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105 of 127 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Critical & topical issue guaranteed to get you thinking, but lacking in content, July 25, 2009
This review is from: Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (Hardcover)
Chris Mooney, co-authoring with Sheril Kirshenbaum, has impeccable timing for publishing topical books. By the time Mooney's The Republican War on Science : Revised and Updated came out, those who stay up on current events had probably reviewed enough anecdotal news stories regarding the GOP's relationship with Science and its findings to seriously consider Mooney's thesis that the GOP was truly in a policy war with science with damaging consequences both observed and predicted. Mooney's masterpiece of straight news reporting and analysis still resonates and I continue to recommend this wonderful book, both for the breadth and depth of its reporting, and its continued relevance in spite of a new Administration committed to science due to a Congress that continues to be swayed by special interests as we've recently experienced in both energy and health care legislative efforts.

Mooney's reportage in "War on Science" is also helpful to readers of "Unscientific America" given the authors spend little time in the new book arguing for the key and growing role science plays in American society, it's mostly assumed where the authors instead focus the first portion of the book on the pervasiveness of America's illiteracy towards science coupled to their argument the scientific community is failing at communicating with both the power brokers and the general public in a way that adequately promotes science. While I enjoyed learning about areas where we're scientifically illiterate, I believe the authors spend too little time speaking to the criticality of science. This results in a book I find serves as an echo chamber for current science supporters, who already know the general public is illiterate regarding Science. According to a recent Pew poll, 84% of the public claims a high regard for science while 85% of scientists believe the public doesn't understand science and far too many people oppose both the scientific method and use of its findings in education and policy. Some illumination that claiming support for science in no way equates to actually supporting science is a necessity; however few examples are offered here. I would have liked to have distributed this book to people in positions of power who have influence on our culture, but the sales job by the authors is inadequate for that task given many of my target audience ignorantly believe they already support science. More examples of how ignorance in science equates to less than optimal results would have been welcomed.

Unscientific America couldn't have been timed better. The aforementioned Pew poll published soon after this book went to market raises the appropriate alarms regarding a public who is scientifically illiterate and where a massive disconnect in understanding between science and the public exists on many topics. The poll's attention in the media should help serve as a motivating argument to consider Unscientific America's thesis. More than 2/3 of all Americans with an opinion think that government funded research is "essential" and that private industry investment in research without government funded research is not adequate. On the flip side this same Pew poll finds that 87% of scientists believe we are inadequately funding research. A seeming paradox emerges from this poll result given the authors reporting that we have an over-supply of scientists relative to job openings - one of several rewarding eye-openers the authors report that changed the paradigm of how I view science policy.

Americans understand that we face increased competition for desired jobs given an increase in global competitiveness and global trade that challenges American economic growth and security. I would therefore speculate that the vast majority of well-informed Americans would agree that for America to maintain and improve our economic situation, we need to increase the rate of scientific findings, maintain or enhance our standing in the world regarding science, and significantly improve our ability to translate research into marketable ventures, especially in energy and less costly health care. Yet here we are swimming in unemployed or under-employed scientists.

A more substantial analysis and set of arguments regarding this seeming paradox is an opportunity squandered and the major failing of the book. What are the authors' recommendations? They provide one general recommendation that I agree is imperative. But I also find it falls far short of providing confidence we've done everything we can or need to do (I leave out their recommendation given I think it's a spoiler). I think the book leaves many questions left begging regarding this paradox while also falling short in reporting other possible solutions that may have a far more fundamental improvement.

For example, one of my observations on a possible root cause and corrective action regards our inability to get more American students interested in science, or at least more immigrant students who've come from developed capitalistic societies. Could the cultural differences of immigrant students who secure science jobs in the States be a cause for why we don't see greater activity in bringing research to market given that requires more interaction with both investors and the business community? I don't know; it or other obvious considerations are never covered. [I'm a huge supporter of increasing recruitment efforts to attract foreign students to immigrate here, along with other countries' scientists. Therefore, I'm not advocating shutting them out by increasing how many American citizens go into science, I'm instead arguing that not having more scientists with soft-cultural skills may be a reason we don't see a faster rate from research to market while we simultaneously suffer an oversupply of scientists relative to jobs. I'm looking at growing the pie of jobs in the science sector, not increasing Americans' share of who staffs current American-based science jobs at our immigrants' expense.]

