Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future

Image of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future
Release Date: 
July 14, 2009
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

There is a thin line between whining and problem solving. It is unfortunate that Mooney and Kirshenbaum never crossed that line. In fact, they may never have seen the line in the first place.

It is not that this reviewer did not highlight and tag portions of the book. It has a lot of good information. What the book does not have is a real or suggested solution to the problem: the lack of interest by today’s public in science. The answers can be found in the eulogies given by Presidents Reagan and G. W. Bush for astronauts who died on space shuttle missions. Ronald Reagan said, “We have grown used to the wonders of this century. It is hard to dazzle us.” What the authors did not give us was a way to reignite that dazzle.

Mr. Bush reminded us that, “In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth.”

Mooney is a New York Times bestselling writer. Kirshenbaum is a marine research associate at Duke University. Yet neither was able to get past the “it’s not our fault” mentality.” OK, they do place some of the blame on scientists and the world of natural and theoretical science, but . . .

The opening chapter speaks to the scientists and, in a way, directly to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the leader of the movement to declassify Pluto as a planet.  Scientists believe they know better and rarely listen to public opinion. The reclassification was a matter of semantics, say the authors, and public outcry was ignored. This is true.

Then the other “meanies” are let out of the closet: Television and movies are at fault for creating images of the mad scientist, nerd, or just plain weird looking aliens and supernatural beings. Politicians are to blame for caring more for the character of their constituents than of the advancement of science and mathematics. Teachers who do not make science “exciting” are also remiss.

They complain about the soft underbelly of religion threatened by scientific discoveries, though there is no reason to be afraid. The authors complain about the blogosphere, with writers who have no idea what they are talking about and do not fact check with the scientists.

Complaining is one thing, but having a solution, how to fix this illiteracy, is nonexistent. “We have to do better” is not a solution. What do we have to do better and how do we do it is never addressed.

Many authors use endnotes or footnotes to clarify or provide citations to the text. It is a shame that nearly one-third of Unscientific America is found in the endnotes, most of which are more confusing than what they are clarifying. In addition, endnotes are listed by page numbers and key words—a far cry from APA, MLA, or Chicago citation styles. This reviewer also found a number of references in the text not found in the endnotes. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are not helping to resolve the issue at hand.

This is a “woe-is-me” book for the poor scientist or science academic who feels neglected and misunderstood. Unscientific America is not a problem-solution discussion. It is not one recommended for those seeking answers, but may be for those who believe the entire world is out to get them.

Reviewer David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker, and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics.