Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Unscientific America

This review of Unscientific America by science journalist Chris Mooney and marine scientist and research associate Sheril Kirshenbaum is late in coming, for which I apologize to both the authors and readers of this blog. At least I can cite as a mitigating factor that I have spent the last few months studying science, specifically astronomy, with class assignments taking up most of my time.

I first heard about this book several months ago; when I heard that the first chapter addressed the subject of "Why Pluto Matters," I contacted the writers expressing my interest in reading and reviewing it. As a writer who recently developed a strong interest in science, I was fascinated by the idea of a book that ties education, journalism, politics, and science together in an effort to explain a general decline of interest in and knowledge of science in the US.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum are honest about their political positions. Both favor the Democratic Party, support Barack Obama, and take issue with what they view as an anti-science stand by the previous administration. The debates over global warming, vaccination, and evolution loom large in their writing. This book is actually Mooney's second; his first is The Republican War on Science. While some readers may disagree with the writers' political positions, as the book is intended for the general public in a politically divided country, it is commendable that from the beginning, Mooney and Kirshenbaum let us know where they are coming from instead of pretending a stance of being "apolitical."

The concerns the authors raise go far beyond any form of partisanship, however, which is why those of all political persuasions should take the time to read it.

Many professional scientists seek to maintain an apolitical stance, preferring not to engage in lobbying or any political activity. On the other side of the equation, most politicians are poorly informed about science, which is highly problematic when they are the ones making policy on issues such as dealing with climate change and the future of the space program. This lack of communication is very disturbing; what the authors bring to light is two separate worlds, one the scientific, with a long-term outlook, and the other, the political, with a very short-term outlook (mostly toward the next election) and the growing gulf separating them.

Last year, Mooney and Kirshenbaum attempted to bridge this gap by founding Science Debate 2008, an effort to engage the presidential candidates in discussing science policy. This bi-partisan effort, which gained widespread support from scientists and members of the public, included pointing out the irony that the candidates were eager to engage in a debate on "faith issues" but would not do so on science issues. In spite of this, the writers are confident the initiative will achieve greater success in 2012.

The Pluto issue is an ideal example to begin this discussion because it so strongly highlights the disconnect between the scientific community on one hand and the general public on the other. Significantly, the 2006 IAU vote on Pluto was not a scientific act but a political one, complete with competing factions (dynamicists versus geophysicists), controversy over who got to vote, a group rushing through a resolution with little of the necessary discussion, and an immediate reaction by astronomers opposed to the resolution adopted. What writer Alan Boyle refers to as "The Battle of Prague" had and continues to have all the features of a bitterly fought election.

And yet, the IAU leadership and those who support their decision expect the public to overlook these obvious problems and simply obey their decree. When members of the public protested the decision with web sites, protests, pro-Pluto T-shirt sales, comedic references, and outright insistence that "Pluto will always be a planet to me," IAU partisans dismissed them as motivated by emotions and resistant to change solely due to sentiment.

If there were less of a disconnect between scientists and the general public, we might very well have seen the opposite reaction. For once, people were expressing an interest in science, connecting a scientific issue with memories of what they learned in grade school. Here was a genuine opportunity to engage people with astronomy, to connect with the public in just the way the International Year of Astronomy project intended. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.

And that is why the Pluto issue is emblematic of the larger problem accurately described by the authors as "the rift between science and culture."

By the mid-1970s, the space program had lost much of its momentum, with budget cuts leading to the cancellation of three more planned Apollo missions (18, 19, and 20). Then came a key turning point that facilitated this growing rift, the election of Ronald Reagan, who was supported by an unlikely alliance of religious fundamentalists and "supply siders" who favored deregulation and unrestrained capitalism.

