I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney have written a book, “Unscientific America”, with an excellent discussion about science literacy. You know from reading here that this is a favourite issue of mine (look under categories such as science and society), and by far the primary reason I blog, and do the various other activities I mention such as appearing on TV and radio shows, consulting for film, theatre, TV, etc, contribute to popular level articles, making films, and other things. It is vitally important, if we are a truly democratic society, for all to participate in the conversations we have about science – whether it be about issues to do with medicine, lifestyle, environment, energy, or just for its own sake: it is part of our culture. Sadly, science (and scientists) is still on the margins of the national conversation – people are afraid of it, giggle about how bad they were at it at school and then decouple from the conversation, mostly only pay attention to bleak or incorrect pictures of it in the media and entertainment (or for political gain), and so on and so forth.
What Sheril and Chris are doing in the book is examining the extent to which this situation has taken hold, and calling attention to it, all the while trying to come up with ways in which we can reverse this situation. Notably, they focus a lot on what scientists should be doing to engage the public. There’s a wide variety of ways (many of which have been discussed here), and they discuss several, examining the various approaches, giving examples (hey – this little blog even gets a mention!), and encouraging more. Sheril was on NPR’s Science Friday today for 17 minutes or so, talking with Ira Flatow about the book. You can find audio here. Or, you can click on the embed below to set it going and then continue reading while listening to the intro:
I think this book is an excellent and very readable discussion to have out there, especially at this time when we are still (I hope) looking forward to more enlightened and informed decision making in the (not yet a year old) Obama administration (he has said a lot of nice words so far about science in policy making), and when people, for whatever reasons, are beginning to look again at how scientific matters intersect with their lives in a variety of ways such as fuel economy (what car do they buy next), alternative energy (maybe they’ll get solar-powered perimeter lights for the patio), health, nutrition and cost/quality of food (maybe they’ll eat more vegetables, maybe try growing some – even just a few herbs on the window sill – at home), and so on and so forth.
I’ve not finished reading the book yet, but I do know that it has sparked a lot of discussion. Some of it is heated since there are scientists and science communicators who disagree on matters of approach, such as in issues of science vs religion. Do you take the obnoxious route of calling someone an idiot or stupid for their religious beliefs at the outset, and then expect to make any progress in a subsequent discussion with them about the value and relevance of science and scientific reasoning… or do you try to find some common ground, which I think is frequently possible, show respect for each other, and build out from there? People differ (I prefer the latter approach, and very much disagree with some of my colleagues on their choice of the alternative – it is one of several reasons I now blog here instead of at my former blog), and if you want to follow the arguments about these issues that have sprung up again now the book is out, you can start digging into them at The Intersection, Sheril and Chris’ blog.
Science vs religion aside, there is so much more to discuss, and so much that can be done to address the science literacy issue, and so I hope you’ll take the time to at least listen to Sheril’s 17 minute spot on Science Friday, and maybe even pick up their book, read their blog, or maybe give the book as gift. It’s still the Summer, so take it to the beach!