Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Unscientific America. I have not yet read this book. I would like to, but burdened already underneath a huge reading list and too many projects, it is not likely I will have a chance to do so. So this, unlike other reviews of the book out there, will be a non-review. I think it is good that they have sparked some discussion, although much of the discussion seems to have been focused on the wrong things. From the review I linked to above, much of their discussion seems to not have been backed up with sufficient evidence and they don’t seem to have really addressed the root causes of the problem, if in fact, there is a problem.
They seem to lay part of the scientific illiteracy problem at the feet of the so-called new atheists. Apparently spending a couple of chapters to do so. The thinking seems to be that outspoken atheists alienate people and drive them away from science. They single out P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins as the poster children for this so-called bad behavior. There is a strong anti-science component in the U.S. There are people determined to undermine science education and public policy choices informed by good science. In strong part, this component is fueled by religious fervor and thinking. People like P.Z. Myers are addressing this, and rightly so. The muddle headed anti-critical thinking that is often inspired by religious thinking needs to be pointed out, and when necessary, mocked. One of the factors, according to their blog, Moony and Kirshenbaum, decided to leave science blogs was the “Crackergate” affair (Google it, if you haven’t heard about it. I’m too lazy to go digging around for that at the moment.). This just borders on the bizarre. It was not directed at them. In fact, the whole thing should have been merely a barely noticed minor blip on the “blog-dar”. The fact that it got so much attention speaks far more about the disproportionate reactions religious thinking inspires than anything Myers did. This fact seems to have been lost on Mooney and Kirshenbaum.
Nevertheless, Mooney and Kirshenbaum do a service on at least helping to spark some discussion on addressing scientific illiteracy. I don’t think a case is clearly made that it is a growing problem, but I think we are probably safe in assuming that we, as a nation, are not as literate in science as we could be. I think there is some discussion to be had on just how literate is enough. Not everyone is going to be needing to figure out how to do lattice gauge calculations, or what have you. Certainly, as a representative democracy, we need to be able to carry on a public discussion about climate change, recognize the need for vaccines, alternative energies, and so forth. There are several contributing factors to anti-science thinking in the U.S. Religion is one of them. The other is that same democratic spirit that made helps to define our national character. “I don’t need no ivory tower scientist to tell me how things work!”. Yankee ingenuity, all of us are equally capable, no elites necessary. I personally know several people where these traits combine to make the perfect storm. “Creationism is just another viewpoint! It should be taught in the schools on at least equal footing!”. These are factors about which very long discussions can be had and perhaps we’ll explore these further in future posts (I’ve already hit on these a few times myself), though feel free to tackle them in comments.
The suggestion that Mooney and Kirshenbaum make is to pave the way for an increased number of literate science communicators, modeled after Carl Sagan. Get scientific ideas out to the public and help them understand what we’re doing, and how things work. Chad Orzel, over at Uncertain Principles is running with this ball. I certainly agree that it is important to get ideas out there. To enable people to see a little better how the world works, and how it effects daily lives and public policy. It is an important mission. Of course, in fact, there are plenty of good science communicators out there already. There is Chad Orzel, of course. We also have Phil Plait, Sean Carroll, et al, P.Z. Myers (linked to earlier), Jennifer Oulette, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ken Miller, and many more. My first thought is not that there is a lack of good science communicators, but many are lost in the white noise of everything available on all the different available media. With a few exceptions (Phil Plait on Coast to Coast radio, for example), one has to seek these guys out. There is a preaching to the choir effect where those who are interested and motivated by science will find these good communicators. We have to nurture the interest, and I think this starts with a good education, along with something that will engage imagination and curiosity.
So to start with examining such matters, and to throw in a few thoughts, I’ll look to myself as an example. What motivated me to go into science? What were the initial seeds? One of course, was museums. Visiting air and space museums and natural history. Another was the movie 2001, A Space Odessy”. I had no idea what this movie was about as a kid, but the awesomeness of space exploration was firmly transfixed in my mind and inspired me to learn all I could. Another factor that contributed to my motivation was the lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Getting humans to the moon, and then back, was a stunning achievement, not only for America (after all, it was a competition with the Soviets), but for all humanity. This motivated many young minds at the time into studying science and engineering.
It is now 40 years after this stunning achievement. Friday night, I saw nothing on T.V. celebrating this. Aside from a few obligatory film footage shots on CNN this morning and a good article in the LA Times, the media have been relatively quiet. Is this part of the problem? What can be done now to make the type of inspiration stemming from Apollo 11 part of our national fabric?