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Unscientific America: Mooney & Kirshenbaum reviewed in BMJ

September 9th, 2009 · 19 Comments

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Being interested in science communication, I was pleased when the BMJ asked me to review Unscientific America , by Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.

The BMJ provides a link that allows you access to the whole review. They have made very few changes from the submitted version, which is reproduced below (with live links in the text. [Download pdf of print version]

I very soon discovered that the book had already caused ructions in the USA, as a result of its advocacy of appeasement of religious groups. In particular there was all out war with P.Z.Myers, whose very popular blog, Pharyngula. documented the battle in detail).

It is an American book through and through, and in the USA the biggest threat to reason comes from the far-right religious fundamentalists who preach young-earth creationism. It is said that 46% of US citizens believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The same far-right religious groups also preach that carrying guns is good, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that climate change is a socialist conspiracy and that health care for everyone is a communist plot. And they never hesitate to lie in the promotion of their ‘religious’ views. The US situation is totally different from that in Europe, where religion is all but dead, and young earth creationism is the preserve of a few cranky used-car dealers (and possibly Tony Blair?)

Review of the Week

Trust me, I’m a scientist

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London

Unscientific America sounds like a fascinating topic, not least because the book is a follow-up from Mooney’s The Republican War on Science.  It is written entirely from a US perspective (the USA sequenced the genome and invented the internet, apparently unaided).  It’s reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  That’s certainly cause for alarm and Mooney & Kirshenbaum are certainly alarmed.  They think that the public needs to be educated in science.  They identify the obvious problems, evolution, climate change and quackery and ask what can be done.  The problem is that they propose no good solutions, and some bad ones.   Their aims are worthy but sometimes the book reads like  an over-long and somewhat condescending whine about why science and scientists are not sufficiently appreciated.

I simply don’t think that it’s true that the public are not interested in science, nor that they can’t understand it at a level that is sufficient to be useful.  It’s true that they have been let down badly by some sections of the media.  Think particularly of the “great MMR hoax”1.  The disastrous fall in vaccination is more attributable to talk show presenters and air-headed celebrities than to lack of interest from the public.  People are systematically deceived by anti-vaxers, climate change denialists, vitamin pill salesmen and a horde of crackpot alternative therapists.

There is one problem that Mooney & Kirshenbaum don’t talk about at all, yet it seems to me to be one of the biggest problems in science communication.  It isn’t lack of interest by the public, nor even lack of understanding, but lack of trust.  The tendency of real science to indulge in hyperbolic self-promotion is one reason for the lack of trust.  Sometimes this descends into outright dishonesty2,3.  That is a tendency that is promoted by government and funding agencies by their insistence on imposing silly performance measures.  The public is quite sensible enough to take with a pinch of salt the almost daily announcements of “cancer cures” that emanate from university press offices.

On the face of it, one should be encouraged that ‘public engagement in science’ is the mode du jour.  It isn’t quite that simple though.  Only too often, universities regard public engagement as a branch of their own PR machine4. They even instruct you about what tone of voice to use when talking publicly. 

One reason why scientists need to talk to people outside the lab is precisely to counteract this tide of nonsense from PR people, who are paid to deceive.  The problem for academics is usually time.  We already do three jobs, teaching, research and coping with HR bollocks.  How can we find time for a fourth job?  That’s not easy, especially for the best researchers (those that do research themselves, not just lead a team).  Mooney & Kirshenbaum suggest that the solution is to create a “cadre of communication and outreach experts”.  I don’t think this would work.  They would, by and large, be outsiders, writing uncritical paeans, dictated by big name scientists.  A new cadre of PR hangers-on does not sound like a great idea. A better, and very much cheaper, solution would be to provide a course in free blogging software and we’ll do it ourselves.

The two chapters that I looked forward to reading, on religion and on “The bloggers cannot save us”, proved deeply disappointing.  The authors are firmly in the camp of what Richard Dawkins called the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists&rdquo.;  They maintain “if the goal is to create an America more friendly to science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive”.  They are particularly critical of  P.Z. Myers5, the University of Minnesota  developmental biologist who is splendidly clear in his views. Of the communion wafer, he famously said “It’s a frackin’ cracker”. But he, and Dawkins, are right.  When it comes to young earth creationists we have a war on our hands, and nowhere more than in the USA.  What’s more it’s a winnable war.  Mooney & Kirshenbaum are all for appeasement, but appeasement won’t work.  It might please the more moderate wings of the church, but they already believe in evolution and are regarded by fundamentalists as being just as big an enemy as Myers and Dawkins.  And, one must ask, who has done best at getting a wide public readership?  P.Z Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has up to two million page views a month. Dawkins’ book  The God Delusion has sold three million copies.  In comparison the bland and often rather condescending corporate science web sites get tiny numbers of hits.

