As much as they might want to reach a wider audience, the authors of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future should understand that they’re preaching to the choir. That wouldn’t be an inherent problem if they had more to say. Instead, their 132-page book (not counting the extensive footnotes) is surprisingly repetitive and offers little information that won’t already be common knowledge among likely readers.
Chris Mooney follows up his 2008 book Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, And The Battle Over Global Warming and his 2005 New York Times bestseller The Republican War On Science by assigning blame to more than one political party. Teaming up with marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum, Mooney analyzes the way mass media, Hollywood, and scientists themselves ignore important issues while reinforcing negative perceptions of the scientific community.
Some of the conclusions are astute. Education reform is often touted as the way to make people more informed, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum state that for things to change, it’s just as important for doctoral students to learn communication skills as it is for high-school students to learn the periodic table. The authors feel that good science often gets neglected because good scientists refuse to play advocate, and are trumped by global-warming denouncers and experts paid by special interests with no fear of taking sides.
But rather than enforcing their beliefs with satisfying examples, the book tends to dwell overly on the authors’ pet projects and passions. The book was partly inspired by their cooperation on Science Debate 2008, a failed attempt to get the 2008 presidential candidates to hold a science-focused discussion during the campaign season. Parts of the narrative read like a pleading press release, arguing for the historical importance of a movement that was judged insignificant by most national media, and eventually the candidates themselves.
Kirshenbaum’s scientific background also seems underutilized. The forward mentions that she has narrowed her expertise to the study of the sea cucumber. When Unscientific America turns to exploring how high levels of specialization make scientific texts incomprehensible even to other scientists, it seems a perfect place for some personal explanation about why such a focus is helpful or encouraged. Instead, Mooney and Kirshenbaum substitute more nostalgia for science’s former popularity, and statistics on its decline that make the text more depressing than engaging.