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).
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.
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.
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.