Chris Mooney – Unscientific America

October 09, 2009

Chris Mooney is a 2009-2010 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science, Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Chris Mooney talks about the growing divide between science and society. He contrasts the issues addressed in The Republican War on Science with the current problems facing society as outlined in Unscientific America. He argues for the unique public policy significance of science for society, and why scientific literacy matters more than other kinds of cultural or historical literacy. He discusses the policy relevance of scientific illiteracy in terms of global warming and biotechnology. He talks about the need for scientists to become better communicators to the public.

He shares his criticisms of the New Atheists and explains why their attacks against religious moderates work counter to the goal of scientific literacy. He recounts his experiences as an atheist activist while in college, and how his views have changed about campus freethought activism since that time. He explores other underlying causes of scientific illiteracy, including our educational system, the media’s dysfunctional treatment of science, and growing anti-science movements such as the climate deniers and vaccine skeptics. And he details concrete actions that science advocates can take in order to increase scientific literacy.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 9th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots roots. My guest this week is Chris Mooney. He’s a 2009 2010 Knight Science Journalism fellow at M.I.T. and the author of three books, The Republican War on Science, Storm World and Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, coauthored with Cheryl Kirschenbaum. He’s contributed to a wide variety of publications in recent years, including Wired Science Seed, New Scientist, Slate Salon, Mother Jones, Skeptical Inquirer on and on many publications. And he joins me on the show to talk about unscientific America. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Chris Mooney. 

Good to be back with you, Chris. 

Unscientific America, kind of a sequel to your New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science. Right. 

I like to think about it that way. I did a book in between, but it was really a different beast. 

If anyone’s going to offer recommendations on how to step up the science communication game, you know, talk about how unscientific America is. It would be you, since you’ve had a lot to say on the subject on your blog for a number of years before we get into all the specifics. Talk to me about the reaction to your book. It’s gotten some gushingly positive reaction in the scientific community, also some very critical stuff. 

Has any of it surprised you at the intensity of some of the negative reaction is surprising me. And also the incredible bifurcation of the reactions in a strongly negative, strongly positive. Has surprised me. I mean, I knew that it was going to be controversial because essentially when we talk about the divide between science and society, the central topic of the book, we actually you know, we do talk about scientists role in in the equation. We don’t leave them out. And we also target the new atheist movement for criticism. So we knew that was really controversial. But it’s been the intensity. The reaction is more than I expected. 

I guess I would say you had almost universal acclaim for Republican War on science. Some criticism, but this you get some more extreme. So some people, some science educators, some members of that community really all for this book. And then some scientists who are also these atheists really take you to task in Republican war on science. You expose that one problem with kind of America’s take on science is that there’s this concerted, this organized effort by folks, especially in the Republican Party, to undermine science, kind of undermined its its role in policy in this new book. The culprit is not that obvious. This new book, you’re not blaming just politics or one political party. 

Yeah, exactly. During the Bush years, it was quite obvious there was an overwhelming culprit and there was egregious abuse in government. You know, tax taxpayers were paying for the kinds of abuse and suppression of scientific information so that that problem passed with the changing of administrations. But you still look at the relationship between science and society in America and you don’t see the problem solved. And you see, in fact, a lot of dysfunctionality in the process by which science goes from the community of science to the research institutions and the journals out to the public in the media and so forth. You’ve got to look at broader causes than just politics. Even though politics is hugely important. 

So if we’re talking scientific illiteracy and it’s not just politics, it’s all of these factors that come into it. Let me just ask you a question about illiteracy. Look, most people are illiterate about most things. Not only are we scientifically illiterate, but we border on being actually illiterate. You know, many people don’t realize we don’t know much about science, but neither do we know about history or art or literature or music or philosophy. Tell me, Chris, why it’s only really science that gets all this hand-wringing when people don’t know it? 

Well, I would say that we should know more about everything. An ideal world and the fact that we don’t is partly an educational problem and partly the fact that people are busy and they can only take in so many things. And that’s understandable. Science has a unique place for the simple reason that, you know, historians will even say that, well, we know that history doesn’t necessarily tell us what to do in the present. But scientists and the results of science are constantly at play in major of public policy debates and decisions that are happening in real time. So to be a good citizen, I think you’ve been pretty strongly argue that you need to know about science as it affects policy more than you need to know about some other areas of human knowledge. 