A third weakness, which I found far more trivial to the scarcity of analysis and prescriptive arguments, is their attack on so-called new atheists. The authors are convinced that the new atheists are buttressing the wedge between the scientific community and social conservatives. In fact the authors spend far more time on this supposed issue than they do addressing why America is swimming with scientists at a time our energy and health care costs require an increase in bringing scientific findings to the marketplace. Couple a disproportionate attention on the growth and exposure of science-literate atheists to the absence of any data supporting their argument and one wonders what this subject is even doing in the book, especially given it's such a short read.

My experience is that these so-called new atheists have instead attracted many young people to the side of enlightened thinking while offending social conservatives who were previously and will remain incapable of adapting their beliefs to knowledge derived from science. Religious people who are intellectually mature enough to support science are not going to be repelled given part of the big tent is particularly nasty to fundamentalists, who they mostly dismiss as well. Therefore I'd speculate the new atheists have opened up a new channel to develop more science-friendly people, rather than harming this cause given the people attacking them aren't going to change anyways. (I too have no data but I'm not publishing a book claiming so. I've also seen a lot of observational evidence that people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have helped young people who were indoctrinated into fundamentalism become enlightened while the people who are offended by these types, e.g., Rick Warren and his older adherents, display zero capability or history of adapting when their beliefs are convincingly discredited - so why should we care if they add one more reason for them to hate scientific methodology and its resulting findings if there's a marginal benefit to what these new atheists do? Social conservatives will just use other rhetorical opportunities to attack science and its supporters if the new atheists went back into the closet as Mooney argues they should.]

Given the book is any easy interesting read that does promote the reader thinking more deeply about this critical topic, I do recommend reading this book. I have a far better context in which to consider how we make America more literate because I read this book, but I also feel this book was a rush job lacking the effort we saw in "War on Science" where the authors didn't go nearly far enough in both their analyses or prescriptive considerations. So whatever positions I eventually develop to argue for how America can become scientifically literate, such findings will be based on content not contained in this book.

P.S. - I think Mr. Mooney is a great talent who is worthy of our consideration. Given how young he is, he's in a post-grad program now, I hope in the future he is more respectful of his audience by putting more effort into future books by providing more substantial content. I also hope he takes his critics' advice regarding there being a place at the table for the new atheists; especially given Science's emerging efforts into better understanding the brain and behavioral memes within populations originating in ancestors beyond hominids. These relatively new fields will greatly increase science's treading into areas recently reserved only for religion, so we need to have the dialogue that people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have put on the table, not hide them from view, otherwise the distance between science and the public will only increase.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 11, 2009 8:57:34 AM PDT
T. Fisher says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 11, 2009 9:53:55 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 11, 2009 10:13:26 AM PDT
T. Fisher,

Piltdown Man was a defect in English gentrymen trying to one-up the Germans. In addition the claims for Piltdown Man were never peer-accepted, the Royal College of Surgeons immediately disputed the claims. The first actual scientist to get his hands on the evidence quickly concluded this was a fraud, i.e., a scientist did what scientists do, they falsify.

"Approximately 1915, French paleontologist Marcellin Boule concluded the jaw was from an ape. Similarly, American zoologist Gerrit Smith Miller concluded Piltdown's jaw came from a fossil ape. In 1923, Franz Weidenreich examined the remains and correctly reported that they consisted of a modern human cranium and an orangutan jaw with filed-down teeth." (Source - - which I use merely because this commenter doesn't deserve better and this explanation is consistent with reports I've seen by credible publishers).

Piltdown man is not an example of flawed science so much as an example of flaws in human nature that science was ultimately able to overcome by falsifying the claim. You appear gullible to creationist rhetoric, I can assure you that creationists by definition are dishonest.

