An Exploration of “Unscientific America”

By Sean Cavanagh — July 16, 2009 2 min read

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.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.