Summer Reading: Sheril on Science Friday

unscientific_america_book-coverI 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:

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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!

-cvj

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17 Responses to Summer Reading: Sheril on Science Friday

  1. robert says:

    I am aware that this is not the place for solipsism – nonetheless the ‘try growing some – even just a few herbs on the window sill – at home’ hurts. The output from recent attempts at sustenance gardening – potaytoes and tomartoes – has been ravaged by blight, while exotica like figs, chillies and aubergines have flourished. That put to one side I’m sure that you are right: it’s a softly softly game – to which this book appears to contribute – that is more likely to win through in the end.

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading: KC on Science Friday at Asymptotia

  3. Arun says:

    Some people are not approachable by reason or by trying to find a common ground. A good current public example is Obama and the Republicans – to be specific – those in the Senate. Another would be – how do you build common ground with the birthers – probably a good 30% of the US population?

    Similarly if you wander among the religious, there are 20-30% of them for which there is no reasonable approach.

    Of course, one might argue that such people don’t read blogs. Since such people include Congress persons, I can’t agree with that.

    If we assume that we’re writing off this 30% then I agree that finding common ground is the way to go.

  4. Clifford says:

    Hi Arun,

    Thanks. I think a variety of approaches is healthiest, but I’m pretty sure that the hard-headed “you’re stupid and wrong, now let’s talk” approach produces next to nothing (besides lots of shouting), whereas trying to find a place from where you can launch even a limited sort of conversation at least has a *chance* of producing results.

    I’m not sure what the relevance of whether they read blogs or not is though. I’m talking about (and I think Chris and Sheril are too) discourse in any sphere, not blogs in particular.

    Best,

    -cvj

  5. james says:

    There is no common ground between science and religion. This should not even need to be stated these days. Perhaps they share a quest to find the answers to life the Universe and everything? Well perhaps, but religious thinking doesn’t go anywhere (it’s all in a book conveniently provided by super-cosmic beings), whereas science tries to follow a practical way of going about it (which ultimately may lead nowhere – but at least it tries, and it’s track record so far is pretty good)

    Personally I do take the obnoxious route and regard religious beliefs as stupid at the outset. After all, like many people, I was brought up with them. I probably spent more time being taught religious voodoo-hoodoo than maths, English, and music pit together. So, as an adult, I see any reason to waste any more time with the stuff.

  6. Clifford says:

    Hi James,

    The reason is, in my opinion, that we all share the same planet and must find ways to live together. I think that is good motivation for trying to find a way to have a civilized conversation, etc, etc. The alternative is neither pleasant nor productive, I find.

    Best,

    -cvj

  7. james says:

    Perhaps I came over as a bit aggressive in that comment – my apologies.

    That was my apology to you, but when have physicists apologised for beheading people for violating the 2nd the second law of thermodynamics, or mathematicians for burning people at the stake for spreading rumours about the axiom of choice…

    People should have the courage of their convictions; and just not silence other opinions.

  8. Clifford says:

    james – not a problem.

    Best,

    -cvj

  9. Blake Stacey says:

    I gotta say, I’ve found M&K’s writings to be an exasperatingly superficial treatment of an important topic. This has little to do with the science/religion question or the “how nice do we try to be?” question. (Isn’t it odd that the single most divisive argument among science bloggers, beating out even “is string theory a waste of time”, is about the importance of being polite?) Overall, they seem to substitute simple narratives for real explorations of complicated problems. From their version of the Pluto business to their hagiography of Carl Sagan, it just hasn’t lived up to what I wanted this conversation to be.

  10. Blake Stacey says:

    Oops, I meant to link to my comments here for the “hagiography of Carl Sagan” bit.

    It may be just my cynical side talking, but I can’t escape the feeling that complaints about how “scientists punish those among them who popularize science” are like the accusations that “STRING THEORY IS DOOOOMMMED!!” They’re much better at selling the product than they are at conveying the nuances of truth.

  11. per says:

    Hi Clifford,

    I think it was really strong of you to leave Cosmicvariance (CV) for the reasons you just mentioned. I am myself a researcher in string theory and I also have the impression that the arrogance towards everything spiritual (right or wrong) on CV is a bit to much sometimes.

    Thanks for a nice blog.

  12. Clifford says:

    Hi Per,

    Thanks, but as I said, there were other just as significant reasons we parted ways. It’s all fine, and I’ve no interest in making a big deal of this – There’s really nothing wrong with (or unusual about) people disagreeing on things. It is how the disagreement is managed that is the issue… which brings us back to the science outreach matters…

    Best,

    -cvj

  13. DT says:

    “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.”

    How can people with no knowledge about a given subject contribute to the discussion about it? And why do you think having them contribute is vitally important?

    This seems like a very idealistic view of democracy which considers it a goal in it’s own right. It is interesting that thanks to the internet we now have means to realize “absolute democracy” – one in which there are no representatives and everyone can vote on every single proposal, budget or law. Such a system would certainly be much more democratic but do you think it would be better? Would it be better for science for example? String theory?

  14. Clifford says:

    DT:- “How can people with no knowledge about a given subject contribute to the discussion about it?”

    Exactly.

    -cvj

  15. DT says:

    You are now making two mutually exclusive points.

    “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.”

    and

    DT:- “How can people with no knowledge about a given subject contribute to the discussion about it?”
    CJ: Exactly.

    Either you want everyone to contribute or only those who know enough to have an informed opinion – experts.

  16. Clifford says:

    Hi,

    I don’t think it is too hard to figure out which I mean, given the amount I’ve said above, the book I’m discussing, and the several other posts I’ve done on this, some of which I’ve pointed to.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  17. Zephir says:

    Many physicists are dummy trolls, who cannot comprehend things, which cannot be followed in formal mechanical derivation. This problem started before one hundred years by misunderstanding of Aether concept. No wonder, ordinary people tend to ignore counterintuitive formal approach of mainstream physics.