Bringing science back into America’s sphere

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“Science has become much less cool,” journalist Chris Mooney writes in his new book, “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” (July 2009, Basic Books). Mooney, author of the bestseller “The Republican War on Science,” and his co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum, marine scientist at Duke University, are on a mission in this new offering. They seek to explain how Americans have come to so minimize science in a time when, they assert, we will need it most--as global warming, advances in genetics and the possibility of large-scale engineering of the Earth’s climate loom in our future.

Pointing to what they see as a deep-seated streak of anti-intellectualism that runs throughout the country, the authors write: “Americans built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome, and created the Internet. And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles.”

While not excusing the half of American adults who don’t know that the earth orbits the sun once per year, Mooney and Kirshenbaum say that scientists hold the key to a better understanding of science amongst the general public.

Mooney talks about the book, why stripping Pluto of its planet status matters, the vaccines-cause- autism movement, what scientists need to do and why we should care.

Why does the decision to reclassify Pluto matter so much to you? Why did you lead your book with that topic?
I got put on to this in L.A.. I was listening to science writer Dava Sobel on a panel 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 just didn’t get it and they overruled her committee. She said: People really care about this. It’s not a joke, it’s actually serious. And it occurred to me that -- precisely because scientists are inclined to trivialize it -- it’s the perfect example of the way they think so differently than everyone else does.

The Pew Research Center did a study about a month ago 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 and what it represents.
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. And so it starts to take on the cast of kind of a more-left-leaning version of global warming and evolution where -- I’m sorry, but your anecdote doesn’t beat the studies’ evidence.

It is really unfortunate. It’s not like people who think the moon landings are a hoax. Vaccine denial is really 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. That’s my sense of how it works. Let’s go back to vaccines. You have “Age of Austism” -- 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 that much cross-pollination, except for people lobbing missiles across cyber space at each other. That’s the problem of science on the Internet right there.

Religion. How has it deepened the divide between Americans and science?
It’s been there forever. There really is a huge history of not being able to grapple with this issue in the U.S. Other countries have handled it better in many ways. 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.

Religion is the reason they think they can’t accept evolution. That’s because 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. Every year, maybe more than every year, there’s a new battle.

What can scientists do to bridge the gap between themselves and everybody else?
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. It’s been done to death. 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.

All too often we find scientists saying things to their peers and colleagues or even the press that sound something like this: ‘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.

We get two responses from scientists to this book. It’s completely polarized. On the one hand, there’s the “Thank God, what a breath of fresh air, it’s about time somebody said this” response. But there’s also the “How dare you blame scientists?” response. And they are coming from the same world.

Talk about the shrinking science sections in newspapers.
That just makes it worse. Even when science journalism was doing better, it had a lot to contend with. To convey the kind of information that needs to be conveyed on really pressing science topics -- you just cannot do this without experienced science writers. It’s too hard. This is a parody, but: It’s too hard for an intern with a three-hour deadline to cover one of these things. I’ve talked to these people and I’ve been quoted in those stories, and I’ve seen how they come out. There really is a place for expertise.

What are the pros and cons of blogs? How could Web 3.0 help science?
Clearly the Web is going to be part of the answer because there is no avoiding it. But I don’t think science-centered blogs or Twitter are going to be the way to reach beyond the people you are already reaching. So you look at what kind of things have reached beyond. My best example is YouTube videos that go viral and get millions of views. There’s a couple of science videos that have really caught on. The Large Hadron Rap is the best. It’s rapping about the Large Hadron Collider. They go in the tube and they’re rapping about the fundamental nature of matter and what they’re going to discover, but it’s just cool. They are being nerds, but they are being fun nerds. It really was a smash hit.

What are your solutions?
Scientists are going to have to realign their priorities and 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 borne out of the numbers game. Only a small number 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 mindset change and stop thinking science coverage is death for ratings. That’s not necessarily so. The Discovery Channel is not doing that badly. Clearly, you can cover science well. The media needs to get over the “I’m-a-pissed-off-middle-school-student-and-science-isn’t-for-me” kind of mindset. 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.