Re T. Fisher's comment, "The age old point of view that accepts as proven the association between global warming and fossil fuel emissions just is not acceptable to real science"

"Real science" and its resultant findings are disseminated by peer-reviewed articles that are either ignored, accepted, rejected, built-upon with new research and findings, or modified. Here is a report that represents the peer-accepted theory of global warming: these reports are a summary of only peer-reviewed, peer-accepted findings . Please provide your peer-reviewed and peer-accepted citations that supposedly falsify these findings. Findings I might add that were generated by practicing, publishing scientists that represent all the relevant disciplines of science that study climate change. If all you have is petitions, blog posts, or arguments, well, that isn't 'real science' is it?

T. Fisher stated: "Evolution is certainly proven to occur within species, not so evident is evolution creating distinctly new species."

What an astonishingly ignorant statement. Evolution is both fact and theory. Speciation has not only been observed, but we've also validated the degree the various mechanisms that cause new species to develop have contributed those specific observations, some of which we were even able to validate in the lab, such as Senecio cambrensis. Senecio cambrensis evolved from both Senecio vulgaris and Senecio squalidus - a polyploid speciation event which was observed both in the field and its evolvement was replicated in the lab to validate the mechanisms and the degree those mechanisms contributed to the generation of this new species.

Here is a link that contains several dozen peer-reviewed/accepted citations of observations and/or findings of speciation events: . In addition, I highly recommend reading Dr. Jerry Coyne's new book, Why Evolution Is True which provides a comprehensive report of evolution as fact, i.e., adaptations up to and including speciation, and evolution as theory, i.e., an explanatory model that explains how new species arise. Lastly, scientists don't claim to "prove" anything, that's an illiterate claim.

T. Fisher stated: "While I believe evolution is theoretically correct, to call it proven is dishonest."

Perhaps your comment is published in the wrong reader review? I never discussed the validity of evolution as either fact or theory in this reader review. In fact evolution isn't a topic I even raise in this review. In addition, I never use the word "proven" when discussing peer-accepted scientific theories, which only someone who is scientifically illiterate would use since scientists falsify while providing room to adapt current explanations of past observations.

You may hate this book, and from my review you can see I find it highly flawed; however your comment here provides some observational evidence regarding the scientific illiteracy even of people who infer or claim literacy but clearly are not. So the authors are spot-on raising the need for America to confront its illiteracy in science, how that poisons the public square, and the flawed decisions when such ignorance has political influence.

Posted on Aug 21, 2009 1:44:42 PM PDT
Thanks very much for this review, it was very helpful. It gave me a very good sense of where the author is coming from and what value the book might have for me (or not). Exceptional.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 24, 2009 10:31:30 PM PDT
Disagree with the statment - "Piltdown man is not an example of flawed science so much as an example of flaws in human nature that science was ultimately able to overcome by falsifying the claim." While human nature is certainly flawed, the science behind the Piltdown man was nothing more than a fraud on display. Like Haeckel's embryos and Kettlewells moths.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 25, 2009 3:56:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 25, 2009 5:24:58 AM PDT
Mr. Nelson states, "the science behind the Piltdown man was nothing more than a fraud on display"

A creationist with decades old legends who I'd bet has no clue regarding the actual science. For example, the first scientist to get his hands on the so-called Piltdown man fossils discredited it. "Piltdown man" was originally promoted by non-scientists, it wasn't a fraud by scientists, it was a fraud by those using science where science discredited their claims.

Please describe Haeckel's flaw. I bet you don't even understand what he did right, and what science falsified him as doing wrong. What was Haeckel's primary argument? What did Haeckel argue that since has been validated? In addition and more importantly, what is the current state of the scientific fields Evolutionary Development and Biological Development in terms of these disciplines' findings and understandings?

In addition - did Kettlewell correctly observe natural selection in his flawed experiment with moths, and was this observation validated with observations leading up to today? "Flawed" in the sense that aspects of Kettlewell's experiment was discredited by . . . , you guessed it, other scientists. (Do these creationists not realize that scientific methodology, unlike many religious denominations' religious dogma, has a self-correction process that's been greatly enhanced over the past 150 years?)

