Friday, July 17, 2009

Ilse's Thoughts on Unscientific America

At a time when scientific research and advancements are increasingly and undeniably significant to the lives of Americans, it seems reasonable that the public should have some idea of what is happening in science. However, as Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue in their book, Unscientific America, the majority of Americans are strikingly uninformed about science. Because of this disconnect and the importance of science to our lives, Mooney and Kirshenbaum contend that we need to develop a new generation of science communicators to not only mend the rift between science and culture, but "to create a perfect union.” (132)

Through their analysis of the historical and present relationships between science and several facets of American culture, the authors make a fairly good case. After introducing the divide and the issue of scientific illiteracy, Mooney and Kirshenbaum trace the history of science and scientific popularization in America since the end of WWII in "From Sputnik to Sagan."

Subsequent chapters delve into the rifts between science and humanists, national politics, the press, the entertainment industry, religion, and the Internet; the authors conclude with a call to broaden our conception of science education and train scientists to be effective communicators because “scientists, and the people who care about their work, know best what is being missed.” (132)

The case studies that Mooney and Kirshenbaum incorporate into each chapter establish a clear picture of how science is perceived today. These examples demonstrate how widespread scientific illiteracy is and also show how gaps have been bridged in the past (and could be bridged in the future).

However, for a book that is intended to inspire people to bridge divides, Unscientific America’s strong political overtones seem ironically divisive. At one point, Al Gore is referred to as “the man who should have been president”; such comments have the potential to alienate those who, one might argue, most desperately need to hear this message. (89)

Furthermore, the book does not place sufficient responsibility on American society as a whole; even if our nation is able to develop efficient ambassadors for science, it will not be helpful if those in the media, Hollywood, and everywhere else are unwilling to receive them.

Unscientific America is an engaging and thought-provoking read. It is well-researched and the writing is accessible. Best of all, the thematic approach ensures that chapter-by-chapter it will appeal not only to scientists and science enthusiasts but also to religious figures, members of the media, and virtually anyone else.

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