Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book Review – Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

I periodically review books that address the issue of communicating science to the public. As suggested by its title – Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future - this book acknowledges the limits of the public’s understanding of science and how science works. But I felt the book was most powerful because it focuses on the role of scientists in disseminating scientific information.

The first two chapters give a very nice background on the role science has played, from its high funding and close relationships with policy-makers soon after World War II, to its period of low funding and disconnect from policy-makers, to the more recent “war on science” (the topic of Mooney’s previous book).

Much of the main part of the book looks at the intersection of science and other institutions. Individual chapters look at science as it relates to politics, to religion, to its portrayal in Hollywood, and to journalism, all within the subcontext of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” theme. In short, different ways of thinking, and different needs, affect the interaction of the two institutions in the dyad. For example, whereas the needs of the media are episodic, science is more incremental. So every incremental finding coming from scientific studies can be picked up by the media and presented as if it is a revelation. Except it might suggest the opposite of yesterday’s revelation. No matter that the two studies merely looked at different parts of the picture and support the full knowledge base, the media assume each piece stands on its own. This can be, and usually is, highly confusing to the public. Similar conflicts in the messaging occur between science and religion, scientist depiction in film (usually as a stereotypical caricature), and politics.

One chapter discusses the role of blogs. As newspapers and broadcast media have been eliminating science coverage, at least 1000 science blogs have sprung up. While blogs can help disseminate information broadly, the authors say “[t]he problem with the internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it; There’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.” Misinformation thrives, and those who want to manipulate the debate can publish whatever they want, and unfortunately, usually do. Much of it is biased, inaccurate, or outright fabrication. Which is why blogs may be useful for rapidly getting the word out, they cannot be relied upon for an accurate assessment of the science itself. The exception, perhaps, are blogs written by the scientists themselves.

The authors refer repeatedly in the book to Carl Sagan, an astronomer who was also a stellar communicator, but whose popularity was often seen by other scientists as an indignity (i.e., to traditional scientists who preferred to do their science and leave the communication to others). But in the end the authors of Unscientific America, one a journalist and the other a scientist, assert that disseminating the science to the lay public, to the media, and to policy-makers is an “integral part of the job description of scientists themselves.” Essentially, they say that it should be part of every scientist’s responsibility to communicate the science accurately, and to make sure that the science is not misrepresented by those who would misuse it.

The book is eminently readable and surprisingly insightful. The book is definitely worth the read.

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