In catering to these two constituencies that elected him, Reagan heavily facilitated this rift. His Secretary of the Interior made an offhand comment that environmental issues were not a concern because the end of the world was coming soon. Reagan himself displayed shocking scientific gaffes, with remarks attributing pollution to trees and referring to ketchup as a vegetable (these examples are not in the book but are personal memories). The religious right, a political movement aimed at remaking the US into a Christian country, flourished under his leadership.

Additionally, as the authors note, Reagan catered to Big Business by initiating a trend of media deregulation that has decimated science coverage--and newspapers in general--in this country. Deregulation led to greater and greater consolidation of media ownership, with many TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers being bought out by big corporations that valued only the bottom line. This trend became worse with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act under President Clinton, an act that further facilitated the "Wal-Mart-ization" of all news media, a phenomenon in which small, locally-owned media outlets were gobbled up by big corporations.

Furthermore, conservative, supply-side economics resulted in budget cuts to universities, to the point that college is no longer affordable to many young people. Funding cuts to universities led to fewer and fewer full-time professorial positions in all fields, including science, as the schools began following the business model of "downsizing" and hiring adjuncts paid low wages with no benefits to replace full-time professors.

When academia becomes a career path characterized by uncertainty, and the mainstream media drop science coverage in favor of non-stop fluff stories such as "celebrity gossip," it is not surprising that more children want to be pro sports players or Hollywood types than scientists.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum cite a chilling 2008 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism which determined that for every five hours of cable news, viewers are likely to get one minute of science and technology in contrast to 10 minutes of entertainment, 12 minutes of accidents and disasters, and 26+ minutes of crime.

"Deregulation and decades of mergers have brought us to this point, and a fundamental theme of these mergers has been to please investors," they note. "That means squeezing each individual station or newsroom in order to obtain the most profitable product. It often means cutting back on staff, and cutting down on substance and quality as well."

On another note, the authors also point out a phenonmenon that probably resulted as a backlash against religious fundamentalism--specifically, a hard core, "New Atheist" movement that eschews any acceptance of religious faith. They accurately describe the stance of this movement as counterproductive to fostering public interest in science. Force people to choose between their most deeply-held beliefs, which, true or not, provide them with emotional and psychological sustenance, and science, and they will inevitably choose that which gives their life meaning. In a strange way, this movement, whose spokespeople describe anyone who prays as having "an imaginary friend," fosters the exact same either/or mentality as religious fundamentalism itself.

Instead of either/or, we can have both/and. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that the Catholic Church has accepted evolution, and many mainstream denominations of various religions believe science and religion can co-exist. How many people are aware that the Vatican has its own astronomical observatory? Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer who is also a Jesuit monk, is frequently asked if church authorities direct his research, and he always provides the same answer. The only thing Vatican astronomers are told is "do good science."

Many psychological studies show that people who believe in something larger than themselves gain strength in facing adversity. While no rational person would seek to substitute prayer for medical treatment, there has been sufficient documentation of cases in which patients with a serious illness receiving medical treatment recovered faster and more completely when they knew loved ones and friends were praying for them.

My own favorite author is the late Madeleine L'Engle, whose novels frequently contain a fascinating conjoining of science and religion. Often, these novels feature both a clergy person and a scientist working together to provide healing, speculating on the unknown, on how both can offer valuable perspectives of a world that consists of "more than meets the eye."

The solutions Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer are sound. Interdisciplinary education and teaching communication skills to PhD students in science are crucial if we want to make science accessible and appealing to the public. In astronomy, this is often done by amateur astronomy clubs, run by enthusiastic volunteers. One of the authors' best recommendations is the creation of a new, non-profit sector, funded by tax deductible donations, which could focus solely on science communication while "circumventing market forces altogether." As a writer, I would add that such non-profits should also encourage journalists to study science and recruit them to work alongside scientists in communicating science with the public.

Provocative and a fascinating read delving into the interconnection of politics, journalism, entertainment, and science, Unscientific America makes an excellent holiday gift for all ages. We can count on it to inspire much-needed discussion of new ways to make science accessible and exciting to all sectors of the public.

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