Greg Laden on Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | January 14, 2010 8:39 am

It’s a really thoughtful (if not uncritical) review, and what stood out perhaps most is this great passage:

To combine my own personal view (which I have drifted into here, sorry…) with that of Unscientific America: Regular citizens and scientists are separated by a very narrow but very deep canyon, resting comfortably on either side of this canyon and vaguely aware of the others across the way. When science policy issues arise among the citizenry, the scientists don’t really play a role. When scientists lobby for their funding from the big agencies and other sources, they don’t really account for the people over on the other side of the canyon. This has been the case for years, and over this time, the social and cultural relevance of actual science has pretty much vanished among the [populace], and the ability to understand what motivates or interests the general public… or just even how to talk to them … has disappeared from the culture of science. Not that it was ever there. Looking back, it is clear that the bridges that did exist across this canyon were built by regular people inspired by the occasional super-communicator, such as Carl Sagan. Those bridges were not, in any systematic way, built by the scientists.

Thanks, Greg, for taking the time and giving the thought. Please read his full review here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America

Comments (58)

  1. Unklar Klaar

    I think the bigger issue is how science and scientific thought have become politicized. There should be a buffer zone between the agenda-laden politicians and the true, knowledge-seeking scientists.

  2. Busiturtle

    Seems to me the entire “Unscientific America” crowd is barking up the wrong tree. Quoting from Mr. Laden:

    “Clearly, a central point of the book is that science needs to regain a position of respect and perceived importance, and to get out from under the thumb of right wing anti-science denialists and industry apologists.”

    I find this paranoia about the “right wing” and industrialists fascinating. Folks if the “right wing” was such a dominant force would not Sarah Palin rather than Joe Biden be Vice President? If the “right wing” was such a dominant force would there not be more than 40 Republican senators and someone other than Nancy Pelosi be Speaker of the House?

    Science is about things that can be proved to be true. If the “right-wing” and industrialists are selling lies why is science unable to prove them wrong? If science can provide a better system of commerce than what the industrialists provide why not deploy it and prove it is better? Use your science to make better products. Use your science to improve the lives of people in ways the “right-wing” and industrialists cannot.

    Perhaps the progressives and technocrats ought to accept that the American people are smart enough to tell the difference between what is true and what is pseudo-science psychobabble. You can fool some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

  3. Busiturtle

    Here is some science that I believe the “right-wing” will not only embrace but will say “told you so”.

    Turns out Head Start is a fantastic government child care and jobs program. As for giving a “head start” on education? Not so much. Perhaps this money could be budgeted for a better use? Any suggestions?

    http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/hs/impact_study/reports/impact_study/executive_summary_final.pdf

    The benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade, a potentially important finding for children’s longer term development.

  4. moptop

    “Looking back, it is clear that the bridges that did exist across this canyon were built by regular people” — FTA

    Kind of like Steve McIntyre.

  5. Luke Vogel

    I think it’s a fairly decent review. I think it pulls out some ideas that appear to have been missed by other “new atheist” reviewers that have done little but bemoan the book at every opportunity. That’s where I think it gets it wrong, it is apologetic to “new atheism” in an unclear way and strangely doesn’t point out what the book in fact gets wrong about “new atheist”. Perhaps it’s because there has been so much attention to the mistakes, but by leaving them out the review appears even more incomplete in its assessment, which makes the apologetic approach even more distasteful.

    The “new atheistic apologia” that is currently in fashion can also be shown in this quote from the review: “Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the same mistake I see so many of my fellow bloggers make, and so many of my fellow political activists as well. They take sides not just against the obvious enemy (Republicans, Morons and Megalomaniacs) but also against their allies.”

    Lets get something straight with a question. Doesn’t it appear that what the review warns of is actually done at length by certain “new atheist”? And here lies a critical aspect that is missed by many in these debates I believe, and that is the role of skepticism as well as open critical inquiry. I think Chris got it wrong with Barb in his blanket assessment of Coyne’s review titled, Seeing and Believing. To simply complain of an uncivil tone not only gets it wrong to a great degree but missed an opportunity to apply proper criticism to the review. To take Chris’ approach in that instance, and others, we are left wondering what role skepticism plays and appears to give blank checks to claims which is not only wrong headed, but dangerous. This is problematic, and so are the mistakes in Unscientific America, because it affords an opportunity for others to treat criticisms the same, especially when they are viewed as outspoken supporters of UA and Chris and Sheril.

    However, Greg is also lame here. I doubt he would have much to say about foolish labeling done in the name of an approach. Such as Coyne titling a blogpost, “Michael Shermer, theologian”. Therein he also calls Shermer an “accomodationist” and it would be the height of atheistic PC apologetics to see that in anything but a negative light, and given Coyne’s obsession with “accomodationism”, a very negative light indeed. This isn’t the only place. Coyne even wondered outloud what Genie Scott’s attitude would be towards him, if he approached her at an event, given his condemnation of her. Face it, I could list dozens of examples of what Greg seems to think is a one way street.

    Give it up Greg, be honest at least if you’re going to take that approach to open criticism.

  6. bilbo

    I think the bigger issue is how science and scientific thought have become politicized. There should be a buffer zone between the agenda-laden politicians and the true, knowledge-seeking scientists.

    I find this comment spot-on and almost prophetic giving that the one directly below it paints scientists as evil liberals trying to “fool the people” while true American, blueblooded right-wing politicians and nonscientists are speaking “the truth.”

    I think the actual problem with politicized science isn’t that science = liberals = bad = lies. The problem comes when people form their uninformed opinions on a scientific issue based only off of the status quo of their political ideology, failing to even educate themselves about the specifics of said issue. To use a couple of examples, take stem cell research and climate change. A lot of people (some of them posting here) seem to have some pretty strong opinions on those issues, but when you press them to tell you exactly what the scientific data say about those issues, they can’t even come close or don’t even try. Instead you get a political diatribe similar to comment #2 here.

    That’s pretty sad.

