Book Review – Unscientific America

If you get most of your news from network television, it’s not entirely inconceivable that the most science-related coverage that crossed your screen in recent weeks was an account of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s short-lived run on “Dancing With the Stars.” And according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the authors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” this kind of casual disregard for science in the media is a big problem.

In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that prevailing American culture gives the public relatively little contact with the world of science, and when that contact does occur, it is too often “baffling, intimidating, and even downright unfriendly.” The authors claim that politicians, news and entertainment media, and religious leaders, as well as scientists themselves, all share some of the blame for this failure.

“Unscientific America,” courtesy of the authors.

The book’s first few chapters, which detail the changing prominence of science in America over the last 100 years, may be its most fascinating, especially to those readers (like me) born late in the century. The space race of the 50s and 60s placed science at the center of the culture, with corresponding financial and political support (including the first official presidential science advisor). Enthusiasm for science waned in the late 60s and 70s as the postwar political consensus began to fall apart, then reemerged with Carl Sagan and his famed miniseries “Cosmos.” The authors exhibit something of a political bias as they discuss the negative effects of the Reagan and two Bush presidencies, but their evidence generally supports the decline of public science through the book’s publication date in 2009.

Their discussion of science journalism is also particularly illuminating for the way in which it points out the lack of communication between the “two cultures” of scientists and reporters. Journalism, for example, often has little patience for the incremental progress of science and the corrections sometimes needed after new results are discovered, while science often bristles at the idea of journalistic balance on “settled” issues such as global warming. The authors point out a similar disconnect between science and Hollywood, where science consultants on feature films risk being seen as stodgy if they disrupt the narrative flow of a blockbuster by insisting on strict adherence to fact.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose that the best way to return science to cultural prominence is the training of well-rounded scientists, professionals able to cross the cultural divides that exist between academia and other fields. Although formal education is important, the authors argue that the majority of science learning takes place out of schools and that exposure to scientific concepts in other contexts does more to promote awareness about their relevance. They claim that as science progresses in its impacts, scientists must realize that communication is a central part of their job description. The thesis is sound, and “Unscientific America” offers a solid look at the issues surrounding science in the societal eye.

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