Chris Mooney Versus P.Z. Myers And The State Of "Unscientific America"
    By Hank Campbell | July 14th 2009 09:31 AM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, who blog at Discover, have a new book out called Unscientific America.   We got a copy here but I asked them to send it to Dr. Mike White, author of Adaptive Complexity, rather than me, since he does our book reviews, so I haven't read it yet (and he hasn't done the review yet, causing me to worry the book he got about Ida either short-circuited him or sent him into a funk) but that doesn't mean it hasn't been reviewed elsewhere.    And how.

    I'm not a big fan of partisan attacks on a political party or framing and you can usually have an idea what someone is writing about after a few efforts (let's face it, reading "Solomon Kane" by Robert E. Howard wasn't going to be much different than reading "Conan") so there isn't much reason to think "Unscientific America" is geared toward non-culture-war people like me or our audience but I generally like Mooney's style.   And it takes a lot of work to write a book, which I respect.   Of course, I'm off the radar enough that no one is going to go after me.   Not so PZ Myers, who probably has nearly as many impressions by himself each month as us (or Discover, for that matter) ... which means a lot more than anyone else ... he's a big target.   

    Unlike most in science, I don't regard the mass public as stupid.  On the contrary, I am increasingly surprised at how much people know about the science issues of the day - my only concern is how much they filter it through their politics, something that more left wing bloggers use to their advantage.   If Barack Obama says vaccines may cause autism ( What Do Barack Obama, John McCain And Tom Cruise Have In Common? Scientific Illiteracy )or a Democrat tries to squash taxpayer funded research being open access( Why Do Democrats Want To Get Rid Of The NIH Public Access Policy? and also The Publisher's Pushback Against NIH's Public Access And Scholarly Publishing Sustainability, it barely gets a mention in the blogosphere.

    Mooney and Myers both regard the mass public as quite stupid - and Republicans as some higher order of stupid - which I think is unfortunate stereotyping but it isn't surprising anyone who reads blogging by scientists.   Republican scientists are smart enough to keep their profiles low so we never read much from them.

    So what could two guys who are obviously friends and certainly vote in lock step find to disagree on?  Well ... everything in the new book, which Mooney sent to Myers.   

    Myers tanked it and used phrases like "weirdly obvious" and "It's not a badly written book, but it's something worse: it's utterly useless."  Never a great thing for writers to read about their baby.

    Mooney and Kirshenbaum responded, as you might expect.   They defended their criticism of Myers and his desecration of the communion wafer - indeed, like a pro athlete who insists he is not a role model even though he is a role model and should act it, I was not a fan of that incident either and I wrote about it in Show PZ Myers Some Love because It's a Goddamned Cracker was a dumb thing to do, but not a firing offense.  It isn't like he ridiculed a latina woman or supported dog fighting, the only two cultural insults America apparently won't allow in 2009.   Plus, he changed it to "It's A Frackin' Cracker" so he showed some penance.  

    But what's the rumpus?  Writing a whole book making fun of Republicansis okay but desecrating a Catholic ritual is over the line and doing more harm than good?   There are a lot more Republicans than there are Catholics in the US.   So it seems to be a matter of  personal taste.

    On Carl Sagan, there is not much to argue about, except that Myers seems to think Richard Dawkins is a modern Carl Sagan - heck, his fawning of Dawkins is occasionally bordering on "Single White Female"ishness - yet they still find a way to disagree even on that.  Again, a matter of degree and in this they seem to be trying to win an argument with each other rather than disagreeing on anything of substance. 

    We might want Richard Dawkins to write something here some day so I won't outright say he isn't Carl Sagan but I don't think he would agree he is either.   Carl Sagan was about reaching out to people and discussing the awesome mysteries of science and Dawkins is about criticizing the 70% of the planet who are religious.    

    PZ Myers didn't think much of their rebuttal either, as he says right up front in Unscientific America, the gift that keeps on giving.   He doesn't like that they call his Pharyngula column a "science" blog and that he bears the brunt of their critique of New Atheism.   Well, they aren't entirely alone.   Outside his (substantial) core audience, most people do not think of his work as true science blogging.   His focus is primarily cultural and science is one of the tools he uses in his culture war, no differently than Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins.   The same can be said for some of the blogs on Discover, though - they're good reading but they aren't primarily being read by scientists.   

    The discussion continued in PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Part II, though it felt a little more confusing because it was apparently written by Kirshenbaum, who refers to Mooney in the third person.  (It's the downside to having a group blog.   At Cosmic Variance, the other writers have complained numerous times that everyone thinks it's just Sean Carroll.   Well, it happens.   Many people think Scienceblogs is just Pharyngula/PZ Myers too.    We have the opposite problem; we have more of a magazine format so blogrolls will usually have our whole site rather than individual authors.)   

    Their defense this time is primarily that other people like the book.  That may be.  I haven't read it yet, I just want to discuss the disconnect between two bloggers who basically agree on everything except in matters of degree.

    Should scientists communicate more with the public?  Of course, but a teaching professor and a science writer are not really going to be leading the charge there since they don't do science the way the public (much less researchers) think of science.

