Science is no longer cool, according to Chris Mooney. This could have huge consequences for the world, which needs science to help resolve many crises facing us today. But people are paying less attention and giving less credence to science and scientists due in part to politics, mainstream media, religion, and anti-intellectualism. How did we get so far off the scientific track, and what should we do now? Maria Armoudian speaks to Mooney, the co-author of “Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future.”
Chris Mooney is a writer and science journalist. He is the co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: I want to start with the bad news. How bad is this?
Chris Mooney: Americans in particular don’t know a great deal about science. So if you ask them questions like, “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun? What is larger, an electron or an atom?”, you get pretty dismal responses. You get some of the most dismal responses on things related to religion like, “Do you believe in evolution? How old do you think the Earth is? Do you think the universe started with a big bang?”, those kinds of things. So we don’t know a lot. We are also not very engaged with what is going on in the world of science.
MA: Would you say that this is largely a failure of the education system? I ask this because these are things that you learn in basic science courses.
CM: They are, and science education in the US in particular is pretty dismal overall. There are some great schools and there are a lot of not great schools, so some students get an incredible education but it doesn’t spread, it doesn’t reach everyone. And that is part of the reason for this data. I don’t think that it’s solely an educational problem, though it’s a very complex problem. So we talk about the role of the media and informing or misinforming people about science, we talk about the political system and how cynical politicians and political activists are with science, and we look at a lot of other factors as well as the education system.
MA: You have actually cited a few things in your book, for example, John McCain and Sarah Palin ridiculing research on grizzly bears.
CM: Yeah, that was a way of scoring points. I forget what McCain’s line was about grizzly bears, but it was a silly comment, and it turned out that the research that he was making fun of was actually very important research.
MA: Then you actually go back to an old political scientist Richard Hofstadter who talked about anti-intellectualism in the US and how this kind of feeds into it and supports it.
CM: “We don’t like the thinkers, they don’t do anything, they’re just lazy and read books and the American spirit is all about starting a business, making a lot of money,” – [people say] that kind of thing. So there is this… idea that somehow that is not what Americans do, and science can fall into that whole thing and so nobody wants to be a Brainiac. So a lot of kids grow up and unfortunately in high school they decide that, “that is not me, I’m not that kind of person, I don’t do science and I don’t do math.”
MA: This is a cultural phenomenon that is fairly new. Although we know there has been a long [period] of anti-intellectualism in parts of the United States, but we also know that there had been historically a lot of pre-eminence placed on science.
CM: The Founders, some of them, most notably Franklin and Jefferson, were scientists of their day. They were natural philosophers. There have been other periods when science was very prominent in American life, too. In the book we talk about the post-World War II era because scientific technologies, military technologies, won the war with sometimes somewhat unfortunate consequences in the case of the [Atomic] bomb. [Science was also prominent in] the post-Sputnik era when we felt that we had to be competitive with the Soviets and we invested in an unprecedented way in science in America. For about a decade between the launch of Sputnik and our landing on the moon, science was everything in America. Then things got more complicated again.
MA: One check on the media I thought was quite telling was cable news, which gave one minute’s coverage of science and technology while they gave ten minutes of coverage for celebrity and entertainment.
CM: Oh yeah, and I’m sure that they are giving a lot more to crime [and] a lot more to sport. The amount of attention devoted to science in much of the media is not only tiny, but it is apparently dwindling. One of the things that we do in the book, and that I’ve also been doing in other writing, is telling the stories of all the individual science journalists who had long and distinguished careers, and they are all now losing their jobs at newspapers as newspapers have to keep cutting back in this economic situation, and the science people are often the first ones to be fired.
MA: I wanted to talk a bit about these scientists over the last fifty years who have at one point been really an important fixture in American history. We had Carl Sagan, for example. You talk about this: there used to be programs on CBS, on ABC, on PBS, that really covered these important breaking technologies and such, and then we had a little bit, you mentioned Steven Hawking, you mentioned Richard Feynman, Jared Diamond on the bestseller list, but there is other stuff going on.
CM: Yeah, what we do in the book is we give a brief history of the popularisation of science, when science was really prominent and when scientists were really prominent [to] the point of actually being household names. You poll people today and most of them can’t name a scientific role model, and the names they give are people that are long dead like Einstein, or they name people like Al Gore and Bill Gates. But Sagan is a person that a lot of people really did know, he really was that visible, not as famous as Einstein certainly, but really quite famous, everybody had seen him on television. So in the figure of Sagan, science was a part of a shared culture that we had and we don’t really have that anymore I don’t think. And I think the polling data bears this out. You ask people to name a scientist and you don’t get living Americans named. You ask people if they know a scientist personally and they don’t. It’s just not part of mainstream American life really.
MA: What is the consequence of this, and what is ultimately at stake?
CM: That is why it matters. If we’re just saying people don’t have the right facts in their head I don’t think that would be a compelling argument. But we’re saying more than that, we’re saying that we live in a time when science is more pivotal than ever to the future, to decision making, and that is obvious if you just follow the news. Global warming is one of the top issues on the agenda right now and large parts of the public are in complete disagreement with the scientific community about the whole basis and the fact that there is a problem. So we have this gigantic disconnect there, and global warming is probably the best example of how scientific illiteracy hurts the future, which is that if you have a public that refuses to listen to science on the topic then you have… twenty years of gridlock and inability to deal with the problem. And that is just one of many science-centred issues that are either being currently bungled, or will be bungled in the future because of the unhealthy way that we deal with science.