Tell me some hard facts about how scientific illiteracy actually threatens our future. I get how many folks don’t know much about the. Body of knowledge that we call science or the method of inquiry that we call science. There are statistics like half Americans don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun. How we can test claims, other things in science. But how does one not knowing about stuff. You know, the average Joe living his workaday life. Right. How does that actually threaten our future? Most people in their lives don’t actually need to be scientifically literate. Or are you disagreeing with that? 

No, I think you need to have some qualifications and not necessarily disagree. I mean, for a lot of America, as you mentioned with your son question, you know, the Copernican revolution hasn’t even happened. And for a lot of Darwinian revolution, that definitely haven’t happened either. So the two biggest, you know, and then there’s the Einstein one, but two of the biggest revolutions in modern science. Yet somehow we’ve you have to populace’s mister’s. So that’s astonishing. But how much does that play into public policy? It’s not as clear. Because for evolution, it’s only policy relevant at the state and local level for, you know, the earth and the sun. It not isn’t necessarily usually policy relevant to begin with. But you look at different areas where what we’re broadly calling scientific illiteracy manifests like in the gigantic gap between what scientists think about the cause of climate change and what the public thinks about the cause of climate change. And then you see that this kind of lack of knowledge and lack of awareness of the importance of science can be directly policy relevant. And in fact, I would say that, broadly speaking, scientific illiteracy is the cause of 20 years of gridlock on global warming. 

Mm hmm. So in this book, you’re not just saying that people should learn more science, more facts about science. You explicitly say that science education is not the only answer to these public policy issues, nor is the answer that we should just have more science boosters on TV. Carl Sagan’s moron Neil deGrasse Tyson’s. You’re saying it seems to me something like science actually needs a bigger role in society, bigger role in politics and public discourse for the sake of our future. And and one thing you suggest is a way to get there is for graduate students in science, not just to be learning science, but to learn communication. 

Absolutely. So all the things you mentioned education. I just want to qualify education, more science, libraries, etc. These are all good and important things, and they go towards the goal of cultural change. But one thing that we are saying is that there’s a lot of young people in science today who would like to do a lot more to carry scientific knowledge to the rest of the public. And that we ought to train and empower them to do so in a way that we don’t currently, especially since the academic job market is quite hard for these young people in science and not all of them are going to make it to tenure track positions. So we’ve got to find different roles for them anyway. And why not have that role? The one that helps, you know, create a more healthy relationship between scientists and everybody else? 

Earlier this week, I was having dinner with a rather kind of prominent figure in public portrayal of science. Right. This person is tenure track at a university. But this person was recounting advice gotten from a really big superstar of science. Right. And the superstar said, hey, you really want to make an impact. Don’t go for a tenure track position. Instead, you know, work on your public persona, you know, in other words, go the TV route or something like that. Do you think it’s that either or. 

Yeah, except that the tenure track position certainly provides a firm financial foundation from which you can then do other things. But yeah, I mean, the hurdles you have to jump through to get the tenure track position require you to be good at things that are very much the opposite of communicating to a broad public. You have to be good at talking to your scientific peers through the scientific literature, which requires you to have a sort of technical mastery that you can then take out into the public sphere very easily and get people to listen. 

So what we’re really talking about right now is the proper role of scientists in society. Should they just be in their labs doing the research, cocooned away at the university, or should they somehow be obligated to split their time and take their science out into the real world, the non science world? I mean, and push science onto other people or in the public sphere? I imagine lots of scientists might say, look, Chris, I never signed up for that. I don’t want to be a public speaker. I don’t want to be a celebrity like a science celebrity. I just want to be left alone to do the science. 

And you can understand why that has that reaction. You use the word obligated to engage in this public outreach. And I wouldn’t say they should be obligated. I would say they should be encouraged and they should be prepared. And then it will sort itself out, hopefully. But some people are not going to want to do it and nobody is going to be. To do it, it turns out that does. I think it will turn out that those who are better at it and have the inclination will then be more rewarded for delivering. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future through our website point of inquiry dot org. 

