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Unscientific America

© July 2009 Anthony Lawrence
  • Unscientific America
  • Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum
  • 0465013058

I recently bought "Unscientific America" and "The Republican War on Science" (Chris Mooney's earlier book in a similar vein) and was very disappointed by both of them. I felt that both of these were strongly biased, exhibited obvious prejudice and were also very shallow and unsatisfying.

If you know nothing about me, your immediate assumption might be that I am strongly Conservative, quite likely religious, and probably have my own anti-intellectual bias - why else would I dislike these books?

In fact. I'm a lifelong atheist, extremely Liberal in political views and am both disgusted and horrified by the general level of ignorance accepted as "normal" in American society. With those credentials, you'd think I'd be a strong cheerleader for these books. Honestly, I'd like to feel that way, but I can't. There's just too much wrong here.

Intelligence is vastly over-rated

This book laments the scientific ignorance of our society. The authors complain about anti-intellectualism, but I think they fail to understand the real roots of it.

Have you ever heard something like this? "Oh, first they said coffee was bad for you and now they say it's good. You can't believe anything!"

That is the root cause of disdain toward science and frankly, it's well deserved.

I can see people straightening up, clearing their throats and getting ready to protest. "Science is about the pursuit of knowledge - as we learn more, ideas change!"

To which some will add that it is the media's fault for oversimplifying things and implying certainty from data that the scientists themselves only felt suggestive. All true, but there's more that is usually missed.

"a to b to c..."

Let's try to define intelligence, shall we? Wikipedia has a good article on that, but it neglects to fully discuss what brain talents contribute to intelligence. I say that there are three main factors, and that they are all related to memory. The first is raw memory; the ability to hold past knowledge and call it up as necessary. The second component involves seeing how disparate pieces of knowledge are related - does putting "a" and "b" together cause "c"? What's really important is the third component - how much of a complex problem can you hold in your mind at once; how many "a and b force c" relationships you can hold concurrently.

My wife and I have a code phrase we use when we think someone is being stupid. We just say "a to b to c...". What we mean is that the person can't follow simple causality; that they can go from a to b to c, but by the time they get to d, they have forgotten about "a". Not forgotten, really, but they can't keep it in their head with everything else - they can't "follow the argument".

I think that's the real definition of intelligence: the more complexity you can hold and follow, the brighter you are. So if Fred can only work with four interrelated things at once and I can work with seven and brilliant Sam can work with ten, Sam is the most intelligent.

Most scientists can work with more interrelated ideas than "normal" people can.

So, given a problem that requires nine interrelated factors, Fred and I will fail. I might be able to solve it with the help of pencil and paper, but Fred probably cannot. Sam smiles and gives us the answer quickly.

So let's have Sam solve all our problems. He's the smart one, right?

Not so fast, Sam

Yeah. Unfortunately, too many of our problems have a lot more than ten factors. Worse, many of our problems have factors and conditions that we aren't even aware of.

Consider this simple question: if I pour three ounces of water into a glass that already contains three ounces of water, how many ounces of water do I have in the glass now?

Silly question? Well, what if the glass can only hold four ounces of water?

Oh, but I didn't tell you that! Right, and that's the issue we often run into - there are things we aren't being told. We just don't know everything that affects cellular biology, so we don't know whether coffee is good for you or not. We don't know everything about weather, so we can't make definitive statements about global warming. For almost any real problem, political or physical, the facts are that we are working with extremely complicated and often incomplete information. Sam's brilliance isn't all that helpful, frankly.

Not that we should ignore Sam's opinion. Sam will do the best he can, but both Sam and the rest of us need to understand that "best efforts" are all we can expect. Sam needs some humility and the rest of us need a reality check. Being smart is very useful for simple problems, but not so great for the really tough stuff.

I think having a more honest disrespect for intelligence could go a long way to curing anti-intellectualism. I know that sounds contradictory, but acknowledging reality might be just what we need. Science strives to provide answers but there is always danger that the answers are wrong. That's particularly true when the "science" is based on statistical evidence rather than true understanding. Those are the things that the general, "unscientific" populace needs to understand. If eating X is shown to be dangerous from statistics, it likely is. But when the specific biological action of X is understood fully, that's much stronger evidence. Teach people just that and you've done a lot.


