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An Exploration of "Unscientific America"


The writer Chris Mooney has come out with a new book on a topic that will probably be of interest to many readers of this blog: scientific illiteracy.

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, examines “how religious ideologues, a weak education system, science-phobic politicians, and the corporate media” are contributing to Americans' misunderstandings about science, and looks at how “hyperspecialized scientists have thus far failed to counter" that trend.

A few years ago Mooney authored The Republican War on Science, so his ideological views may be a couple clicks removed from your own. But a perusal of his latest book, co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist, shows him touching on some provocative issues, and girding his arguments with some startling (and for scientists) disheartening facts, such as 46 percent of Americans believing the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (as opposed to roughly 4 billion). Mooney and Kirshenbaum address, among other issues, the decline of journalism and science journalism as contributing to American illiteracy on these topics. And no, he says, blogging just can’t make up the slack: Given its emphasis on speed and volume, they write, science blogging “can rarely serve as a real substitute for in-depth, considered, professional science journalism of the sort that is now in demonstrable decline—the kind of time-consuming writing that canvasses researchers, peruses the literature, and truly penetrates into where science is headed and why it matters.”

And moreover:

“The single biggest blogging negative, however, is the grouping together of people who already agree about everything, and who then proceed to square and cube their agreements, becoming increasingly self-assured and intolerant of other viewpoints. Thus, blogging about science has brought out, in some cases, the loud, angry, nasty, and profanity-strewing minority of the science world that denounces the rest of America for its ignorance and superstition.”

Scientists need to be far more active in the public sphere and in the political arena, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue, because after all, they know their subjects best and why it matters. (I've touched on this topic a bit in the past.) They discuss what they see as a disconnect between business and education advocates' interest in improving math and science, as evidenced in reports such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm, and the relative apathy shown toward bridging the "science-society" gap. Too much science teaching, particularly in physics and chemistry, is uninspired, they say, at one point quoting from the National Academies’ study, America’s Lab Report.

Teachers at all grades have been struggling to improve the quality of labs and science lessons for years, of course. Whether Unscientific America will lead policymakers and educators to think about that challenge in different ways remains to be seen.


These alarmist books and articles always make me sad as they sap so much energy related to science education that could be better spent improving the 99% of science that everyone agrees on, and is the most practical.

Why not focus on improving physical science, physics, mechanics, engineering, chemistry, organic chemsitry, anatomy, experimental biology, and most everything else?

People don't disagree on gravity, mitosis, titration, electronics, gears and levers, robotics, or any other science that is proven experimentally with practical application.

If America would focus on that, and have best-in-breed curriculum and support in these areas, then we'd be back to being ahead of the rest of the world again.

Focusing a large amount of energy on the 1% of science where there is a great degree of dispute (and requires faith to support either side) is a waste of time, is negative, and is devisive.

Why do we keep overlooking a more gentile "war on science" wages by data-driven "reformers?" The Ed Trust defined high-poverty schools as schools with 50% poor, even though that's average. They claimed to have 1,200 or whatever high-poverty, high-minority schools that "beat the odds" when actually there was only 23 or so. The latest TNTP report was arguing against the Toledo Plan but they did not bother to give historical data, much less an accurate number of teachers dismissed. Where were the retractions or apologies?

"Reformers" love to attack Ed Schools. But then they issue "reports" like those authored by the McKinsey Group. Have you read their stuff? Is there anything in them that resemblse a scholarly or fair use of evidence. Its just MacNews, with fancy graphics and wierd disconnected numbers like the Hispanic achievement rate being higher in Ohio than White performance than in X number of of Southern states. (They didn't bother to point out how mfew Hispanic immigrants attend school in Ohio and how much higher the income of Ohio Hispanics are than the Whites they contrasted them with.) It was like a parody of the Onion.

I could go on, but you get the point. Its not just that I disagree with "reformers." I love scholarly and social science conventions and I can respect the arguments of others. I'm growing more disgusted, though, by their war on social science.

And I keep asking for documentation for the unfootnoted statements of the recent CCCR report. Just because your motives are righteous, that does not mean you don't have to apologize for false accusations.

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