Book Review: Unscientific America

I will try to keep this short, especially since the combined length of all the reviews of Unscientific America probably outstrips the length of the book itself.*

I did not particularly like Unscientific America. Running a scant 132 pages, it is a scattershot survey of how scientists (according to authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum) have not pulled their weight in communicating important issues to the public. It is not an in-depth study of America’s science culture wars but rather an extended op-ed whose content will be familiar to anyone who followed the various “framing” skirmishes of the past few years. As Jessica Palmer wrote in her review, reading Unscientific America is like “speed-dating at a science policy happy hour: a lot of elevator pitches about interesting issues, but when you’re done, you don’t feel like you really know anything (or anyone!) in depth.”

Perhaps this approach will be fruitful in stimulating some discussion (at least if we can get over the controversy spurred by chapters 8 and 9, about “New Atheism” and science blogging, respectively), but I found it to be too shallow. I am not convinced, for instance, that public controversies about evolution, stem cell research, anthropogenic climate change, &c. can be solved by getting more scientists to become media-savvy. These controversies stem from the way personal, religious, and business interests filter (and sometimes distort) scientific information. Even if scientists did tweak the delivery of their message there is no guarantee it would be happily received by the public. It is not so much the message that is the problem as the way it is being transmitted and received.

[For more on this point see the excellent case study of how science, religion, “common sense”, and business practices interacted in the book Trying Leviathan, which looks at an 1818 case which hinged upon the question of whether whales were fish or mammals.]

One of the more valuable observations of the book, however, is that there are many more people trained as scientists than jobs in academia. Perhaps these people, with solid background experience in science, would be good candidates for tomorrow’s science communicators. The question is how these people might make the transition. As the authors note the mass media is downsizing science coverage to a terrifying degree, and that which is available (at least outside science magazines and venerable institutions like the New York Times) is not particularly good. How can scientists take up the author’s challenge of putting more effort into reaching the public if the forums to do so are not available?

As other reviewers have noted the end notes of the book contain more detail than the actual body of the text. This is a shame, especially since the end notes are not well-anchored to the main text. Unless you are really committed to digging into the book it is easier to just skip or skim the endnotes. Couldn’t the body of the book have been fleshed out with some of these details and thus made stronger? Certainly there was enough room for it.

If you have been following what Chris and Sheril have been saying on The Intersection over the past few years then you will have a good idea of whether you will like Unscientific America or not. If you tend to agree with them, you will like it, and if not you will be disappointed. It has the potential to foster some discussion about how to improve science popularization but I think we are still waiting for a solid, synthetic work that goes beyond the now-common “Don’t be such a scientist!” trope. Scientists with a knack for popularization should be encouraged to continue to communicate with the public, but it is beyond time that we move past the worn “The public is deluded”/”Scientists are cranky and boring” dichotomy if we are going to make any headway.

*Reviews have also appeared at Uncertain Principles, Neurotopia, Pharyngula, Adventures in Ethics and Science, Thoughts From Kansas, and Bioephemera, to name just a few.

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