shifting the blame for scientific illiteracy

June 30, 2010 — 1 Comment

As many readers may know, I’m not exactly a fan of Chris Mooney and his work. It’s not just that he misquotes complex viewpoints to further his campaigns, or that he uses his books to hash out personal vendettas, or that he replies to criticism by trying to start ideological conflicts despite all his cheery talk about being civil and “building bridges” to anti-scientific movements, or even the fact the he sought money from a group ran by wealthy religious activists on a mission to buy scientific legitimacy and received a lavish fellowship for his campaign against vocal atheists. It’s because as consistently as sunset and sunrise, he chants about how socially inept, curmudgeonly scientists are to blame for the lack of scientific literacy in the U.S., and gives free passes to those who shout their hatred and contempt for any kind of skill, training and expertise from the rooftops, and sensation seekers in the media, who couldn’t accurately report a scientific story if their very lives hinged on it. And this is what he calls improving scientific literacy in America through communication.

Simply put, no matter how many arguments you possibly bring up against his strategy, Mooney won’t even try to entertain the thought that maybe, just maybe, he’s barking up the wrong tree. Sadly, this seems to be a trait he shares with some of today’s most virulent cranks who use misleading discussions about tone and civility to wield verbal mallets over their critics’ heads, much like Chris did in Unscientific America. And staying true to the blame-the-scientists-for-everything approach he’s been busy honing for the past year or so, he used his article in the Washington Post to deliver the following hybrid of indictment and lecture to scientists…

Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

Well there, problem solved. All scientific experts need to do is become diplomats who have their fingers right on the pulse of public knowledge and address the public’s lack of literacy using a soothing, gentle voice. Just sit back and watch hysterical anti-vaccination activists, rambling anti-scientific fundamentalists, and even climate change denialists trying their best to emulate Glenn Beck simply vanish into thin air. Or not. While it’s awfully nice when people admit that they don’t know something and are willing to learn, ask questions, or just stay on top of what’s going on in the world of science and technology, sadly, this isn’t what happens when we come to fervent cranks who spread nonsense in the media, which will present them as legitimate experts for controversy’s sake, even if the controversy the ratings-hungry editors want to promote is of their own making. And the same goes for religious zealots who prize their holy books over observable, falsifiable discoveries we made over the last few hundred years because they desperately want the approval of an invisible creature that they believe watches over them like a parental figure and will send them to Hell if they question their dogmatic notions. Mooney never had a solution for these groups or ideas for how to control the damage they cause as he lays the blame on scientists and tells them to get socially savvy.

Of course the slight problem with this idea is that scientists are well aware of the problem and today, many a graduate are supposed to take a class on effectively communicating scientific information to non-experts. The notion of a scientist with a blog interacting directly with critics and fans alike was once seen as just a random experiment of those who didn’t have papers to write or lab work to finish. Today, scientific blogging is growing, and more and more scientists are trying to reach out and educate the public through the web. However, many turn quite bitter and snarky after seeing just how many people rebel at the idea that they might not know best, that they might be wrong, and that maybe, they need to sit down and just listen to someone else for just a bit before indulging in long-winded pseudoscientific rants, or reciting the latest conspiracy theory. Part of this is a growing lag in the quality of scientific education in the U.S., helped in no small part by fanatical ideolgoues on state school boards and those who homeschool their kids only to indoctrinate them with religious dogmas rather than allow them to study something actually scientific in schools. Another part is the sudden idea that any and all opinions are valid on any issue, even if some of those opinions come from someone who studied the subject at the University of Google and got her PhD at Whale.to or Above Top Secret.

It’s not enough to just inform the public. We also have to make sweeping changes to make sure that crankery and pseudoscience are illuminated as nothing but that, and by making sure we don’t give those who espouse anti-scientific woo or fire and brimstone dogmatism undue credit. How do we do that? That’s an open debate which still needs to happen on a national scale. But I wouldn’t look to Mooney for any answers. He’s too busy rehashing himself, enjoying his haul from Templeton, and blaming scientists and skeptics for not getting how the public thinks because placing any responsibility on the public would make him one of those bitter, cranky, uncivil skeptics and scientists he likes to target, and we just can’t have that, can we Chris because we simply couldn’t alienate your audience of highly concerned accommodationists with cash, could we now?

[ illustration by Lina Blixt ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    I think one of the real problems with education is that critical thinking isn’t being taught, generally. Rote memorization in order to pass mandated tests is the norm. (This was a problem even when I was going to school; fortunately, I was a member of the Forensic League which at least taught the basics of how to examine a proposition. This was extra-curricular, though, and many students didn’t bother.)

    Even the basics of critical thinking would let people start to make reasoned judgements about scientific findings and political agendas. (We can skip those people who don’t think at all…) But this would require some serious re-organization of public education at the middle and high-school level. It would also mean upsetting part of the voting public that doesn’t want their children to actually start thinking about things…or even exercising their imaginations.

    As far as ‘fundamental causes’ for willful scientific ignorance, quite a bit comes from an unwillingness to hear facts that contradict what some people want to believe. No amount of diplomacy or social graces can fix that.