Review: Unscientific America

Unscientific America is not a bad book. It’s certainly well-meaning, considering an important topic, and with a sometimes thoughtful discussion. The unfortunate part, however, is that large chunks of the book aren’t as well thought out as others – many of the examples given really do not support the thesis.

The oddities start out, of course, with the case for why Pluto matters. I mean, if an evil cabal of astrophysicists had gathered and plotted all the evil schemes they could think of to get the American public interested in hydrostatic equilibria and Kuiper belt objects, they couldn’t really have done any better than how things turned out. Mooney & Kirshenbaum (hereafter M&K) ask whether the scientists involved considered the public outcry. However, in The Pluto Files, Neil deGrasse Tyson points that the Hayden Planetarium had a display of the solar system that included Pluto amongst the Kuiper belt objects (instead of the planets) for nearly a year before a sudden controversy sprang up, prompted by a New York Times article. Barring perfect hindsight, who’s to say that an opinion poll before the media manufactroversy would have found that people were any more bothered by a potential redesignation of Pluto than, say, thiomersal (that’s thimerosal, for US readers) in vaccines (before that “controversy” sprang up, anyway), or the health risks of dihydrogen monoxide?

My concerns go somewhat deeper, though:

People were aghast. Not only did they recoil at having to unlearn what they had learned as children, and perhaps the chief thing they remembered about astronomy.

A Very Modern Major-General
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous!

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files is not a defense of Pluto’s status as a non-planet. It is an argument against the general idea of teaching the solar system as My-Very-Excellent-Mother-Just-Served-Us-Nine-Pizzas or My-Very-Excellent-Mother-Just-Served-Us-Nachos or My-Very-Exciting-Magic-Carpet-Just-Sailed-Under-Nine-Palace-Elephants or whatever. Learning mnemonics might well equip you to be a very modern major general or win “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” but hasn’t actually taught you anything about the solar system. Rather, isn’t it better to teach about the different families of solar system objects – the rocky inner planets, asteroids, gas giants, and the icy Kuiper belt objects? How do they differ? How are they similar? Why is the asteroid belt rocky whilst the Kuiper belt is icy?

Could the fact that many people (including, to be perfectly frank, me) learnt in school that science was a sort of stamp collecting be part of the reason for the disconnect between science and the public?

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird…
So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
-Richard Feynman

Later, M&K look at the science wars – the discourse between science and postmodernism and the Sokal affair, arguing that the science wars were an unnecessary distraction whilst the right-wing anti-science forces grew. Now, granted, I wasn’t paying much attention to either science or postmodernism when I was 7, but is it really the case that if only Alan Sokal hadn’t been worrying about postmodernism he’d have been able to confront the religious right, or delay media conglomeration? The idea that engaging postmodernism was an irrelevant sideshow because the humanities have very little impact on modern culture anyway was odd, to say the least, in a book that often refers highly to C.P. Snow. They also take issue with the “academic landgrabs” of, say, E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience, or certain aspects of evolutionary psychology – and, whether or not these are good points, they’re rather off the topic at hand. Apparently, if you’re a scientist, doing anything in the public sphere other than communicating science and combating The Republican War on Science is forbidden.

One of the major arguments for the chapter concerning the problems for scientific communication on the internet is the victory of climate change denialist blog “Watts Up With That” in the Weblog awards. Maybe this is just one aspect of the blagohedron which I’ve been neglecting, but I’m simply not sure how much influence those awards actually have – Wikipedia suggests that they’re covered by mainstream media organisations, but I can’t say I’ve seen them having any great web presence outside voting season. The methodology is odd too – each person can vote each day. I actually visited Watts Up With That during the period, and it was pretty much coated with banners urging visitors to vote for it in the awards throughout. The most you could really say is that Anthony Watts was somewhat more successful at getting his visitors to troll some internet poll than PZ Myers.

If you want another popularity contest with a flawed methodology, why not use try Google Trends Google Trends?
Google Trends: Pharyngula vs Watts Up With That

Now, it is certainly true that the blogosphere is not going to produce something like Cosmos. Pharyngula is not Cosmos, nor is Astronomy Cast. But you know what? They’re not meant to be Cosmos, either. And that’s OK. Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers has managed to attract a large audience (not least by being, as M&K describe it, an atheistic clearinghouse), who are then willing to read and able to understand some very detailed articles on developmental biology.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain’s Astronomy Cast manages to give their audience a far more detailed and interactive journey through the universe than Cosmos could, and are equipping amateur astronomers to explore and understand the universe. I’m willing to bet that if you did a survey, you’d find that a larger percentage of Astronomy Cast listeners went out and bought a telescope (and continued to use it!) after listening to Astronomy Cast than did Cosmos viewers, admittedly on a (much) smaller scale. Despite the lack of the mass media scope of an international TV series, they are nonetheless creating and equipping a community of amateur scientists and science enthusiasts who can then go out and make good science a priority from the grassroots level. And that’s no bad thing.

These are really just a few examples – and, in a 132 page book, these sorts of extended distractions from your central thesis really do take away your ability to actually address these issues. I couldn’t help but feel, at times, that M&K went into this project with a bunch of grudges – Pluto, PZ Myers, the science wars, and others – and that the divide between science and the public was an excuse for writing a book to air all of their pet grudges. It’s a distraction (as are the endnotes, which are half the length of the book and yet they’re not even indicated in the main text).

There were parts of the book that I did like – the discussion of the changes in the media in the last few decades was probably my favourite. There are insightful points scattered in, and the writing is excellent throughout. Despite my criticisms, I think it’s probably worth a read, so long as you’re interested in the topic.

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