Unscientific America 2: Buy the book — and read it.

Book CoverThe fate of the next 50 generations may well be determined in the next several months and the next several years.  Will Congress agree to a shrinking GHG cap and the clean energy transformation?  If not, you can scratch a global climate deal.  But even if the bill passes and a global deal is achieved — both will need to be continuously strengthened in coming years, as the increasingly worrisome science continues to inform the policy, just as in the case of the Montr©al Protocol on the ozone-depleting substances.

In short, the fate of perhaps the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth rests in the hands of scientists (and those who understand the science) trying to communicate the dire nature of the climate problem (and the myriad solutions available now) as well as the ability of the media, the public, opinion makers, and political leaders to understand and deal with that science.

And so what could be more timely — and disquieting — than a book titled Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future?  The book is by Chris Mooney, whose science blog was a major inspiration for me to pursue blogging, and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum.

While it notably and presciently disses former TV meteorologist Watts for his unscientific obsession with pushing weather data in the climate debate (see “Unscientific America, Part 1: From the moon-landing deniers to WattsUpWithThat“), climate-saturated CP readers will be happy to know that very little of the book actually focuses on global warming.

Rather, this short, highly readable book is a survey of the sorry state of scientific understanding and communication in this country, ending with some proposals for improving the situation.  Here are some of the interesting/depressing factoids from the book:

  • For every five hours of cable news, one minute is devoted to science;
  • 46% of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old;
  • The number of newspapers with science sections has shrunken by two-thirds in the last 20 years
  • Just 18% of Americans know a scientist personally
  • The overwhelming majority of Americans polled in late 2007 either couldn’t name a scientific role model or named “people who are either not scientists or not alive

On the flip side, the book describes at length a problem I discuss here — Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1.

Scientists who are also great public communicators, like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, have grown scarcer as science has become increasingly specialized. Moreover, the media likes the glib and the dramatic, which is the style most scientists deliberately avoid. As Jared Diamond (author of Collapse) wrote in a must-read 1997 article on scientific messaging (or the lack thereof), “Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers.” After Carl Sagan became famous, he was rejected for membership in the National Academy of Sciences in a special vote. This became widely known, and, Diamond writes, “Every scientist is capable of recognizing the obvious implications for his or her self-interest.

Scientists who have been outspoken about global warming have been repeatedly attacked as having a “political agenda.” As one 2006 article explained, “For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional payoff for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics.”

Mooney also lays out the “tribulations of the science pipeline” by quoting “a painfully eloquent recent blog commenter” on Science Progress:

I’m a recent PhD graduate (Aug’ 2008). I’m unemployed. I am valued at negative $75,000 as a result of my school loans. For an increasing number of PhD graduates, there is NO job at the end of the PhD tunnel, unless you opt for the path of the underpaid, undervalued limbo lifestyle of a postdoc. After seeing what my predecessors have suffered on that path (~10 years of postdocing, and STILL no tenure-track job?), I chose NOT to follow in their weary footsteps. I have found that I’m not only overqualified for many positions that I would be happy to hold, but I am also considered by recruiters to be very narrowly-qualified (despite my multidisciplinary interests and skills) for anything at all except being a lab monkey and working for $30,000 a year. Had I to do it over again, I would not choose a PhD, at least not a general science degree. I would have gone to medical or law school, or perhaps a PhD in public health (a very rapidly growing field). At least after training in these programs, your skill set is clearly defined, and you can be confident that you will have a job post-graduation.

If a projection Mooney quotes is right — “the chance of a PhD recipient under age 35 winning a tenure-track job has tumbled to only 7%” — then he offers a crucial suggestion:

Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and to get better in touch with our culture — while pointing out in passing that having more diverse skills can only help them navigate today’s job market, and may even be the real key to preserving US competitiveness?

Meanwhile let’s encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropist who care about the role of science in our society to create a new range of nonprofit, public-interest fellowships and job positions whose express purpose is to connect science with other sectors of society.

The book ends with a quote from C. P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” lecture, in which he “express the nature of change we need fixing fleet, yet powerfully”:

We require a common culture in which science is an essential component. Otherwise we shall never see the possibilities, either for evil or good.

Of course, that lecture was 50 years ago — and the divide seems as big as ever, so that isn’t a cause for much optimism.

I do think that every scientist-in-training today should be required to take a course in communication, a course in energy, and a course in climate science.  The smart ones will specialize in some discipline related to sustainability because when the nation and the world get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two, the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a WWII-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our mypopic dawdling has made inevitable.

