Scientists think they’re so special

I said (somewhere, at some point) that I would write about Unscientific America as a whole, by way of following up on chapter 8. Here we go.

It starts with an account of some sort of populist revolt over – the demotion of Pluto. Yes, really.

People were aghast…On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, their love of the underdog provoked…Even many scientists were upset. ‘I’m embarrassed for astronomy,’ remarked Alan Stern, the chief scientist on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond…[H]ow could this planetary crack-up happen in the first place? Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such a public outcry? Did they simply not care? [pp 2-3]

Bastards! Miserable heartless bastards! No, they didn’t care – the elitist swine. ‘The furor over Pluto,’ CM and SK solemnly inform us, ‘is just one particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society.’ Is it? Really? I would say no, I would say it’s just some random Thing that’s part of the great pageant of 21st century life and one that it’s risky to draw large conclusions from. Or maybe not so much risky as absurd.

And that’s a sample of one major problem with the book overall: it’s packed to the rafters with large claims for which the authors offer no evidence or argument. There are a great many assertions that just dangle there, unsupported.

Scientists know what advances are under way and debate them regularly at their conferences, but they’re talking far too much among themselves and far too little to everybody else. [p 10]

Are they? Too much for what? Too little for what? How do we know? How are the excess and the deficit measured? Who decides?

I don’t know, because the authors don’t say, and that kind of thing is all too typical. There’s the dreaded war between ‘the New Atheist movement’ and many religious believers:

The zealots on both sides generate unending polarization, squeeze out the middle ground, and leave all too many Americans convinced that science poses a threat to their values and the upbringing of their children. [p 7]

Do they? How do we know? How do the authors know? I can’t tell you, because they don’t tell us; they just make an announcement, and then move on. They truly seem not to realize that their claims are not self-evident – which seems surprising, since Mooney is a journalist and has done excellent work complete with evidence backing it up.

More later.

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