Unscientific America, and Unscientific America

Unscientific AmericanA new book by Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Sheril Kirshenbaum is scheduled for publication within the next week. A website for the book has been launched at www.unscientificamerica.com. Mooney will be speaking about the book at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, July 28; so you can bet this talk will be on the weekend BookTV in the following couple weeks or so.

In Unscientific America, the authors argue:

One can scarcely doubt that the causes of the disconnects we’ve highlighted are diverse. But that doesn’t mean those of us who lament them—those of  us who are either the scientific community’s allies or its actual members—can be satisfied to lay blame elsewhere without taking action of our own. We must all rally toward a single goal: Without sacrificing the growth of knowledge or scientific innovation, we must invest in a sweeping project to make science relevant to the whole of America’s citizenry. We recognize there are many heroes out there already toiling toward this end and launching promising initiatives, ranging  from the Year of Science to the World Science Festival to ScienceDebate. But what we need—and currently  lack—is the systematic acceptance of the idea that these actions are integral parts of the job description of scientists themselves. Not just their delegates, or surrogates, in the media or the classrooms.

(Print p. 130, Kindle Loc. 2058-65; links added, emphasis in the original)

While I welcome this challenge to scientists, I would mirror their concerns by urging that we professionals in education cannot be satisfied to lay blame on scientists, and thereby neglect our own responsibilities in curriculum and science education.

Transposing their argument into the language of curriculum, we see the authors rightfully concerned with the formation of an American public that lacks not only an appreciation for science, but even the more basic understanding of what science is and does, which would be prerequisite to such appreciation. Recognizing that curricular formation is not only (and, in general, not mainly) the outcome of formal schooling, they observe the regrettable contributions of certain religious movements and mass media, along with negligence by the science community, as contributing to this sorry state of affairs.

A more complete account of forces contributing to this Curriculum Animi Publici would have to take into account the deliberate role of commercial interests over the last century in actively promoting public confusion and misunderstanding of science, in the course of muddying (or poisoning?) the public wells of discourse on specific policy matters such as smoking, environmental pollution, food safety, climate change, etc.

doubt_is_their_productThe purposes and effects of such commercially-motivated evil-doing are examined by David Michaels in his 2008 book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford University Press).

A one-hour talk by Michaels on the subject of this book can be viewed on c-spanarchives.org (where a DVD of the talk is also available).

Michaels is also a contributor to defendingscience.org, a website of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), which is  part of the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.

One point in Michaels’ analysis is particularly relevant to repercussions for controversies over science education in the public schools — particularly with respect to conflicts over teaching the science of evolutionary biology, or teaching something else instead.

Michaels notes how the strategy of “establishing a controversy” has been used for decades by these commercial interests, understanding that their purposes could be accomplished merely by establishing a public impression that there is a controversy among the scientists (even when no real controversy actually existss), without having to persuade anyone that their side of the “controversy” is correct:

Doubt is Their Product

@ amazon.comAs a lawyer in one of my past lives, I am all too familiar with the model of advocacy research in the adversary system. It’s one of the reasons I abandoned law and entered academia. But research in academia is not somehow immune to corruption when researchers are in the pay of commercial interests who hire them to make a case to support their advocacy — or even just the case for the existence of a controversy.

In Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research (Harvard University Press, 2008), Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy Wagner show how science is misused and abused in regulatory and legal processes. As described by the publisher:

What do we know about the possible poisons that industrial technologies leave in our air and water? How reliable is the science that federal regulators and legislators use to protect the public from dangerous products? As this disturbing book shows, ideological or economic attacks on research are part of an extensive pattern of abuse.

Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy Wagner reveal the range of sophisticated legal and financial tactics political and corporate advocates use to discredit or suppress research on potential human health hazards. Scientists can find their research blocked, or find themselves threatened with financial ruin. Corporations, plaintiff attorneys, think tanks, even government agencies have been caught suppressing or distorting research on the safety of chemical products.

With alarming stories drawn from the public record, McGarity and Wagner describe how advocates attempt to bend science or “spin” findings. They reveal an immense range of tools available to shrewd partisans determined to manipulate research.

Bending Science exposes an astonishing pattern of corruption and makes a compelling case for reforms to safeguard both the integrity of science and the public health.

Returning to the wars over teaching biology as the evolution-based science that it is, or teaching something else under the name of “science,” the anti-evolutionists have made substantial inroads in the name of teaching “both sides of the controversy,” or (as is now written into the Texas standards) teaching “all sides of the scientific evidence.” This stance takes advantage of an idea of science, cultivated over decades by commercial interests, as just another arena for opposing sides in adversary contests, in which each side can come up with its own “science” (expert witnesses, etc.) to support its case.

News media contribute to this image of science when they concoct deceptively “balanced” coverage of issues where the evidence is anything but balanced. I have documented multiple layers of such deceptive “balance” in press coverage of the Texas School Board hearings on their new science standards. Chris has analyzed this problem more broadly in “Blinded by Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality.” Columbia Journalism Review 43, no. 4 (2004): 26-35.

In the blurb posted on amazon.com, we find these comments from Publishers Weekly:

[Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s] repeated assertion that science and religion are compatible will not convince anyone who believes otherwise. Mooney showed his ideological colors in The Republican War on Science, and with their attacks on President Bush, he and his coauthor can’t be accused of being nonpartisan here, despite their call for less partisan, nonideological debate. Some readers may also balk at paying $25 for a book nearly a third of which consists of notes and documentation.

First, the authors are pro-science partisans, challenging the science community to not shrink from taking up a partisanship for science, opposed to anti-science partisanship. That’s not the same as suppressing science in the service of the kind of ideological/political partisanship that they’re critiquing. One substantial difference is that partisanship for science will support itself with evidence and documentation (the reviewer seems to think that America’s readers are unscientific to the point that they would not see any value in the “notes and documentation.”)

The significance of the point about religion can be seen in light of their conclusion:

Mooney 132If, as some are arguing, science and religion are essentially incompatible, then for “science itself” to “become the common culture” would require no less than the elimination of religion from that culture — a seemingly unlikely prospect for the United States today.

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  1. […] For commentary see James Hrynyshyn, the Daily Doubter, and curricublog. […]

  2. […] an opinion piece in the L.A. Times by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, authors of the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. They write: It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers–often dubbed the New […]

  3. […] of yielding to the authority of scientists as the “experts.” I think the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, is of great relevance […]

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