Chris, probably the most controversial part of your book is when you get into the science and religion stuff, you actually take on the new atheists as an atheist. You seem to argue that the bigger battle should be for scientific literacy, not this science versus a rationalism in our society or as some of us see, the battle science versus religion. In fact, your big point is that when it’s all kind of cast as science versus religion, scientific literacy suffers. 

Right. And the reason that I make that point is we live in and know this is obvious and overwhelmingly religious society. And also, it’s important emphasize a society in which not all of the religious have a problem with science. So it’s important to refute the fundamentalists and to counter them when they try to make encroachments upon science education, as they’re doing across the country in the evolution area. But in order to do that, it’s extremely critical to mobilize the moderates on the pro science side. And so as a strategy, I think the new Athie ism flies in the face of this because it’s often all about attacking the moderates, the religious moderates and alienating them. And I don’t see how that helps us deal with these longstanding problems like the evolution. 

So for you, the bigger battle is scientific literacy. It’s not science versus religion. You say, in fact, to understand the scientific illiteracy issue, to kind of make a dent into it, to try to, you know, impact it for the better. We need to actually set aside the question of what’s true about religion. But, Chris, look, you’re an atheist. 10 or 11 years ago when we were both involved with the Center for Inquiries, Atheist Campus Outreach. You were ever been an atheist activist? As you know, I might be characterized as. So surely you don’t see anything wrong with speaking up against religion. And as a science journalist now, wouldn’t you kind of hold truth to be itself a basic value? You don’t want to set truth questions aside just to advance scientific literacy? What I’m really getting at is I feel like you must be having this internal tension if you’re faulting atheistic scientists for advocating the scientific naturalist take on God and the supernatural. 

Yeah, I don’t feel it. I mean, I am an atheist and I think that we should question religion. And there’s a long tradition of doing so. I think that we often need to be aware of the context of science education in America, and we should realize that actually diffusing tensions over science and religion is the better way to go. I don’t think those are necessarily contradictory. My real issue with the new atheists is the brush attacks on all the religious, even though not all of them are enemies of science. And my other issue is that while it’s fun to question religion, the tone in which the new atheists and does so is, I think, highly abrasive and even at times offensive. And I don’t think that that achieves anything Jim Underdown. 

In fact, you explicitly criticize science blogging for that kind of tone, or at least folks like the famous atheist science blogger Peezy Myers, for making the situation a science education situation, maybe worse. In fact, you kind of left science blogs over that issue, right? 

Well, you know, we changed blogging sites for a number of reasons. But I definitely I’m unhappy with the tone and the level of discourse that occurs on a lot of science blogs. And I feel like it’s just, you know, you say anything about science and religion and people come over with clubs. That’s the that’s the way it is. And that’s not a good way to have any dialog advance any understanding. And I think it’s really bad for science ultimately that that’s the terms in which discourse is conducted. So I think we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. That doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about does God exist? People have talked about that for ages. Not only can I not stop them, but I’ve talked at length for ages. Earley’s for 10 years. Right. And I think that it’s important to hold up the value of a secular lifestyle and that it is you know, you can be perfectly moral about all of this is fine. Right. But you have to know the context in which it’s happening in the United States. And you have to realize that you cannot alienate your allies when you want to achieve something like better science education, better science literacy. 

Hypothetical. Chris, when when you were at Yale years ago, you were involved with an atheist or a Freethought student group that was connected with the Center for Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism at the time. Were you to do it all over again? Were. That be your club or your organization, or would you be involved in something else? In other words, have your priorities shifted? 

They have. But I wouldn’t change doing that with the campus if everybody knew who I was. They joked at graduation that I would be returning to campus, followed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

10 years later, so little did they know. Right? Right. 

