Friday, July 17, 2009

Heather's Take on Unscientific America

Non-fiction is not my favorite type of reading, usually because as much as I'm interested in the material, it is an absolute drag to get through. For a reason that will never be clear to me, many authors seem to think "facts" and a sense of storytelling don't belong together. However, this was not the case with Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.


The book - which as the title implies, discusses the relationship between science and society - is clear and concise in a readable format (either cover to cover, or by topical chapter). It discusses many of the major discussions going on in the science communication community today without the rambling feeling of a literature review. There are three stylistic points that didn't really suit my fancy (though they may yours):
  1. Trailing end notes. Other people have discussed this and the authors responded, but it didn't help me too much. I liked the smoothness of the book's flow, but when I got to the end and felt the need to basically re-read the chapters through their footnotes, I wasn't as thrilled.
  2. Left-leaning political bias. Chris is the author of The Republican War on Science, so I knew it was going to be in there, I just hoped it wouldn't.
  3. Self references. The book sometimes went from third person to a plural first person. I'm hoping this got cleaned up in the final edits.
Thematic Content
The thematic content of the book was so on point about the changes we need in the culture of science today, that Research!America (the organization behind New Voices) is sending it to our "cadre of scientists" who we hope will soon be science ambassadors. The authors make it clear that what the scientific community needs is a shift in how we associate and integrate with the public at large. They show that the fault line between science and society is caused by both sides, and that only through changes in both sides can a bridge across be built.

Format & Audience
Each chapter begins with a story-like introduction that sets the stage for the topic, discusses the main issues, then argues the authors' point and finishes with a conclusion or suggestions for how to improve the situation. It was clear that Chris and Sheril knew members of the scientific community (or those who follow it closely) would be the primary readers of the book - and they wrote it to them. The examples are relevant to that audience and help to drive the points home.

They make plenty of suggestions about what scientists can do themselves: advocate, improve communication skills, learn more about interests outside of their community, etc. While they also recommend sweeping reforms for the scientific community: introduce more interdisciplinary training, "redefine the role of the scientist in public affairs" (61), or "invest in a sweeping project to make science relevant to the whole of America's citizenry." (130) The most difficult part about making these changes though is something they introduce in the beginning: there is little support for popularization or really any communication outside of scientific specialties.

My only real disappointment with the book was that the authors seemed to contradict themselves from time to time.

For example, when discussing scientific literacy early on, the authors make the point that perception can be more important than specifics (say, around the Pluto being a planet issue). They later spend a chapter talking about how the New Atheists aren't necessarily helping the scientific community by bashing religion. Then in the concluding chapter they say (in reference to cementing the scientific community's place in American society):
"Maybe we might think about taking a rest if the percentage of Americans subscribing to young-Earth creationism dipped below 20-but until then, we must be constantly vigilant." (131)
If they had to use a measure of scientific literacy (which they'd already mentioned was a dated measure), did they have to choose that one? I know they're writing to a specific audience, but they spent a WHOLE chapter explaining that we need to work with the religious community, and then they say that their belief structure should be the basis of the scientific community's constant vigilance. This type of position statement deteriorates the other well-worded messages they spent time developing.

All in all though, this book should be read by anyone who wants to see changes in the way science is perceived in American society today. There were certainly specific points in the book that I disagreed with - and I look forward to debating those with all of you after you've read it, and hopefully Chris and Sheril. But, even with those points of difference, the over-arching message of Unscientific America cannot be disputed: we need a change.

Congratulations to Chris and Sheril for an enjoyable and well-researched read and what I'm sure will be the basis of excellent discussion about the importance of science communication in society today.

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