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Scientists Need to Get Out More

• November 12, 2009 • 5:00 AM

Two books look at science illiteracy in America and report that it can be reversed if scientists emerge from the lab and start communicating.

Fifty years ago, on May 7, 1959, British novelist C.P. Snow made his famous “two cultures” speech, in which he warned that the sciences and the humanities were increasingly separated by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” In the academic world, that gulf has arguably shrunk somewhat in the past half-century, as neurologists collaborate with psychologists to help understand the workings of the mind and engineers collaborate with artists to form new modes of creative expression.

But another, even wider gulf has developed, this time between science and the rest of society. Polls routinely reveal high levels of scientific illiteracy among both Americans and Europeans. We love the gadgets that science and technology produce, but have no basic knowledge of how they work — and we’re not especially interested in finding out.

This willful ignorance has practical consequences. When scientific discoveries conflict with either our religious beliefs or personal prerogatives (as when climatologists point out that our lifestyles are straining the limits of our planet’s resources), we find them easy to ignore or dismiss. Our minds have not been molded to respect the scientific process nor to take the warnings of its practitioners seriously.

Two new books approach this dilemma from different perspectives. In Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books; $24), Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum provide a detailed diagnosis of the problem and how it developed over the decades. In Am I Making Myself Clear? (Harvard University Press; $19.95), Cornelia Dean offers practical advice to researchers who are interested in making things better.

While the two volumes inevitably contain some overlapping material, they are, in the end, complementary. Mooney and Kirshenbaum present a call to action, urging scientists to emerge from their laboratories and make their voices heard in the public debate. Dean gives detailed suggestions as to how they can accomplish this important goal.

Mooney, a writer and editor (he is author of the best-selling The Republican War on Science), and Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist at Duke University, co-write a science and society blog at discovermagazine.com. Their tone isn’t so much peeved as perplexed.

“Americans built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome and created the Internet,” they note. “And yet today, the country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles.”

Dean, a veteran science writer and former editor at The New York Times, similarly bemoans the average person’s misunderstanding of the scientific method. “Given examples, we generalize,” she writes. “Given effects, we infer causes. Instead of viewing correlation for what it is — an opportunity to hypothesize about causation — we assume it proves causation. And for us, vivid anecdotes mean more than piles of data.”

All the authors place part of the blame on the crumbling journalism establishment. They decry the decline of science coverage as newspapers downsize and point out that the journalistic conceit of “balance” is not useful in this arena. Giving equal time to someone who speaks for 99 percent of scientists and a skeptic with few adherents presents the false impression of an ongoing debate, even when an issue (such as climate change) has long been settled. Worse, it enables risk-averse political leaders to avoid making tough choices.

“Media coverage tends to be episodic and event-driven, always in search of the dramatic and the new,” Moony and Kirshenbaum write. Rather than relate to readers the incremental nature of scientific research, they note, “journalists more often pounce on some ‘hot’ result, even if it contradicts the last hot result, or is soon overturned by a subsequent study.”

This type of breathless journalism leaves readers with a sense of confusion and unease, rather than the accurate impression that science is ever-evolving and self-correcting.

But Mooney and Kirshenbaum place the bulk of the blame on the scientific establishment itself, which, they complain, “has become self-isolating.” Instead of great communicators like the late Carl Sagan, whose palpable enthusiasm for space exploration inspired countless adolescents in the 1980s, today’s most prominent scientists are off-putting agitators such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who likened religious belief to “a virus of the mind” in a 1991 essay.

“We need a new caste of savvy scientists who can act as ‘framers’ of policy issues,” they write. “These scientists would understand the varied socioeconomic and political pressures that impinge upon the legislative process and know how to integrate accurate scientific information with a range of achievable and realistic policy options to facilitate the process of decision-making.”

Dean couldn’t agree more. “As a society, we need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill their obligations to society,” she writes. “In my view, it is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.” (Nice zinger there at the end.)

Her small but meaty book is a primer on how to do just that. It includes detailed advice on dealing with journalists, publicists, television and radio producers, editorial page editors, book publishers and elected officials. “If you agree to be interviewed, imagine you are approaching your own field from a position of ignorance,” she advises. If you’re giving a presentation to a group of non-scientists, remember to “interact with your audience, not your slides.”

One can only hope that researchers — and the academic administrators who decide what the scientists of tomorrow need to know — read these concise, sharply written volumes and take their message to heart. The process of reconnecting science and society cannot start soon enough. Presuming the climatologists are correct, our planet and the species that live on it are in a lot of trouble if we don’t start taking science seriously soon.

But psychological research suggests we shouldn’t get our hopes up about the prospects of such a shift. Human beings, after all, long for safety and reassurance, which science seldom provides. As Malcolm Gladwell noted at a 2008 New Yorker conference, “We have this sense that progress, broadly speaking, has the effect of reducing uncertainty. But the opposite is true.”

Getting both journalists and the public to make peace with uncertainty — a condition scientists not only accept, but find exhilarating — will require a major transformation of thinking. As long as we’re craving the comfort of conclusive answers — or, worse, looking to get our prejudices confirmed — scientists, who by instinct and training go wherever the evidence leads them, will always be looked upon with suspicion, if not hostility. In today’s society, the greatest gulf may be the one separating those who are terrified of the unknown and those who embrace it.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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