Evangelists for Science

Article ID: JAR1333 | By: Angus Menuge

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume33, number03 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Chris Mooney, a journalist who specializes in science and politics and the author of The Republican War on Science, and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist, have teamed up to write a book decrying the disconnect between sound science and public policy. While most books I review advance scholarly arguments, Unscientific America is a work of impassioned advocacy. Rather like the revivalist preachers who aimed to induce a spiritual crisis in their audience to draw them forward to the altar, Mooney and Kirshenbaum depict a catastrophic loss of influence of science over public life, which they hope will galvanize the institutions of science into action. As the authors point out, after the Second World War, there was a golden age of public science in America: “From 1953 to 1961, federal funding for research and development grew by 14 percent per year” (p. 26). Citizens and politicians were convinced of the need for scientific advances to develop the quality of life and to defend against the Soviet Union, a message reinforced by a centralized national media. Then the consensus was shattered, by concerns from the left about the environment and money-driven corporate science, and concerns from the right about the declining role of religious values in public life. Meanwhile, the scientists themselves did work that was increasingly specialized and esoteric, and “largely relied on two key surrogates-educators and journalists-to do their public relations for them” (31). However, neither of these surrogates succeeded in maintaining science’s public influence. Despite the ambitious attempts of the National Science Foundation to improve the curriculum, “over the thirty-year period from 1969 to 1999, U.S. science education faltered” (32), and science test scores showed no improvement. For a while, the media did have some success as evangelists for science. The authors hold up Carl Sagan as one of the most effective popularizers of science of all time, noting that from its beginning in 1980, his television series Cosmos “reached an estimated 500 million viewers around the globe, and galvanized untold numbers of students into scientific careers” (33). But after the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the media was deregulated and became increasingly market driven. In this environment, the authors claim, “informative or educational science content would often be among the first things that didn’t seem worth retaining” (49). First with cable TV, then with the Internet, citizens could choose to remain uninformed about “boring” science issues or else to have them filtered through divisive, political lenses. In this cacophonous, fragmented environment, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that it is difficult to develop public consensus on important scientific issues that bear directly on our quality of life. As proof, they repeatedly cite inaction over global warming: “We were warned and warned about it, yet for decades did nothing while the problem steadily worsened. In large part, that’s because the U.S. public continues to rate global warming as a low priority…and the politicians respond to that public-and both are getting their cues about what matters from the media” (73). Mooney and Kirshenbaum think that in the long run this failure of effective communication between science and the public, together with the short-term focus of elected officials, could have catastrophic consequences for our quality of life. Their solution to this dire predicament resides in fundamentally changing how scientists are educated, “so that communication becomes a central focus” (78), and perhaps “one significant criterion for career advancement in science would involve demonstrated success in science communication” (79). In other words, “there’s little other option for scientists and scientific institutions dissatisfied with the current state of affairs…than to take matters into their own hands” (80). The authors do see a couple of surmountable obstacles to this project. One is that some scientists are too aloof from the media, so that, for example, they enjoy criticizing scientific inaccuracies in popular movies, but do not offer their services in a more constructive way. Another is the way that the new atheists use science as a club to beat religion with, alienating people of faith from science. Thus PZ Myers’s public desecration of a communion wafer was “incredibly destructive and unnecessary” (96). While the authors think that “science has continually usurped terrain previously occupied by Christianity” (101), they refreshingly concede that “a great many leading lights of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment-Nicolaus Copernicus, René Descartes, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle-were distinctly religious and viewed science as a better means of understanding God’s creation and the laws governing it” (100-101).

