Unscientific America, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum is a depressing book. It is a brief history of the rise and fall of the respect for science in American culture and what can be done about it. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be nothing more than “trian scientists to be better speakers”. I don’t that is either likely or would be enoiugh even if it came to pass.
The book is well written and the two authors are not shy about their positions or about stepping on toes. They are quite caustic about the New Atheists and they aren’t afraid of calling out popular bloggers like PZ Myers for what I think are well deserved criticisms. They spend a brief amount of time on a case for the decline of science and respect for science in America, but the real point of the book is to lay out the reasons for the decline and to suggests solutions. The authors list many reasons: the consolidation of the media, the partisan war on science, the traditional loathing of popularizers that the scientific community seems to have (using the shameful treatment of Carl Sagan as exhibit number one), the extreme specialization and the general lack of attempts to deal with politicians and the general public on their terms. The authors make a good case for all of these being serious problems, but their solutions address only two of the problems.
The authors really only have one solutions: encourage the scientific community to learn to communicate better. There are many details to this plan, but that is what it amounts to. The problem with that solution is that it wont touch the fact that politicians feel free to ignore good science or that media consolidation will continue to ruin science reporting. The authors make very good cases that those two items are important reasons for the decline they lament, but their solutions would do literally nothing to address them. They argue for no organized effort to remove anti-science politicians, and they argue for no organized effort by scientists to halt or reverse media consolidation. Even odder, they don;t agrue against these ideas either. It as if those notions didn’t occur to them or that they see no value in political action by scientists. I doubt the last is the case as they spend quite a bit of time on the success of ScienceDebate2008.
So we are left with a book that has a very comprehensive case for why respect for science has declined in America but provides us with solutions to only part of the problems and completely ignores the possibility that the other aspects of the problem may, indeed, have solutions. It is still a very good book, just one that could have been even better.