Archive for November 12th, 2009

'Scientists Need to Get Out More'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 12, 2009 1:55 pm

mmw_unscientificamerica_articleMiller-McCune has a new review up this morning about how Unscientific America and Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear? compliment well. Our book is described as ‘a call to action,’ while Dean’s details how to achieve results. Here’s an excerpt:

When scientific discoveries conflict with either our religious beliefs or personal prerogatives (as when climatologists point out that our lifestyles are straining the limits of our planet’s resources), we find them easy to ignore or dismiss. Our minds have not been molded to respect the scientific process nor to take the warnings of its practitioners seriously.

Two new books approach this dilemma from different perspectives. In Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books; $24), Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum provide a detailed diagnosis of the problem and how it developed over the decades. In Am I Making Myself Clear? (Harvard University Press; $19.95), Cornelia Dean offers practical advice to researchers who are interested in making things better.

One can only hope that researchers — and the academic administrators who decide what the scientists of tomorrow need to know — read these concise, sharply written volumes and take their message to heart. The process of reconnecting science and society cannot start soon enough. Presuming the climatologists are correct, our planet and the species that live on it are in a lot of trouble if we don’t start taking science seriously soon.

We couldn’t agree more. Read the full piece here.

2012: Or, How the New Hollywood Loves Scientists, Even Though It Still Hates Plausibility

By Chris Mooney | November 12, 2009 11:51 am

2012_PosterLast night I was privileged to attend a screening of the latest catastrohpic sci-fi blockbuster, Roland Emmerich’s 2012. And let me say, if you’re like me and love action-packed Hollywood world-enders, then you don’t want to miss this one. It is even bigger and better and crazier and more decadent than Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow.

Given Unscientific America‘s argument about how Hollywood depictions have hurt the place of science in our culture, I couldn’t help analyzing this film through that lens (once I finished suspending my disbelief, anyway). And I have to say, 2012 presents the latest evidence that anti-science sentiment in Hollywood is really declining: We’re seeing a lot fewer mad scientists in major Hollywood films today, and a lot more scientist heroes.

In 2012, the hero is Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is–and this cracked me up–a “deputy geologist” at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Well, at least they got the office name right, though geologists have their own agency. Later, Helmsley becomes the top science adviser to the president. And for good reason: He is the guy who makes the US government wake up and see the catastrophe that is coming; he is the guy who runs the models to try to figure out just when it will arrive and how bad it will be–even though these models aren’t perfect and often have to be revised, always in the it’s-even-worse direction (an interesting analogy with climate change models).

Helmsley’s virtue–a uniquely scientific one–lies in the fact that he fully and honestly admits as much. In one moment that anybody who cares about science in policy will love, Helmsley explains one of these recalculations to POTUS (Danny Glover) in the Oval Office, and admits, “I was wrong.” The president replies (these are not his exact words) “That’s the first time anybody has ever said that in this office.” Yup, that’s the virtue of having scientists in government.

Now, granted, even as 2012 idolizes scientists as truth tellers and civilization-savers, the scientific plot of the movie is not only bizarre but was, to me, incomprehensible. If I had only understood it better–something about solar neutrinos transforming into some other kind of particle at the center of the Earth, thus destabilizing the crust, causing everything to move, unleashing supervolcanos and tsunamis and gigantic earthquakes that rip continents asunder–I’m sure I would consider it rankly impossible.

But hey, that’s the new pro-science Hollywood for you. Don’t expect their sci-fi plots to be firmly grounded in events that could actually happen. But lay that care aside, and watch as they turn scientists into leaders and role-models for the next generation of U.S. children. In the end, I think the latter is far more important than any mere quibble over what it takes to produce a mass entertainment spectacle.

P.S.: See also Sheril’s related post on the 2012 phenomenon, “Apocalypse When?


Don't Forget Shakespeare Denialism!

By Chris Mooney | November 12, 2009 10:01 am

shakespeareWe’ve been having a lot of fun this week talking about Tom Bethell’s anti-Einstein views and how they may or may not relate to modern American conservatism. And inevitably, the dialogue has also dredged up a lot of context about all the other areas in which Bethell challenges a firmly accepted scholarly or scientific body of knowledge–including one I hadn’t even recognized yet [until David Kathman put me on to it]. But first, let’s review:

Bethell questions the link between HIV and AIDS. He is also, as I have noted, a climate change “skeptic” and an evolution denier. And then there is the whole Einstein business.

But even I didn’t know that he was also an “Oxfordian”–e.g., adherent to the theory that William Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford, and not from Stratford-on-Avon (the mainstream “Stratfordian” view). The Oxfordian “theory” is most emphatically not the view held by the vast bulk of Shakepeare scholars…but hey, if you’re willing to throw out Einstein and Darwin in favor of some dubious contrarian view, why not go for the trifecta!

My father happens to be an English professor who specializes in Shakespeare–and, of course, is a Stratfordian–so the analogies with other kinds of denial and conspiracy theorizing are especially striking to me. I will grant, of course, that the anti-Stratfordian position on Shakespeare’s identity does not–unlike climate change denial–pose a great threat to the human future. But it remains, nevertheless, a classic case of throwing out historical evidence and scholarly expertise.


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