I can certainly agree with the authors conclusions about science education. We don't need more doctorates - their are enough of those who are unemployed or under-employed right now. We do need more appreciation of critical thinking, of the scientific process. I think that goes back to what I talked about in the first section of this review: we need to teach intelligence.

Teach intelligence? Again, the spines straighten and the throats clear. You can't teach intelligence...

I think you can, and I think we actually try to already. Our concentration in education is on memorization - we require our students to "know facts". That focus is seen as wrong by some - why do we need to know facts when we can look them up? - but a good memory is part of intelligence, and I think we instinctively know that. The more knowledge you can recall, the better you will be at problem solving. And isn't problem solving what we are aiming for? Isn't that really WHY we educate? Sure, some of it is to learn process - this is how you make a blueberry pie, this is how you solve quadratic equations. But what we really want is general problem solving ability, and that, my friends, is what "science" actually is.

I think we should be doing a lot more puzzle solving in schools. Not 'math puzzles', but logic puzzles. We should be teaching critical thinking and problem solving. I believe those are skills that can be improved with practice. Obviously some of us have more natural ability than others, but that doesn't mean that the weakest of us can't improve.

I do not mean that puzzles should be used to teach other subjects. I mean that puzzle solving, and improving puzzle solving ability, should be an end in itself. This, is after all, what an awful lot of us get paid to do. Some of us get paid for rote repetition, but most of us earn our keep by solving puzzles, great and small. Teach that, practice that - it's probably the greatest gift you could give any child.

It's not the Republicans

Yes, the Republican party has been guilty of much that has harmed science. But that's not the root cause of our scientific ignorance. Both of these books skirt around the real issue, with the authors seeming to contort themselves to avoid laying the blame where it belongs: the "stupidly religious".

Before those of you with deep mystical beliefs become offended, I'll hasten to state that I don't believe most people are "stupidly" religious. From my experience, most religious belief stems from an inability to accept that the Universe is uncreated . Why people find it easier to accept that an intelligent creator is uncreated is a question for psychologists, but there it is. A large number of people think that there must have been a "creator". Science doesn't argue that point: it's unprovable, at least right now. Science even suggests that Universes might be able to be created (though the image of the creator becomes a physicist in another universe rather than a god-thing).

Science doesn't even rule out the mystical idea that the Universe is all connected, that it's all a big cosmic One. In fact, our present understandings of physics and quantum entanglement even supports that idea to some point.

But beyond that, everything else in religion is wishful thinking and most intelligent people recognize that. They may be active in religious practice, but they'll tell you that they do it for tradition, for social contact, or (sometimes) because they are "covering their bets". They certainly hope it's all true, but they have doubts.

Not so for the stupidly religious. Not only do they know their god-thing is real, but they know what it wants (they have a book) and they want you and I to follow the rules (as they interpret them, of course). These are the anti-science people, the retardants of progress, the people who get in the way of the search for truth.

It's certainly true that the Republican party has plenty of these people, but it also has plenty of bright, not particularly religious members whose issues are taxes and the size of government, not Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. Yet the authors seem to want to avoid pinning the blame where it really belongs.

Sure, I understand that it's a sensitive area. People get offended by anything that juxtaposes religion and stupidity, even when framed as I have here. You just can't talk smack about religion. The authors make sure to give the obligatory nod that justifies all of it when they say "Science can't disprove God".

In fact, that's nonsense. Science can't prove that our Universe has no creator, and it can't prove that your consciousness isn't somehow part of a cosmic Oneness, but that's completely unimportant. Science can show that intercessory prayer doesn't work, and that miracles don't happen. Those things can (and have been) proven over and over again. The evidence in support of religion is no more than the evidence in support of invisible pink unicorns - and no thinking person would believe in invisible pink unicorns.

Oh, those awful atheists

The authors carp about militant atheists, insisting that they cause harm by attacking religion so violently. Perhaps they do, but "stupid" religion needs to be attacked, discredited, and removed from common belief. We need to teach our children reality: praying for Uncle Jack to be cured of cancer may make you feel better, but it's not going to rid him of malignant cells. Praying to improve yourself does work, but not because of any supernatural beings listening in - meditation would work just as well. Life after death? Unprovable, just like the "creator". Extremely unlikely, but if it comforts you to believe otherwise, that's fine, and if you'd rather pray than meditate, that's fine also.

