[Welcome Chris Mooney, and Host, Janet Stemwedel.]

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In Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum explore the American public’s disengagement from science and scientists.  They explore the historical developments and cultural forces that brought the U.S. from a society that, in the post World War II era, prioritized scientific research and education and viewed science as an important tool for defense and prosperity, to its present state, where citizens seem supremely able to tune out scientific information that bears on the health of their bodies or of the planet, ready to challenge aspects of science education or scientific research that clash with their non-scientific commitments, and inclined to see science as just one interest group among many. 

Special attention is paid to the influence of the declining fortunes of newspapers and other news media, Hollywood portrayals of science and scientists, the rise of conservative religious movements, and the ways that visible scientific engagement has become a political third-rail for office seekers.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that the consequences of public disengagement with science may be catastrophic.  And, they try to suggest ways to overcome this alienation and help the public make its peace with both science and scientists. 

Unscientific America is a book that brings a constellation of important issues to the fore.  Among these is the question of the extent to which our democratic impulses and fierce insistence on our own autonomy might threaten our individual and shared future.  After all, we have the option to vote for elected officials who deny the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, or to decline to have our children vaccinated despite the lack of scientific evidence linking childhood vaccinations with autism, or simply to decide not to take the current state of our scientific understanding into account when making any of the various political, consumer, or personal decisions where scientific information might be relevant.  Indeed, we have the freedom to have no idea what the current state of scientific understanding is on any given subject. 

Can we maintain our commitment to a society guided by the will of the people when those people so frequently embrace willful ignorance about matters scientific?  On the other hand, is scientific literacy and engagement something that can be achieved without the consent of those who are to become scientifically literate and engaged?  Would greater scientific literacy and engagement in the U.S. lead to better choices, or might it show us the deeper values that drive the choices people make?

Another issue raised by the book is how much of the task of helping foster a public rapprochement with science ought to fall in the laps of scientists.  Surely scientists have a stake in ensuring that scientific education prepares the next generation of potential scientists, in communicating valuable knowledge built with public funds to the public, and in making the case that the scientific knowledge they create is a common societal resource worth supporting with tax dollars.  But how does public relations work on behalf of science fit into the multitude of tasks that already consume the working scientist’s time?  How can members of the tribe of science communicate their message successfully to a public that is innocent of technical vocabulary and background knowledge and pre-emptively wary of scientists and other intellectuals?  Will more visible outreach to the public be viewed as akin to lobbying — raising both the public’s cynicism and concerns about whether a PR campaign is an appropriate use of the federally funded scientist’s time? 

Finally, Unscientific America raises the question of the extent to which members of the community of scientists share societal interests and goals.  Much of the blogospheric reaction to the book has focused on the matter of whether science is perceived by the public to be at odds with religious belief — and whether this perception is something scientists should challenge or cultivate.  Given that individual scientists differ from each other greatly in what they value and in what ends they pursue, scientists may not see themselves as all being on the same team when it comes to their interactions and engagement with the broader public.  Can individual scientists coordinate their efforts in helping foster better scientific literacy and greater public engagement with science, while still recognizing and respecting that their fellow scientists may have other agendas that matter greatly to them?  Can cultural rifts within science be healed sufficiently that scientists can effectively tackle the larger societal rifts that separates the average American from science? 

For those of us who try to dwell in the reality-based community, these are pressing questions.  Serious discussion of the issues raised in Unscientific America may move us along the path of coming to answers.

Some of JD Stemwedel’s Blogs – here, here, here and here.