My one small problem with the book’s analysis is that it portrays US popular culture, especially Hollywood, as anti-scientist, but that was really true before the rise of IT, the internet, and rich nerds.  TV in particular is much more favorably disposed toward scientist characters than movies were, say, two or three decades ago.  If I have time, I’ll blog on that.

Normally I half-jokingly tell people they only need to buy my books, not read them.  I mean who reads non-fiction books cover to cover anymore?  But this is one to buy and read in its entirety (which is only 132 pages of text).

Kudos to Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

You can read RealClimate’s review here.


18 Responses to Unscientific America 2: Buy the book — and read it.

  1. RunawayRose says:

    I recently finished the 132 pages of text; I keep the book by the computer, going through the end-notes when I’m waiting for dial-up to do something. I think it’s a good description of the problem, I’m just not sure what I can do as part of the solution.

  2. david freeman says:

    Jeez, I would have guessed that 18% of people would actually be scientists or be related to one! Maybe 82% of people don’t even care enough to know what their friends and families do for a living.

  3. Dennis says:

    Having thoroughly enjoyed Mooney’s previous book “The Republican War on Science,” I was really looking forward to this one. I read the entire book on sunday (an excellent way to kill a coast to coast flight), but have to say I was somewhat disappointed.

    Mooney and Kirshenbaum spend a lot of time discussing how the scientific community needs to do a better job communicating with the public. True. They spend a lot of energy on the great communication styles of a few individuals (Carl Sagan in particular). Also true. But I recall nothing in the book about the horrible state of science education among the general public. Could they at least suggest that students take more and better laboratory science classes as a way to overcome science phobia? Or classes on science in society?

    Reading this book you’d think the entire problem will go away of Ph.D. scientists would just take speaking classes and get out more. That’s only half the problem. Non-scientists (including me) have to step up to the plate and join in the science discussion. Mooney and Kirshenbaum correctly single out the media, and they are dead on about the problems there, but there’s more to it than that. The book reads like a rush job — there’s a lot more that could be in there.

  4. Chris Winter says:

    JR: “Normally I half-jokingly tell people they only need to buy my books, not read them. I mean who reads non-fiction books cover to cover any more?”

    I do — and I’ve got proof. :-)

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    I’ll look forward to reading the book. I enjoyed seeing Chris Mooney give a talk in Berkeley not all that long ago. And, the issue is an important one.

    I’m all for the idea of scientists communicating well and speaking out more. I also agree that the media are a (big) problem when it comes to science.

    That said, I think we also (i.e., in addition) need a big paradigm and attitude shift, in society. It should be everyone’s interest and responsibility to be curious and interested in science, at least with respect to understanding the simple basics regarding the most important matters. The attitude shouldn’t primarily be: “The scientists need to communicate better, because I don’t get it.” Relatively speaking, much more of the attitude should be: “I’ll be curious, listen more closely, ask questions, and so forth, because it’s part of my thing as a modern human to understand this stuff.”

    To anyone who dismisses science or doesn’t care about it, one might fairly say: OK then, please hand in your car, your cell phone, your TV, your last heart surgery, your pills, your DVDs, and so forth.

    And, we can’t have a healthy, intelligent, responsible, and livable democracy if only a small portion of the people care about science and use genuine scientific understanding to help make key decisions, vote wisely, and so forth. So, we all need to be interested, and we are all responsible for whether we do or don’t understand science (one way or the other).

    Be Well,


  6. Steve H says:

    I’m with Chris…I can’t read fiction: fantasy ain’t got nothin on the real world. As such, I am just finishing Senge’s “The Necessary Revolution,” so I am apt to blame systems for most of our ills.

    Its my opinion that much of our troubles come from science’s major contributions “diluting,” for lack of a better term, man’s superiority. The superiority of man forms the basis of many people’s worldview, so science faces difficulty in reaching the vast majority of students in public schools. I was reminded of this today when registering my daughter for school, and there was a mother registering her brood as well. She needed the religious exemptions for vaccines. What disturbed me is that the school was nearly to the point of encouraging this. It was clear that she objected not because of religious reasons, but because she had fallen for antivax bull. She nearly admitted as much. I imagine that the staff and the mother all thought that the scientists saying that vax are safe and necessary were as credible as Jenny McCarthy and other antivax mouthpieces. I think the sad, sad truth is that humans are going to choose to believe what’s easiest for them to believe and much of the time the science will be too complex or too contrary to their perception of the world. That doesn’t mean we stop trying, it just means we explain things differently and we don’t do things that make our target audiences ignore our message.

