Just out: “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”


Chris Mooney, journalist and author of the classic book The Republican War on Science, and co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum have a new book out on the steadily widening disconnect between the science community and mainstream American society. Mooney and Kirshenbaum ”explain how religious ideologues, a weak educational system, science-phobic politicians, and the corporate media have all collaborated to create this dangerous state of affairs – and how hyperspecialized scientists have thus far failed to counter it.” 

We have our copy and are looking forward to reading it.  Mooney was one of the first journalists to “get” the problem of how the Bush administration had undermined scientific integrity in the federal government, and did some very good coverage of issues we raised.  His writing on the highly problematic relationship between science, society, and politics is as good as anything we’ve seen.

In addition to The Republican War on Science, Mooney is also the author of the fascinating book Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum write the blog The Intersection.

From the publisher’s note on Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future:

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a journalist-scientist team, offer an updated “two cultures” polemic for America in the 21st century. Just as in [C.P.] Snow’s time, some of our gravest challenges—climate change, the energy crisis, national economic competitiveness—and gravest threats—global pandemics, nuclear proliferation—have fundamentally scientific underpinnings. Yet we still live in a culture that rarely takes science seriously or has it on the radar.

For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science; 46 percent of Americans reject evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; the number of newspapers with weekly science sections has shrunken by two-thirds over the past several decades. The public is polarized over climate change—an issue where political party affiliation determines one’s view of reality—and in dangerous retreat from childhood vaccinations. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of Americans have even met a scientist to begin with; more than half can’t name a living scientist role model.

For this dismaying situation, Mooney and Kirshenbaum don’t let anyone off the hook. They highlight the anti-intellectual tendencies of the American public (and particularly the politicians and journalists who are supposed to serve it), but also challenge the scientists themselves, who despite the best of intentions have often failed to communicate about their work effectively to a broad public—and so have ceded their critical place in the public sphere to religious and commercial propagandists.

A plea for enhanced scientific literacy, Unscientific America urges those who care about the place of science in our society to take unprecedented action….

See our March 22, 2009 post—Politicians, journalists, and readers: On thinking with scientific integrity about climate—on Mooney’s op-ed in the Washington Post

“Perhaps the only hope involves taking a stand for a breed of journalism and commentary that is…constrained by standards of evidence…that are similar to the canons of modern science itself,” says Chris Mooney in an excellent op-ed column (“Climate Change Myths and Facts”) in the March 21 Washington Post.  Mooney takes down George Will for shilling for the global warming disinformation campaign in a recent column, but sets the problem in a larger context.

See our June 20, 2005 post—Lowball Warming: Chris Mooney on the Resignation of Rick Piltz – on Mooney’s article “Lowball Warming” in The American Prospect online, June 20, 2005, which begins:

There are few who understand the ins and outs of the U.S. government’s climate-change research program better than Rick Piltz. A political scientist by training, Piltz moved to Washington, D.C., from Texas during the scorching summer of 1988, when NASA climatologist James Hansen put global warming on the map with his famous congressional testimony warning that the greenhouse effect had been triggered by humans. Piltz eventually wound up working for a decade as a senior official in the climate research program, launched in 1989 and now a $ 2 billion dollar a year enterprise. An insider who coordinated the editing of many program documents, Piltz resigned in March, charging that White House politics has undermined the credibility and integrity of the program. Now he has some very revealing stories to tell….

The November-December 2007 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features an excellent article by Mooney—“An Inconvenient Assessment”—on the scandalous treatment of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts by the Bush administration, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, and the global warming denial machine. 

Unfortunately, this 8-page cover story is available online only by purchase on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

Global warming is definitely happening. That’s the easy part. But it’s no cinch to dramatize the phenomenon, or to personalize it. As scientists repeatedly caution, climate change can’t be cited as the direct cause of any individual weather event, no matter how extreme. Furthermore, many climate-induced changes are occurring on a relatively slow timescale. Take sea-level rise: It’s one of the most certain outcomes of global warming, but at least at the moment the increase is probably about an inch per decade–not exactly something you’d notice on your beach vacation. And as for the culprits behind it all–the greenhouse gases–they’re invisible in the atmosphere.

All of which raises the question: How do you make people wake up about global warming, take it seriously, and perceive it as a core component of the future they’ll have to live with? How do you get them to prepare, just as they might for a terrorist attack, or a pandemic, or an intense hurricane landfall?

One idea would be a national initiative to make climate science and its implications accessible to every American, translating the science in a way that citizens cannot only understand but also begin to perceive in their backyards and communities. Sure, you’d need a rigorous scientific report, but you’d also have to go beyond mere technical jargon to engage local stakeholder communities with issues that will affect them. You’d have to bring global warming down from the atmosphere to a personal level. So you might want to talk to people living on the Gulf Coast or in Florida about how rising sea levels will impact their beaches and coastal homes and change their hurricane vulnerabilities; to Californians and Pacific Northwesterners about the consequences of declining mountain snowpack for their drinking water supplies; to those living in the heartland about projected changes to agriculture; to those in the Southwest about increasing risks of wildfire and drought; and so on.

Such a project actually did exist once, though you might not have heard of it. It went by the common name of the U.S. National Assessment, though the final product’s official title–Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change–was much wordier. But industry groups, conservative think tanks, and global warming skeptics despised the National Assessment like nothing else in the world of climate science (which is really saying something). They suspected a nefarious plot by then-Vice President Al Gore to build a broader constituency for action on global warming. And after they gave the report their thumbs down, their gladiatorial champion–the Bush administration–lopped off its head. Not only did the White House undermine the first incarnation of the assessment, released in 2000, but rather than following up on this pioneering experiment in a serious way, it censored mere references to it out of subsequent government climate science documents. Then the administration tried to cover its tracks by replacing a required follow-up assessment with what amounted to a scientific sham.

In the context of repeated scandals over the relationship between the Bush government and science, the story of the National Assessment often has been overlooked. Other tales may have had more immediate flair–former industry lobbyists revising climate reports and then getting jobs with ExxonMobil, for example, or top scientists (including the former surgeon general) going public to announce they’ve been gagged. Yet in the words of global warming whistleblower Rick Piltz, the deepsixing of the National Assessment remains “the central climate science scandal of the administration.” If we wish to grasp the true consequences of the so-called war on science–and to learn how it has rendered us, during a crucial period of six to eight years, unable to grapple with what is arguably our biggest national and global problem–learning about the National Assessment’s suppression is critical. And as climate change continues apace, and may be moving much faster than expected, we need an updated assessment now more than ever….


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