Unscientific America: When being right isn't enough

Jul 17 2009 Published by under Book reviews

If you've dipped even one toe into the science blogosphere lately, you've seen discussion of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. I have very little interest in the arguments currently raging but not because I don't care. The book makes interesting arguments, some of which I agree with, and some of which I don't. More important, however, is that the authors have a track record of being listened to (cf The Republican War on Science). In a crisis that involves communication (i.e. of scientific knowledge), it would be foolish to ignore people who have proved themselves in that realm.
M & K make a convincing argument that scientific information is not being communicated effectively to "real people". I will stipulate that scientific knowledge is at least as important now as it has ever been, and that there is a gap in understanding between scientists and the lay public. For their thesis to have any utility, this must be true. Whether this gap is unique to our culture and our time is less clear to me, but the basic problem remains.
I agree that there is a, "need for scientists to communicate their knowledge in ways that non-scientists can relate to and understand." I also agree to an extent that, "scientists [often] fail to connect with top decision makers" (which intersects with, but is different from, the lay public). Where they lose me, but only a little, is with the assertion that we must, "break down the walls that have for too long separated the "experts" from everybody else." For better or for worse, we need experts, and some barriers are insurmountable. Not everyone (including me) can understand how to design a microprocessor. I must in some way trust those that do. Those that investigate and design our world must be trustworthy in the eyes of the rest of us, and to the extent that this is the "wall" they are writing about, I'm with them.
In medicine, this idea of "expert-ness" is critical. It is a constant frustration for some lay folks and others that medicine requires special knowledge, and quacks capitalize on this by sounding "expert-y". But doctors--and scientists--have special knowledge, special skills, and special creativity not possessed by all the rest of us, and to pretend that it isn't so is dangerous. Still, we could put some portholes in that wall, dig some tunnels, create effective communication. But I'll always have to trust the astronomers if they tell me object "x" is made of neutrons or whatnot, because I'll never have the skills to see for myself.

Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for Mooney and Kirshenbaum's thesis by giving an example of the lay/science divide: the "demotion" of Pluto. If you'll remember, a couple of years ago, Pluto was reclassified as a non-planet by astronomers. I don't disagree with their assertion that this example illustrates a divide, but I have a problem with some assertions:

...in defining the word planet, they were arguably engaged not so much in science as in semantic exercise...

Classification is part of what scientists do. It is not a futile exercise, but a vital part of organizing knowledge and deepening our understanding. In another example from my field, we must organize diseases to understand them. It very much matters whether I call "fibromyalgia" a disease or a syndrome, because one implies a specific pathology and one is simply a tool for grouping patients together. It's not just that it helps me communicate with other doctors, classification also has intrinsic meaning.
I think it's true that lay people have a misunderstanding about what science does. Much of it is rather dull (sorry). Naming things may not seem exciting, but it's real. More important in science, though, is the willingness to change, to be shown to be wrong. In medicine, quacks are never wrong. No matter how much evidence you show them, they will hold to their beliefs. Scientists must not do this. Regarding the reclassification of Pluto, M and K note that:

people were aghast...they recoil at having to unlearn a childhood science lesson...

But that's science---a willingness to change as data accumulates. Where Mooney and Kirshenbaum get it right is in recognizing that scientists don't always explain this well. Many non-scientists don't understand that being shown to be wrong is an intrinsic part of science, that scientific meetings are not always quiet, collegial affairs. The difficult part is trying to explain to people that while we may not mind being proven wrong, we will require evidence, not assertion. It is easy to fall prey to idea that because scientists are willing to be proven wrong, that all scientific knowledge is subjective---it is not.
There is, though, a candle in the darkness of the Pluto incident. It shows that many lay people truly do value scientific knowledge, even if they don't always understand its subtleties. If people are interested, they are reachable. We'll see what M and K have to say about reaching people as the book continues.

17 responses so far

  • Adam Cuerden says:

    Eh, the more Mooney talks, frankly, the more he seems like one of those idiots you want to grab by the shoulders, shake, and scream "STOP BEING ON MY SIDE! YOU'RE MAKING US LOOK BAD!" He started off interesting, with a good point, but once he got a bit of power, he decided to use it to attack anyone who promoted issues in a way at all different than he did.
    His way of making scientists better communicators seems to be to tell popular, effective communicators of science to shut up. He's said so of Myers, Dawkins, all sorts of people. So fuck him.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I think it's true that lay people have a misunderstanding about what science does. Much of it is rather dull (sorry).

