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On Whether to Respond to Critics

By Chris Mooney
Sep 28, 2009 2:50 PMMay 17, 2019 10:58 PM


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While I have been busy getting married, on honeymoon, and trying to get settled in Boston, a great many things have been said about Unscientific America and about myself and Sheril. Many have been false, unfair, or worse. Or as Josh Rosenau put it: "Mooney and Kirshenbaum were personally maligned, and their book misrepresented to a degree that raises questions about whether critics actually read the book."

Sadly, I must agree with this assessment.

During this time, I have been logistically hampered in my ability to reply to such things, but also limited in my desire to do so. After all, there are many reasons to just let stuff go, no matter how unfair or ridiculous. It takes a lot of time to refute errors and misrepresentations, and there's relatively little chance minds will be changed even when you do so.

The chief argument for not responding to unfair critics involves peace and tranquility--not getting dragged into a debate in which one side is willing to say very irresponsible and inaccurate things, and having one's time consumed by such an unedifying spectacle. And there is also the fact that, when under unfair attack, there are always a few honest souls who perceive what is going on and leap to your defense--in this case, Rosenau and Jean Kazez in particular have filled that role, as have some others.

But on the other side of the ledger, not everyone is a Rosenau or Kazez--and many folks don't want to enter a brawl even if they do perceive what's really going on. Meanwhile, misinformation has a way of getting repeated ad nauseum, and all too many people make up their minds not based on whether they have read a book or thought about it, but merely based on what they've heard someone say. Repetition becomes reality.

This fact would seem to argue that one must be constantly involved in responding and setting the record straight--but then again, one quickly reverts back to the counterargument. With so much being said that is wrong, it would be a massive endeavor to set it all right, with highly uncertain rewards.


To show as much, let's consider one tiny example of a ridiculous thing said about our book, and how much effort it takes to refute it.

In a negative review of Unscientific America recently published by Ars Technica, the reviewer, Yun Xie, faults us for (among other things) our argument about how science used to enjoy a better place in American life, writing as follows:

The authors bring up these periods in history throughout the book and advise that we should learn lessons from them because “we need science to reestablish its core relevance to American life, to enjoy the standing and visibility it had in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

But, while there are definitely lessons to be learned, the authors didn’t convince me that science should return to its standing in the post-war era. Much of the appreciation for science back then was based on awe and an almost blind trust in the power of chemicals and machinery. [Italics added]

Instead of returning to a previous state of prominence, wouldn’t it be better to achieve a modern level of importance, a place where the public is informed about what research is done in the labs, and why?

This sounds like a reasonable criticism--but in fact, it isn't one at all. Why? Because the argument seemingly being used against us is in fact one that we completely agree with. Indeed, the observations that form its basis [in italics] can be found in our book.

You see, in order to better criticize us, Xie leaves out a key part of our sentence and misconstrues our meaning. We actually wrote the following:

...we need science to reestablish its core relevance to American life, to enjoy the standing and visibility it had in the late 1950s and early 1960s (with full accommodation of the lessons learned since then).

The "lessons learned" here certainly are not that we ought to go back to the 1950s and 1960s uncritically. On the contrary, our parenthetical, which Ars Technica inexplicably drops off, is quite clearly a qualification meant to say precisely the opposite--i.e., that we need a different, more modern way of embracing of science; that we can't just hope to warp back in time.

What's more, the "lessons learned" from the past involve pretty much exactly what Xie writes--"Much of the appreciation for science back then was based on awe and an almost blind trust in the power of chemicals and machinery." In fact, we wrote it first. Discussing the reasons science fell from its postwar pedestal in Chapter 3, for instance, we include the following:

Not only did the new mood of "questioning authority" include the questioning of science, but there was often good reason for skepticism. The environmental and consumer movements, spearheaded by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, brought home the realization that science wasn't always beneficial. Seemingly wonderful technologies--DDT, chlorofluorcarbons--could have nasty, unforseen consequences. A narrative began to emerge about "corporate science": driven by greed, conducted without adequate safeguards, placing profits over people.

So the reviewer appropriates our point about "lessons learned" while dropping the parenthetical off our sentence--and then criticizes us by raising a point that we've already thought of and addressed; indeed, a point the reviewer may well have gotten from us in the first place (and that we totally agree with). Thus, the "criticism" isn't actually a criticism at all--if you've read our book. It's psuedo-criticism from someone who either doesn't understand what the book is arguing, doesn't care to do full justice to its arguments, or perhaps is just sloppy.

And after making such a mistake, Xie nevertheless has the gall to accuse us of lacking "substance."

The above is the kind of nonsense criticism I would have to respond to, if I responded regularly to many of our detractors. And indeed, especially among the less rigorous and exacting ones, this is a favorite routine: Criticizing the book based on arguments that are in fact our own arguments, so that they are actually attacking a strawman--but only someone who has read the book would know it.

Moreover, I wouldn't be able to just set the record straight once--rather, I would have to do it over and over for each wrong or unfair claim. I am nevertheless thinking of doing more--but at the same time, I wonder if I should bother. By God, it's an imposing task. Do readers--open-minded ones, those who might actually be swayed by argument on this matter--think it is worth it?

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