MA: One of those practices of the media, which is not necessarily a negative practice except for that the consequence is negative, is that any time they offer up a piece of science about global warming they always have a naysayer [which] makes it look like there is a debate.
CM: Yes, and it is so foolish to do this. Journalists should all be aware, I don’t know if they are, that there is a strategic attempt to create these naysayers by special interests and by conservative political interests who want to fight the signs of global warming. They basically create out of nothing misinformation about science, and then they’re just dying to go on the air with it because this is the whole political strategy, to create gridlock, and they’ve done exceedingly well with that strategy. And so no respectable journalist should be a party to it.
MA: We’ve [also] got the role of the internet, and one of the concerns with the internet deals with how newspapers are folding. Most people are getting information from the internet now, but that is not really well vetted. [Could you] talk about this?
CM: This is a whole new problem of science and the internet. And if you’re going to talk about science and culture and science communication you can’t ignore that; everything is changing and everybody knows this. I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy environment for science because what you had with the treatment of science in the old media and [in] newspapers was… these sort of veterans, people who knew the field and had covered it for a long time and they knew all the experts and they had very strong standards for what they would write about and why they would write about it. They were professionals, their jobs are basically being destroyed by a technological and economic dynamic that is generated by the internet. So who is replacing them? Well its bloggers for the most part, and bloggers are a completely different cast. They might provide really good information about science, but they might provide really bad information about science. In fact, one of the most popular science sites is an anti-global warming site. There are [also] very popular anti-vaccine sites [and] there are very popular anti-evolution sites. So it’s a wild west out there, there is no quality control. And then there is a second issue, which is about audience and what people read and what they get. Again, the newspaper as a form of media was supposed to reach a diverse audience, it wasn’t just for the people who read the sports section, it wasn’t just for the people who read the horoscopes. The newspaper gives you a diet of all the different things and it’s meant for everybody. That meant that science, when it was in the newspaper, was part of everybody’s diet, but now no longer. You have the internet, where you choose all the content. In that context most people aren’t choosing the science content at all, most people aren’t even going to be finding it.
MA: There are also the pseudo-documentary types of things that people are finding in lieu of real science. Maybe I should bring you in since you are a science journalist yourself to talk about the process of peer review and why that’s important.
CM: Peer review is a time-honoured scientific norm. And what this means is that a finding in science isn’t really treated as something to be taken seriously unless it has been vetted, usually anonymously, by another couple of experts, at least a couple in the field, and then published in a journal that won’t publish something unless that has happened. So that is a quality control measure and it’s a way of building confidence. And peer review isn’t fool-proof, but it’s very important. And there are various kinds of peer review, and once things have been peer-reviewed lots of times you have high confidence in them. Journalists worth their salt writing about science would be very concerned about the standing of the information and they would look for peer review, they would look for various different kinds of peer review. That is the problem with all the misinformation out there [on subjects] like global warming is that it hasn’t passed the test, but nobody knows that except for the scientists.
MA: Instead people are getting their information from science blogs that really are a business and not really operated with any kind of integrity, or [they get their information] from their neighbours.
CM: Yeah, they could be. Let’s switch to evolution. [If] you live in a religious community and everybody around you is anti-evolution and you all go to church together, what do you hear about evolution? You hear, “Oh, you know, there are these things in the cell that cannot be explained by evolution, therefore Darwin must be false”. Again, it’s the same kind of misinformation that gets spread all around and it’s not peer-reviewed, it’s not quality science, it hasn’t been published, but you know it’s got a huge following out there.
MA: So there should be some kind of fact check for science? If anybody could create that it would be quite something, kind of like the fact check we have for politics?
CM: Yeah, it’s extremely hard with science; science is some of the hardest stuff to fact check… As a science journalist… you learn early on just how easy it is to fool somebody with scientific-sounding stuff and just how hard it is yourself to get it right. So the people who want to misinform have all the advantages because they don’t have to work as hard, they don’t have to check things as carefully, and they are more able to make things up then we are.
MA: So what do you think has to happen now to go back to a place where science is better understood, the wool can’t be pulled over the eyes of people quite so much, and when policy and science are actually working together again?
CM: The hardest area to fix is the media. But let’s table that for a second because that is a real big economic problem. We’ve really got to wake up about the educational system. There [are] so many problems with it, and the people teaching science often don’t really even know much about science, and you could hardly get somebody better when the salaries are so low… That is a fundamental problem that really speaks poorly to our values. But there is much more that can be done. What we talk about in the book is not just educational reform, we talk about the people who care because there is really a large constituency for science in America. We created a movement during the 2008 election to try to get the candidates to talk about science and we had some success. We had thirty-eight thousand people out there calling for this. So to get the people who care, the scientists and the science supporters, to rally around a cause of improving our communication of science to the public, and that involves doing a better job of getting science in the media, doing a better job of getting science in the political system, doing a better job of getting it into the entertainment media in a non-completely garbled form which is another topic, doing a better job of getting it to churches, which is super hard for some churches. So: a grand campaign to reacquaint America with the science world.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.