So. So I was known for this and I wouldn’t change it because I learned a ton from it. One of the things that I learned from it is that, you know, you go out there all angry, attacking religion all the time, and people don’t like it very much. And you shut down a lot of audiences. No, I think I also got a lot of discussions going. But I also, you know, shut down some people with my tone, which was overwrought and wasn’t all that tolerant. And I remember when, you know, the Yale campus chaplain actually, you know, I wrote an article for one of the newspapers that was very anti religion. And the guy, you know, sort of just sent me an e-mail, real friendly and said, Chris, let’s come in and talk, you know, and he’s very, very liberal pastoring. And we had a great discussion. And this keeps happening to me. And it just made me aware that it’s not all religious people that were actually angered. It’s more of the fundamentalists who attack evolution and so forth. You were part of the Christian right. We got to make those distinctions. 

So you’re kind of saying your Athie ism? Well, it hasn’t softened. You’ve matured in the way that you communicated. 

Sure. I didn’t become any less of an atheist. They became, you know, less of an everyday activist. And it’s also, you know, not just the Yale experience, which was mixed. Definitely important for me. But also, you know, I went to Washington, D.C., I was a political journalist and then in a more of a science journalist, but first a political journalist. And seeing how the political game works is certainly ever present in how I think about these issues. And that’s why I’m so concerned that, you know, with an already hard fought evolution battle and an already widespread perception that science and religion have to be in conflict, which isn’t true, that we need to emphasize the middle ground. 

If you want to diffuse the battle, that point, that argument, which is central to a lot of what you say on the science religion issue. Well, a lot of atheist scientists get riled up when you take that line, you say, which is sensible to most people, hey, we should respect religious people who happen to also be boosters of science. They say, no, we should hold all ideas up to the same standard of scrutiny and evidence. So isn’t it just a matter of what battle you think is the most important battle? Is the thing we should focus on science versus religion? Or is it science vs. scientific illiteracy? So different battles demand different sets of allies, right? 

Right. Certainly. And that probably explains a lot of the difference between me and folks who actually are intellectually and most ways extremely close to me. But, you know, I think that I would add to it that, you know, from a history of science perspective, from a lot of other angles, I think that the idea of a battle between science and religion that it’s not necessary is just wrong. And it is, you know, betrayed by what we know. So unfortunately, I feel like the new atheists are fighting a battle. In some ways it doesn’t have to be fought. 

Mm hmm. Do you think they should just kind of pipe down, not rock the boat, or you think that they should have different priorities? Let me ask you this way. Different priorities or different strategies? 

Both and it doesn’t mean pipe down, because, as I said, I think the case for, you know, viewing the world in a secular way and having secular values is a very important one to be made. And I know that it will continue to be made, but it’s being aware of some of the nuances of the issue. For example, you know, the history of science teaches us that science and religion don’t have to be in conflict. You know, the philosophy of science teaches us that science cannot definitively rule out defense of the supernatural or that you really want to make a fight over these kinds of things. When the real issue to me at least is, you know, how is America dealing with science issues in the moment politically? Are we teaching people science and the way we should? Are people accepting what we know about where we came from, evolutionary science, or are they rejecting it because of a false sense that they have to give up their faith in order to accept it? I mean, you know, that’s that this is so much more present to me, so much more salient than trying to get inside everybody’s head and telling them what to think. Which I don’t see the point. 

And even if you could convince everybody like I am personally, you know, I’m kind of persuaded that if you accept evolution, it has these dire implications for religious belief. But even if you persuade everybody of that and everybody turns atheist. Is it going to solve our public policy problems? 

No, I think that if that happened, we would have other public policy problems that would be different. But I don’t think that that’s really the world that we live in. So, you know, I don’t think that an atheist role in society is going to function perfectly anymore, that I think that any kind of society to function perfectly. I think that we need to increase scientific literacy. I think that we need to make people more accepting of evolution, not only because it allows them to figure out more about the way the world actually works and adjust their values and priorities accordingly, but also because it’s just good for functionality of our science education system not to have all these awful fights in state after state that divide communities, waste resources, making, you know, biotech companies not want to, you know, establish a foothold in a particular city. You know, that that’s all just bad. It’s wasted to waste and fighting wasted legal expenditures, inadequate education occurring as a result. People afraid to say things in the classroom. We’ve been doing it for too long. 