  7. Michael Brennan-Perez

    Ideology is a mental affliction that encumbers society with bad economics, bad policy decisions, and bad science. In its most virulent form, historically reticulated via organized religion, it entirely overthrows the principle of truth in discourse and leaves society at the hands of the ruthless.

  8. Busiturtle

    bilbo, what did I say about paranoia?

    I promise you the vast majority of scientists are not political and I personally don’t care whether they lean to the right or to the left.

    It is Chris Mooney and his advocates who are wringing their hands over “right wing anti-science denialists” as if this faction of the population is blocking scientific advancement.

    That view is bunk.

    The people are losing respect over science because so called experts continue to rely on pseudo-science to advance their political agenda.

    If progressives actually loved truth as much as they claim they do they would be demanding the end of “Head Start” and calling for this money to be budgeted towards programs that actually produced a more educated citizenry. I won’t hold my breath.

  9. Jon

    Busiturtle, have you read the *Republican War on Science?* Forget Chris Mooney’s “views”, what about what he documents in that book as a journalist?

  10. bilbo

    I suppose you’re largely ignorant of the history of right-wing science denial, Busiturtle, such as the denial of things such as air pollution, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, and even things such as obesity. Those aren’t things made up by “Chris and his advocates.” Those are parts of history where (mostly) right-wing politicians attempted to exclude well-established science from public discourse and “advancement.” Most of these cases weren’t pushed by the Right because the science was bad (no one on the Right really ever tries to show that it is) – in all of those cases, the issue eventually boiled down to the fact that the science was inconvenient financially to right-wing interests and lobbying groups. The Right does indeed have an incredibly horrible track record when it comes to purely politicial attempts to brush inconvenient science under the rug. Denying that, as you do, is denying reality.

    One other thing. Seeing as how you rant about how scientists should not advocate for anything but then use that sentence to advocate for something yourself, I tihnk you’re missing the point. You should at least read this link.

    You started off here as a science denialist, Busiturtle (see “science currently has no value to society” from last week), but you’re starting to become a simple megaphone for the Right here. That’s not a problem, of course, but you’re more of a rampant anti-intellectual (smart = bad) than you are a well-educated skeptic.

  11. Busiturtle

    Is Chris also going to write the book “Democratic War on Science?”

    To borrow from post #7: Ideology is a partisan disease.

  12. Busiturtle

    To borrow from post #7: Ideology is a bipartisan disease.

  13. Jon

    Chris attacks Democrats when they deserve it:

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/11/a_democrat_war_on_science.php

    But he argues that when people try to say there’s an equivalence, that ignores everything that’s happened on Chris’s beat:

    http://www.scienceprogress.org/2009/07/dude-wheres-my-war-on-science/

    You can only argue that there’s a “Democratic War on Science,” in the way that there was a Republican WOS, if you shove gobs of Bush-era investigative journalism down the memory hole. And if you look at activities like those of Marc Morano’s and the Discovery Institute’s, it continues unabated.

  14. Jon

    …Or Steele’s activities, or Boehner’s, or Palin’s:

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0409/21536.html

  15. Adeist

    “Those are parts of history where (mostly) right-wing politicians attempted to exclude well-established science from public discourse and “advancement.””

    The problem of the politicisation of science applies to all forms of politics. The problem is not that certain scientific results are “financially inconvenient” and therefore knowingly opposed, it is that confirmation bias is a general human characteristic, and everyone regards scientific results that fit with their belief system as “well-established science” and scientific results that contradict it as propaganda, incompetence, corruption, and the pursuit of vested interests.

    Left wing observers say it of the right wing. Right wing observers say it of the left wing. In many, probably most cases both sides *sincerely* believe it. I can tell you that just as you are convinced that the right ignore or distort good science and are denying reality, and cite a list of examples to demonstrate it – I can tell you that those on the right simply see a list of examples of good science that the left has distorted, ignored, or denied.

    Left and right in fact have virtually *identical* beliefs: they both believe that their own world view is correct and supported by science and the other’s wrong. And you will no more convince the other side of their error than you could be convinced of yours.

    Everybody is naturally biased, scientists included, which is why the adversarial aspect of the scientific method is so important. The basis of the falsificationism is that science is validated by the earnest attempt to discredit it. This means that if you want to validate your beliefs, you must study in detail your *opponents* arguments and try to see the merit in them. You must try to prove them right. If you have honestly tried, and can’t because their arguments have clear and identifiable errors in them, then your belief gains confidence. But I see so many people on both sides of such arguments who can barely muster coherent arguments for their *own* beliefs, let alone their opponents.

    Argument from authority, correlation implies causation, affirming the consequent, argument from ignorance, ad hominem, association fallacy, argument ad populum, the list goes on – you see them all pulled out, time and time again, and the people doing it genuinely and sincerely believing that their argument is logical, coherent, clear, and their opponent either a stubborn fool or a malicious propagandist for not accepting it as obvious truth. Because they’re not properly trained in the immensely difficult art of not fooling yourself (or assume they don’t need to apply what they know, because of course *they’re* not the one who’s biased).

    I know it’s a somewhat religious aphorism, but if you want to be genuinely scientific then I recommend that you ‘love your enemy’. When you see someone begging their opponents to come and contribute their best arguments, rather than trying to shut them up or drive them away, then you’ve found a real scientist.

  16. Busiturtle

    Jon:14 proves my point.

    When the idiotic statements of a politician can be so easily shown to be nonfactual and incoherent how can one claim that a collection of like-minded individuals is such a formidable obstacle?

    I believe, however, that the progressives know the issue is not really about science. Rather it is about who can best manipulate science in the promotion of a political agenda. The American people are not biased against science. However, they are reluctant to relinquish their freedoms, culture and values because some expert says it will make them “better”. By the way, this effort is better called “Social Engineering” and not science.

  17. Luke Vogel

    8. Busiturtle Says:

    ~ “It is Chris Mooney and his advocates who are wringing their hands over “right wing anti-science denialists” as if this faction of the population is blocking scientific advancement.

