The Sciences

PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Part II

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJul 14, 2009 3:30 PM

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In this post, we continue our response to PZ Myers' review of our book, Unscientific America. For those who've just arrived, we previously laid out the course our response would take here, and began to respond here. This is the third post, and there will be one more after it.

5. American Anti-Science. Myers claims the book "entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces." This is false. First, Chris wrote an entire book dealing with this problem. That book, The Republican War on Science, dealt very extensively with the anti-science forces and put them in their place. Unscientific America tries not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to go beyond its predecessor--and indeed, we've been describing it as the sequel to The Republican War on Science. This time around, we don't structure the book by scientific topic, so you won't find chapter-length refutations of the creationists, the global warming deniers, and so on. However, Chris has refuted them all at great length elsewhere, and they get more than adequate licks in the new book as well. (Indeed, we've added some smackdowns of the anti-vaccinationists this time around!) Perhaps Myers would have preferred a book that contained nothing more than entertaining skewerings of anti-science idiocy--but Chris wrote that book already. Unscientific America tries to take the next step and explore the reasons for the disconnects between science and society, because understanding the true nature of anti-science sentiment and its causes is no less important than debunking it. They're both important. 6. Root Causes. Myers claims the book "demands we avoid addressing the structural roots" of the problem of science in society. That's false. A more charitable reading would be that we differ with Myers about what the root causes are, or place different emphases upon them. Clearly, he thinks religion is a much bigger root cause--if not the only root cause--than we do. But why then doesn't he just say that we differ, instead of mischaracterizing our position? We too want to address root causes--we just don't think religion is the root of all our problems. It is one cause of anti-science sentiment, to be sure--a very prominent one. But not the only one. Our book also deals with many others: The nature of the media; the nature of politics; the nature of the scientific community, and so on. It may be easier to simply single out religion, but we're not convinced it gets us where we need to be. 7. Science in the Entertainment Industry. Chris spent a month out in LA meeting with experts on the entertainment industry or talking with them by phone, trying to work out why science often gets such a bad shake in film and on television. The result was a report on how the entertainment industry works, and why scientists are often unhappy with the result--and what can be done to change this. (Some of this content is now reiterated in our Salon.com adaptation from the book.) From this chapter, Myers finds a single sentence about Richard Dawkins to quote [his emphasis]:

Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.

This Myers dubs "exasperating nonsense, in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum are discussing how to get science into the popular media." Myers is quoting out of context in order to criticize us. Here's what he (and all of his readers who have not read our book) are missing. Dawkins was quoted in the New York Times saying that the film Jurassic Park didn't even need to have human characters in it, because the dinosaurs were so stunning. His words were: "The natural world is fascinating in its own right. It really doesn't need human drama to be fascinating." We provide this quotation, and the accompanying context, in the book. Myers does not. Assuming Dawkins was quoted accurately, these words shows how little he understands about mass entertainment. A film with just dinosaurs running around would never have been so successful (and would never have been made). That was our point. Dawkins' statement about Hollywood and Jurassic Park epitomizes the type of mindset that has kept scientists from having more productive encounters with the entertainment industry. Now look at how Myers strives to defend Dawkins against us:

What Mooney and Kirshenbaum fail to grasp is that to a scientist, factual accuracy must be paramount; it is not a matter on which we can compromise. Further, what they fail to recognize, and what they excuse for Hollywood, as that accuracy does not have to compromise narrative, drama, and character! They berate Dawkins as if he has no awareness of the basics of what makes a good story, which makes me wonder if they've read any of his books at all — do they think he simply drily recites a body of abstract thoughts at the reader? Perhaps they should take a look at The Ancestor's Tale

(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)

to discover that he actually has addressed this imaginary deficit.

But of course, in context, it is absurd to think that factual accuracy would be paramount in a movie like Jurassic Park. And for that matter, what can Myers possibly be saying about Dawkins' admittedly very good writing? That The Ancestor's Tale could be made into just as successful a movie as Jurassic Park, which grossed nearly $ 1 billion worldwide? Again, that's pretty hard to believe. 8. Solutions. Myers claims the book "offers no new solutions." That's false--the book is brimming with solutions. Chad Orzel even found one we couldn't fit into the main text--the idea of forming a Science PAC to get more scientists elected to Congress--buried in an endnote, and built an entire discussion around it. There are solutions in each chapter of the main body of the book, broken down by sector--politics, media, entertainment, religion. And then there is the grand solution in Chapter 10--which emerged from our collaboration, and which we don't think either of us would have come up with on our own. So far as we know, it really is new in its particular way of analyzing the academic pipeline and finding, in it, a solution to our problems at the science-society interface. Again, we would ask that readers consult the book, rather than Myers' review, to determine whether it really offers "no new solutions." And we'd also direct them over to the review at RealClimate, where a productive discussion about solutions has, indeed, been sparked by the book. This difference in perceptions in these reviews is certainly remarkable. It's clear that those who are invested in the "New Atheism" have a strong negative reaction to the book--but is that surprising, in that the book strongly criticizes the "New Atheism"? But for those who do not have such a strong investment, yet care about the promotion and communication of science--like Michael Mann of Real Climate, Darksyde of Daily Kos, and many others--the book has prompted much valuable thought, response, and commentary. We're very honored to see that it is having this effect. In our final post, tomorrow, we will conclude our responses to the claims in PZ's review.

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