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Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

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Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

The cover of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum

Basic Books/Perseus Book Group

The Bottom Line

The authors - one a journalist and one a scientist - explore the ways in which science is ignored and abused in American society ... and provide a plan to give scientists the tools and motivation to spread a greater understanding of science to the general population. The major failing of the book is that it doesn't provide much detail on how to fix the situation and, though it attempts to speak to a broad audience, the clear liberal bend of the authors will make it hard for many conservative readers to accept the politically neutral claims that are at the core of the book.
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Pros

  • Excellent analysis of the current state of American science.
  • Several general suggestions for areas where more contact between science and society are needed.
  • Benefits from the perspectives of both a journalist and a scientist as authors.
  • Excellent criticism of the "new atheists" and the philosophical flaws in their approach.

Cons

  • Politicized science claims would be better with more thorough analysis of why they're invalid.
  • The suggestions to remedy the situation are generally fairly vague.
  • Conservatives unlikely to accept politically neutral conclusion by clearly liberal authors.

Description

  • authored by journalist Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science) and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum
  • Basic Books, 2009, hardcover
  • 209 pages, which includes a 66-page Notes section and an 11-page index (so the text clocks in at 132 pages).

Guide Review - Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

This book isn't just about scientific illiteracy, but also about how even those who are scientifically literate in our society act in such a way that conflict arises between the scientific community and the general public. In fact, one of their core conclusions is that scientists need to be better about communicating discoveries and methods of science to the public, and that scientific ambassador communication skills should become part of science curricula.

But I get ahead of myself. First, the problem:

In America, many people are either ignorant of basic scientific facts or, even if they know the facts, choose to embrace pseudoscience interpretations (thinking that they are embracing a consensus instead).
In other words, Americans may know science facts, but we don't have the knowledge to put those facts into any sort of context. The American public believes anecdotes connecting vaccination to autism, even while no hard science exists to establish this link (and in fact the hard science leans the other way, according to the authors). Global warming is viewed as a political stance and the few skeptics are seen as being equalized with the consensus.

The authors make it clear that there's plenty of blame to go around. Journalists represent science unrealistically, such as giving all sides equal time in the hopes of being seen as "objective." Scientists, for their part, often don't have the time or desire to translate their work into terms meaningful to the general public. Filmmakers abuse science for dramatic effect and religious officials feel greater conflict with science than is necessary, spurred on by the "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins.

The overall point is that science needs to regularly have more points of contact with mainstream society. We need to understand how science impacts our lives ... and our government policy.

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Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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