    That view is bunk.

    The people are losing respect over science because so called experts continue to rely on pseudo-science to advance their political agenda.”~

    I don’t know if I count as a Chris Mooney advocate, but I proudly support many things Chris does and I support Unscientific American. I guess I am a Chris Mooney advocate and while I thrash at him mercilessly (even in private emails), I am “there”, I’m on his side (and Sheril’s).

    I think what your comment reveals primarily is your political bias. This isn’t so bad, take a look at other science advocates that come up in these debates, like PZ Myers, Coyne, Shermer, Harris, Sean Carroll – they all where their political affiliation on their sleeve these days.

    I think you are correct about pseudo-science and as a liberal myself can say a lot of it is coming from my side. I would go further to say their psuedo-science is toxic, and in some case more dangerous than religious nonsense as a whole, such as postmodernist pseudo-science, “alternative medicine” advocacy and outright rejection of scientific authority. Their skepticism is often misplaced though held stronger than religious conviction.

    However, the right-wing in this country (United States, and it’s cohorts elsewhere) is really doing harm to basic scientific understanding. Their skepticism goes beyond basic misgivings and advocacy of idiocy, it is outright rejection of reality in many cases. I will give on the idea that political views can drive this nonsense, though that only gets us so far because we are left with the same detrimental problems.

  18. Luke Vogel

    where? wear maybe :)

  19. moptop

    “outright rejection of scientific authority.”

    Wow! I didn’t know that scientists were our lords and masters! I had no idea. You see, when I majored in physics in college, the first thing my professor of Physics 115 told me was not to believe anything he said, that I needed to prove to myself that it was true. First day of college I learned that! Now I find out that Dr Davies was wrong! What he should have taught me was to unquestionably accept everything he said. Same with math. I should just learn the theorems, and do calculus by rote memorization, like the “times tables,” and just accept the rules based on the “authority” of my instructors.

    The problem with your approach though, and I am positing this just as a hypothetical, ad arguendem, that what if a small number of scientists, organized at a choke point of a discipline, at prestigious institutions with powerful political friends, conspired to keep contrary points of view out of the literature of science in the interest of pushing a liberal political agenda? Not possible you say? Really? Recently an interesting e-pistilitory novel came out under the name of “The Climategate Emails”, which develops exactly such a plot. Even if it is pure fiction, it would still be plausible if everyone were to accept their science on the basis of “scientific authority.”

  20. moptop

    I forgot to mention that in this Climategate novel, the scientist also have many friends in the popular scientific media, like intersection and the dotEarth blog…

  21. Luke Vogel

    lol

    19. moptop Says:

    ~ “Wow! I didn’t know that scientists were our lords and masters!”

    I didn’t say they were. Be skeptical even of the skeptics. All scientirfic truths are provisional, progress is made in science by being skeptical.

    Science does in fact have an authority. Scientist have scientific authority. Outright rejection of scientific authority is a mistake. If you think for a second we don’t rely on that authority, even as scientist who must bow to others more proficient in other domains, you are mistaken.

  22. Jon

    “the scientist also have many friends in the popular scientific media”

    Yes, they have “friends” who are professional scientists. Were you expecting them to be friends with Marc Morano instead?

  23. gillt

    Paul on Laden’s site said it best in regards to Unscientific America:

    “Most of their reviewers, good, bad, or lukewarm, said pretty much the same thing. Light on substance, offers no real solutions, ignores anti-science forces in order to snipe at acceptable targets. The difference? With the negative reviewers they could use to draw blog hits (e.g. Myers, Coyne) they mined out the “angry”, less substantial parts and ignored the actual criticisms. The positive reviewers, they mined out the bubbly, friendly parts and ignored the actual criticisms. They managed to split reviewers into two camps when the reviewers were all saying the same thing. Contrast Myers’ review with Stemwedel’s. They are similar in content, but where PZ gets a commenter at his site quoted as “Classic PZ” (instead of actually answering any criticism, or really anything in his actual post), she gets a post titled “Janet Stemwedel’s Great Posts on Unscientific America”.”

  24. Paul W.

    Luke,

    I think two reasons why Greg mentions his disagreement about Chapter 8 but doesn’t go are that (1) he’s trying to emphasize the positive, and (2) Chapter 8 has been pretty well critiqued before, e.g., in part II of Jasen Rosenhouse’s review:

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2009/08/reviewing_unscientific_america_1.php

    (The other two parts are good as well, IMHO. I agree with most of Jason’s criticisms that Greg doesn’t make, and some further points made by Blake Stacey in the comments, e.g, about how the Carl Sagan thing happened, and what it does or doesn’t really mean.)

    Basically, a lot of what Chris and Sheril say about the New Atheists is straw men, quote-mining, and the like, as has been pointed out here over and over.

    Chris and Sheril’s two big straw men had been refuted before they wrote their book, but they repeated them in the book, then they were refuted repeatedly again, and yet they continue to use them and stonewall about it. That left a really bad taste in a lot of New Atheists’ mouths, including mine.

    (Especially after Chris and Sheril made it sound like their book would address their critics’ criticisms, and made them sound unreasonable for criticizing their ideas “without reading the book,” and then when the book came out, it didn’t—it repeated the very same canards that they’d been criticized for all along.)

    I suspect that if Greg had gone ahead and said what he really thought of Chapter 8, like Jason or some harsher critics, his review wouldn’t be featured so prominently on The Intersection. The review would not have seemed positive overall.

  25. Luke Vogel

    24. Paul W. Says:

    ~ “(1) he’s trying to emphasize the positive, and (2) Chapter 8 has been pretty well critiqued before, e.g., in part II of Jasen Rosenhouse’s review:”~

    Pretty much what I thought.

    ~ “I suspect that if Greg had gone ahead and said what he really thought of Chapter 8, like Jason or some harsher critics, his review wouldn’t be featured so prominently on The Intersection. The review would not have seemed positive overall.”~

    Possibly, but you seem to me like just another “atheistic apologist”. The other reveiws by “new atheist”, like Coyne or PZ have been completely dismissive, they have not added any of the positives you speak of. However, it’s worth noting that their reviews have been offered here, with rebuttal.