In Europe in general, and the UK in particular, young earth creationists are not the major problem that they are in the USA, despite being supported  by Tony Blair6.  Perhaps the nearest analogy in Europe is the threat to reason from various sorts of crackpot medicine.    The appeasers are widespread.  The Royal Colleges and the Department of Health are at the forefront of the Neville Chamberlain approach.  But appeasement hasn’t worked there either.  What has worked is the revelation that university courses are teaching that “amethysts emit high yin energy7. Or, in a lecture on herbal approaches for patients with cancer, “Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer.  This is not a problem because: ‘we treat people, not diseases’ “8.  This is shocking stuff but it has not been unearthed by the corporate media, but by bloggers.

I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong.  They favour corporate communications, which are written by people outside science and which easily become mere PR machines for individuals and institutions.   Such blogs are rarely popular and at their worst they threaten the honesty of science.  More and more individual scientists have found that they can write their own blog.  It costs next to nothing and you can say what you think.  A few clicks and the world can read what you have to say.   Forget corporate communications.  Just do it yourself.  It’s fun.  And think of the money you’d save for doing science if the PR people were just fired.

(1)   Goldacre, B. The media’s MMR hoax. 2008 http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/the-medias-mmr-hoax/

(2)   PLoS One. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. 21-8-2009 http://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2009/08/21/ghostwriting-documents-now-fully-available-on-plos-medicine-website/

(3)   Colquhoun, D. Universities Inc. in the UK. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2. 6-12-2007 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=193

(4)   Corbyn, Z. Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of ‘public engagement’. 21-8-2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403234

(5)   Myers, P. Z. Pharyngula. 2009 http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

(6)   Pyke, N. Revealed: Blair’s link to schools that take the Creation literally (Independent 13 June 2004). 13-7-2004 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-blairs-link-to-schools-that-take-the-creation-literally-732032.html

(7)   Colquhoun, D. Westminster University BSc: "amethysts emit high yin energy". 23-4-2008 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227

(8)   Colquhoun, D. Herbal approaches for patients with cancer. 10-8-2009 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043

Follow-up

P.Z. Myers has posted about thie book review, on Pharyngula, as Is this book dead yet? There are a lot more comments there than here, though few of them address the question of science communications..

Butterflies and Wheels is generating a lot of hits

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Tags: Academia · blogs · CAM · communication · corporate · corruption · creationism · Human resources · intelligent design · P.Z. Myers · Pharyngula · PR · public engagement · Public relations · Public understanding · religion · Richard Dawkins · science · science communication · Universities

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Muscleman // Sep 9, 2009 at 17:19

    Nice review David, I have followed the war on Pharyngulla and Mooney and Kirshenbam are getting increasingly silly and strident trying to support the insupportable. I was dismayed when they pitched up over here trying to sell their appeasement on this side of the pond. I shan’t bother to buy a copy.

    I do think though that one of the problems with popular presentation of science is that those scientists that do it are denigrated by those left behind at the bench as diletantes and only doing it because they haven’t made it in science. We need to get away from this and we need people who are not just into self promotion like like Susan Greenfield.

    This country has left it all to Richard Dawkins with occasional assistance from Steve Jones etc. The other problem of course is stopping the media just going for suave renta mouths. Then you end up with the likes of Deepak Chopra treated like they are scientists or reason forfend, ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith.

  • 2 Margaret // Sep 9, 2009 at 18:28

    Thank you.
    I’m not so sure that religion, at least here in the UK is dead. I see signs of the christian marketing machine pitching here – at the end of the day, it is about making money as easily as possible, and gaining control of a market.
    Religion may be small, but I’m not confident it will stay that way; christianity isn’t the only game in town.
    I for one, won’t see religion as dead until all faith schools have morphed into non-faith schools, ending once and for all the sectarian segregation of children and communities.
    Appeasement will only mask growing divisions and create yet more space for more vicious forms of belief.

  • 3 David Colquhoun // Sep 9, 2009 at 19:22

    Margaret
    I agree, “all but dead” is a slight exaggeration, but the trend has been inexorably downward, and much of what’s left is more like a social club than religion.

