt compelled to rebut Coyne’s Science review at length, observing the following:
A review in the top scientific journal is a fairly rarified entity, one with various rules and expectations. Not least among those expectations is that the reviewer will give an honest account of the book as written, and will take issue with the authors’ actual claims, not with imagined enemies. I took classes with Coyne as an undergraduate at Chicago; I know him to be an honest and honorable man, a scrupulous researcher, and dedicated to thoughtful and open discourse. Thus, my expectations for his review were rather high. I hoped he would rise out of the muck which has surrounded the book online, and give a fair look at it, however assuredly critical it might be.
Instead, I cannot characterize his review as anything but bullshit [note: Rosenau is using the word “bullshit” in the sense made famous by Harry Frankfurt, e.g., not lying, but simply not caring about the truth or accuracy]….
Rosenau detailed the many ways in which Coyne misrepresented our book on fundamental matters–e.g., what is the problem it identifies, what are the causes of that problem, and so on. We encourage readers to go through Rosenau’s entire post, which contains numerous rebuttals, followed by more accurate descriptions of what Unscientific America argues.
And that’s just the beginning. On Friday, Science published two eLetters in response to Coyne’s review, one by a doctor and professor who has read our book and a second by us. Let us quote from the former first, for it parallels Rosenau’s reaction. The letter is from Donald Marcus, who is at Baylor College of Medicine and who opens with the following:
J. Coyne’s Book Review of Unscientific America by C. Mooney and S. Kirshenbaum (”Selling science,” 7 August 2009, p. 678) doesn’t serve the basic function of describing the scope and contents of a book. His review is a dismissive rant that misrepresents the text.
Marcus then substantiates his assertions; please read his own words. (Indeed, anyone wishing to really follow this matter should ideally read not only our book, but all of the links in this post.) Marcus concludes as follows:
The book [Unscientific America] is clear and lively, and it includes 66 pages of notes containing references and citations. In addition to providing little information about the book, the review is an example of an intemperate style that is an obstacle to civil discourse. It is unworthy of Science.
Finally, there is our own reaction. You can read it at the same link. It starts like this:
The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” A similar rule applies to book reviews: Every reviewer is entitled to dislike a particular book, but not to misrepresent its arguments and contents.
Unfortunately, J. Coyne has taken the latter course with our book Unscientific America (”Selling science,” Book Reviews, 7 August 2009, p. 678). He calls our work “shallow and unreflective,” but virtually every time he tries to describe it he makes an error–either attributing to us views and positions we do not hold, or claiming the book lacks content that it actually does contain.
We then proceed to correct Coyne on many points, but here is a typical example:
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Coyne’s review is his use of our own arguments to attack the positions he incorrectly attributes to us. For instance, take Coyne’s observation that “The public’s reluctance to accept scientific facts may reflect not just a lack of exposure but a willful evasion of facts due to conflicting economic agendas (e.g., the case of global warming) personal agendas (vaccines), or religious agendas.” Yes, but how is this a strike against our book? We deal with such factors from the outset; Coyne even quotes our observation that “college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.” Coyne writes that “the problem of an ‘unscientific America’ may be far more complex than the authors let on,” but in truth, we describe the problem with far more complexity than Coyne lets on.
You can read our full letter here. We regret having to respond at such length, but we felt that the need to set the record straight was that compelling.
Indeed, we are not the only authors who have felt compelled to respond in this manner to one of Coyne’s book reviews. As Robert Wright has put it:
Here is a partial list of false or misleading things Jerry Coyne says about my book The Evolution of God in his review of it in The New Republic. I want to emphasize that I think these are innocent mistakes…If Coyne wants to write a devastating review of my book—and there can be little doubt that he wants to—he’s going to have to start over.
Like Wright, we do not know why Coyne misrepresented our book so badly. But again: we had already corrected several Coyne’s misrepresentations online before his Science review appeared. Secondly, Coyne has been in a very heated debate with us (and was before the Science review came out); and has called our work “shallow, unreflective, and not worth buying or reading,” among other denunciations contained in the Science review and elsewhere.
In a forthcoming post, we plan to say more about the broader context in which Coyne’s attack on Unscientific America needs to be understood. For now, let us close by saying that we’re saddened at the need for these responses, but we’re also fortunate that others have come to our defense, unasked, and have been willing to further set the record straight.
Links to this Post
- Darwiniana » Unscientific America debate | October 21, 2009
- What Would Bridge the New Atheist/Accommodationist Divide? | The Intersection | Discover Magazine | October 28, 2009