"Science has become much less cool," journalist Chris Mooney writes in "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future" (July 2009, Basic Books).
Mooney, author of the 2005 bestseller "The Republican War on Science," and his coauthor, Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist at Duke University, seek to explain how Americans have come to minimize science when, they say, we need it most -- as global warming, advances in genetics and the possibility of climate engineering lie in our future.
"Americans built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome, and created the Internet," they write. "And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles."
Mooney discusses the issue, the significance of the decision to strip Pluto of planet status, his concerns about the vaccines-cause-autism movement and what scientists need to do.
Why does the decision to reclassify Pluto matter?
I was listening to science writer Dava Sobel at the L.A. Times Book Festival, talking about the Pluto decision and how she was on the committee that would have kept Pluto. And how the other astronomers didn't get it and overruled her committee. She said: People really care about this. . . .
The Pew Research Center did a study recently about the public understanding of science. And they asked what people knew. People knew that Pluto was no longer a planet. And they don't know many things. It is exceedingly rare that science does anything that reaches almost everybody anymore. So, when you get your moment to put it all before everybody, you don't want it to be a Pluto moment.
Talk about the vaccine skeptic movement.
It bubbled up originally for legitimate reasons. The mercury preservative thimerosal probably shouldn't have been in vaccines. It was taken out for precautionary reasons. Since then, science has come in and we can't detect the correlation between a rise in autism diagnoses and use of childhood vaccines. And study after study has been done.
So, at some point you have to let go. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's a conspiracy theory and people have appointed themselves as experts on this. . . .
It is really unfortunate. . . . Vaccine denial really is dangerous. The people who try to avoid vaccination, who believe this, are not stupid. They're not disadvantaged. They actually tend to be well-to-do, educated. So the distrust of science -- this is not something a better high school education would have saved them from.
Has the Internet hurt or helped science overall?
It's indifferent at best. There is good information on the Web about science, there's bad information on the Web about science. Neither one triumphs. Atomized communities go to one but not the other. . . .
Let's go back to vaccines. You have Age of Autism -- that's the vaccine autism site. On the other hand, you go to ScienceBlogs or the blogging world that I inhabit and we're all about debunking this.
You're not going to get much cross-pollination, except for people lobbing missiles across cyberspace at each other. That's the problem of science on the Internet right there.
Religion: How has it deepened the divide?
There is just a ton of data on Americans -- why they don't accept science, particularly evolution, and what their views on religion are. And there is zero doubt that religion is the block. . . .
They are told by their pastors from the pulpit, all across the country, that evolution is an assault on their identity, their moral universe and their ability to raise children who get taught this. So there's been an attempt to create a hermetically sealed environment in the conservative Christian community that keeps this stuff out. And that's a huge problem.
The world of science is very angry about this, and justifiably so. They are sick of playing Whac-A-Mole with the anti-evolutionists.
What can scientists do to bridge the gap?
They can learn about everybody else. They can understand everybody else and understand what the blocks are. What's preventing people from embracing science? We know it is religion, but do we really know why people are creationists? When I look at how many scientists approach the evolution issue, I don't see that understanding.
If I read ScienceBlogs, what I see are endless eloquent refutations of the creationists based on science. . . . Obviously, that doesn't convince anybody. And that's because people who don't believe in evolution are not driven by scientific considerations. So that's not how you should be trying to reach them.
Often we find scientists saying things to their peers, colleagues or the press along these lines: "I can't believe the public is so stupid that it believes X." Talk about this.
Scientists are super smart. And they end up in communities of people like them. Their education level is extremely high, and that's what lets them do the great stuff that they do. Over a lifetime, they can sort of forget where everyone else is starting from.
What are your solutions?
Scientists are going to have to have a culture change. They will have to realize that it is important to train people in more than research. And the necessity of that is born out of the numbers game. Only a small number of people in graduate school today are going to be researchers because there aren't enough positions. It will be a realignment of priorities for universities, granting agencies and scientific societies.
What about the media?
I think a lot of executives at media companies need to have a mind-set change and stop thinking science coverage is death for ratings. That's not necessarily so. The Discovery Channel is not doing that badly. . . . Science coverage should be high-standard, it should be entertaining; it shouldn't make them lose money. I understand they have to not lose money. But I really don't think good science coverage or entertaining science-centered shows have got to destroy companies.