Wanted: Ambassadors for Science

unscientific america

Unscientific America:
How scientific illiteracy threatens our future.
By Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum
Basic Books, 2009.  209 pages.

Elected leaders point to a heavy snowfall in Washington, D.C. and claim that refutes the claims of global warming.

Forty-six percentage of Americans subscribe to young-Earth creationism.

Scientific research refutes the contention that vaccines cause autism in children. But every time a new study comes out on the subject, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs.

Many people get their “science” from celebrities, friends, and a few non-mainstream doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus.

Where is today’s Carl Sagan?

As science awaits the next Great Communicator (Neil deGrasse Tyson is one possibility) this book considers other avenues for bringing useful and accurate information about science to the news media, political and cultural leaders, and the general public.

The authors have communicated about science for quite a long time. Chris Mooney hosts the Point of Inquiry podcast and is author of The Republican War on Science. Sheril Kirshenbaum is a member of the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas-Austin and is a former congressional science fellow.

Their lively book discusses the rifts between science and the major subcultures that shape our thinking—politics, news media, entertainment, and religion. It then proposes ways to bridge these rifts.  Mooney & Kirshenbaum argue that the burden of bridge-building rests with scientists and their professional organizations. For science to attain its deserved place at the table of public discourse, several things must happen.

Universities must reward scientists for public outreach and communication. University science programs should offer a more interdisciplinary education that unites scientific culture with communication and mass culture.

Scientists and their organizations must learn to make their knowledge politically relevant. They must learn to negotiate the halls of Congress as skillfully as any other interest group.

Film and television are massively powerful media and can be used to misinform. Scientists must learn how to wield these media, and for virtuous purposes (Randy Olson is doing a good job).

Although science and religion seem to clash regularly, the official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are compatible. The scientific method in no way rules out the possibility of entities or causes outside of nature; it simply stipulates that they will not be considered within the framework of scientific inquiry.  Besides, the authors say, scientists might benefit from more conciliatory exchanges with the religious community:  The faithful have a vast store of knowledge about what it takes to motivate people, create community, and bring about social change.

Reconnecting science and our society will require mobilizing a new workforce, the authors say. The higher education science “pipeline” should generate more “science ambassadors” who can engage in outreach. At the same time, pro-science activists need to help. This can occur through communication with politicians,  the news media, the entertainment industry, and religious organizations.

As universities trains more scientists, also ensure they learn more about politics and the media. Scientists need communication skills to act as culture-crossers who engage in outreach.


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