Thursday, September 16, 2010

Unscientific America: Mooney's historical tunnel vision

Okay, I'm halfway through the first chapter of Unscientific America, so it's way too soon to write a review -- but already, a couple of sentences have hit me right in the chest as being shockingly unsupportable.

First, some kind words. When I first got the book home from the library, I flipped through a few pages (I was mostly looking for the infamous Chapter 8) and actually found a few reasonable observations about the state of the blogosphere as it relates to science. I didn't really see much in the way of anything that could be changed, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum weren't wrong, and some of what was written seemed novel.

Also, I recall at least a couple of reviewers (PZ, I think?) criticizing the first chapter because they said M&K were never clear about exactly what should have been done about Pluto. On the contrary, I feel the chapter was quite clear: IAU should have just let Eros and the rest into the club, or at the very least grandfathered Pluto in, to avoid pissing off the public. So that criticism falls flat.

Of course, then M&K are faced with having to actually defend that position, which they don't really do; they simply assert that the scientists at IAU didn't think about the public fallout, and that if they had, of course they would have done it differently. I maybe agree with the first part of that sentence, but I'm not so sure about the second. Chapter One of UA briefly lists the (all very good) reasons why Pluto was de-classified, and then just hand-waves them like they don't matter. They also fail to make a case -- and I believe others have pointed this out -- that the Pluto controversy actually hurt science. While the adage that "There's no such thing as bad publicity" is clearly not always true, it's not at all obvious in this case whether the Pluto affair really damaged science's public reputation, or if the dominant effect may have actually been to spark a brief public interest in astronomy.

In any case, if M&K's point is just that the IAU didn't consider the public reaction, they have a point. I'll grant it.

Where the book really goes way off the rails is that it seems to have no real perspective on anything dating before about 1999. Perhaps it is because for Mooney -- or at least, for his writing -- the world really began with his first highly-praised book, The Republican War on Science. The picture painted by Unscientific America seems to be of science emerging from a several centuries-long Dark Ages spanning from 2001 to 2008, followed by all the scientists throwing a big party and declaring Science Wins!, with only M&K as the calm voice of reason reminding us we have more work to do.

At least, that is the only way I can explain this desperately-[citation needed] sentence from page 7:

For all these reasons, the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.

This is curious considering that only two pages previous, M&K cite examples stretching back to the 1830s of commentators bemoaning American anti-intellectualism. Yes, there is a deep rift between science and mainstream American culture, and it's true the rift does not appear to be shrinking, certainly not as fast as we would like... but M&K act like this is a new problem. It's almost as if Mooney had assumed all of the problems in science communication in the 2000s were a direct result of the Bush administration's overtly anti-science policies, and that he expected everything to turn rosy once Obama was voted in -- and then when that didn't happened, he decided the world must be going to hell in a handbasket. And indeed, this is supported by the following quote from page 8:

Yet we are deluding ourselves if we think all the problems surrounding science have suddenly been solved [by Obama's inauguration].

Yes, Chris and Sheril, I believing you are, in fact, deluding yourselves. Seriously, who the fuck actually thought that?!?

Maybe Chris felt that way, but I think most people had more perspective. It would be easy to chalk it up to his age -- the 2000 election would have been the first when Mooney was eligible to vote -- but he's actually about a year older than me, so that's no excuse either.

So we already know that M&K's description of a minimally century-and-a-half long American anti-intellectualism contradicts the idea of an "ever wider" "rift" between science and the American public... did they offer anything in support of it?

Chapter One is filled with lots of hard numbers demonstrating the nature and scope of the problem, and M&K are to be commended for this research. But to support the idea that the rift is growing, these numbers can't be a snapshot in time; they must sample at least two data points. I can find only a single example of this type of data in Chapter One:

As for newspapers, from 1989 to 2005 the number featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank by nearly two-thirds, from ninety-five to thirty-four.

A stark trend, to be sure. But I am not convinced this represents a re-prioritizing of science by the traditional news media. Rather, I think this is a manifestation of an ongoing indifference to science and science reporting, combined with a well-documented crash in print newspaper circulation. From 1980 to 2002, the number of print newspapers in the US declined by 17% (despite no significant decline for the previous three decades). More in line with the staggering drop in science reporting cited by M&K, the number of people employed by print newspapers declined by about 40% or so in the same interval they looked at. All we need to do to explain the drop-off in science reporting is to assume that when times get tough at American newspapers, the science staff are half again more likely to get fired than their counterparts. Does anyone really doubt that has been the case for several decades or more?

The rest of Chapter One makes a fairly convincing case, however, that the aforementioned rift -- whether it is growing, as M&K baldly assert, or if it is business as usual, as I tend to think -- will become more dangerous in the coming years. Really, one need point no further than the politicization of global warming, but M&K do go further, and highlight a number of other areas where a weak public understanding of science jeopardizes America's future and the future of the world.

In summary: The problem with this book so far -- and this seems consonant with other reviewers -- is that the uncontroversial statements are very well-researched and well-supported, yet they are intermingled with controversial and novel assertions that are not. At least in Chapter One, this problem seems to be result of historical tunnel vision. M&K's pronouncements on the past are rarely cited; and when there is data stemming from prior to the 21st century, it tends to support the opposite conclusions of what they are asserting.


  1. Hear hear!

    I'm considering the possibility of eventually reading this book. If it has a few well-researched nuggets, it may in fact be worth checking out depsite its apparent abundant warts.

    What did you think about your brief perusal of Chapter 8?

  2. I didn't give chapter 8 that close of a look, and the part I'm most interested in I did not find right away -- and that's the extent to which Crackergate was accurately represented.

    I can understand if people found Crackergate to be gratuitous or tasteless or ill-advised or whatever. I happen to think it was awesome, but other points of view are valid. What pisses me off to no end, though, is when the motivation behind it is misrepresented. PZ's actions only made sense as a protest against an existing and ongoing controversy. I have heard some people say Mooney left this out of his description, which would be a colossal journalistic failure IMO. Others have said he mentioned the context, but not in detail. I'm interested to know for myself.

    I haven't gotten much further (I am currently also reading A Thousand Days of Wonder) but so far Chapter Two seems like more of the same... some interesting data and some insightful observations, leading to bizarre assertions that don't seem to follow from the premises, at least not to me.

    For instance, he points out that America's science problems are not just a case of simple scientific illiteracy, since on most measures of scientific literacy, Americans do better than a lot of their European counterparts -- we just fall down when it comes to things like evolution and global warming. This rightfully supports part of the theme of the chapter, which is that improved education is not likely to solve the problem.

    M&K go on to assert that the solution, therefore, is better science communication. But how can one not also notice that those two things (evolution and AGW denialism) are directly caused by an unholy alliance between politics and religion? In what way have scientists failed to communicate about those topics? What scientists have "failed" to do in regards to those topics is convince a bunch of rubes to fall for an uncompromising ideology.

    There's a lot of book left for M&K to explain to me what they mean, so I'll try to give the benefit of the doubt... but it's bizarre that chapter 2 is all about "It's not the public's fault!", and then the two things they mention where measures of American scientific literacy fall down are those that are being skewed by a pathological public opinion.

    Perhaps despite my attempts to set aside any biases, I am coming into it with certain presuppositions. But to me, I hear these things, and the only way I can see to "frame" it is as a struggle against bad politics and bad religion. i.e. a struggle against faith-based ideology. But we'll see...