Bamboo Review: Unscientific America
Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum has been burning up the science blogging world, but I don’t think it’s gotten as much attention in the regular political blogosphere, so while a lot of what I have to say about it is redundant, I think it’s still useful because we reach a slightly different audience here than the science and skepticism blogs do. I was excited to read it, because I’m generally a fan of Mooney’s science reporting, but unfortunately, I found that I shared many of the objections to this book laid out in this review by Jason Rosenhouse.
But I’ll start with praising what I liked about the book. I’m glad that Mooney and Kirshenbaum opted out of reiterating the same debunkings of all the bad science and anti-science woo out there, from anti-vaccination crap to global warming denialism to creationism. They wanted to move onto the next step, which is looking at what can be done about the routine low opinion that Americans have of science, and their willingness to just wave off scientific information that offends their sensibilities, no matter how compelling the evidence. It’s a laudable goal, and a lot of what they talk about makes sense to me. I disagree slightly with Rosenhouse’s dismissal of anti-intellectualism as a major force for anti-science attitudes. The American hostility to smarty-pantsness is exactly what’s tapped by global warming denialists, creationists, and anti-vaxxers, and without it, their arguments wouldn’t get much of an audience. So I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s arguments about how science needs better P.R. make perfect sense. And they correctly identify many of the obstacles to this goal, but unfortunately, their analysis of other obstacles is just off.
Let’s start with the most incendiary one—their lambasting of New Atheism. I am so sick of the argument that assumes religious people can state their beliefs as forcefully as they like and threaten non-believers with hell, but atheists have to approach the topic on our tip toes. Mooney and Kirshenbaum repeatedly state that there’s no conflict between religion and science as if it’s a fact, when at best that’s a point of strong disagreement. When people like PZ Myers—who they clearly don’t like—Richard Dawkins, or even myself say that we believe that religion and science are in conflict, we’re not speaking out of our asses. We have a legitimate argument. You may disagree, and I can see your point of view if you do, but I have a legitimate argument, too. It’s clearly a complicated issue. In general, I had trouble understanding Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s point here. At times, they just seemed to dislike the tactics that some atheists use. At other times, they were wary of atheists who use their background and understanding of science to argue, albeit forcefully, that their understanding of science has led them to conclude there cannot be a god. At one point, Dawkins is chided for making philosophical arguments based in his extensive scientific background. But to my mind, that’s why philosophy, unlike religion, is a legitimate form of discourse to create deeper understanding of the world—because it’s about rooting your arguments in the real world, often using real knowledge, instead of making up supernatural explanations. They really hated the fact that PZ Myers put a nail through a communion wafer and threw it in the trash, but to my mind, committing bold acts of heresy and showing that you didn’t get struck down by god is a pretty powerful and legitimate argument.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum want atheists to be more respectful of people’s religious beliefs….sort of. And there’s a real incoherence in the plea for toleration of “religious moderates”. Here’s why: Many a Bible-thumping fundamentalist Protestant would see PZ’s stunt and not be offended (except by his atheism), because they agree with PZ that the Catholic belief in transubstantiation is offensive and weird. They’d also be supportive of him tossing the Koran and The God Delusion in the trash. But that he promotes the theory of evolution is beyond offensive to them.
And that’s the problem. Mooney and Kirshenbaum want PZ to be respectful of Catholic belief in magic, but evangelical beliefs in magic don’t deserve the same respect. But the latter group is within their rights to call foul, if that’s the case. How is it that some forms of religious bullshit have to be regarded with respect, and we’re not to argue forcefully against them, but others aren’t? Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that scientists will have more respect with the citizenry if the public doesn’t have to worry that science will overturn their cherished religious beliefs, but unfortunately, it often does. They praise religions that have amended their beliefs due to scientific evidence against them, but to my mind that’s only another reason that unscientific religious beliefs need to be challenged, because history shows that’s the only way religion changes. Sure, the Catholic Church accepts evolution, but only because they didn’t want another historical humiliation like that they received after denying the Earth orbits the sun, and punishing Galileo for it.
I think highly in general of Stephen Jay Gould, who they single out for praise in this department, but I honestly felt that his sympathetic writing about religious believers always smacked of condescension. At least when Richard Dawkins calls believers weak-minded, you know he’s not fucking around. They also praise Carl Sagan for being generous to religious believers, but my experience is that Sagan was the popularizer of an argument that actually makes believers the most angry—the dragon in the garage argument. The ugly truth is that if we want science to be more popular, it’s in our best interests to promote atheism and agnosticism, because, as Mooney and Kirshenbaum note, most scientists (and presumably avid fans and promoters of it) come from secular backgrounds. So let’s make more of those.
Rosenhouse brought up what I think is the most important objection to Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s reasoning, which is that the public isn’t just hostile to science in general, so much as they’re willing to object to scientifically sound ideas if they are inconvenient or offensive to their beliefs. Global warming is denied because people love their cars, evolution is denied because fundies have giant egos, vaccinations are denied because it’s an easy way to lash out against corporate America, and contraception is denied because of hostility to sex and women’s liberation. And the kow-towing American belief that faith is so precious that it can’t be criticized in public feeds into the problem. Americans scrape for faith, and they start to believe that you can believe whatever you damn well please, and people who insist that reality is important are just being joy-killers. It’s understandable that a public that believes they have a right not to have their beliefs in magic and angels criticized will move right into using their “it’s my belief, dammit, so STFU” mentality into covering for the belief that there’s no such thing as global warming or evolution.
One last thing I want to say about this book is about how it talks up the problem of scientists and communications. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are big on the idea that more scientists should aspire to be Carl Sagan, and really reach out with TV and writing to a larger audience. And that’s all well and good—we should have hundreds of Sagans around—but I think they’re just a little too quick to assume that the main reason we don’t is that scientists don’t want to do that or don’t have enough training. That, to my mind, downplays how much writing and communicating are talents, and not as easy as they seem. To be good at science, speaking, and writing is to have a trifecta of talents that will probably be rare in most people. You can take scientists and make them a little better at communicating with some training, but writing is a real skill that takes a lot of time and not just a little talent. It’s not just a matter of caring. Scientists can care until they’re blue in the face, but just because you’re really brilliant in the lab doesn’t mean that you’re going to be great at the keyboard, and of course vice versa. (But that wasn’t in question.) That’s why I’m more than a little anxious to see the attacks on Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, two scientists who do in fact have writing skills and a great ability to communicate with the public. I want more science popularizers, just like Mooney and Kirshenbaum do, and the zeitgeist seems to indicate that outspoken atheist scientists are the ones who will be handed the megaphone to speak about science. Which makes sense—religion is “hot” right now, which is (like I said) a major reason that woo in general is hot right now, and so of course there’s a growing audience of people who are fucking sick of it and interested in becoming atheists. Which in turn gives us another opportunity to promote science.