  26. Paul W.

    Luke,

    I agree with the comment from Paul (no relation) that gillt quotes above. I don’t think Chris and Sheril really rebut their critics at all. They frequently mischaracterize and quote-mine New Atheists, and repeat the same tired straw men that have already been refuted, and completely stonewalling about the refutations.

    BTW Greg says in a comment on his blog:

    Regarding the atheism bit, I doubt very much that you think of this as a bigger problem than I do. I think of it as a big huge problem, but I chose to not address it with more than a sentence or two. I do say they have it totally wrong. I don’ t think I could say that more clearly.

    I think Greg has just lost interest in discussing how wrong he thinks Chris and Sheril are when they say the kind of stuff they say in Chapter 8.

    You might ask him over there, though, and draw him out.

  27. Don Diego

    Well, I see the anti-science cranks have found their way here. It is not so much a matter of scientists not being heard so much as it is their being outshouted by self-interested parties. The idea is not to produce a reasoned refutation, but to throw dust in the public’s eyes using all the techniques that modern political consulting, public relations, and advertising can bring to bear. Thus, during the tobacco industry’s long war against the public’s health, the game was never to honestly debate the issues–there really wasn’t much to debate. Instead, make noises about the ‘nanny state’, describe antismoking efforts as a plot by sourpusses to spoil people’s innocent fun, play up any data from any source however quixotic or corrupt that tried to minimize the hazards of smoking, try to cut off or limit funding for public health and for any other medical research that did not promise to conclude that cigarette smoking was innocuous, etc., etc, ad nauseum. With this charade is finally over and smoking rates falling in the U.S., tobacco companies are now concentrating on marketing their wares overseas. America’s latest gift to the world: lung cancer!

    It may not be the worst gift however. That may turn out to be climatic changes that clobber agriculture, not only in the tropics, but in North America too. Much growing in the U.S. is done on marginal land that no sane person would try to farm if it were not for water that is artificially cheap, either because the price is held down or due to subsidies. Aquifers such as the Ogallala aquifer which supplies the desert west were already being overdrawn (i.e., the water table has been falling at a rate of approximately a foot per year for some time). What will happen if expected rainfall patterns shift, and even the current modest recharging of aquifers ceases? And just wait until diminished snowpack in the Sierras drastically curtails the Los Angeles metro area’s water supply.

    Is it not that corporations and antiscience cranks can hide the facts for long (they have a way of busting out of confinement–usually in unpleasant ways), but they can footdrag to the point where the social effects are horrible and the cost of past inaction plus desperately needed action skyrockets. The death toll from lung cancer and emphysema over the part eighty years or so should be a warning of the results of their kind of distracting agitprop.

  28. Paul W.

    Luke

    Possibly, but you seem to me like just another “atheistic apologist”.

    I believe you that you think that. I, of course, don’t think it’s true.

    If you want, I can give you my reasons for being disappointed with the book overall, even excluding Chapter 8. Like a lot of fairly sympathetic reviewers, I thought it was light on convincing insight and usable substance, especially in light of my experience as a scientist designing curricula and sitting on review and tenure committees and my study of framing, etc.

    I didn’t know how to make the science literacy rubber meet the road before I read the book, and I still didn’t know afterward.

    Heck, even John Kwok thought it was lightweight, in his review on Amazon, and he’s about as rabidly anti-New Atheist as anybody.

    I can go into grisly detail if you want about why I think the glass is half empty, but do you really want me to go there? (It sounds like you’re primed to dismiss anything I say as partisan anyhow.)

  29. PJ

    The danger comes with following the line of reasoning of “I disliked chapter 8 = chapter 8 bad = book bad= Chris and Sheril wrong.” There are negatives about the book (as almost any book has), but many of the truly negative reviews I’ve seen come only from people who get criticized directly and/or align themselves directly with a group getting criticized in the book. The New Atheists are one huge bloc, of course, but if you look at a New Atheist the wrong way or sneeze in their presence you get accused of a whole host of evils and get labeled an idiot, so that really doesn’t count.

    The most telling thing about the reviews to me was the dual response the book got depending on one’s career path. More applied scientists like Peter Kareiva and others in the conservation/outreach/public sphere pretty much seemed to say the problems the book outlined matched exactly what they have to deal with every day. Most of them gave it general praise. On the other hand, scientists who don’t too frequently deal with the public essentially said “hey, this isn’t our fault! How dare you criticize us?” As for myself, I’ll trust the people who live the communications snafus and situations described in the book everyday against those who simply get called out but have little experience.

    One more thing and then I”ll shut up. I think it was Jean Kazez (who doesn’t always side with Chris and Sheril) who said it best regarding the New Atheist backlash about the book: the New Atheist responses were the extension of a running personal feud most of them have with anyone who utters criticism against them, and especially Chris Mooney. To quote Jean, “Mooney didn’t make anything up” about the New Atheism. If the New Atheism doesn’t want what they say/do to be repeated, then they shouldn’t do it. (Waits for accusations that he’s said certain people should “shut up”…)

  30. Busiturtle

    Don Diego:27

    As it concerns tobacco, the science successfully proved smoking is a cancer risk. Even smokers accept this fact. But they still chose to smoke. That does not mean they are denialists. That simply suggests that some people prefer smoking sufficiently to also accept the risk of cancer.

    Science that concerns itself with changing the behavior of individuals is called social engineering. It is sexier to claim one is a scientist but as near as I can tell this blog is more concerned with social engineering.

  31. Brian Too

    Regarding the article as such. I’d suggest that Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau, Bob McDonald and David Suzuki were/are great popularizers of science and scientific thinking. Just off the top of my head.

    2 of those are deceased, 2 of those are not scientists. I’m not sure what this says from a conceptual point of view, if you accept that there’s a communication problem.