Mm hmm. Chris, when we began our conversation, you said that the culprits to blame for scientific illiteracy in America aren’t as easy to pinpoint as, you know, the the villains in the Republican war on science. After all, it was a Republican war on science, even if Democrats engaged in it. But as we’ve discussed today, you’ve identified some of these culprits we could blame for scientific illiteracy. You say, you know, scientists themselves, you know, own some of the responsibility because they’re you know, some of them are bad communicators. Also, these loud atheists whom you suggest kind of muddy the waters for science communication. But Chris isn’t the real problem. Neither of those if you’re gonna if you’re gonna really want to lay blame, wouldn’t you lay it on society? Because we live in like this consumers culture. Science does not sell as well as, say, American Idol. There are actually anti science forces out there that work very hard, organize against your goals. 

And they’re neither the Republicans nor are they, you know, the atheists. They’re just like anti science trends. Right. In other words, you can’t just say bad scientists because you’re bad communicators. 

Yeah, no. I mean, the scientists only need to be singled out in the sense that scientific illiteracy has happened and they’ve watched over the last, you know, four decades as science and society have become unmoored from one another. And they didn’t cause it. It’s just that it hasn’t been a big investment on the part of the scientific community to reverse it or not, enough of an investment. Research has always been a much bigger investment. And, you know, with the new atheists saying cause it’s either they’re only like three years old. But I think that they’re not the right kind of response to it. The underlying causes are many and diverse, and they have to do with a poor education system. The media’s handling of science and how dysfunctional that is. And we spend the most time in the book on that, even though it’s the least discussed topic about the book. That’s the most addressed topic in the book. And you can’t take out of that context. You can’t take it out of the broad history of American anti intellectual ism. And you can’t for a minute ignore this factor that you mentioned last, which is, you know, anti science movements of a wide variety of types that are well-funded, well organized and putting out misinformation all over the place, whether it’s on. The climate, the male side or the vaccine skeptic side or what have you, all that stuff is going into the mix. So it’s a complicated mix. And we tried to do justice to every part of it. But, you know, inevitably what happens with a book like this is someone says you blame the scientists and this is wrong. What we did was we addressed the scientists role in things, which is only one of the factors. 

So what can we do about this? You’ve addressed all these factors. But your book isn’t really a handbook that, you know, empowers folks to read it, get riled up to roll up their sleeves and fix the problem your own. Is it just a matter of everyone redoubling their efforts to personally learn more science, or should we kind of in some cases, I can’t imagine how. But, you know, as the public. Should we be demanding more of our scientists? Should scientists themselves say, hey, we got all this wrong, let’s let’s reinvent how we how we do this? Do spell out your proposals for fixing it, in other words. 

Sure. First of all, there are handbooks. Ours is a consciousness raiser and a call to arms. There are books that tell scientists more about how to communicate. Randy Olson, the CEO. Don’t be such a scientist. Cornelia Dean. I’m sorry. Am I making myself clear? I think it’s called. So those books exist, too. And those books are very important in terms of what we should do. Well, you know, the education system for science is not good. And we’ve got to dramatically reinvest in that. Unfortunately, dollars are scarce. You know, the media’s changes are very negative for the coverage of science and the treatment of science for mass audiences. Unfortunately, that’s driven by broad economic trends. And, you know, I cannot change the way Time Warner and News Corps are competing. And the fact that science coverage isn’t very important in that context. But you but, you know, we’ve got to create different kinds of science journalism that reaches many people as possible and engage them. And we’ve got to convince media companies that science is entertaining, can hold interest so they can get science back into the media. And then the last thing was not the last. But one important thing is we got to rally the scientists because they’re the ones who know and who care about the problem. And that gives them this incredible advantage of having a vantage point that nobody else has. And so they at least know what needs to happen. And there’s a lot that they can do to move us in that direction. So, yeah, they’re not off the hook because of their privileged position, seeing how poorly it all works right now. Mm hmm. 

Chris really appreciated the discussion. Thanks for taking time out of your crazy busy schedule. You’re there at M.I.T. on a fellowship or something, right? 

Yes, that’s right. Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. It’s a great program. 

Enjoy it. Much appreciated the discussion. OK. Thank you. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show with Chris Mooney. Join us on our online discussion forums at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.