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Unscientific America and the popular image of science

I was intrigued but ultimately left unsatisfied by this article on Salon.com. Titled “Why America is flunking science”, the article takes on the question of why so many Americans don’t know basic facts about science. But rather than repeating the same tired claims about the uneducated masses, they consider instead the image of science presented by Hollywood and by scientists themselves. They walk through a number of examples (the well-researched but still implausible plot of Angels & Demons, Michael Crichton’s denial of global warming, the supposed link between vaccinations and autism) to demonstrate that the problem isn’t always a lack of education:

Consider vaccination. An army of aggrieved parents nationwide, likely spurred in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., swears today that vaccines are the reason their children developed autism, and they seem virtually impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study on the subject comes out, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. They get their information from the Internet, from other parents of like mind, from a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, and perhaps most of all — as was much the case with Crichton and global warming — from a group of celebrities, most prominently Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who have made a cause of championing such misinformation and almost assuredly deeply believe in it.

Yet the parents who listen to McCarthy and Carrey — rather than the CDC and the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — tend to be well-to-do and highly educated. Calling them “ignorant” is hardly accurate. After all, they’ve probably done far more independent research on a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most other Americans have. Like Crichton, they may be misusing their intelligence, but it’s not as though they don’t have any to begin with. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

While I’m highly sympathetic to the take-home message that we should be paying more attention to the popular portrayal of science, I found the article incomplete in significant ways. Most importantly, I’m not convinced that the portrayal of science in Hollywood is as big a problem as they make it out to be. The spread of misinformation by celebritites, yes, certainly problematic. But to rail against the archetype of the mad scientist in fiction seems like an overreaction. The relation between this image of science, and the fact that even educated people are confused about science, seems more nuanced than the article presents. When we consider educated people who are being misled about scientific problems, isn’t the problem exactly that they do care about science but don’t know how to recognize reliable information? This is very different from the problem of avoiding science altogether because of unfavorable stereotypes.

While the article discusses some new institutions that are trying to tackle the image problem, it doesn’t give any concrete suggestions about what individual scientists can do to improve the image of science. Fortunately, the authors, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, have just released a book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, dealing with themes like those in this article. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might also want to follow Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog, The Intersection, where they are currently engaged in a high-profile debate with Pharyngula’s PZ Meyers.

2 thoughts on “Unscientific America and the popular image of science

  1. If I boil down science and the scientific method to “try it and see,” and take this approach to evaluating my sources, the amount of effort required is immense, and science therefore becomes much less powerful. Clearly then, taking skepticism to this extreme is unhelpful and we can accomplish the most with a more moderate and well targeted dose of skepticism. Perhaps one of the targets we might focus on is bias in ourselves and others. It is unreasonable to think much unbiased scientific work will be conducted, and people need humility and maturity to strip out the bias. I think humility and maturity can be taught.

  2. That’s a good point. I don’t think Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s claim is that everyone should apply the scientific method to everything, but rather that people should have more appreciation for the scientific method in general. If an educated person believes that vaccines cause autism, it’s probably because their science education focused more on facts and less on method. If your idea of education is remembering facts that an authority figure told you, you’ll be susceptible to being misled by celebrities such as McCarthy and Carrey. Whereas if your education focused more on the method, then first off you’ll be better able to evaluate the evidence for yourself, but, as you point out, we don’t have the time to re-evaluate the evidence about everything for ourselves. But with an appreciation for the scientific method, you’re also more likely to trust the scientific consensus because you understand the process by which it came about. This is in direct contrast to a fact-based or argument-from-authority-based science education, which would give you no way to choose between eg. celebrities and scientists, when both are presenting themselves as experts.

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