    I do remember reading years ago, I think it was when Sagan passed away, that scientists who accepted a major role as communicators to the public, were looked down upon by other scientists. Maybe this has something to do with the problem?

  32. bilbo

    As it concerns tobacco, the science successfully proved smoking is a cancer risk. Even smokers accept this fact. But they still chose to smoke. That does not mean they are denialists. That simply suggests that some people prefer smoking sufficiently to also accept the risk of cancer.

    That’s not the point. The point is that there was a concerted effort on the part of industry-tied politicians and lobbyists to attack the science you said was “proven” on the grounds that it was inconvenient. Smokers weren’t the denialists here.

    Someone doesn’t become a “denialist” just by questioning science. They become a denialist because they question the science for some other reason than having an evidence-backed argument against it. Many of the denialists here (including you, Busiturtle) can’t provide evidence-grounded reasons why you claim the scintific topics you dislike are wrong. Hence, denialists.

  33. bilbo

    I do remember reading years ago, I think it was when Sagan passed away, that scientists who accepted a major role as communicators to the public, were looked down upon by other scientists. Maybe this has something to do with the problem?

    I tihnk you’re dead-on, Brian Too. Peter Kareiva (one of the world’s biggest names in conservation science) even said as much. After hearing about Unscientific America (before reading it or reviewing it), he made a blog post over the The Nature Conservancy discussing when he was more of an “academic” scientist working in pure ecology. He said exactly what you just stated: scientists who focus on communication get ridiculed and looked down upon for being “soft.” Paul W. echoed this in another thread when he claimed that such scientists aren’t really scientists just because they don’t spend all day, every day in the lab.

    When somebody like Kareiva – who’s been there and taken part in the activity – is crying out for that kind of treatment to stop, we’d better listen. (read that blog postI linked to. It’s a personal anecdote but a goodie.)

  34. gillt

    Brain Too: “I do remember reading years ago, I think it was when Sagan passed away, that scientists who accepted a major role as communicators to the public, were looked down upon by other scientists. Maybe this has something to do with the problem?”

    Shermer dedicated a chapter in think it was “Borderlands of Science” to Sagan and Gould’s popularity among the public and popularity among other scientists. From what I understand Gould maintained stature among both because he kept doing science. In Sagan’s case stopped taking Sagan seriously and eventually dismissed him because he wasn’t doing much if any actual science (For different purposes PZ’s detractors use the same gambit on him).

    We hear a lot about how the public doesn’t trust scientists. I think Sagan is a good reminder that scientists don’t have much faith in the pubic either.

  35. Thomas L

    I think a lot of those in this blog who constantly attack “the right” mistake conservative, old Republican types, libertarians, constitutionalists and such with the recent Republican Part’s takeover by the “Religious Right” from about a decade ago, and somehow mix them all together and think they are all the same. They are not the same thing. Every time you attack “the right” or “conservatives” and fail to make that distinction you alienate yourself from the majority of the country, not just the loonies on the far right (and there are just as many loonies on the far left). Every conservative I know was disgusted with what the Republican Congress did getting involved in the end of life FAMILY decision down in Florida. That is not “conservative” (conservative generally = let each choose for themselves, Government shouldn’t be there…), that was fundamentalism.

    Bilbo – when the politician represents a tobacco state it is their job to support the tobacco industry – that’s what people in that state rely on for their living – and you can bet that’s what a lot of those in the state voted them in to do. And hate to say it, but we exported tobacco to the rest of the world long before we were ever even a country – it was our first meaningful export in fact. For several of the states in the south it was a substantial percentage of their economy. Their “evidence backed argument” was the basic political reality – elections. That is the field they work in. No one from those states was going to just go “oh, it’s bad for people…” – they would have lasted exactly one election cycle if they even tried it (and they never would have made it to office at all if they tried it before their being elected…). It mattered little who the representative was – to do otherwise would have been political suicide. Politicians are there to represent their constituency – how well do any of them do when they stray too far from those who elected them?

    I agree with Busiturtle here, there are many here mistaking science for social engineering. Science makes the claim, provides the evidence for it – and that’s it. Present your results, argument, methods, reasoning and even suggestions – and then people either listen or they don’t. People can use that information or “piss on it”, as they say – it is their life, and it should be their choice. Personal responsibility and all that… You can call them “stupid”, but then it is their life, so let them be… When you start trying to legislate personal morality, well – it’s never worked and creates issues that make our current social issues seem pretty tame (think how well Prohibition worked out, or even how well the current “war on drugs” has been going…). That goes for both the left, and the right.

  36. Jon

    Thomas L: That is not “conservative”… that was fundamentalism.

    There’s also market fundamentalism. Case in point is that libertarians took so long to acknowledge climate change. (Not all of them do, but the ones with real loyalty to reason have.)

    when the politician represents a tobacco state it is their job to support the tobacco industry – that’s what people in that state rely on for their living

    No, their job is to represent their constituents. The tobacco industry is a special interest. It’s really a classic “faction” in the language of Federalist 10: “[a group of citizens] who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

  37. Jon

    Thomas L: That is not “conservative”… that was fundamentalism.

    There’s also market fundamentalism. Case in point is that libertarians took so long to acknowledge climate change. (Not all of them do, but the ones with real loyalty to reason have.)

    when the politician represents a tobacco state it is their job to support the tobacco industry – that’s what people in that state rely on for their living

    No, their job is to represent their constituents (as a whole). The tobacco industry is a special interest. It’s really a cl@ssic “faction” in the language of Federalist 10: “[a group of citizens] who are united and actuated by some common impulse of p@ssion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

  38. Paul W.

    bilbo:

    Paul W. echoed this in another thread when he claimed that such scientists aren’t really scientists just because they don’t spend all day, every day in the lab.

    The hell I did. I was just pointing out that you were being a hypocrite for holding people you disagree with to a very different standard than people you agree with.

    The point was your double standard, emphatically not a huge slew of pubs, or tenure, or a Ph. D. to be “a scientist”—I explicitly rejected those criteria.

    Hyeesh.