    Like Dr. Romm has suggested, I went to grad school for sustainability. While this has yet to translate into more money (and where can I find a 30K lab monkey job; I supervise lab monkeys and make less than that!), I have started a non-profit to help advance sustainability in our community and one of the major objectives of the group is to expand the listening audience for sustainability issues beyond the university crowd and the reformed and not-so-reformed hippies. Its not going to be easy, but one major part of this will be to get scientists involved in the community outside of their comfort zones. We need PhD’s as leaders in church’s, the local Lion’s club, etc, to help demonstrate that there are scientists among us, and they can be trusted.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    I have to agree strongly with the comments above about the mainstream attitude towards science. Yes, scientists do need to learn how to communicate better, but for too many people pointing out that fact gives them a chance to use it as an excuse for not trying harder (or at all, in many cases).

    I want to scream every time I hear some 30- or 40-something adult talk about how his or her child (who is inevitably less than 10 years old) knows so much more about computers than he or she does, when I’d bet almost anything that all the kid knows is how to turn it on, get to Facebook, download some music, and play some games. Here’s a pair of hints: Your kid doesn’t know diddly about “how computers work”, and you know even less. And you should be ashamed of your ignorance and working to educate yourself, not parading it around in front of other people with that weird, “See? I’m so humble I don’t mind telling people what a dope I am” delivery.

    We need a lot more people who are willing to think about the science and technical issues that will affect their own lives and those of their kids. They don’t need to get a BS via night classes, they just need to read a science book or magazine once in a while, think about this stuff, and talk to others about it. If they just turned off the garbage on network TV and watched Nat Geo or the Science channel once in a while, it would be a great first step.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Scietific American Earth 3.0, Summer 2009, is on newsstands now. I enocurage buying a copy, reading it, and then taking/mailing the copy to one of your senator’s nearest offices, explaining why you are doing so.

  9. Rick Covert says:


    I read your books the Hype About Hydrogen and Hell and High Water and ejoyed, if that’s the right choice of words, both books. I only own Hell and Highwater but I will probably get Hype about Hydrogen too because this Hydrogen Frankensteing project just doesn’t want to die.

  10. Omega Centuri says:

    That poor unemployed PhD fellow. That reminds me of myself about a third of a century ago. In my case I had left school with All But Thesis, which registers as zero in the academic world. Well that bit about being both massively over and under qualified for any job out there was where I was at. Eventually I broke into computer programming, and the analytic skills did pay off. But the lack of career paths can be a serious problem.

    One of the problems with modern science versus the common man (or even common non-science PhD), is the way advanced mathematics has taken over nearly all fields. It is not easy to distill stuff that is normally only communicated via complicated mathematics,into something that engages the non mathematical mind.

  11. lizardo says:

    My regional newspaper (Raleigh News and Observer) never had a science section to the best of my knowledge.

    As for science education: there used to be some dreadful stuff being taught in the schools near me I suspect based on teacher’s willingness to accept totally bogus corporate aids. I don’t know what grade this was designed for but when Chem-Nuclear was trying to site the nation’s largest low-level nuclear waste dump about 15 miles from me back 20 years ago (and many years after that) they produced a curriculum that some teachers apparently snapped up that had class activities like popping popcorn to demonstrate fission and ironing on decals to demonstrate fusion.

    We managed to nip in the bud an A/V presentation that would lead you to believe that radiation is good for you and that nuclear explosions and mushroom clouds and mutations were comic book myth.(!!!! no kidding.)

    So here’s an idea, free science degrees if you agree to teach for a few years.

    The other part of education that seems so dreadfully lacking is critical thinking and evaluating sources of information.

    Since I was educated in Britain (at a time when you could get streamed out of science before you barely got in) I was pretty shocked to find that the one textbook per course model seemed to leach even into graduate school, something that we were not subjected to after about the age of 14.

    State textbooks have been demonstrated to be not just dumb but rife with errors and apparently written by morons.

  12. Florifulgurator says:

    lizardo, you says it!

  13. Jim Bouldin says:

    I would have been more interested in reading this book if they hadn’t specifically ripped into the guy who writes the Pharyngula blog for his attacks on religious dogmas. What’s the point of inserting a personal attack on someone, especially someone who is ardently pro-science?

    Hopefully the book will be useful to some of the general public in exposing major issues.

