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A Thin Broth

Jon D. Miller

UNSCIENTIFIC AMERICA: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. xiv + 209 pp. Basic Books, 2009. $24.

I enjoyed Chris Mooney’s 2005 book, The Republican War on Science, and have quoted it often in my own work on the public understanding of science and technology. I’ve also met Mooney and have heard him speak. When I learned this summer that he had coauthored a book with Sheril Kirshenbaum on a problem I’ve long been concerned with—scientific illiteracy—I was eager to read it. I wanted to like Unscientific America, but after reading it carefully twice (there are only 132 pages of text), I’m afraid I have to report that it is, at best, a thin and unsatisfying broth.

The problem of scientific illiteracy in major industrial societies is complex, and few countries have developed an adequate response to the fundamental difficulties it poses for democratic governance. A growing volume of literature addresses the roots of this problem and some of the potential solutions. But rather than engaging in the serious discussion already under way, Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer a media-centric diagnosis of the problem, and they ultimately fail to present any feasible set of suggestions for addressing it.

The first chapter is indicative of the level of analysis found throughout the book. “Why Pluto Matters” opens with a description of some of the journalistic chatter about whether or not Pluto should be classified as a planet. Mooney and Kirshenbaum cite the “furor over Pluto” as a “particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society.” They note the formation of a Facebook page protesting Pluto’s “demotion” and the creation of Pluto Planet Day by the New Mexico House of Representatives. Then, after quoting a couple of jokes from Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, the authors ask, “Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such a public outcry?” At this point, I began to worry that we were not thinking about the same problem. I’ve been doing national surveys of American attitudes about science and technology for 30 years, and I can’t recall a single respondent ever mentioning the classification of Pluto as an issue of concern. The basic problem is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s understanding of the public’s attitudes is based substantially on what they read and hear in the media.

In Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s view, a “scientific America” would be one in which citizens were aware of “the importance of science to politics, policy, and our collective future,” not one in which citizens read and learn from high-quality lay materials such as the New York Times or a report from the National Research Council. Although the authors bemoan the lack of understanding of biology that leads some adults to reject biological evolution, they dismiss the idea that adults need to understand basic constructs such as a molecule or DNA; they seem to lean instead toward some version of science appreciation. “The lack of scientific knowledge probably isn’t our main problem,” they argue, and they don’t see improvements to our educational system as the main solution. Rather, we need to remake our culture, say Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and this will involve having scientists collaborate with journalists, screenwriters, politicians and religious leaders.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum loosely embrace the “deficit model” critique—a view advanced by Brian Wynne and some of his British colleagues that all knowledge is socially constructed, including scientific knowledge, and that all socially constructed knowledge is inherently political. Wynne’s solution is to always trust the socialist; Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s solution is to always trust the science journalist. Neither Wynne and his colleagues nor Mooney and Kirshenbaum envision trusting the public to make sense of basic scientific ideas.

In chapter 3, the authors take a detour into the history of the problem and, in doing so, display a shockingly shallow understanding of it. Their opening declaration, “The modern history of American science begins with World War II,” is a good journalistic sentence—short and punchy—but wrong. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that Vannevar Bush was asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to study how science could serve the nation in peacetime, and they observe that the vision Bush outlined “largely came to pass.” But the book makes no mention of Vannevar Bush’s lasting contribution, which was the organization of scientific talent and resources into functioning national laboratories that survived the war years and the early development of grant mechanisms to provide resources to scientists in universities without the heavy hand of governmental bureaucracy. He didn’t envision the science; he created the organizations that supported the science. The authors go on to dispense with the effect of the Soviet launch of Sputnik in less than two pages.

Chapter 4 provides a short, but useful, introduction to the Science Wars of the 1990s—the postmodernist attack on science and the counterattack by scientists on the poststructuralism of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others. The postmodernists argued that the vaunted “objectivity” of science amounted to no more than a set of socially constructed assertions about reality. Mooney and Kirshenbaum appear not to recognize that the dismissal of scientific literacy as a “deficit model” is no more than an extension of the postmodernist argument.

Most of the remainder of the book is about the media. Chapter 5 is devoted primarily to the story of the unsuccessful attempt by a small group of science journalists to force a debate on science by the two major party presidential candidates in 2008. Chapter 6 discusses the shrinking number of jobs in science journalism, and chapter 7 is about the treatment of science in motion pictures.

Chapter 9 assesses the blogosphere’s potential as a source of science communication today and in the future. (Mooney and Kirshenbaum have a blog on the Discover magazine site.) Although they offer some interesting anecdotes, the authors don’t come to grips with the impact of the information revolution on the economic viability of traditional media. It is clear that they yearn both for more science writing jobs and for the advantages of the Internet, but they never suggest any economic model to get there. In the end, Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend foundation support for the creation of “science ambassadors,” who would be drawn from the ranks of those with recent graduate degrees in science and currently unemployed science writers. This is a band-aid solution for a systemic problem.

The issue of what constitutes scientific literacy is relevant here. If the media are to be the means by which citizens sustain and expand their understanding of science after formal schooling, then adults need to be able to read science at the level of the Tuesday New York Times Science Times section. For that reason, if for no other, we have to rebuild our educational system to produce high school and college graduates who understand the structure of matter and the nature of life at a conceptual level. This basic level of understanding will not come from a YouTube video or a blog. It will require students and parents to take education seriously and to actually work to acquire the survival skills necessary for the 21st century, which include reading, science and mathematics at a minimum, and history, economics and a few basic social and political constructs ideally. It was C. P. Snow who argued that an educated person should know both the second law of thermodynamics and the works of Shakespeare. This translates into studying science as well as the humanities and the social sciences at the university level.

To attain this kind of understanding, a strong and dynamic relationship between formal and informal learning throughout life is required. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that in the 1980s Gerald Piel (then the publisher of Scientific American) said that “the task of crusading for the popularizing of science to large audiences has to await better education in our schools.” The authors characterize this remark as defeatism; they appear to believe that the media can do the job without schools. Many thoughtful reports, including the National Research Council’s Learning Science in Informal Environments (2009), point to the inherent linkage between formal learning and the ability of adults to find and make sense of scientific information throughout life. But Mooney and Kirshenbaum dismiss precollege science as “textbook science,” and they completely ignore the substantial impact of college science courses on the development of adult scientific literacy in the United States.

The authors deserve credit for highlighting the issue of scientific illiteracy. However, readers in search of serious discussion of the problem will find little to nourish them in this light and journalistic treatment.

Jon D. Miller is John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies and Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

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