Mr. Nelson - your arguments are like claiming that Henry Ford's first auto factory produced cars with defects. So what? The idea they could build cars that worked as intended was validated and their mistakes helped them learn to enhance their process to build better, more reliable cars. The same is true in science. Why not challenge current scientific methodology and our current peer-accepted understanding of evolution? Can you, or are you ignorant regarding what science currently does and understands? Why bring up such old examples? Why bring up singular examples of a single individual or handful of individuals making mistakes rather than systemic ones that challenge today's understanding of our findings and explanations? Especially since today's process requires independent peer-review prior to acceptance by peer-review journals, a process not yet established during the time of your examples.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 25, 2009 5:00:14 AM PDT
Mr. Nelson, I have to say that I don't personally find viewing these things simply as "fraud" and leaving it at that very illuminating or interesting. Every field has mistakes of various kinds along the way, they are part of what good scholars and scientists learn from. Newton and Gallileo made mistakes too, and some of them could be spun as "fraud." We don't reject mechanics on that basis. Sometimes mistakes teach us even more than successes. But you have to be listening to them with a curious and inquiring mind. It's the data we care about in the long run and there is a lot more data than is found in a few diagrams and a couple of famous observations.

The Wikipedia entry on "Icons of Evolution" gives some further background on the motivated line of bad scholarship that seems to be behind these exaggerated claims of fraud for those interested in exploring further.

Also, thank you very much for your response, Mike Heath.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 3, 2010 5:33:51 PM PST
mrs exp says:
Richard Nelson,
The problem as I see it is that very few people ever see the original fossils and therefore more and more fraud could be going on. When a display of original fossils at some museum in (I think) c 1984 the original fossils did not fit the stands that had been made for them from the casts. And the casts are what scientists get to study. So how can their conclusions be regarded as anything but educated guess work.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 3, 2010 7:30:25 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 4, 2010 1:19:38 PM PST

Do you have peer-reviewed citations that empirically and independently validate that the fossil evidence is a systemic fraud or is this merely a fantasy you hope is true where you use a mere example or two to validate a wish for systemic fraud?

BTW, scientists do get access to the actual findings discovered by other scientists. Scientific methodology demands providing access to data to other qualified scientists where it's newsworthy when an exception actually fails to occur. Certainly casts are shared as well, but that is merely for convenience, cost, security of the original. In addition, copies provide simultaneous access to multiple research groups. Scientists can and still do travel to examine actual fossil evidence discovered independent of their efforts plus some particularly noteworthy fossils go on tour.

Posted on Mar 5, 2010 11:34:11 AM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Sep 1, 2012 1:51:54 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 18, 2012 10:56:01 PM PST
Interesting review Mr. Heath,

I would like to add some information from academic research which may be useful to others who have wish to understand the diverse views of the public and science. Since you think that Americans have poor science literacy it is important to consider multiple lines of evidence from academic resources that detail trends among the public. According to some of the best research America is basically on top in terms of scientific literacy around the world. Many scientists get the perceptions that Americans are not very literate, but this is really based on awkward emphasis in minor and negligible aspects of the sciences such as evolutionary theory and origins research in cosmology, which are not representative of the sciences or the methodologies used in diverse branches of the sciences. These do not reflect adequately the science nor are they the core representatives of true scientific literacy. They also do not reflect the climate of "support" for science since scientists are scientists even if they reject some ideas and accept others. To try to say that scientists should believe X, Y, Z is problematic and borders on the demarcation problem of philosophy of science. Most theories and models in all branches of the sciences from electromagnetic theory to the chemical kinetic theory of gases to infinitismal calculus to plate tectonics to the periodic table to the dozens of branches of biology, chemistry, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, political sciences, etc. are not known in any significant detail by nearly all other scientists themselves. It is irrational to believe that scientists know about all the branches of science in any significant detail.

