Before I begin talking about this book I need to apologize. The book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum deserved so much more of my attention than I was able to give it. As the recent lack of blog entries might suggest, this semester has been very busy for me. I’ve tried to maintain sanity with some non-work related reading, but finding slots of time for casual reading has been difficult.
Unscientific America is a review of how the America culture views science. Unfortunately, the view isn’t pretty. In recent years, the average American has developed a somewhat negative outlook on science. This is unfortunate because science plays a central role in education and it’s a central driving force in industry. Science earns its keep by supporting the economy through innovative breakthroughs that allows American companies to sell new and desirable technologies to consumers. This is only one benefit of science. Other benefits are medical advances (wouldn’t we all like to live longer), improving communications (before the internet scientific advances produced the printing press, radio and television), and expanding our understanding of the Universe (some of us like to know our place in the Universe) just to name a few. Greater than all of these outcomes, science teaches us how to think critically—to investigate the world through skeptical eyes.
If science is so important, it’s important to keep its street cred up. When science isn’t respected, it looses support and funding. This is why books like Unscientific America are so important and I feel ashamed I didn’t give it the attention it deserves.
The book gives a brief review of the importance of science in culture. It also outlines recent historical events that got us to our present view of science. In some respects, the book is specifically dated for its publication date of 2009, as it often refers to the Obama administration as a (potential) turning point for science. If I had a complaint with the book, it would be that it often feels like a politically driven discourse aimed at attacking the political right. (One of the authors also wrote the book The Republican War on Science which I’ve admittedly not read, but gives you sense of the author’s political views.)
After placing the problem of scientific illiteracy into context, the book delves into a series of chapters describing reasons why Americans no longer place science as high as it once did (for example, during the days of Apollo). Here, there is some room for controversy—specifically how religion and politics may be involved in causing a rejecting opinion of science. The writing is not presented in a controversial manner, but whenever politics and religion are in the conversation, toes can be stepped on. (In fact, the preface to the paperback version defends itself on its review of how some atheists have attacked religion.) Regardless, I like how the book explores a number of possible origins for scientific illiteracy, including Hollywood.
The final section of the book is the most important. It’s here that the authors suggest a solution to America’s scientific illiteracy. The fix largely starts with the scientific community. Specifically, scientists and journalist must become better communicators. Through a proper dialog scientists can educate and inspire the general public. For this to occur, scientists and science communicators must go to the public on the public’s terms and present science in an invited way (i.e. non-technical and even sometimes entertaining). As I scientist that interacts with the public quite often, I can anecdotally say that even a short discussion will often lead to a positive result. One of my favorite statistics presented in the book is how few American’s actually know a scientist personally (only 18%). This is something I hadn’t appreciated because I’m constantly surrounded by professional scientists.
I would suggest Unscientific America to all scientists as a reminder that our work is not done in a vacuum. Research is largely funded through public support—via the government—and therefore, the public deserves to be involved in the outcomes. It’s also important that scientists communicate their work to the general public for no other reason but to inspire the next generation of scientists. Without a continuing body of new scientists entering the laboratory, we will find ourselves running out of new ideas and new avenues of research. Moreover, the purpose of doing scientific research is for the better of humankind, not to publish results and then to move onto the next project.