"Unscientific America" Comes To DC

Mooney (left) and Kirshenbaum field a question (Drahl/C&EN)

Mooney (left) and Kirshenbaum field a question (Drahl/C&EN)

After work last Tuesday, I visited a DC bookstore, Politics and Prose, for a talk by the authors of the new book "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future". I have yet to read the book, though attending this discussion has convinced me to do so- my understanding is that it highlights the divide between scientists and mainstream America (whatever 'mainstream' means). The book has been extensively reviewed in the media and in the blogosphere, and reviews are decidedly mixed. Since I can't form an opinion on the book itself, I'll provide some highlights from the evening and put forward a question or two. The book's co-authors are Chris Mooney, a journalist and author, and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, with a background in marine science. They took turns talking about why they wrote the book and gave some teasers on its content. Then they opened the floor up for questions, which is when things got more interesting. Mooney, when asked about how to fix science/math education in the U.S.: "I got all A's in math and science. But I was the best memorizer ever. If you can get away with that, what does that say?" -I completely agree with what he's getting at here. Too much emphasis on memorization in science classes might be weeding out or discouraging the wrong kinds of minds- minds that might be well-suited to the kind of questioning, exploration, and uncertainty that comes with doing science today. Mooney, on the nomination of Francis Collins to head NIH, and on criticism of that nomination: Collins has top-notch scientific credentials. "Why is that not enough?" -You can read excellent commentary on this question at Evolutionblog. (I sat behind the blog's author, Jason Rosenhouse, at the book talk). On good (or lucky?) timing: Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a new survey describing Americans' views on science and technology, and comparing and contrasting them to that of a sample of scientists. Kyle blogged about the survey here, and you can read extensive commentary on the survey at Framing Science. Was this book's release timed to that Pew survey, and is this book's message consistent with what was found there? Anybody know? After the event, I asked the authors whether they thought it was a problem that not all scientists believe in evolution and human-influenced climate change. They didn't have time to give me a detailed answer, but they did emphasize the need to extricate the science from the politics in discussions about the issues. I'm not surprised that's the answer I got (Mooney also wrote "The Republican War on Science"). But, thinking about the comment thread over at Rudy's post this week, I still have no idea how to go about that.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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