More on Unscientific America

1) There is an unpleasant tone of scolding and blame throughout. I’ve given some examples in previous posts, and there are many more.

For every scientist who shuns or misunderstands the broad public, there’s another who deeply wants to find better ways to connect…[p. 11] [no reference given for that ‘statistic’]

All too often we find scientists saying things to their peers and colleagues, or even to the press, that sound something like this: “I can’t believe the public is so stupid that it believes X” or “I can’t believe people are so ignorant that they’ll accept Y.” At this point the scientist ceases to be a friendly instructor and becomes a condescending detractor and belittler. [p 17]

2) There is way too much loose journalistic over-generalization; too much talk of ‘scientists’ or (repeated ad nauseam) ‘the scientific community’ as if all scientists think and act as a bloc; too much confident assertion about causes and consequences and solutions.

3) The generalizations sometimes degenerate into what looks like mere vendetta, in particular when CM and SK single out PZ Myers for a scolding not once but twice: the first time for having a popular blog and for the aforementioned cracker affair, the second for having a popular blog [pp 96-7, 109-11, 114].

4) There is a pervasive lack of support for the large, general claims. Causes and connections are simply asserted rather than argued or backed up with evidence.

5) The book and its argument are fundamentally political rather than epistemological, and they are political in a very particular way. There is much talk throughout of the need to ‘bridge divides,’ and this, in my view, creates a basic distortion of the thinking. If the overarching goal is to bridge divides (as they at least once say it is), then differences must be papered over or ignored – and that is simply not compatible with free inquiry.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum write and think (here, at least) more like political operatives or advertisers or people in the PR business than anything else. They are intent on consensus and community-creating, and that makes their approach seem more like manipulation and pandering than like frank and open discussion.

[I]t is undeniable that the troubling disconnect between the scientific community and society stems partly fom the nature of scientific training today, and from scientific culture generally. In some ways science has become self-isolating. [p 11]

And so on. Yes, but that is the nature of the discipline. It simply doesn’t make sense to expect ‘the scientific community’ and society to blend seamlessly together, and it makes even less sense to expect science to be anything other than ‘self-isolating’ in the sense of being what it is as opposed to something else.

There is a kind of pseudo-populist, anti-‘elitist’ tone throughout that is grating and that, more seriously, pulls the whole book in the direction of disdain for epistemic values. This is perhaps the most serious flaw in the book. There are scattered disclaimers about this – professed admiration for Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, for instance, while at the same time enacting some of the anti-intellectual tropes that Hofstadter wrote about. But in spite of the disclaimers, there is a lot of blaming and scolding of ‘scientists’ as a bloc and a lot of pressure to be more ‘friendly’ and accessible.

[I]n a world dominated by the twenty-four hour news cycle…scientists will have to find ways of presenting science issues in such a way that politicians will instantly recognize their media communicability. Scientists will have to accept that their advice is being judged not on its substantive content – at least not at first – but explicitly on the utility of its packaging.

In context, if you concentrate, they seem to be saying that some scientists will have to do that kind of work – but their habit of overgeneralization and bloc-thinking prevents them from making that clear enough, and after awhile they seem to be simply telling all scientists to stop being such sticklers for content.

More later.

6 Responses to “Overview”