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Unscientific America

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Unscientific America is a non-fiction book on scientific literacy by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. The purpose of the book is to shed light on the growing distance between mainstream America and the scientific community. Co-author Chris Mooney is widely known for writing The Republican War on Science.

The book has received mixed reviews. While virtually all critics applaud the attempt to provide an analysis of the current state of scientific literacy in America, the particular arguments and proposals have not been found plausible. Two chapters in particular (Chapter One on the demotion of Pluto, Chapter Eight on science blogging and the New Atheism) are controversial.

Controversial aspects[edit]

Chapter 1: "Why Pluto Matters"[edit]

The first chapter is concerned with the decision of the IAU (International Astronomical Union) to "excommunicate" the celestial body Solar System object Pluto from the category of "planet". The authors present this argument in order to illustrate the divide between science and the cultural mainstream. What follows is an exhaustive analysis of the "Pluto" argument in the first chapter, with particular attention paid to citations.

The first paragraph of the book asserts that Pluto’s “mythological,” “historical,” and “cultural” status was sullied once the IAU changed its place in the taxonomy. But no concrete argument is made on the subject of Pluto's mythological or historical status. (This is probably for the best. When one imagines that a defense of Pluto must be fought alongside a defence of Thor and Odin, one risks throwing out the baby to spite the bathwater.) The bulk of the chapter is occupied with the cultural status of the planet. And as far as cultural arguments are cited, there are citations of bumper stickers that read things like “Viva Pluto!” and “Stop Planetary Discrimination!”. These are not so much arguments as expressions of Boo and Hooray.

In order to support the idea that the IAU was mistaken in their decision, the authors argue that the status change was as much a semantic exercise as a scientific one. In order to make that case, they defer to an outdated post by the Discover blogger Phil Plait. The blogger's post is not particularly convincing.

Plait argues that the decision was more semantic than scientific for the following reasons:

  • Claim: However you define it, a strict definition will admit of unintuitive counter-examples.
    • Problem: This is an argument that runs afoul of professional semantics. Discoveries in cognitive semantics—specifically, the work subsequent to that of Eleanor Rosch (as summarized by George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things)—have led to a sea-change in our understanding of meaning. Nowadays it is not uncommon to hear that all categories will admit of unintuitive counterexamples. Even the definition of “bachelor” as “unmarried adult male” sounds daft when we ask whether or not the Pope or Tarzan are bachelors. Evidently they are bachelors, by that definition, but there’s still something pretty dumb about saying “The Pope is a bachelor”. (And the defect is evidently irreparable, since adding a qualifier like “eligible” would make nonsense of such phrases as “ineligible bachelor”.)
  • Claim: The act of definition is cultural, and therefore not strict.
    • Problem: Any common behavior is cultural by definition, making even mathematic definitions "cultural". That doesn’t mean they lack objectivity or appropriateness.
  • Claim: It’s divisive, confusing, may lead us to be narrow-minded and miss important things.
    • Problem: These claims are left entirely unsubstantiated by Plait, so they only function as pejoratives. Still, note that Mooney and Kirshenbaum attempt to give substance to this claim (see below).
  • Claim: The criteria for making the definition are arbitrary anyway.
    • Problem: when it comes to the point where he needs to provide justification for the claim that the criteria are arbitrary, he admits that the criteria are actually not arbitrary, they’re just unsatisfying. But then it would not be a matter of mere semantics after all.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum go on to argue that downgrading Pluto was divisive. By their lights, people were aghast, choking on their yoghurt. Their evidence falls into three categories:

  • Insane.
    • Some protest web sites appeared. (None cited.)
    • New Mexicans declared a “Pluto Planet Day” because a New Mexican discovered Pluto in the first place. This, presumably, is what the authors were alluding to by Pluto's "historical status".
  • Unserious.
    • A Facebook group called “When I was your age, Pluto was a Planet” had oodles of members.
    • “Plutoed” was entered into the American dialect by the American Dialect Society, meaning “demoted or devalued”.
    • Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert made topical quips about politics that used the Pluto event as a metaphor, which the authors mistook to represent outrage at the name change itself.
    • Some “wags” (uncited) called the IAU the “Irrelevant Astronomic Union”.
  • Serious, but irrelevant. Dr. Alan Stern objected that not enough scientists were represented at the IAU meeting. That’s a tangible objection. However, regardless of who is having the debate, it's not clear to what extent considerations of culture ought to be part of the debate itself, and the latter is what the authors set out to prove.

After the book was published, in a reply to science blogger PZ Myers, the authors distanced themselves from the claim that they were upset about the demotion of the planet. This evidently makes the entire first chapter more or less a waste of time, including this report on it. However, the evidence of this chapter does raise an important question about scientific literacy—does controversy drive people to understand science? Do the "Plutophiles" now know more about Pluto than when it was considered a "planet"? This is a thesis that is not seriously considered in the rest of the book, and it causes their argument to run off the rails with some frequency.

Plausible aspects[edit]

Chapter 1: Dysfunctional America[edit]

Much of the first chapter has surface plausibility. The authors argue that the gap between science and the wider culture will have disastrous consequences if it is left unmended. It falls to us to figure out how to fix it.

The authors argue that the gap is a result the persistent dysfunctions of four major American institutions: politics, culture, mass media, and higher education. While the American political system rewards research and development through federal grants, but political leaders are largely apathetic or hostile towards science (for fear of being seen as "Adlai Stevenson egghead[s]", p.5). The authors argue that American culture has a persistent strain of anti-intellectualism, which can be seen as an obsession with the practical side of science and hostility towards merely intellectual pursuits. Traditional media's interest in factual, detailed analysis has waned in recent decades. On the other hand, information (and misinformation) is abundant in new media—so abundant that the individual can simply pick and choose the science content they wish to pay attention to based on personal preference. Finally, the higher education system is partially at fault for its isolationism, specialization, and wasteful disregard of young talented students of science.