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Customer Review

on December 30, 2009
This book is written by Mooney, a science journalist and Kirschenbaum, a trained scientist who switched over to the world of politics, and as such, it reads like a politically-oriented, extended journalistic piece on the issue it purports to cover. The title and the cover seem to imply that the book will be about a dangerous lack of scientific literacy in the US, a potentially popular topic among readers given the high profile of some recent science issues. However, the book ends up being more about the interaction of science and scientists with the general public than it does with the general status of science. The recurring theme in this book is that there is a general disconnect between the pristine, well-ordered world of scientists, call it the ivory tower or the highly specialized world of the experts, and the general public which gets its information and entertainment from movies, TV shows and blogs, among other things. While the authors try to be even-handed and point out both the good and bad points from each side, the book tends to feel like an indictment of scientists and their inability to cross the divide and make science entertaining and relevant. In the end, the book basically decides that what we need isn't necessarily more trained experts, but more training for the experts in things like communication, writing and speaking skills. They seem to feel that we need more Carl Sagans.

This book does make some excellent points and the authors do seem to have a pretty good grasp on what is good science and what is not; however, in the end, scientists get too much of the blame, and those who promote science denial, or bad science get let off the hook too lightly. It is true that bridging the gap between the experts and the general public in an effective way is a big concern found among many who write on this topic, but it seems as though this book is too willing to chalk the problem up either to improperly trained scientists or some sort of institutionalized bias in the media world. One of the strongest aspects of this book is the fact that the authors clearly point out, in a number of places, that the technological arrangement and delivery of media currently allows for a number of dangerous tendencies, such as: the focus on profit over substance which tends to eliminate serious scientific coverage, the fragmentation of delivery into many cable channels or an infinite number of websites which allow people to tune out things they don't want to hear or read about, and the ability for anyone to create a TV show or post something to the web, which allows for many disinformation sites to become places where like-minded science deniers can pat each other on the back. In spite of these keen observations, the book has some shortcomings. It seems to suggest that scientists need to accept a number of big compromises. The authors suggest that due to the way movies are made, scientists have to accept bending of science or scientifically ludicrous ideas in movies so that they can be entertaining and sell. They are also very hostile towards the so-called new Atheist movement and insist that science has to accept a co-existence with religion.

In the end, this book will probably be somewhat disappointing to those who appreciate the modern scientific heritage of this country and are gravely concerned about the anti-scientific direction some segments of society seem to be taking. On the other hand, the book does make a number of very thought-provoking observations and seems to suggest one possible path to bridge the gap between science and the general population that could bypass a cultural war and situation in which one side's victory implies the other side's defeat. The best bet is to keep in mind that this book was written by two people whose careers are deeply involved with public perception and the marketing of ideas. As such, it is not a bad take on an issue of great concern and importance.
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