Most scientists are specialists, not generalists and they are experts in minor parts of small niches in research. The norm is that scinetists focus on their little area of focus and nothing more. They are quite ignorant of the details as much as many in the public because simply put most scientists are not experts in "science". In fact most scientists are not even aware about the history of science and its original name from the ancient period to the 19 th century - "Natural Philosophy". Scientists generally are only experts in minor branches of specialized fields. For instance Biochemists are not generally experts in Physical Chemistry or Analytical Chemistry. The same could be said of cosmologists and researchers in electromagnetic theory. Often times scientists' expertise are very limited and not broad enough to encompass all the branches of science. Most chemists probably don't study psychology and most political scientists do not study thermodynamics. The same phenomenon transfers over to the public. And perceptions can give the wrong impression.

Fortunately there is good academic research that shows empirical data on the American public and the views on the sciences. In terms of perceptions of science, "Religious" America has the same science knowledge base as "Secular" Europe and other international regions; Americans are more interested in science than Europeans; Americans visit more informal science institutions (museums, zoos, etc.) than Europeans; majority of American show strong support for the sciences and funding research; Americans have more favorable attitudes to science and technology than Europeans and other international regions; and more (National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2012" Ch.7). Interestingly, Jon Miller's research on adult scientific literacy consistently concludes that Americans usually score above all other nations in international rankings of adult scientific literacy (Hobson, Art. 2008. "The Surprising Effectiveness of College Science Literacy Courses". Physics Teacher 46(7): 404-406). Other cross-national studies on views of science and religion have noted that countries with higher religiosity have stronger faith in science than secular countries and countries which are seen as more secular are more skeptical toward the impact of science and technology (Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics)).

Recent sociological research confirms that conservative religious people have no epistemic conflict with science and educational attainment, contrary to what is often assumed (Evans, John. 2011. "Epistemological and Moral Conflict Between Religion and Science". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50(4):707-727) and (Baker, Joseph O. 2012. "Public Perceptions of Incompatibility Between Science and Religion". Public Understanding of Science 21(3): 340-353). Only a few moral conflicts exist which mainly belong in the realm of ethics, not research in and of itself. Moral agendas may result in some tensions on a small handful of issues (which are are not representative of the sciences). Sociological research such as Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, which is a recent review on evangelicals, provides recent data on these issues and concludes that evangelicals that have higher education such as college and graduate degrees have higher "religiosity" and that numerous religious groups have average or higher levels of education. The nonreligious group was around the average. Similar findings are also noted in empirical research on modern youth (from the 1980s and 1990s). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

Also ARIS data from 2008 on people with post-graduate degrees (the elites) shows that they are very similar to the general American population and that religion and post-doctorate degrees are both independent variables meaning that religiosity and higher education do not affect each other as Enlightenment thinkers presumed ("Religion and the Intelligentsia: Post-graduate Educated Americans 1990-2008" - Barry Kosmin). He notes that the empirical evidence does not support the hypothesis that those with the post-graduate degrees are more prone to follow the Enlightenment tradition. He notes, "The only sign of greater secularization is more support for the theory of human evolution but there is no evidence of a dominant "atheistic naturalism"." Research on undergraduates indicates that the majority of undergraduates from the natural and social sciences in college do not see conflict between science and religion either despite that conflict narrative being taught there often (Scheitle, Christopher. 2011. "U.S. College Students' Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50(1):175-186).

The reality is that America is not that scientifically illiterate. The reality is that the sciences are one out of many interests in America. but that the way it is across the world. It certainly is not the main focus just as politics or religion are not the main focus for individuals in general. Europeans seem to be lees scientifically literate than Americans and also it appears that Europe needs more scientists than we do. For a more detailed academic source of public perspectives on the sciences globally you should look at The Culture of Science: How the Public Relates to Science Across the Globe (Routledge Studies in Science, Technology and Society). There is much in there that will surprise people. For instance that strict creationists in America have very positive views of science and that America as a whole has more positive attitude towards science than "secular" regions like Europe and Japan.

For a good summary of when modern atheism spawned (17th century, not before), and the relationship it had with science up to this century one can see Oxford and Cambridge's review from the "Investigating Atheism" project under the "Atheism & Science" section online.

Just a few thoughts.
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