Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum

I just finished Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and it was a little depressing. The book is about how science and scientists are perceived in general American culture, with the main thrust of the argument that science and technology are becoming even more critical to our lives while the number of Americans that understand and trust science is dwindling. Carl Sagan is presented as the ideal citizen-scientist, someone who was able to present science in an interesting and accessible way to the average American. He was also apparently denied tenure and Harvard and not seen as a serious scientist, despite his Nature and Science articles. The authors would like to see scientists take responsibility for making their work accessible to the general public, though I think the story of Carl Sagan is a bit of a warning: even if you are well published, it may still be difficult to be seen as a “real” scientist if you are too interested in public communication. The most interesting thing about the discussion of Sagan was his approach to public communication. I haven’t read or seen too much of Carl Sagan’s work, but the authors describe it as being question focused. He addressed questions that nonspecialists were interested in, like: what happens to us after atomic bombs go off? What does science have to say about God? What are other planets like? This sort of receiver-oriented approach is easy for the public to understand, as opposed to a sender-oriented approach that scientists tend to use, where the scientist explains a topic in as much detail, and as technically correctly as possible.

The (recent) history of science and the media was also discussed. I was amused to read that in their opinion, the best TV science reporting was on The Daily Show with John Stewart.

The authors’ proposed solution to the communication breakdown is that starting with graduate students, scientists should be trained in communicating with the public. As a graduate student, I would definitely take advantage of this training if it existed. The problem as I see it is that I don’t personally know anyone who is good at communicating science with the public, and the problems in communicating science stem from structural things about science like the fact that progress is slow, progress is uncertain and has to be replicated, and progress may have to be interpreted in a sophisticated or nuanced way.  As for the book, it's an interesting if somewhat lightweight read.