    Clearly we believe that scientists should communicate with the public - we built this whole platform to do just that, with no anonymous columnists, no popularity criterion, just writing science and finding you an audience if you do.   I'm just not convinced writing books about it, or criticizing them, is the way to do it.

    Round 3 in Pharyngula Versus Intersection takes place tomorrow.   


    I'm still waiting for my $#!@%$##! copy, while missing the blogosphere slugfest. I was hoping to read a pre-release copy and dive right in, but, sigh, I've been fruitlessly checking the mail for a month.
    I'll get the Ida review up - I missed the boat on that one too, but the book was pretty much all hype, so you're not missing much. In the mean time, look for an upcoming review of a better book: This looks pretty amazing.
    I'll bet Chris sent it.   WU receiving can be ... inconsistent.  But hey, so can big companies like the one that runs our office building and does our shipping - that's why Dave Deamer's wife is wearing your shirt.  :)

    But I shall hand deliver a new one in a month!
    He changed it from "goddamn" to "frackin'" at my request because on ScienceBlogs the most-commented posts sitewide appear on everyone's blog, including mine, and my blog is pretty much G-rated.

    Hey Dave, that was pretty gracious of him then.   Obviously my using the word 'penance' was an intentional joke.   Like I say in part 2, I am told he is a pretty good guy ... but he sure can bring out the linguistic hammer when he is riled up like he is now.
    Yes, he's a very mild-mannered person in real life (as is Orac). Meanwhile I'm a bit wilder than my online persona when you meet me face to face.

    Becky Jungbauer
    It's that Minnesota Nice coming out! I'm still not sure why he's at Morris - talk about the middle of nowhere - but when I've seen him in the Twin Cities he's always been very gracious and pleasant.
    Becky Jungbauer
    There are a lot more Republicans than there are Catholics in the US.
    I didn't believe you so I looked it up...I'm still not 100% convinced because I grew up Catholic and I never heard of "registering," unless you mean you sign up in the parish office, in which case these numbers are ridiculously off.
    I love the smell of atheists bashing each other in the morning!

    I just thought it was funny that in Part 2 they really felt a need to out-atheist each other.  Kirshenbaum goes further and claims to be a Jew and agnostic, which I guess is possible if you're the Chosen People and somehow religious by DNA.

    What does it have to do with anything?  Well, nothing, that's part of the disconnect they have with the actual audience they claim to be wanting to educate.   To them atheism is a fundamental part of their science existence, to most scientists it's a cultural issue.

    We have plenty of atheists here, to be sure (any science site will) but all this bleating about the religious boogedyboogedyman is silly.   Is there a science site devoted to going after the KKK?  Because there are about as many religious people who truly don't accept science as there are members of that - an example that highlights how silly it is for so many scientists to have religion as the primary thing they talk about.
    Is "Unscientific America and The Awful Atheists " a valid book? Will the book bring science to the masses that do not want science to infringe on religious beliefs? I doubt that I will read the book in the future.

    Hank you are right, it is cultural. It is surprising that there is a cultural war between athiests. I was surprised to see a labeling between old, neo and accommodationist.

    Yes, I have noticed among conservatives that 'liberal' is the favored insult and among liberals 'neo' gets the nod.   No one can define a neo-atheist any more than they can define a neo-conservative so it's pretty funny seeing it thrown around.

    Mooney is a good writer (and a good guy who cares about science outreach so if it seems like I am knocking him, that is not the case) but he is definitely a Democrat and an atheist and his book is not geared toward the 70% of people how are not one or the other in the US - even most readers of this site (and writers) aren't going to be the audience, despite being primarily atheist and Democrats - cultural boondoggles are best left to the science sites that made their reputations doing it and we try to just stick with science.

    Myers is riled up because he gets called out in their book for going over the line.  As I wrote, the 'line' is rather arbitrary - why are Republicans fair game but a Catholic wafer is not?
    "But what's the rumpus? Writing a whole book making fun of Republicansis okay but desecrating a Catholic ritual is over the line and doing more harm than good? "

    Well, yes. If you actually believe in a religion, it isn't just a platform for putting forth public opinions; it's a vitally important personal relationship; any resulting public opinions are a secondary issue. Desecration isn't like saying, "Your political opinions are wrong," or even saying, "Your political opinions are idiotic and evil." It's like saying, "Your wife is a whore," grabbing your wedding ring, and throwing it in the toilet.

    You're taking my quote out of context but we're still making the same point.  I was asking why Chris chose that arbitrary line, not saying he was wrong for drawing one.

    93% of Americans believe in God so that's a big chunk of people to piss off, you might think, except among religious people there is a lot of squabbling about process and 'who's right' and other denominations aren't usually jumping to defend Catholics.   Republicans are around 50% of the American population and Catholics around 14% so if Chris really cared that much about positive science outreach like he says, he wouldn't have alienated half the country by cherry-picking data while worrying about 14% that are one religion.

    He's gotten older, too, and 2006 was the Golden Age for scientist rants about Republicans and religious people, so he might not write that book today.   With time, he will see that the same book could easily have been written about Democrats.