DPA Home:Correlator:Q1-2011:Ethics-Unscientific America

Current Issue 1ST Quarter 2011

Unscientific America is not only Unscientific, it is Arrogant and Unprofessional

Bob Shoup, DPA Councilor and Ethics lecturer

Several months ago, DPA President Dan Tearpock asked me to look at the book Unscientific America. He had bought it hoping to see why science literacy is on the decline in the U.S. and other western countries, and more importantly, what could be done to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, before Dan could get past the introduction he was so mad he threw the book away. Why? I’ll get back to that in a moment.

First, let me tell you a little about the authors of the book. Chris Mooney is a journalist. Although he is not a scientist, his dad was a biologist. Sheril Kirshenbaum has a Masters Degree in marine biology, having studied sea cucumbers. However, in her words, “…instead of pursuing a PhD, she accepted a position on Capitol Hill” becoming a staffer for Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) working on energy, climate, and the environment. The authors “credentials” alone serve as a warming that the book is more likely to be promoting an agenda as opposed to offering a serious review of why science literacy has declined in America.

The title of the book suggests that it will examine the very real and serious problem of the decline in scientific literacy in the U.S. That decline is part of an overall decline in the quality of education in the U.S. that includes a decline in history, civics, math, reading and writing skills. This decline in educational standards has a serious impact on our industry. It will be increasingly difficult for companies to find qualified and capable employees. It will, therefore, be up to the company to help their employees to develop critical skills, which means that training budgets will need to be increased.

So, why would a book that deals with such an important topic be so aggravating that it is difficult to even read through the introduction? Because the authors are too busy pushing their agenda to address the problem, and have too little understanding of science to understand the problem.

The authors prove this in their preface, where they make their case for Americans being unscientific. One of the author’s principal arguments that most Americans are scientifically illiterate is the increasing size of the “science – society divide”. And their evidence for the increasing size of the divide is that most Americans no longer believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming. This incredibly arrogant position assumes that Americans are simply too stupid to understand the science of global warming.

The authors argue that the “Climategate” scandal further proves their case that Americans are detached from science. The authors point out that in the scandal following the release of the climate e-mails, the climate science community were accused of withholding information, suppressing dissent, manipulating data, and worse. Instead of pointing out that these accusations flow directly from statements in the e-mails, the authors dismiss this as an attack on scientists by the “right wing media”. The book states that “… while the leaked climate e-mails did nothing to disprove the strong scientific consensus on global warming, the controversy took a dramatic public relations toll.”

So, how do the authors propose to solve the problem of this science – society gap? It is not to do a better job of teaching Americans science. It is to teach scientists to do a better job at public relations.

You read that correctly; the solution to Americas decreasing scientific literacy is to make scientists like Michael Mann better at reaching out to the public. This is not only arrogant, but unprofessional. It is saying that it is fine to withhold information, suppress dissent, manipulate data and control the peer-review process so long as the person doing so can also manipulate public opinion.

Later in the book, the authors express some hope that the science – society gap may be getting smaller. Although there has been a “…long history of tensions between scientists and the creators of popular culture”, two recent movies have helped to advance scientific literacy: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Avatar.

There you have it folks, the authors proposed solution to closing the science – society gap is to make more movies like Avatar. We can close the science – society gap while we enjoy our popcorn!

The real problem is not the science – society gap. It is the increasing level of scientific illiteracy, and the overall poor-quality of education in general that is now the Hallmark of the U.S. education system. Scientific literacy can improve only when we teach students how to think, not what to think. Scientific literacy can improve only when we teach students the scientific method in which data correctness is more important than political correctness. The science – society gap will only close when everyone, including senate aides and journalists hold all scientists to a high standard of professionalism and ethics. We must condemn those who withhold information, suppress dissent, manipulate data and control the peer-review process, not hire them publicists.