    What's to apologize for?
    One of the first lessons of growing up is that life consists mostly of routine attention to detail. I know engineering is (which is why I'm still at the office after 1930 on a Friday night), raising children is, being an emergency medic is, ...
    Research is no different, and there's no reason to apologize to the public for the fact that the "Eureka!" moments are the highlights of an entire career rather than daily occurrence. Maybe if someone told them that it was work we wouldn't be in so much need of this whole discussion.

  • What many miss here is that nothing did change regarding Pluto and that it was not "astronomers" but a tiny group within the astronomy community that voted for the controversial demotion of Pluto, largely for political reasons. Only four percent of the IAU voted on the demotion, most of whom are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately rejected by hundreds of professional astronomers in a petition led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.
    One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity--a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned.
    The way one group of astronomers (the dynamicists, who study the effects celestial bodies have on one another as opposed to planetary scientists, who study the geophysical compositon of these bodies themselves) essentially "hijacked" the IAU vote to get their own way, and the fact that so many fail to acknowledge that this is still an unresolved debate with two sides is why this issue makes scientists look bad in the public eye.

  • CyberLizard says:

    Uh oh, you said Laurel's favorite word: Pluto! Srsly, Laurel, do you have that rant permanently in your clipboard, ready to pounce the second your google alert for Pluto pops up?

  • Mick says:

    Were people really that "aghast" over Pluto's change of status anyway? I remember people making jokes about it at the time, but that's all.

  • george.w says:

    But that's science---a willingness to change as data accumulates.

    I had never really thought about it before, but remember thinking; "Huh. If it isn't big enough to become round, I guess it makes sense to differentiate it from planets." No big deal.

  • abb3w says:

    Oddly, their misunderstanding supports the core thesis presented: that science communication needs to be improved. These are not total ignoramuses asking; they seem to be genuinely interested in science. Despite this, they don't seem to grasp that the point for the change of status for Pluto was a by-product of attempting to make the formal usage of the term "planet" more precise.

  • To George.W: But Pluto IS round and therefore large enough to be shaped by its own gravity and not by chemical bonds the way an asteroid is.
    To Mick: Some of the people most angered by what the IAU did are other scientists, especially planetary scientists. Amateur astronomers and others with an interest in the solar system also were among those who had strong reactions. The point is that reality cannot be dictated by some sort of "authority" making a decree. That is religion, not science.

  • SimonG says:

    Living as I do in the town of his birth, I'm quite pleased to see the planets limited to Gustav Holst's list.

  • Clay McCord says:

    In my recent book, The Truth About Fibromyalgia, I cite over 140 references demonstrating that it is a neurological disorder in which the pain volume is turned too high. Disrupted deep sleep patterns prevent the limbic system from properly recharging thereby causing inadequate regulation of pain and sympathetic nervous activity. Therapy must be directed at improving cerebral chemical imbalances and sleep...a must read.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Despite this, they don't seem to grasp that the point for the change of status for Pluto was a by-product of attempting to make the formal usage of the term "planet" more precise.

    Odd, ain't it?

  • The Blind Watchmaker says:

    People will trust those that they perceive as 'experts'. One problem is that many pseudo-experts are much better communicating to the lay public than actual experts.

  • Ian Musgrave says:

    I have highlighted some of the issues regarding M&K's treatment of the Pluto affair in this blog post.
    Simply put there were very good and pressing reasons to produce a definition of "Planet", the discovery of the Eris, an ice world larger than Pluto, being the final catalyst. Astronomy is the poster child of science, people love it, there are heaps of pretty pictures, and the combined weight of the NASA and Hubble publicity machines, plus the large base of amateur astronomers gives astronomy a degree of public outreach we in other less photogenic sciences could only dream of. Yet despite this there was still a public (in the US at least) outcry. What more could astronomers possibly have done? M&K, as well as misrepresenting the episode, don't give us any hints. (Waves to Laurel, Hi were turning up in the same places).

  • David says:

    Pal, I think you've posted on of the better commentaries on the issue. thanks.

  • Mu says:

    You mean this book is actually about the understanding of science and not about atheism? From what the rest of sciblog wrote, you must have gotten the annotated version.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    OK, Ian Musgrave wrote the post I was thinking about writing and said all the stuff I wanted to say. "Was the Pluto decision really scientifically necessary?" ask M&K. In a word, yes. I am now officially bored with Unscientific America and all matters thereto appertaining.

  • Rev Matt says:

    What I recall from the public discussion post-Pluto demotion was mostly news media aggressively promoting the story and trying to drum up outrage from a public that mostly seemed not to care much either way. Controversy sells ads.