Posted by: Dan | July 10, 2009

Unscientific American

Just picked up my copy of Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Literacy Threatens Our Future a few days ago. I’m rather on vacation, so my wife is annoyed I’m even blogging and tweeting, but it’s okay in brief snippets. And sadly I realize I overreacted to this bit:

Yes, well, this whole mindset is precisely what we wrote a book against. The blame the public mindset. The it’s not our fault, we’re the smart people mindset.

Crap, I mis-read that and sent out a bunch of tweets on that. Oh, I still don’t understand why, oh why, the co-authors felt the need to write chapter 8, which seems a waste, but I made the initial mistake of reading that as saying that they were criticizing the ‘blame the public’ mindset.

Still, I have a few issues with the book and claims of “bruising their religion.” The avowed agents promoting scientific illiteracy in its most concrete forms – those targets of the harshest and rudest criticisms from the ‘New Atheists’ – must be addressed, called out, or whatever. And those religious moderates who seek to toe the NOMA line will not likely change their opinions to the value of empirical evidence and scientific literacy (or their religion) simply because the ‘New Atheists’ harshly disagree with them.

What exactly though are the authors arguing for, that has sparked some heated blog exchanges? In the conclusion to chapter 8, Mooney and Kirschenbaum say this:

As such battles [of science vs. religion] erupt, it will be crucial for people of faith to feel they can engage in an open dialogue with people of science to help understand these emerging technologies and ideas, and to find ways of integrating them into their worldview. And who knows? Scientists might get something out of the exchange as well. After all, the faithful strove to understand the world in their particular way for several millenia before modern science got into the game. Although we no longer turn to them for explanations of workings of nature – and shouldn’t – they have a vast store of knowledge about what it takes to motivate people, create community, and bring about social change. These are lessons that scientists, and people of reason, could do worse than to heed.


Community and motivation are one thing. The responsibility that people – especially leaders of the fundamentalist and evangelical camps – have to their own education and scientific literacy is another thing. They’re separate issues. They don’t even belong in the same paragraph.

This is the blame-the-atheist stance for at least part of the problem. It’s not that scientists shouldn’t reach out to the public and support educators – they should, as the authors argue, and do. But Mooney and Kirschenbaum take it further and claim that we should play nice with opponents of scientific literacy. Or that we should pretend many scientists don’t see a large problem with NOMA when talking frankly to moderates. Or that while the religious get a free pass in public discourse on their worldviews, atheistic scientists should keep their worldview to themselves in an effort to be more accommodating (to be fair, they don’t say these things explicitly, but it seems implied to me).

So on some issues, this book is confusing. It doesn’t blame the scientists in some sections, and then it does blame them in others. It’s not about the rudeness, it’s just about not offending the religious. And so on. I’ve read the chapter 8 by now, and skimmed the rest, and I just don’t get this part.

But at least aside from this abysmal chapter, it looks like a good book on an important topic. Perhaps I’ll return to the other parts after vacation.


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