Dr. Steven A. Leibo is a professor of International History & Politics at the Sage Colleges
I don’t know about you but I spent a lot of time this summer reading a string of international thrillers. But as the summer wound down I yearned for more substance and picked up the wonderful new book Unscientific America by Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum. A book written by some of the same folks that carried out last year’s effort to organize the Science Debate2008.
That of course was the unsuccessful attempt to have the public hear the presidential candidates dialogue on issues from stem cells and cloning to gene therapy and space exploration. But if that effort failed, its energy flowed into the production of this very important book. And happily Unscientific America is not just another discussion of about how little Americans know about science but a much more ambitious effort to trace the widening tension between a large part of the public and the scientific community.
In fact, it focuses on the antagonism that has emerged in some quarters against the entire scientific establishment—a dramatic rejection of the historic American optimism that long maintained that science would over time improve our lives. A belief now so often replaced by a suspicion that the scientific community has somehow become our enemy; not just assaulting our views on God and creation with its evolutionary based explanation of life but with its the newest challenge to America’s supposedly God given fossil fuel driven life style. With the emerging scientific consensus that that lifestyle itself is threatening human civilization. A personal assault on the American identify if there ever was one.
But if climate change denial and the anti-evolutionary creationist movement originates in the conservative movement it goes far beyond that as reflected among those who have become campaigners against vaccines – people who seem to assume that the scientific community is committed to hurting their children rather than protecting them.
It would of course be easy to assume all this could be rectified by better education. If people knew more about how devastating diseases from small pox and measles to polio were to earlier generations or even knew of the existence of the greenhouse gas belt around the planet that has long protected us from the freezing cold of space. The knowledge of which would make it easier to understand the impact of humanity’s recent thickening of that same belt by the burning of ever more fossil fuels.
But it’s not just a lack of scientific literacy our authors decry. After all they remind us that the European public is not too scientifically swift either, but has not seen the same battles over science. None of this is of course surprising. After all most of our leaders arrive in power without any scientific background, while our society is largely informed by media types who themselves rarely have any knowledge of science either. But the authors don’t just indict the scientifically illiterate.
No, they reserve some of their most vehement criticism for the scientific community itself. Which has been unwilling to nurture those scientists who have tried to communicate their conclusions and more importantly the methods of modern science to the general public; a community that most notoriously once undermined the late Carl Sagan for the sin of trying to excite the general public about the wonders of the universe. And more recently has produced scientists who have gone out of their way to antagonize the religiously minded. As if science had an official conclusion on such spiritual issues.
In short our authors blame a good part of the scientific community for the suspicions that have emerged about their work. And encourage a much more pro-active establishment effort to support and professionally advance the role of scientific popularizers – real scientists, but folks with the communication skills necessary to midwife the general public’s appreciation of how science operates. And to appreciate the scientist’s absolute necessity to find results and conclusions that other scientists can independently confirm.
Because if we don’t take on this larger American challenge to enhance the American public’s ability to successfully navigate our way through the looming scientific decisions of the 21st century. We will keep stumbling along from decision to decision re-fighting the battle anew with every new issue.