'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.


Comments (18)

  1. Somite

    People keep implying it is scientist’s fault that denialism exists. I think the proportion of denialists is higher than we think and no scientist, regardless of social skill level, can change a denialist’s mind.

    You would think offering the best possible explanation would be sufficient.

  2. Skeptic

    Sorry, but I could not help thinking…when Coyne, Myers and others criticize you for not suggesting solutions, it’s incorrect, but when Miller-McCune says that your book basically creates awareness but is not to be read for solutions, you couldn’t agree more?

  3. Couldn’t agree more that

    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.

  4. bilbo

    People keep implying it is scientist’s fault that denialism exists

    Half correct. People keep implying that it’s partially scientists’ fault that denialism exists, and scientists can’t seem to handle that kind of heat…so they become denialists themsevles (about their own fallibility).

  5. Eric the Leaf

    I disagree with the premise of the books being reviewed (even if the reviewer remains skeptical)–that scientific illiteracy can be reversed if scientists get out of their laboratories. Of deep puzzlement is the claim that climate scientists “point out that our lifestyles are straining the limits of our planet’s resources.” Really? Which of the tens of resources now being strained by our lifestyle are the climatologists concerned about? Well, there is at least one climate scientists who directly addresses the issue:

    “Even though I have made the case that future climate change is likely to be large, I do not rank the oncoming global warming as the greatest environmental problem of our time. Other environmental issues seem to me far more immediate and pressing, and in the future I suspect our concerns will focus heavily on the eventual depletion of key [non-renewable] resources.”

    –William Ruddiman, “Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate”, p.190

    For the best accounts, however, of how our lifestyles are straining the planet’s resources, I recommend Richard Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over” and “Blackout,” as well as William Catton’s “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.”

  6. Gaythia

    Because, as Sheril points out above, there is a pressing urgency for science to be taken seriously, it is important that scientists work to become better communicators. This does not mean that scientists are to blame for the fact that denialism exists, the public is not fully informed, or that science is not yet fully addressing many vitally important issues.

    If there were a better economic mechanism for doing so, Chris and many of his colleagues would be happy to aid scientists in the task of public communication. And there are also many of us that would be happy to have a greater role as scientists furthering human knowledge and devising solutions to the highly significant problems which face us.

  7. gillt

    bilbo: “Half correct. People keep implying that it’s partially scientists’ fault that denialism exists, and scientists can’t seem to handle that kind of heat…so they become denialists themsevles (about their own fallibility).”

    There’s a strong anti-science streak on this website.

  8. Anne

    I think scientists do need to get out more, and just about anyone can do something to help them do that. There is a growing Cafe Scientifique movement across the world, now represented in North, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa that is working towards bringing science into conversation and culture. What is so engaging about these cafes is that they bring the scientist to the people in a very candid way. The focus is discussion, and as such, the scientist will give a brief talk and then the floor is opened up for everyone to participate via questions, speculations, disagreements and agreements. I have found that most scientists are more than willing to participate in this movement. It is non-profit, largely volunteer, and all it takes is someone to get it started. Read more here: http://www.cafescientifique.org/

  9. Gaythia

    Cafe Scientifique is great. I am sure that it has a reach well beyond its actual audience. At least I know that I’ve discussed the last presentation and discussion I attended (on bats) with other people I know who did not attend. It is a very engaging format.

    But it still is reaching a limited circle of already science aware people and their somewhat science aware acquaintances.

  10. Paul W.


    Speaking of taking heat and denialism, please don’t bail on the accommodationism thread.

    You’ll be interested in this post, where I address some of your claims:


    I’ve got another post in moderation, and if I get the time, another one to finish off that discussion (of Collins vs. The New Atheists, and whether their differences with him are justified, implying that Mooney et al are wrong on Straw Man #1.)

  11. bilbo

    There’s a strong anti-science streak on this website.

    gillt, there’s a difference between being anti-science and being cognizant enough to understand that simply being a scientist (or an atheist, or a religious believer, or a college graduate, or any number of other labels, for that matter) doesn’t give you carte blanche when it comes to problems that affect science. Willful ignorance is no excuse for holding yourself blameless.

    But oh how I wish we could just lock our lab doors and pretend we play no role in the world’s problems. If that were true, there we be no need for science blogs (or blogs on scientific topics) to exist.

  12. bilbo

    Paul, I don’t really understand why you’re dragging argument from another thread into an unrelated one, but whatever. I didn’t address your original response because it was simply you trying to justify (for 31 paragraphs. Thirty-one!) what you meant when I called you for making hyperbolic accusations about vaguely-defined groups of people. (If it takes you 31 paragraphs, you’re fighting a losing battle here).