    Hyeesh.

  39. Busiturtle

    Paul W:38

    bilbo is a case study in psychological projection. It does not matter that I am registered independent and have cast votes for candidates on the right, left and center. My self identity is immaterial to what bilbo says it must be.

  40. Jon

    It does not matter that I am registered independent and have cast votes for candidates on the right, left and center.

    All we know is what you argue here–that Chris Mooney favors “social engineering”, that government science tends to be the wasted effort that Sarah Palin and John McCain imply, etc. I could predict most of your arguments, as they follow the party line pretty closely.

  41. John Kwok

    Just posted this over at Greg’s blog, and it’s worth noting here too:

    Hi Greg,

    Surprisingly, a very nuanced, thoughtful, and rather balanced review of “Unscientific America” from you. Must rank as among the very best I have read so far. However, I have rather mixed feelings on this book (which may not be obvious to those who have read my comments over at the Intersection). They revolve around such issues as the Pluto “controversy” and their apparent adulation of Carl Sagan (I would contend that Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson and a few others are probably far more influential as science communicators than Sagan was.). I also think that they don’t shoulder enough of the blame for “Unscientific America” on the media itself (Regrettably there are so few journalists of the caliber of Andrew Revkin, Cornelia Dean, and Carl Zimmer, for example, working the so-called science “beat”.), while thinking too that a more important part of the solution has to come from the scientific community devoting more time to educating its members in the fine art of superb science communication to the general public.

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  42. Busiturtle

    Richard Feynman was a scientist and a great one at that. Chris Mooney is a promoter. Mooney is no more interested in reporting truth that counters his agenda than is Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh.

    Good science according to Feyman:

    If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

    It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.

    And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race[‘s] experience from the past (or some biased agency that balks at FOI requests). I see it that way. That is my best definition.

  43. Jon

    Chris Mooney is a promoter.

    That’s correct, if by “promoter” you mean “investigative journalist.”

  44. Thomas L

    Jon,

    That was my “and such” – there are many, many types of “conservative” (as there are “liberal”). Though I think your second part of that is actually more in line with “Global Warming”, and specifically “AGW”. I seriously don’t know anyone who questions “climate change”. I do know many who question quite a bit about the later in regards to amount, cause and solutions however. You’re mistaking libertarian’s demand of the Government living within constitutional limits and the resultant free choice by individuals leading to their fierce refusal to go along with Governmentally imposed solutions for a “denial” of science.

    In regards to your tobacco argument you are thinking the “tobacco industry” is made up of a couple well financed companies. There are also the farmers (land owners and workers), the driers, the selling agents – and all the people who work for the companies. An incredible amount of the southern tobacco states economies were both directly and indirectly tied to the final product. They were representing far more then what you are thinking in regards to their support. Yes, I know the Federalist papers (very well in fact – I just gave them to my son last week and told him they are something he should know…) – you are trying to wedge this into that argument by ignoring the extent of the market and deny the makeup of the community. We are talking about the interests of the whole community – in a tobacco growing area.

    Many have simplistic understandings of business. This isn’t their fault, the chains and links are indeed complicated. For example when I replace a part or system for a client, there are literally dozens of companies that lead to what I am putting in. The companies that design the chips, the companies that make the chips, the companies that integrate the chips onto a board, the chemical companies involved in making the material to make all the above, the companies that make the packaging the parts are shipped in, the artist designing the packaging, the shippers, the transportation, the wholesaler and finally me and the final client. I’m 100% sure I am actually missing more companies involved in that final product then I listed above. An adverse affect on any in the chain affects all of the chain. And in the tobacco world almost all of that chain takes place within the same community (especially prior to a few decades ago…).

    And no – I am not supporting tobacco – but I understand the economic realities and consequences those who supported them worked within. And while I know none who doubt tobaccos negative health impact there are still those whom choose to smoke. So be it.

    I am having a difficult time understanding why some find the whole sciencereligion, text book – on and on so important. Even if you keep such out of the text book, what do you think they are getting taught at home in such communities? Have the Amish prevented any of us from having vehicles or other modern advances? Have the Christian Scientists prevented any of us from our ability to access medical care? They are going to do what they do, and the rest of us will carry on doing what we do. The problem is when everyone starts trying to make everyone else live the same way.

    I had a friend in College (became a very successful scientist, worked on the Yucca Mountain project amongst other things…). One evening he showed up at my house and wanted to talk. He had been working at the Grand Canyon and had just had a group of kids who didn’t seem very interested in his talk. He asked them why. They were fundamentalists, and were there to “hear what the government wants us to believe”. He had a hard time digesting it. My point to him was – well, that’s what they wish to believe about it, and it doesn’t prevent any of us from understanding and learning, so in the greater scheme of things what does it matter? And even more important, what could one do about it other than present the science facts and ideas and hope they eventually become curious enough about what they have been told to learn for themselves?

    That starts by learning to question authority…

  45. Jon

    I seriously don’t know anyone who questions “climate change”. I do know many who question quite a bit about the later in regards to amount, cause and solutions however.

    I think you’ve got a serious case of pedantry, Thomas L. When I said “climate change” it was obviously shorthand for anthropomorphic global warming. To get caught up in the semantics, that “climate is always changing“, etc. is kind of grade-school-level silly.

    And yes, we can debate the “amount” and the “solutions,” but debates about the *cause* is a very much a fringe activity in the scientific community these days, considering–yes–the authorities who consider the matter settled science, as well as the scientific evidence itself. The amount of time many libertarians held out against the evidence I consider evidence of a certain kind of thinking that presents itself as rational, but really it mistakes beauty for truth. Simplicity can be compelling and beautiful. But to quote HL Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

    To deny the market produces externalities may strengthen the appeal of your world-view (never mind that Adam Smith wrote about them), but once you are presented with overwhelming evidence and you deny it, you’re a kind of fundamentalist. You may not think the world is 6,000 years old or deny the fossil record, but in a sense you’re worse, because market fundamentalists are often well educated and hired by people who have economic interests in promoting what you have to say, even if it might be a fringe view.