  14. Dave says:

    Part of the problem is there is a segment of the population that just doesn’t want to be scientifically literate. They’d rather just keep their head in the sand. It’s those types that people like Anthony Watts appeals to. I went over to his site this morning just to see what he had to say about the heightened tropospheric temperatures last month in the satellite data; I know he had a field day in June when the departure from normal was negligible. A number of commenters were complaining that the data must be mistaken because it was cool in their backyards last month! How quickly those “skeptics” turn on their own (Christy & Spencer)!

  15. PurpleOzone says:

    The math and science textbooks suck, unless they’ve greaten improved since I last looked at them. They have neither good science or math or pedagogy. It’s no wonder kids throw up their hands and say “I can’t understand this stuff”.
    It is possible to read clear books but there is no value in it. It’s all change the textbook so this year’s students can’t use a second-hand one.
    Math is viewed as an exercise to memorize unrelated facts. I assured my logical son when he was in high school that math was logical and he could not believe me. (He did get good courses in his private college).
    Elementary school teachers do not have to know any science or have any sense of it. I saw a bright (verbally) teacher who didn’t like dealing with 6th grade arithmetic/math. So only the kids whose minds are literary get appreciated in elementary school. And they get the message that they don’t need/can’t learn basic science.
    I could rant all day on this. What I don’t know is how to improve the situation or who would.

  16. gillt says:

    “I do think that every scientist-in-training today should be required to take a course in communication, a course in energy, and a course in climate science. The smart ones will specialize in some discipline related to sustainability because when the nation and the world get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two, the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a WWII-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our mypopic dawdling has made inevitable.”

    I’m a biologist and this advice is divorced from reality.

    First, electives: most universities already require science and engineering majors to take courses in communication and composition–so that’s not the problem.

    The energy and climate options demonstrate only your biases. I suggest–no, DEMAND!–every scientist-in-training take a course in evolutionary biology and developmental biology…so there!

    The smart ones will do what? So if you had it your way, all the best scientists would be working on mitigating climate change. Every other area of research, void of nerdiest of the nerds (stem cell research, cancer research–my area of expertise–cognitive psychology, evidence-based medicine) would simply grind down to a low hum while we solve the climate problem.

    [JR: Uhh, if I had it my way? You can’t be serious. If future generations had it their way, we would have taken the necessary measures starting two decades ago and the catastrophic global warming we are going to involuntarily subject them to for centuries would not significantly interfere with your desire to keep on doing whatever you damn well please. But that didn’t happen.

    So I modestly suggest that smart graduate student who want to be assuredly employable when the Ponzi scheme collapses get some expertise in sustainability — and you go ballistic and misrepresent what I said.

    Try to read what I wrote — since apparently you are a scientist and should be able to do that. For anyone who understand science, the grim future we face is a near certainty. I wasn’t demanding “all the best scientists” work “on mitigating climate change” — I was merely pointing out the obvious fact that if we don’t reverse our emissions course sharply and quickly, “the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a WWII-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our mypopic dawdling has made inevitable.” Duh.]

    Well, thank goodness you are not in charge.

    [JR: I take it you have been duped by the deniers. Come back in a few years when reality has punctured your balloon.]

  17. Chris Winter says:

    That’s funny, gillt — I can still read your comments. Seems like that blows your accusation out of the water.

    Check it out: Dissenting comments don’t get deleted here — only defective ones. Defective comments include long-since-debunked talking points like “Global warming stopped in 1998” or irrelevant ones such as “CO2 can’t cause significant warming since it’s only 0.04 percent of the atmosphere.”

    Your complaint about censorship might get deleted as well, but probably not until you made it the second time.

  18. Giove says:

    I think the real problem is that a part of the elite of western society, a very influential part which is able to deeply shape opinions of the general population, has distanced itself from science. While using all the benefits from science, I believe it is weary of the changes that any advance in knowledge brings .. and that carry a threat to the status-quo. I also believe that when business is sniffed they start running… so the situation can change very quickly if you can show the sparkle of money…

    For example, if I am not wrong, in the 80’s USA has been pulling all the brakes on genetic research. Then (I think, as I don’t know the details) from one day to the next USA changed patent law on DNA sequences, changing a stalled research into a gold rush that involved government, pharma industries, venture capital, universities etc etc.

    I believe that deniers can thus be convinced of pursuing the necessary climate-friendly politics, as long as they can benefit from it. Then suddenly they will become the strongest proponents of the good and the right :) ..

    There is a problem though. Who is the typical denier? If it is an ultra-egoist old guy (and I know a few) .. then he really does not care about anything after him and while he has power he will do everything to avoid investing further than the nearest future. He has been eating the future for the entire life (see public debt accumulation and other similar politics), so he will not change now. Is the problem a generational issue in addition to scientific communication?