blog wars: atheists, science writers and the war of words over scientific literacy

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wanted at least some positive feedback on their book. Instead, they started a feud.
suit and boxing gloves

A little while ago, Chris Mooney and his co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum sent PZ Myers a copy of their book Unscientific America, mysteriously expecting a relatively neutral or favorable review. The trio has been at odds for a long time so it was no surprise that Myers took exception to getting cast as a villain who represents a step back for science education in a book about the need for scientific literacy in the United States and posted an unflattering reaction on his wildly popular blog. Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson joined in. Angry rebuttals from the authors followed and a little war of words erupted.

Now the dust is starting to settle, at least temporarily, but you can be sure that these exchanges can and will be revisited in the near future. Usually, public arguments between bloggers send traffic back and forth, generate few hundred extra comments and end with both sides agreeing to disagree. Some blog wars are purely done to boost traffic as old school boggers knock on each other and play up their works. It’s a show where everyone is in on the fun, like the friendly scraps between PZ and Phil Plait. But this blog war is different. It has a personal tinge to it. And as the mainstream media is cutting back on science writers and reporting in their science and tech departments in favor of celebrity gossip and political punditry, more and more science coverage has been moving to quickly growing popular science blogs where debates about improving scientific literacy in the United States can be as big of a draw as the science for an ever expanding audience.

In that regard, Unscientific America offers plenty of things to argue about and in their efforts to promote the book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum may easily find themselves in the crosshairs of the popular bloggers and scientists they deliberately offended. Sure, they’ll sell enough copies to pay their bills but they did it by writing a questionable populist polemic about people they didn’t like, not by providing an actual solution to America’s educational woes as they set out. And their furious exchanges with critics have cast them in an extremely unflattering light for those like me for five basic reasons.

1. Their big solution is not a solution at all.

Mooney’s ultimate answer to the lack of scientific literacy in the U.S. is to educate kids, teenagers and college students to understand and appreciate the scientific method so they can go out and become “ambassadors of science.” Maybe I’m being naïve, but isn’t that what basic education is supposed to do in the first place? How is this anything new or different than what’s being said by educators every day? When it comes to countering religious zealots who passionately want to dismantle scientific education, he and his co-author warn us to be nice to them because they’re people of faith and give us absolutely no ideas for how to deal with them. So the very people who won’t let our educational institutions do their jobs are to be let off the hook and allowed to do as they wish while we try to make our schools work properly? Wouldn’t that leave us exactly where we are right now?

2. They hold scientists responsible for the lack of good education.

Because let’s face it, telling the public that it’s not paying attention makes you unpopular. It’s much easier to aim your audience’s anger at the pointy headed intellectuals already held in contempt by a good deal of the public, politicians and religious leaders with oversized congregations. Instead of standing up and noting that even the best orators and writers in the world couldn’t effectively communicate their message when the public doesn’t want to listen, Mooney and Kirshenbaum take the easy way out and lay the blame at the feet of the scientists. Anyone who disagrees with their assessment is an obnoxious, arrogant snob trying to escape his responsibilities. For me, the takeaway seems to be that instead of writing to analyze and tell the hard but necessary truth, the authors are writing to be liked and agreed with.

3. They made it personal.

When you’re a writer who sets out to analyze the state of science in a country, going after people with who you had ridiculous personal disagreements is bad form pure and simple. Having their delicate sensibilities offended by Myers’ Crackergate stunt, M&K left their old blogging network in a huff so they could show their righteous indignation. Except they only told us about it now, after casting Myers as one of villains who’s holding back science education in the United States. And as if they were trying to make themselves look as petty and thin-skinned as possible, they also decided to throw a fake gantlet down to Myers and complain how the entire science blogging world tiptoes around him and his 2.2 million visits a month. Oh my, aren’t you brave for taking on big bad PZ. Come to think of it, what was your book about? Scientific literacy or your distaste for Pharyngula and its outspoken atheist community?

4. They went after atheists.

See point number two. This is another case of picking on a minority rather than telling the truth. Atheists are just as free to speak their minds about religion and science as the faithful. By trying to set rules for who can say what and how loud, the authors are doing nothing more than censoring people they don’t care for to be even more liked by their target audience. And in that respect, they’re not much better than creationists on school boards who try to censor books about evolution since science offends them so.

5. They keep trying to turn back the clock.

Armed with idealized concepts of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, Mooney and Kirshenbaum keep arguing that we need the same exact approaches to popularizing science as they took instead of (pardon the pun) God forbid, having someone like Dawkins be the voice of scientific education. Gould and Sagan were great scientists and public educators. No doubt about it. But chanting their names three times in front of a mirror won’t bring them back. And as Jerry Coyne noted in his review, their methods didn’t make a dent in the overall quality of scientific literacy. A good portion of the public they were trying to educate simply didn’t want to pay attention. Right there, we have the evidence that invalidates their premise that if all scientists were great communicators, the public would rush to embrace scientific education. It didn’t, even in the best of times according to them.

It seems to me that Unscientific America just isn’t up to the lofty task it sets for itself. From its head-scratching opening about the demotion of Pluto, to its grand idea which turns out to be nothing more than what we’re already trying to do but can’t because people like the authors immediately accuse us of obnoxiousness and disrespect, and barely hidden personal vendettas being laid bare, it’s not the insightful, analytical work you expect from professional science writers. And the thin skin of the authors who seem unable to take some real criticism from those not shy enough to provide it, just gives the whole thing an unpleasant aftertaste.

# science // books / popular science / science education


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