I think that we should take an honest scientific approach to religion. We don't know that there is no creator, and we don't know that we aren't all "spiritually" connected through quantum entanglement. Any other religious claims are fair ground for science. Claims of divine revelation may be comforting, but there is nothing to even vaguely suggest that they are real. This would NOT be an attack on religion - I think we should stress the positive social and mental aspects of religious practice while still inculcating skepticism toward its more ludicrous claims. I agree that a militant approach doesn't work, but a hands-off approach that tiptoes past reality for fear of offense isn't helping this problem either.

I can almost hear someone saying "Sure, so we all end up being wishy-washy Unitariian Universalists, where anything goes."

No, not necessarily. We should cherish tradition while encouraging skepticism and rational thinking. If you want to believe in fire and brimstone, do so - but you will have been taught that this is ONLY your belief and not something with even a lick of evidence to support it.

That's what it is going to take to make science important here.

This all ties back to teaching critical thinking and problem solving. Yes, examining religion critically in schools would enrage some people. But by not challenging this nonsense, we just create another generation of ignorance and superstition. I think this can be done while still recognizing the value of religion. We just need to get rid of the nonsense.

It's time to stop worrying about offending people. Our future depends on it.

Tony Lawrence 2009-07-19 Rating: 3.0

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Sun Jul 19 23:39:32 2009: 6649   Martin

Hi Tony,

I'm going to enjoy following this post - it should generate a ton of comments..!

On religion: one of the questions I ask Christians that always results in a long pause is this: there were 13 apostles, why were there only 4 Gospels in the new Testament? What happened to the views of the other 9? Where's the Gospel according to Judas Iscariot, for example?

When I suggest that the contents of the bible were defined by one person around a couple of thousand years ago, who decided what should and should not be included, and that what it contains is, therefore, a heavily censored version of events, I'm usually met with looks of pity or scorn.

But no logical explanation.

That's not to say everything in the bible should be dismissed. The 10 commandments, for example, are an excellent set of principles by which to live your life - but they're nothing to do with religion.

In my view, people can hold their own religious beliefs and ceremonies, whatever they may be, as long is it's not imposed on others.

I recently saw a program on what the Taliban did when they first came to power in Afghganistan.

The focus of the program was not on the way they forced people to behave, but on their destruction of all the art treasures of ancient Afghanistan - all in the name of Islam.

So many art treasures, so much culture and, therefore, so much knowledge about the history of the Afghan people was destroyed it's a total tragedy.

That's when religion is dangerous. When it's used to destroy, limit or control.

Unfortunately, so many of the religious movements seem to be focused on control. And that (at least to me) indicates a lack of confidence.

But equally, the people who submit to that control either lack confidence themselves or are looking for ways to avoid ultimate responsibility.

Which links to your discussion on intelligence. I think it's probably the same thing, but what really scares me is the tendency to accept without question the pronouncements of some icon or other.

Here I'm using 'icon' to mean anyone or anything that has an influential position. For example, the church, Oprah Winfrey (she is scarily influential), the President and so on.

For me, a failure to question information given as 'fact' and dig in for verification (or otherwise) is an abdication of responsibility. Especially if it's new information.

You went and gave your kids that potion that's caused them some harm? Sure - I saw it on Oprah. Not my fault. (Simplistic, I know, but that sort of thing happens so often it's scary).

Curiosity. It's a greatly under-valued characteristic. If people were more curious they would dig into some of these so called facts and regard pronouncements with more circumspection.

So yes - teach more puzzles in school, and encourage kids to become more curious as well.



Mon Jul 20 00:42:35 2009: 6650   TonyLawrence

I just had a thought:

Apparently IQ scores have been increasing in recent years. Could this be from video games? These often require problem solving. Could these be increrasing intelligence?

Mon Jul 20 11:10:29 2009: 6651   TonyLawrence

I think that willingness to be lead comes from a misunderstanding of intelligence and success.