  46. Jon

    We are talking about the interests of the whole community – in a tobacco growing area.

    Yes, that’s obviously true, but we are also talking about people getting addicted to a product and dying of cancer. Those constituents may not have much earning potential (they’re now dead) but they have families they left behind, large medical bills, etc.

    Have the Amish prevented any of us from having vehicles or other modern advances? Have the Christian Scientists prevented any of us from our ability to access medical care? They are going to do what they do, and the rest of us will carry on doing what we do.

    The Amish and the Christian Scientists are fine. But there are other groups who have been plainly politically noxious in recent years (they’ve been exploited to a degree they don’t understand, but they’ve still been noxious).

  47. Thomas L

    Jon,

    It does amaze me how quick things turn into a personal attack rather than staying on the issue here. While you may take for granted that when you say climate change you mean AGW, I can only guess. For most of the public the two are not interchangeable, and the two are not the same environmental event. One is the acknowledgment that things are constantly in a state of change; the other is a claim for a specific type of change. Part of the issue is that a claim of “everyone agrees” came to be before such was actually true. Those not vested in a side can see such, whereas those who have become vested in one side or the other cannot.

    As a mostly disinterested observer I think many of the studies that have come out over the end of the past year should have been done and their meanings digested prior to such over the top claims as the public has been subjected to. The problem with the activists tacking over and pushing an agenda rather than allowing the process of science and public cognizance to develop along normal paths is rather than scientifically based possibilities we get radical claims involving 100% certitude. The resultant push back and “denial” should be rather obvious.

    You are making a claim for authority; I am making a claim for questioning and learning. My point is that as information makes its way out of the lab and becomes part of the pubic conscious, people become interested. The first indication of that interest is they tend to start to question. A claim to authority at such a point is counterproductive. Let them learn, let them question – and they will come to a consensus on what they are willing to do in response. You may or may not agree with the resulting public consensus, but it is what the public is willing to agree to – and that is how our system works, not the other way around. Same process that happened in tobacco actually – as people became more comfortable with the state of the science and the evidence such presented they became more willing to allow legislative limits on things (and in part it gave those communities whose entire livelihoods depended on it to begin the long process of adjustment…). In my mind the simple fact people are actually interested enough to start asking questions and seek out answers is a VERY good step. It means education is working at the most fundamental level and the process in the public realm has finally started. Let it play out instead of fighting it and getting annoyed by it. I have enough faith in science to not be overtly stressed by it.

    While you may call me “pedantry” all you wish, I am actually very much a realist – I strive to understand the why’s, how’s and motivations of those around me so that I may work within them rather than fight them. Lesson learned being a P.O. When everyone decides to dig in rather than work towards understanding not much gets accomplished. Attacking people tends to simply make them dig in and thus there is no progress in that path.

    And I wasn’t talking about a “market” any more then I was talking about a “company”. I was talking about whole communities that for over two hundred years been based upon the growth, processing and sale of a single commodity. Part of why today you hear that diversification of an areas industry is important to their stability. Areas that become overly dependent on one good or service run into the types of issues we are discussing as they become overly influenced by them and suffer terribly when they don’t work out. Their refusal to accept an end to their way of life is not a surprise…

  48. Jon

    I got impatient with you because when I say “libertarians have accepted climate change”, it’s obvious what I mean. “Climate change” is a generic name for the issue. I was saying they now accept it as an issue. To say everyone accepts “climate change” in the sense that climate changes by nature, is silly because it’s obvious that that’s not what I meant. Taking the semantics literally is simply a hairsplitting argumentative distraction (hence, it’s pedantic).

    Also, I didn’t simply argue from authority, I linked to a list of experiments that the authorities rely on to make their judgement. In a certain sense, *all* arguments are from authority. You accept the temperature measurements of a weather station in Biloxi Mississippi, because it would be unreasonable not to. Were you there? No. But you accept it. A somewhat similar point is that even a specialist in one scientific field may not understand the conclusions arrived at by a specialist in another, but accept them nonetheless, because they see the other specialists in that community have accepted it, and it would make science as a set of institutions completely unworkable to doubt every single thing it was remotely possible to doubt. Josh Marshall had a post that touches on this subject.

  49. Adeist

    “To say everyone accepts “climate change” in the sense that climate changes by nature, is silly because it’s obvious that that’s not what I meant.”

    And yet if it is allowed to pass, people will still cite graphs showing the temperature anomaly rising to ‘disprove’ the denial. I’ve seen it happen.

    “Also, I didn’t simply argue from authority, I linked to a list of experiments that the authorities rely on to make their judgement.”

    Yes, that was very good! A great improvement over the normal level of debate. Although it would help even more if those experiments in turn linked to the data and working that supported their conclusions. There is a great deal of “here are my results, trust me” about them. I noted in particular that your list had the infamous Mann-Bradley-Hughes ‘Hockeystick’ paper in the middle of them. Do the authorities really still rely on that? Because if so, then unpacking its story is more likely to help the sceptics.

    Citing the papers is only the first step of presenting the argument. We next have to examine the papers, the arguments and evidence they contain, and see if they’re justified. We have a number of the papers comparing observations to computer models. Except that the computer models have been derived at least partially from observing the weather. We need to beware of circularity there. That means you also have to explain the computer models – how they can solve the Navier-Stokes equation reliably using grid boxes several hundred kilometres across, how they implement clouds and other sub-grid phenomena, the precautions they have to take and the fudges they have to insert to avoid numerical instability, all without reference to the real weather. By involving them, you have introduced a large list of new things to go wrong, a new list of things you have to explain before it can be accepted as evidence. Personally, having looked at them, I would place very little reliance on their accuracy, and hence on any paper that relied upon them as a comparatum. But I’m open to being persuaded.

    “You accept the temperature measurements of a weather station in Biloxi Mississippi, because it would be unreasonable not to. Were you there? No. But you accept it.”