    I think that Private Eye was astonishingly prescient when it dubbed Tony Blair as the “Vicar of Albion”, but I’d guess that most people don’t believe what he says about religion any more than they believed what he said about WMD. It is quite sad that a man who had so much going for him in 1997 will go down in history as someone who did not tell the truth (and killed a lot of people as a consequence),

    I’m entirely with you about “faith schools”. They are a real blot on the landscape, socially divisive, state-sponsored religious indoctrination. No appeasement for them.

  • 4 Is this book dead yet? | Science News // Sep 9, 2009 at 23:13

    […] Colquhoun reviews Unscientific America, and pans it on an interesting point: I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong.  They […]

  • 5 Is this book dead yet? | The Atheist Mind // Sep 9, 2009 at 23:17

    […] Colquhoun reviews Unscientific America, and pans it on an interesting point: I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong.  They […]

  • 6 Moochie // Sep 10, 2009 at 13:57

    Prof Colquhoun wrote: “Forget corporate communications. Just do it yourself. It’s fun.”

    Hmm… Not a “team player”, then, what?

    This reminds me of the managerialism that crept through our own great land during the 80s and 90s. I think it is a “philosophy” — it certainly isn’t science — created to provide jobs for its creators, for all the “good” it did.

  • 7 Dr Aust // Sep 10, 2009 at 15:21

    Of course, the joke is that academics actually ARE team players, but the “team” is a sort of self-selecting group of the like-minded, driven by a common belief in doing good research and teaching in their scholarly “patch”, and with a view (usually arrived at by consensus and/or argument) about what is important/useful in getting there.

    In the old days this grouping – or “team” – tended to be roughly equivalent to a Department, and it does often still exist now, though the titles are different.

    The difference is that the academic “team” frequently disagrees with what I call the “Type ii” definition of “team player” preferred by managerial superstructures, which usually amounts to:

    “Someone who can be relied upon to say “Great” to whatever we tell them we are doing, and who will loyally toe this line in public.”

    Now, at a very fundamental level, most academics believe that the core thing that makes universities universities – and thus their “brand identity”, if you prefer the managerial bollocks – is precisely that academics conform to pattern (i) above, and NOT to pattern (ii). But the tension with the kind of managerialist agendas that are depressingly common in modern universities is obvious.

    Of course, you see the same thing over the last two to three decades in other professional occupations that are pursued in large organisations, perhaps most famously the health service. I recently read an article that summed this up nicely for the NHS, but one can make plenty of parallels for academia.

  • 8 HallOfRecord // Sep 10, 2009 at 23:10

    It is interesting that the left-wing/liberal/Democratic Party adherents try so hard to label right-wing/conservative/Republican Party adherents as unscientific.

    That’s basically the same thing as saying that all Brits would rather abandon their principles than face danger by standing up for them… or that all Brits have bad teeth… or that all Brits prefer to stay home, drink warm beer, and watch the television set rather than be engaged in productive work.

    Certainly there are under-educated Republicans who hold religious beliefs that are scientifically unsound [although creation stories could be seen as allegorical… just as the “big bang” makes some sense from our human perspective, but leaves gaping philosophical and scientific questions].

    There are other Republicans/conservatives such as myself who accept science as our best way to understanding our physical world… as long as it is science that follows the scientific method. For example, nuclear physics makes eminent sense to me because it has been through the process of a theoretical examination, experimentation, and implementation that yield the same results over and over. Yet I remain a skeptic about anthropogenic global warming because it falls short of even good theory having a basis in computer modeling and not fully compatible with observed data.

    The point is that science is not the bailiwick of one political party. Too much of the rhetoric from scientists in one arena is nothing more than thinly veiled politics and personal biases.

    Of course, what else can you expect from a group of effete snobs who receive their livelihood from government grants and have their jobs protected by tenure and unions.

    Oh, did I just say that? Sorry, no justification for such stereotyping.

  • 9 David Colquhoun // Sep 11, 2009 at 09:21

    HallOfRecord

    It’s good to have a comment from a US citizen. I can even agree to the extent that the European Green party, though good on environmental matters, advocates all sorts of make-believe medicine that is antiscientific and plain barmy. George Monbiot put it rather well in We must break link between green issues and alternative medicine.

    So I agree that being anti-science is not the exclusive prerogative of right wing politics. That being said, there is no denying that George Bush’s regime was anti-science to an extent unprecedented in US history. Worse still, it attempted to corrupt science by means of political pressure and political appointees. It is also true that in the US the creationist movement is largely fuelled by right wing fundamentalist religious groups, just as it is in the Islamic world. The description ‘Christian Taliban’. has always seemed rather appropriate to me.