If Bill Gates made so much money, he must be brilliant. If he's brilliant, his thoughts on malaria control must be valuable.

It's a faulty chain from the beginning - Gates got rich by being ruthless, but even if we accepted the "brilliance", his thoughts on any complex subject aren't necessarily any better than your neighbor's.

It's a very difficult habit to break. I know that nobody really knows enough about global warming - it's far too complex. Yet if I hear someone who has marshaled a lot of facts and knowledge in that area, I automatically credit them with knowing more than I do. And of course it is true - they do know more - but they cannot know enough!

Mon Jul 20 11:46:20 2009: 6652   Martin

I saw another example of acceptance without bothering to dig for verification today...

I offer answers to WordPress questions in a couple of forums, and in one I recently suggested a particular plugin that would help the asker do what they wanted to do.

Because of the time difference (I live in Hong Kong) the next time I checked in there were a few more replies. The one immediately after mine claimed that the plugin I'd suggested was no longer supported and had been replaced by another.

This had caused a little confusion.

But all anyone had to do was look up the plugins (both of them) on WordPress.org to see the latest version, the last release date, release notes etc, etc.

When I pointed out that this simple check completely debunked the claims of the person who commented after me, there was palpable relief.

But couldn't they have checked for themselves..!?

I do agree with your Bill Gates analogy and I also bow to greater knowledge than mine, however it's achieved. But if I have more than a passing interest in whatever was being discussed I do verify and validate as much as I can - even if the information came from a 'Bill Gates'.

The tendency towards blind acceptance makes me a bit nervous of offering help unless I can prove what I'm saying (as per the example above). So I pass on a lot of questions where I either can't prove my answer, or can't be bothered to.

I'd hate to be responsible for some disaster because someone took something I said at face value without checking!



Mon Jul 20 17:02:06 2009: 6654   BrettLegree

Good point about Gates. Whether he is brilliant or not, he got where he is by being ruthless.

Seems to me to be the same thing down in the trenches - where I work, for instance.

The people at the top are generally not the most intelligent people. Just hard working and ruthless.

Which might explain why our company is going off the rails... if the folks leading an R&D company don't really understand the science behind what we do, there's a problem.

They try to sell miracles, and when the scientists and engineers can't deliver the impossible, they - not the management - are held accountable.

Tue Jul 21 09:27:10 2009: 6655   TonyLawrence

Re: global warming

I don't mean that I'm skeptical of global warming. I'm skeptical that we know what to do to stop it.

I certainly think we should be doing all we can to lessen our human impact - there are plenty of good reasons to do that anyway. I'm just doubtful that it will do much good even if we can muster the political will.

Sat Jun 29 16:07:00 2013: 12181   paul


"I think that's the real definition of intelligence: the more complexity you can hold and follow, the brighter you are. So if Fred can only work with four interrelated things at once and I can work with seven and brilliant Sam can work with ten, Sam is the most intelligent."

"Most scientists can work with more interrelated ideas than "normal" people can."

I read or understand that as being able to understand systems or processes, not just events. And I agree with it. Details, complexity, causality understanding that is a big part of problem solving.

The authors must have failed to point out is that the war on science is the direct result of a 40 year campaign to sanitize school books, to stem the tide away from a rational education and replace it with something that looks increasingly medieval, faith-based, authoritarian e.g., the Taliban. This is not a fairy tale. It began in Texas (of course) and uses the volume of books purchased by that state to steer the content of history and science texts to downplay science that casts doubts on a biblical creation story or history that doesn't hold America and white people as god's chosen.

And this began in 1961, so it came in with the Cold War and the culture war of the 1960s. When you have a rejection of the science behind climate change, for no other reason that it's too complex and therefore unbelievable, that's their work. Too many people lack the basic scientific literacy to understand the fact that trapping heat in an atmosphere what greenhouse gases do drives extremes in weather, such as hurricanes and flooding. They don't know what albedo is or how convection works or what adiabatic means. I learned this in a 101 level college class.

I think it's a combination of monkeying with the books and the cowardly decision of publishers and the resulting lack of curiosity in students. I've told my kids, if a science teacher can make science boring, they're doing it wrong. But the textbooks and timid curricula make it pretty hard.



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