    That’s the point. Sceptics didn’t accept it. They went and had a look. And while I don’t know about Biloxi specifically, they did find a whole lot of weather stations sited next to air conditioner vents and sun-baked car parks and on roofs and in the shade under trees and so on. And then they *showed us photographs*. That’s how the Surfacestations project was born.

    Up until then everybody accepted it because it would be unreasonable not to, and they were wrong! That’s why the scientific method says *you check it*, even though it’s unreasonable.

    “A somewhat similar point is that even a specialist in one scientific field may not understand the conclusions arrived at by a specialist in another, but accept them nonetheless, because they see the other specialists in that community have accepted it”

    Marvellous! Exactly! That’s how scientific consensus works.

    And that’s why it is so dangerous for the public to look at those lists of names and surveys of scientists and professional scientific bodies saying they accept the truth of AGW, because the vast majority of them are doing exactly that – looking at what other scientists say and taking it on trust that somebody else has checked.

    I’ll give you Tom Wigley’s famous quote, when he was asked if he’d like to sign one of these statements:
    “Your approach of trying to gain scientific credibility for your personal views by asking people to endorse your letter is reprehensible. No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves.”

    But like you say, a lot of them do.

    “it would make science as a set of institutions completely unworkable to doubt every single thing it was remotely possible to doubt”

    True. And for practical reasons one does sometimes have to compromise strict scientific method, while acknowledging that it is unsafe and unscientific. But one thing you don’t *ever* compromise on is that everything is *open to challenge*, and if it has been plausibly challenged, you don’t rely on it until its status has been resolved. If there’s a controversy, you investigate personally before saying anything, or you say “I don’t know, it’s not my area”. Because otherwise, one of these days you’ll turn out to be wrong, and then people are going to stop trusting not just scientists, but science itself.

    When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, my personal view is “I don’t know, it’s not my area”. I haven’t made up my mind yet. But what I’ve seen of the way these climatologists operate makes me very uneasy. And I’m worried about the idea of staking the whole world on this. This is (potentially?) the biggest threat facing the world – its study should be conducted at an even higher level than the safety critical systems in aerospace or the nuclear industry, surely? CMMI level 5, SIL 3, etc., that sort of stuff. Multiple levels of checking, multi-disciplinary teams, independent replication, audits and V&V reviews and regulators. And yet having recently read the ‘Harry read me’ file myself, it appears to be being operated as a farce. It’s still being operated as a minor little academic area of study, like soap powder research. It makes me wonder if even *they* truly believe it’s a global crisis.

    But I don’t know. It’s not my area.

  50. Luke Vogel

    28. Paul W.

    I’m not going to keep having the same conversation with you, it’s useless. I apologize for the late reply but I had family issues to see too.

    How I’m reading what you wrote in that post, then we share a basic complaint. However, I have also praised the book on many fronts. Even in personal emails I have highlighted what I thought would account for being “lightweight” in the book, this was done in full light that I’m no stranger to these debates. It’s actually not a book directed at me given that I’m fully aware of many of the issues raised and the examples used. However, it was the same when Sagan’s, Demon Haunted World came out or The God Delusion (most of which I read the exact arguments by Richard in Free Inquiry magazine). This however doesn’t take away from it’s usefulness.

    And yes, you do strike me as a “new atheist apologist”. Not a hell of lot more outside of a long winded gadfly.

  51. Paul W.

    And yes, you do strike me as a “new atheist apologist”. Not a hell of lot more outside of a long winded gadfly.

    I can live with that.

    I’d be a hell of a lot less long-winded if the accommodationists around here were less repetitive with same two big straw men, a little quicker on the uptake, less astonishly prone to miss clear distinctions, and more willing to argue in good faith.

    Until then, I reserve the right to explain things as long-windedly as necessary.

  52. Luke Vogel

    51. Paul W.

    ~”I can live with that.”~

    Glad to hear I was correct.

    ~”Until then, I reserve the right to explain things as long-windedly as necessary.”~

    Not much I can say to this, you repeat ad nauseum and charge similar to not arguing in “good faith” (define “faith” there if you will as a “new atheist”, j/k).

  53. Luke Vogel

    Also, Paul W.

    You simply did not respond to the rest of my post which I thought hit the important theme here.

  54. Jon

    And while I don’t know about Biloxi specifically, they did find a whole lot of weather stations sited next to air conditioner vents and sun-baked car parks and on roofs and in the shade under trees and so on. And then they *showed us photographs*. That’s how the Surfacestations project was born.

    You forgot the part about the angry oil billionaires looking for something, anything to throw money at…

  55. Paul W.

    You simply did not respond to the rest of my post which I thought hit the important theme here.

    You didn’t seem actually interested in my opinion, so I didn’t bother. My impression is that your most important theme is insulting me and dismissing my opinions as crazy, so why should I?

  56. Paul W.

    (For anybody baffled by my previous post, it’s not all about this thread. Sorry for the confusion.)

  57. Luke [5]That’s where I think it gets it wrong, it is apologetic to “new atheism” in an unclear way and strangely doesn’t point out what the book in fact gets wrong about “new atheist”. Perhaps it’s because there has been so much attention to the mistakes, but by leaving them out the review appears even more incomplete in its assessment, which makes the apologetic approach even more distasteful.

    Luke: OK, but I do say that the entire crackergate chapter should not have been included. I make some of the same exact criticisms that my “new atheist” colleagues make. I just relegate them to one sentence each.

    … and I see that this is discussed further in comments 24 onwards.

  58. Sean

    Please don’t waste your time “debating” with Bilbo. His only tools are foul language and fabrications.

    In a previous “debate” on this blog he literally fabricated a quote from scratch to support his claim that climate change “deniers” also deny the link between smoking and cancer.

    I asked him to provide a link to the quote and all I got was a barrage of insults.

    When I demonstrated through a google search that he definitely fabricated the quote he went silent and moved onto this page.

    You can read all about it here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/12/09/how-the-global-warming-story-changed-disastrously-due-to-climategate/

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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 Salon.com 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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