    I doubt somehow that we will reach much consensus on these questions. Looking at your own blog I see the usual climate-denial, torture-advocating, Obama-hating line of the US far right. Perhaps you think that it is just ‘right’ rather than ‘far-right’, but you must remember that, on many questions, the US left is well to the right of European conservatives. The opposition to universal health care from the US right is utterly baffling to Europeans. So are the outright lies used by the opposition, from groups like Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. There is no other rich country in the world that denies health care to a large fraction of its population. Obama has done much to rebuild the US’s reputation in the rest of the world. Perhaps you don’t care much what the rest of the world thinks, but like it or not, the Bush years did enormous harm to the reputation of the US as a civilised country. It was beginning to look like the dying days of the Roman empire, but now there is hope again.

    Your last remarks are really rather revealing. You are happy to use the internet and all the other things that physics has brought you, because of research that started mostly from government grants. Industry gets involved only at a later stage when it becomes obvious how to make money from it. To label the people who have done these things as "effete snobs" reveals, more than anything else, the shallowness of your thoughts when it comes to science.

    My own research has always been funded by grants, from charities (the Wellcome Trust) or, indirectly, from taxpayers’ (the Medical Research Council) Perhaps you’d care to look at my publications and offer a view about whether I have been wasting my time and the taxpayers’ money?< I await your verdict with interest.

  • 10 HallOfRecord // Sep 11, 2009 at 15:07

    David,

    I see you took my sarcasm a bit too seriously with regard to “effete snobs” which harkens back to the Nixon days.

    The point was that scientists can be just as irrational as backwoods Christian fundamentalists when it comes to areas outside of their expertise… and they are.

    ——–

    By the way, the U.S. does not deny health care to anyone. What it does is provide health care in a very inefficient manner to those who cannot or chose not to have health insurance: providing care through hospital emergency rooms and sticking the hospitals with the costs.

    The real reform could be accomplished quite simply: revise tort law so that physicians are not subject to overwhelming jury awards against them for mistakes made in treating patients [government doctors are totally protected against that]… and expand the present Medicaid system paid for by the states by adding federal funding.

    The first action reduces the health care charges to patients because insurance rates for doctors would plummet. The second action limits the disruption to the present system and protects the choices that paying customers presently have.

    The Obama plans are a power grab by the government and ignore the simpler and more effective alternatives available.

  • 11 Dr Aust // Sep 11, 2009 at 15:52

    For info, physicians in the UK do carry insurance, HallOfRecord, though obviously not on anything like the scale that they do in the US. And they do get named in lawsuits. Even though formally the hospital (or more accurately hospital trust) is the entity that is being sued, the doctor’s conduct is hashed over by lawyers, with the medic being deposed, second-guessed, cross-examined etc. And it can drag on for years. I know this because it has happened to my other half (except for being cross- examined, as neither case she was involved in made it as far as court). The toll of all this on the doctor, even without the propect of financial ruin, is considerable.

    Re. medical reform, we in the UK are mystified by all the references to the NHS in the US debate, since as far as we can tell what Obama is proposing is the French or (particularly) German “social insurance” model, and nothing in the least bit like the UK single-provider set-up.

    German medicine is structured much more like the US system than like the British one; the main difference from the US is that insurance is universal, compulsory, and safety-netted. But there are competing insurers, hospitals, specialists etc. etc. much like in the US.

    The general take here in the UK is that the endless scare-mongering about “British style socialized medicine” is simply a scare tactic of the US right and the insurance industry.

  • 12 David Colquhoun // Sep 11, 2009 at 20:58

    HallOfRecord
    Why don’t you post your opinion at the BMJ? There you’d get responses from clinicians. Click here to go to the BMJ.

  • 13 Dr Aust // Sep 11, 2009 at 21:30

    To leave a comment you have to go the the “extract” version of the BMJ article which is here. Link to comment is in the LH sidebar.

  • 14 Creationists at the Oxford Union // Sep 11, 2009 at 22:13

    […] that followed a review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog. Evan Harris MP and I were up against the head of fundamentist […]

  • 15 Good God Almighty, or Jurassic Theology // Sep 11, 2009 at 23:27

    […] that followed a review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula […]

  • 16 WildDonkey // Sep 13, 2009 at 08:40

    Tarring “denialists” as anti science is ridiculous.

    There are serious problems with many major “alarmist” climate studies; both their hindcasting with proxies and forecasting with computer models.

    Pointing out these issues is very much a scientific approach yet it is treated by the climate science priesthood as heresey.