    But I did find this interesting (you could have really just said the following and you wouldn’t have needed the other rambling 30 paragraphs):

    I think it is legitimate—in particular it is cooperative and honest—to use vivid, loaded terms carefully, making it explicit that not all of the connotations actually apply.

    Did you just say what I think you said? That sounded a lot like a fancy way of saying “You’re right, bilbo. Most of my terms really are loaded and aimed a poorly-defined group. That’s OK as long as at least one out of this group of millions fits that characterization.” Silliness, anyone?

    By that standard (the shotgun approach to criticism), I suppose you won’t mind me saying that “Paul W. is largely ignorant.” Sure, that sounds loaded. I mean, you may not be ignorant on most topics, but who knows? I bet you’re ignorant on the finer points of particle physics. I bet you’re stupendously ignorant when it comes to knowing how to build a steamboat from scratch. You just need to remember when it comes to how ignorant you are: “not all of the connotations actually apply.”

    If I lived by that approach, I’d be totally justified in calling religious people child molesters, because out of all those millions that fall under that vague label, there are bound to be quite a few. The rest should just understand that “not aall of the connotations actually apply.”

    Really. Give me a break.

  13. gillt

    Apparently bilbo, as with many accomodationists, is only interested in caricatures. Besides the pope, who says scientsits infallible? Why whenever an accom0doationist wants to slander scientists and atheists they draw comparisons to the lamest aspects of religion?

  14. Paul W.


    Your response is an exercise in missing what I was actually saying. I was saying that you should NOT do that, and that in fact I DON’T do that.

    Please see the post that just appeared about Collins and what he says in The Language of God.

    He says the same things about himself that I say about him—acknowledging that he could be called a creationist, and that would be technically correct in a sense, the terms are loaded and fraught.

    He also says pretty much what I say about abuse and proper use of such loaded words. He makes the same distinction I do, which you keep on missing, that the presence of proper qualifiers and disclaimers matters a lot, and if you’re going to leave them out (as in calling New Atheists “fundamentalists,” full stop) you should not use those words.

    If you don’t believe me, go read his words which I quoted in the other thread. (Let’s not have that discussion here, but yes, please let’s have it.)

    By the way, one reason my posts are so long is to make things excruciatingly clear, so that any misunderstandings on your part are demonstrably not my fault. If you weren’t so prone to jumping to incorrect conclusions about what I mean, I wouldn’t have to be so long-winded.

  15. Paul W.

    By the way, bilbo, nice quote mine.

    Of course you leave out the part where I say that even with qualifiers that rule out the most likely incorrect interpretations, and an and always making it clear people shouldn’t jump to conclusions, you still shouldn’t use such words most of the time.

    For example, I pointed out that I was happy to use the term “accommodationist” rather than “appeaser,” because even though the latter term is technically correct, it is unfair in practice for several reasons. (And even here, I’m leery of even using that term as an example, because it should be toned down more than I’m taking the time to do.)

    So you take something that I justify

    1. only under certain appropriate circumstances and
    2. only when taking great pains to explicitly deny most the unfair negative connotations and
    3. only when it’s useful for making a clearly restricted but informative point, and
    4 even so, only rarely

    and you turn it into

    I’d be totally justified in calling religious people child molesters, because out of all those millions that fall under that vague label, there are bound to be quite a few. The rest should just understand that “not all of the connotations actually apply.”

    It was my point that you can’t be expected to just understand such a word without all the painstaking context and qualifiers above, and that you should never do it otherwise, and that it’s rarely worth the trouble to do right.

    So, as usual, the thing you latch onto and vilify me for is not something I said, but more nearly the opposite of what I said.

    Gee, thanks.

  16. Paul W.


    Shorter version: you got nothin’.

  17. John Kwok

    @ bilbo –

    You have my condolences. I am sorry that our latest Militant Atheist troll, Paul W., has opted to hijack yet another Intersection thread.

    @ Chris –

    I suppose I have to read Cory Dean’s book ASAP. Am a bit surprised that she would concur with yours and Sheril’s observation that scientists need to be better communicators, simply because I thought she had more faith that such communication did exist within the scientific community. If nothing else, hers is definitely a clarion call for better communication that scientists ought to heed, especially given her long experience as a first-rate scientific jourtnalist.

    P. S. In the past I would occasionally talk to her about such matters, especially when we were both active members of our NYC undergraduate alumni book club.

  18. John Kwok

    @ Chris –

    The link you provided to the article at the very end of your post no longer works. Just tried it and found that it is an invalid link. You may wish to make a note of this.




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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.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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