Last month, at an Arizona state senate hearing, a Republican legislator named Sylvia Allen casually tossed off a statistic that, if true, would unravel the last 200 years of painstaking progress in geological research.
Speaking on a proposal for a new uranium mine, she asserted matter-of-factly that “the Earth’s been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.” The hearing was videotaped, and a clip of her remark was posted on the Internet, exposing her ignorance of basic science to a predictable chorus of mockery and disdain. None of which, of course, has the slightest chance of causing Allen, or other believers of the so-called young Earth hypothesis, to change their minds.
In their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum say it’s time to switch from the standard, tired prescription for solving the problem of scientific illiteracy: more, or better, science education in the schools. After all, many proponents of “intelligent design” are well educated in the language and methods of science. Instead of blaming the public for their inadequate knowledge (or, in the case of Allen and other creationists, willful ignorance) of science, Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame the scientific community and its press agents for the poor job they’ve done promoting their brand.
It’s an argument that’s been gaining currency lately. In their prologue, the authors thank filmmaker Randy Olson, whose 2006 documentary, Flock of Dodos, made the same case. Like Olson, they think the scientific community’s typical response to public displays of ignorancethe extreme version of which they dub the “you’re an idiot” model of engagementhas been counterproductive: “The scientist ceases to be a friendly instructor and becomes a condescending detractor and belittler.” Which is, of course, no way to win friends and influence people.
What’s needed, they contend, is a coordinated effort by scientists and science journalists to earn the public’s attention. They lament the fact that scientists with the desire and ability to engage the public are often derided as “mere popularizers,” when such qualities, which are seemingly rare among researchers, should instead be highly valued. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a best-selling science journalist (Mooney) and a young research associate at Duke, who has also found work as a pop radio disc jockey and congressional staffer (Kirshenbaum), would make such a claim. At times, Unscientific America reads like a cover letter for a fantasy job opening: “Some of these young interdisciplinary scientists should be tapped as ‘ambassadors’ to our broader society […] surely there’s ample room for training a cadre of communication and outreach experts, and creating subsequent public-interest-oriented jobs for them.” Hint, hint.
The defining example of the underappreciated popularizer, according to the authors, is Carl Sagan. Sagan, best-selling author and producer of the smash-hit PBS series Cosmos, is the tragic hero of Unscientific America. “Smart, attractive, confident, well-spoken and an artful writer,” Sagan was, through the 1980s, the “the greatest science popularizer in a generation.” (I can attest to thatas a boy, I devoured the book version of Cosmos, learning more from it than I did in all my high school science classes.) He was also “a fierce advocate for the proper use of science in the real world,” using his celebrity to denounce the Reagan administration’s embrace of the not-ready-for-prime-time Strategic Defense Initiative (“star wars”) and to publicize the “nuclear winter” scenario in order to counter Republican hawks who were willing to gamble on the “winnability” of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers.
For all his success, Sagan was repeatedly thwarted by the scientific establishment. In the early ’60s, he was denied tenure at Harvard; according to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, “Nobel laureate Harold Urey, a chemist who had previously served as one of Sagan’s mentors, helped quash his chances with a nasty letter objecting to Sagan’s budding media and outreach efforts.” Then, in 1992, he was denied membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. “It was an honor requiring distinction in original scientific research, which Sagan could certainly claim,” write Mooney and Kirshenbaum, but “the nation’s leading scientists had made clear their view of popularizers within their ranks, and of public outreach generally.”
No successor to Sagan emerged after his death in 1996, which the authors feel contributed to the George W. Bush White House’s ability to run roughshod over the scientific community. And in today’s fractured and segmented media marketplace, the arrival of a unifying public figure like Sagan seems increasingly unlikely. The “scientific ambassadors” that the authors propose will have to compete for the attention of a public increasingly distracted by celebrity gossip and the 24-hour news cycle, which is not well-suited to the often incremental, technical nature of scientific findings. The issue of global warming, for instance, is the story of a slowly building consensus among a wide range of researchers. Despite occasional successes like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, for decades “the media bungled the most important science-related story of our time,” partly because of the mismatch between modern journalism and good science.
Which brings up one of the book’s flawsit too seems to suffer from attention-deficit disorder. Weighing in at 130 pages minus the endnotes, it’s a bit slight; a great many arguments are marshaled, but they receive brief treatment. That, plus a breezy tone and frequent offhanded pop-culture references make it read like an overgrown mass-market magazine article. Its intended audience, the scientific community and its supporters, would have benefited from a more serious, in-depth study.
Still, the book’s message is timely and important. If the authors’ contention is true, that roughly 46 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” and this percentage hasn’t changed since pollsters started asking the question in 1982, any new strategy of public engagement is worth trying.
Sheril Kirshenbaum will lead a discussion of her book at Quail Ridge Books on Thursday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m. See www.quailridgebooks.com for more information.