Settled Science and Public Policy. The central weakness of this evangelistic missive is its almost complete intolerance for dissenting points of view, and its substitute of dogmatic presumption for serious argument. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of global warming. For Mooney and Kirshenbaum, anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming should be accepted as fact and serve as the foundation of urgent public policy measures because it is the “scientific consensus” (15, 50). They assume that if science communication were more effective, there would be swifter and more vigorous action on energy and mitigation policies, which would obviously be a good thing. But there isn’t anything obvious about any of this. First, “consensus” is a political notion, not a scientific one. Scientific claims are not established by their sociological popularity among scientists, but by large bodies of data drawn from diverse sources, together with strong arguments to exclude rival hypotheses. Where such a foundation exists, consensus is irrelevant: no one ever cites the consensus over gravitational attraction or photosynthesis. Furthermore, the kind of consensus that does increasingly play a role in federal science funding is an unhealthy one, because it promotes exaggerated and alarmist claims, which are not justified by scientific data. Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, supports this claim. After all, who puts money into science-whether for AIDS, or space, or climate-where there is nothing really alarming? Indeed, the success of climate alarmism can be counted in the increased federal spending on climate research from a few hundred million dollars pre-1990 to $1.7 billion today….But there is a more sinister side to this feeding frenzy. Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse.1 Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to have confused the laudable goal of accurately conveying scientific findings to the public with the dubious goal of promoting the rhetoric of scientific fundraisers. Lawrence Solomon’s recent book The Deniers, an account of eminent scientists who dissent from one or more of the central planks of global warming alarmism, may not convince everyone that there is no significant anthropogenic contribution to climate change. It does show, however, that there are serious weaknesses in the available data. For example, Edward Wegman, an expert in statistics at George Mason University, showed conclusively that the famous “hockey stick” graph that appeared to correlate recent rises in temperature with increased manmade CO2, was an artifact of poor statistical method. The data do not exclude the hypothesis that most of our current warming is part of a natural cycle, like that experienced in the Medieval Warming Period. Further, in his recent book Cool It, Bjorn Lomberg shows the folly of diverting vast amounts of money to abatement measures, given their low likelihood of success, their negative economic impact, and the fact that efforts to reduce many other known causes of suffering, such as malaria, AIDS, and unsafe drinking water, would then be chronically underfunded. A discussion of these doubts and complexities is nowhere to be found in Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum may be right that America could face catastrophe if the public are not better informed about science. But it is at least as likely that more effective dissemination of the interests of science lobbies to the general public is hazardous. One danger, which has already been realized, is that the general public becomes more distrustful of the institutions of science, which will deter high-minded truth seekers from entering scientific professions. But a greater danger is that policy makers will uncritically embrace scientific solutions to problems that turn out to have terrible, unforeseen consequences. In the Soviet Union, where science and politics were tightly fused, political ideology led government officials to endorse Lysenko’s theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics, because it seemed to cohere with Marxism better than the deterministic and “bourgeois” ideas of genetics. As a result, there were widespread crop failures, and Soviet biology stagnated. Mooney and Kirshenbaum never discuss the possibility of an American Lysenkoism, in which a scientocracy imposes large-scale scientific solutions to social problems that have irreparable consequences for human health or fertility, or which make human beings still more dependent on science for their continued well-being.

The Aims of Science. I do agree with the authors’ concerns about the education of scientists. The training of scientists frequently does exclude vital areas that could make them better-rounded citizens. What is most needed, however, is not journalistic communication skills. Many scientists would greatly benefit from more exposure to the history and philosophy of science. They would then learn that the “methodological naturalism,” claimed by Mooney and Kirshenbaum to be essential to science, was not assumed by major scientists, such as Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. They would also learn that philosophers of science reject attempts rigidly to demarcate science from non-science because they are vulnerable to counterexamples. While Robert Pennock, cited by the authors, defends methodological naturalism because science cannot investigate the work of the divine (104), philosopher Thomas Nagel rightly notes that “the fact that there could be no scientific theory of the internal operation of the divine mind is consistent with its being in large part a scientific question whether divine intervention provides a more likely explanation of the empirical data.”2 Even more helpful to the education of scientists would be a stronger emphasis on ethics. Mooney and Kirshenbaum think it is obvious what we should do with the powerful findings of science. But each item on the list of woes they hope science will address-the energy crisis, nuclear proliferation, and climate change-is, on their own view, also a product of science. Science tells us what is possible, but cannot by itself say whether it is wise. This is not surprising, because science is a value-free enterprise: it reveals how to do something, but cannot tell us if we should. As scientific power increases, it becomes vitally important that scientists are trained to think deeply about the goals of human life.

-Angus Menuge

Angus Menuge, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin.


1 Richard Linzen, “Climate of Fear,” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2006, available at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008220.

2 Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36, 2, 189-90.