Category: Astronomy

PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Summary

By The Intersection | July 13, 2009 10:23 am

We’ve thoroughly read, and now plan to respond in detail to PZ Myers’ review of our book.

But first, some throat clearing. It may seem odd for authors to respond so extensively to their critics. In the olden days, such exchanges happened very slowly, if at all, through letters to the editor, and usually they weren’t very long. But this is the Internet age, and there are very different circumstances here:

The People Want It. Hordes of commenters are demanding that we respond to PZ.

PZ Asked For It. Myers did not write a balanced review, an indifferent review, or even a negative review. Rather, he misrepresented our book, got its arguments wrong, assaulted its authors (“their hypocritical and ignorant paean to mealy-mouthedness”), and finally ended by concluding that our labor of over a year is “utterly useless.”

We may not be capable of objectivity judging our own work. But we’re also receiving many supportive emails from people who like the book, are seeing it spark constructive dialogue about solutions on places like Chad Orzel’s blog or, and are witnessing the careful weighing of its arguments’ strengths and weaknesses at places like Neurotopia. How could a book that is prompting thought and dialogue be “utterly useless”? Myers may disagree with our book in many respects, but debate itself is useful, is it not?

We Wrote a Contempt-Free Book. Myers’ charges come from someone who is directly criticized in the book, and who admits that his opinion “is colored by the palpable contempt [its authors] hold for me.” But there’s no “contempt” here–just entirely fair criticism of Myers based on his freely chosen actions.

But we’ll get to that.

In answering Myers, we will proceed in 10 points, spread across 3 posts to control their length. We will first summarize them here, and then elaborate in the next three posts until we’re done:

1. Getting Personal? Myers claims that our book contains “very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.” We do not agree that we have launched any personal attacks.

2.  Pluto. Myers doesn’t appear to understand our argument here, as we will show.

3. What the Book Actually Says. Starting with Chapter 1, Myers gives little if any sense of the book’s real contents and argument.

4. Carl Sagan. This is virtually the only thing Myers seems to agree with us on. But he doesn’t grasp the nature of Sagan’s uniqueness, or why Richard Dawkins is no Carl Sagan.

5.  American Anti-Science. Myers claims the book “entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces.” This is false.

6. Root Causes. Myers claims the book “demands we avoid addressing the structural roots” of the problem of science in society. That’s false.

7. Science in the Entertainment Industry. By taking a single sentence about Richard Dawkins vastly out of context, Myers misrepresents our chapter on this subject.

8. Solutions. Myers claims our book “offers no new solutions.” This is false.

9. Bigotry. Myers flings this baseless, inflammatory charge at us.

10. The Problem with PZ Myers. Curiously, Myers doesn’t even address our criticisms of…him. But they’re serious and fair, and we will end by elaborating upon why, in the wake of the communion wafer desecration, we decided we had to speak out about them.

That’s how we’ll proceed, and we’ll begin with the first post in a few hours. The entirety of what we’ve written will carry over into tomorrow–but never fear, it is already drafted, and you will see it all soon enough.

While we welcome comment here, we ask that you do not pre-judge our rebuttals on the points above until they have actually been posted.

The first post is now up and can be found here.

Some Reactions to the Pew/AAAS Report

By Chris Mooney | July 10, 2009 1:54 pm

There was a lot of press on this today, and I myself contributed–I talked at length to Alan Boyle of MSNBC, Pete Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor, and Dan Vergano of USA Today. The reason, of course, is that we have a book out about the disconnect between science and the American public even as Pew adds considerable new data that helps us further delineate the nature of the problem.

You can read the full stories above, but I’ll just add a few snippets showing what my interviews added to them. Read More

A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away…

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 19, 2009 3:40 pm


Herschel–the largest far-infrared telescope launched into space–has captured it’s first image and Phil’s got the details!

Known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51 is practically our neighbor at just 25 million light years away.

I can’t help but wonder if just maybe, someone there may be looking back at us…


Galileo, Pragmatist?

By Chris Mooney | June 19, 2009 11:33 am

Much interesting stuff came up last night at the launch of the Franklin Institute Galileo symposium–but for now I’ll just highlight one central matter that dominated much of the discussion.

In attempting to make the famous scientist relevant to us today, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, argued strongly that Galileo was a “pragmatist.” As a man without independent wealth, who lived in a society where the Church had absolute “juridical power” over his and everyone else’s life, Galileo had no choice but to cozy up to patronage and to papal authority. In the book that got him condemned, the 1632 Dialogo, Cowan explained that Galileo was under order not to advocate the position that the actually Earth moves–so he instead wrote an “on the one hand/on the other hand” treatment of the issue, to meet the letter of the law and leave it to the reader to decide.

But this raises a very stark question–if Galileo was such a pragmatist, then how did he get himself into so much trouble?

Read More

Unscientific America: Page 2

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 28, 2009 9:32 am

uajacket.pngChris has already posted the table of contents and introductory passages from Unscientific America. Here’s a glimpse at what comes next:

strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris; and so forth.

People were aghast. Not only did they recoil at having to unlearn a childhood science lesson, and perhaps the chief thing they remembered about astronomy. On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, their love of the underdog provoked. Why suddenly kick Pluto out of the planet fraternity after letting it stay in for nearly a century, ever since its 1930 discovery? “No do-overs,” wrote one cartoonist.

Read More

'Pluto is still a planet. Bitches.'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 27, 2009 5:20 pm

As you’ve already surmised from the opening pages of Unscientific America, our sympathies tend in her direction



CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space, Unscientific America

Unscientific America: Page 1

By Chris Mooney | May 27, 2009 2:02 pm

As promised, in anticipation of the book release, we’re now going to dribble out part of the first chapter of Unscientific America, entitled “Why Pluto Matters”:

Why Pluto Matters

“Viva Pluto!”

“Stop Planetary Discrimination!”

“Pluto Was Framed!”

Dear Earth: You Suck. Love, Pluto.”

“Pluto is still a planet. Bitches.”

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space, Unscientific America

Is the U.S. Ready for a Solar Storm?

By Chris Mooney | May 27, 2009 10:36 am

Want to be frightened? Read this blog post, then this longer New Scientist feature that it partly draws upon. There, you will learn that a threat we barely even bother to discuss–space weather, and more specifically, solar storms–has the capacity to quite literally shut down modern society, to throw us almost back to the Stone Age. To quote:

It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma – charged high-energy particles – some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see “When hell comes to Earth”). If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer’s magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer’s copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts….

According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people. From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.

One has to wonder: Are President Obama’s science advisers reading this? I sure as hell hope so. Read More

400 Years of the Telescope, Tonight on PBS

By Chris Mooney | April 10, 2009 2:10 pm

I just recently read Galileo’s Starry Messenger, which is just about to have its 400th birthday…so I’m psyched to tune in for this one tonight. See the teaser video below, and tune in at 10pm Pacific/Eastern, 9pm Central tonight (check local listings for specific airdate in your area, or visit

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, History of Science

Genesis 1:3

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 7, 2009 6:03 pm


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