    I’m always curious of people with a scientific background who support the current state of climate science. Have they followed it for example to the extent of understanding most of the alarmist proxy studies depend on non-existant teleconnections ? ie tree rings in one small part of one country (which have no use as a proxy for their own local temperature) somehow become fantastic proxies for Northern hemisphere temperature. There’s no physical connection, yet the studies DEPEND on their being one. It’s not difficult to see that if you take enough data, some of it will agree with your signal, that does not make it a proxy for your signal though.

    That’s just one of many issues. I can’t understand how people with a scientific background who do not have an ideological axe to grind over this can call people complaining over things like that “denialists”, in the derogatory fashion in which it is meant.

  • 17 David Colquhoun // Sep 13, 2009 at 12:33

    WildDonkey
    Perhaps you should tell us about your own scientific credentials, even if you aren’t willing to put your name to your views.

    All I can say is that the vast preponderance of scientists that have looked at the problem think you are wrong. If you have looked at the data with the care that they have, please refer us to your analysis. If not, we’ll be forced to the conclusion that you are another redneck libertarian who wants to continue to drive his gas-guzzling SUV.

    I think it’s a bit rich for you to describe scientists who are going their best as being driven by ideology.

  • 18 WildDonkey // Sep 13, 2009 at 15:48

    David,
    I’m merely a bog standard physics graduate. On many crucial points of debate though, significant scientific knowledge is not required.

    For example, to restate the example I gave above, how can something which is a bad proxy to local/regional temperatures be weighted strongly in a proxy study merely because it is a good (or better) match to Northern hemisphere temperatures ? Where is the cause for the effect ? Just claiming “teleconnection” is not a serious explanation. You do not need to be a PhD in quantum mechanics to figure out there are problems with that approach.

    Another example of a serious breakdown in proper scientific procedure is the more recent Steig paper on the Antarctic. Normal scientific procedure when you are attempting to draw conclusions from sparse data is to test your theory on sample data to check that it works, prior to running it on the the real thing. Steigs technique was not tested on any area where accurate temperature data was available to make sure that the reconstruction technique was valid. Is that really good science ? No, and again you do not need in depth scientific knowledge to realise that.

    “I think it’s a bit rich for you to describe scientists who are going their best as being driven by ideology.”

    Well perhaps you will agree that “confirmation bias” is the biggest hazard for any scientist with a theory, and that from someone looking on from the sidelines excessive confirmation bias looks like ideology. Particularly when you read through the discussion of things like Ammann and Wahls verification statistics in their response to McIntyre and McKitrick; first they wait several years before releasing how they calculated them (is that good science ?) and finally when they do release it you get to see they basically just threw out the data they did not like to get the figure they wanted. Seeing stuff like that it’s hard not to believe there is not more than a little ideology behind it.

  • 19 Joel // Sep 13, 2009 at 20:33

    WildDonkey, I’m with you on this one. I am an AGW sceptic in the time honored, pro-science sense of the term and it irks me to no end to be labeled an anti-science “denier.” It is a shame because I otherwise would find common cause with bloggers like DC.

    It is probably true that a majority or even super-majority of scientists believe in AGW, but perhaps that will change as more learn of the shenanigans and bad statistics that are so widespread in climate science and the IPCC in particular. It’s funny because much of the “consensus” meme comes from the influential article/paper by Naomi Oreskes, but which was itself the worst example of cherry picked, shoddy research I can think of.

    Every scientist on the planet should put on their statistics hat and read up on the Hockey Stick Affair for examples of what you and I are talking about. Perhaps it is old news around here, but the best summary of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans is by UK blogger “Bishop Hill” entitled “Casper and the Jesus Paper.” It’s a fascinating read. Then for a thorough technical debunking of the Hockey Stick, go and read the Wegmen Report [PDF].

    FYI, someone coined the term “lukewarmer” that describes my position very well. Basically, standard Stephan Boltzman blackbody (or grey, rather) physics gets you to about 1 degree C increase for a doubling of CO2. Most everybody is in agreement up to this point. It is the HUGE feedback of 3-5 times the original forcing posited by the AGW crowd that is in contention, and required for the more alarmist temperature projections. Such feedback effects and high earth “sensitivity” is anything but proven at this stage, IMO. Model projections are not proof.

    (disclosure: I am a geologist and masters level geophysicist. I am a practitioner not a researcher and have never published a paper in my life. I don’t know a lot about climatology. I do understand the physics of AGW. It isn’t that hard.)

    Back on topic: I am a “devout agnostic” and an evolutionist. I am willing to declare war on the ID movement because they encroach on and would weaken science. But it seems to me that Dawkins’ and Meyers’ war on religion generally is a bridge too far, their atheism they cram down people’s throats is perhaps a religion of its own.

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