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Unscientific America 2: Buy The Book - And Read It
Joe Romm, 6 Aug 09

Book Cover
The fate of the next 50 generations may well be determined in the next several months and the next several years. Will Congress agree to a shrinking GHG cap and the clean energy transformation? If not, you can scratch a global climate deal. But even if the bill passes and a global deal is achieved — both will need to be continuously strengthened in coming years, as the increasingly worrisome science continues to inform the policy, just as in the case of the Montréal Protocol on the ozone-depleting substances.

In short, the fate of perhaps the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth rests in the hands of scientists (and those who understand the science) trying to communicate the dire nature of the climate problem (and the myriad solutions available now) as well as the ability of the media, the public, opinion makers, and political leaders to understand and deal with that science.

And so what could be more timely — and disquieting — than a book titled Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future? The book is by Chris Mooney, whose science blog was a major inspiration for me to pursue blogging, and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum.

While it notably and presciently disses former TV meteorologist Watts for his unscientific obsession with pushing weather data in the climate debate (see “Unscientific America, Part 1: From the moon-landing deniers to WattsUpWithThat“), climate-saturated CP readers will be happy to know that very little of the book actually focuses on global warming.

Rather, this short, highly readable book is a survey of the sorry state of scientific understanding and communication in this country, ending with some proposals for improving the situation. Here are some of the interesting/depressing factoids from the book:

  • For every five hours of cable news, one minute is devoted to science;
  • 46% of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old;
  • The number of newspapers with science sections has shrunken by two-thirds in the last 20 years
  • Just 18% of Americans know a scientist personally
  • The overwhelming majority of Americans polled in late 2007 either couldn’t name a scientific role model or named “people who are either not scientists or not alive

On the flip side, the book describes at length a problem I discuss here — Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1.

Scientists who are also great public communicators, like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, have grown scarcer as science has become increasingly specialized. Moreover, the media likes the glib and the dramatic, which is the style most scientists deliberately avoid. As Jared Diamond (author of Collapse) wrote in a must-read 1997 article on scientific messaging (or the lack thereof), “Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers.” After Carl Sagan became famous, he was rejected for membership in the National Academy of Sciences in a special vote. This became widely known, and, Diamond writes, “Every scientist is capable of recognizing the obvious implications for his or her self-interest.

Scientists who have been outspoken about global warming have been repeatedly attacked as having a “political agenda.” As one 2006 article explained, “For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional payoff for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics.”

Mooney also lays out the “tribulations of the science pipeline” by quoting “a painfully eloquent recent blog commenter” on Science Progress:

I’m a recent PhD graduate (Aug’ 2008). I’m unemployed. I am valued at negative $75,000 as a result of my school loans. For an increasing number of PhD graduates, there is NO job at the end of the PhD tunnel, unless you opt for the path of the underpaid, undervalued limbo lifestyle of a postdoc. After seeing what my predecessors have suffered on that path (~10 years of postdocing, and STILL no tenure-track job?), I chose NOT to follow in their weary footsteps. I have found that I’m not only overqualified for many positions that I would be happy to hold, but I am also considered by recruiters to be very narrowly-qualified (despite my multidisciplinary interests and skills) for anything at all except being a lab monkey and working for $30,000 a year. Had I to do it over again, I would not choose a PhD, at least not a general science degree. I would have gone to medical or law school, or perhaps a PhD in public health (a very rapidly growing field). At least after training in these programs, your skill set is clearly defined, and you can be confident that you will have a job post-graduation.

If a projection Mooney quotes is right — “the chance of a PhD recipient under age 35 winning a tenure-track job has tumbled to only 7%” — then he offers a crucial suggestion:

Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and to get better in touch with our culture — while pointing out in passing that having more diverse skills can only help them navigate today’s job market, and may even be the real key to preserving US competitiveness?

Meanwhile let’s encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropist who care about the role of science in our society to create a new range of nonprofit, public-interest fellowships and job positions whose express purpose is to connect science with other sectors of society.

The book ends with a quote from C. P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” lecture, in which he “express the nature of change we need fixing fleet, yet powerfully”:

We require a common culture in which science is an essential component. Otherwise we shall never see the possibilities, either for evil or good.

Of course, that lecture was 50 years ago — and the divide seems as big as ever, so that isn’t a cause for much optimism.

I do think that every scientist-in-training today should be required to take a course in communication, a course in energy, and a course in climate science. The smart ones will specialize in some discipline related to sustainability because when the nation and the world get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two, the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a WWII-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our mypopic dawdling has made inevitable.

My one small problem with the book’s analysis is that it portrays US popular culture, especially Hollywood, as anti-scientist, but that was really true before the rise of IT, the internet, and rich nerds. TV in particular is much more favorably disposed toward scientist characters than movies were, say, two or three decades ago. If I have time, I’ll blog on that.

Normally I half-jokingly tell people they only need to buy my books, not read them. I mean who reads non-fiction books cover to cover anymore? But this is one to buy and read in its entirety (which is only 132 pages of text).

Kudos to Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

You can read RealClimate’s review here.

This piece originally appeared in Climate progress.

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