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.