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Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum Discuss Their New Book, Unscientific America

three broken test tubes and the cover of the book Unscientific America SOURCE: Basic Books Science matters, and so does science communication, argue the coauthors. And while advocacy and science are not always easy bedfellows, groups with antiscientific agendas put on awfully good briefings on Capitol Hill.
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Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum talk with Managing Editor Andrew Pratt about Unscientific America

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Scientists, journalists, and politicians must each share a little blame for America’s widespread scientific illiteracy, according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, coauthors of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. But because science is crucial to grappling with critical public policy issues in health, energy, and national security, researchers will have to add communication tools to their repertoire and we’ll have to figure out how to replace the vanishing sources of scientific journalism.

Mooney, a Contributing Editor to Science Progress who will be a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT for the next academic year, and Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist at Duke University, advocate for a greater presence of science in the national dialogue in their new book. The authors joined Science Progress for a podcast discussion last week. No only should scientists should hone better communication skills to convey their messages, politicians should be more willing to learn the importance of science to public policy, and journalists should pay more attention to science policy news, the authors said. (To listen to the podcast of our conversation, see the audio player in the sidebar, download the mp3, or subscribe via iTunes.)

“I think a lot of scientists are very nervous to get involved, particularly in the political arena because they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. They just want to keep doing their research in the lab, and not necessarily have to go talk about it and lobby for money,” Kirshenbaum said. This is a problem because “it all trickles down to research dollars,” she explained.

Getting important groups to listen to significant science is difficult but important, Mooney added. Legislators are often reluctant to hear from scientists who show up at their offices even for a minute, “especially when the science is hard.”

Moreover, scientific outfits sometimes make the mistake of lobbying staffers and members of Congress without coordination, and “with different messages about the same issue,” Kirshenbaum, a former congressional staffer, said. On the other hand, the “pseudoscience side is very well organized, very well funded, and often has extremely articulate speakers with PhDs.”

“They know how to put on a good briefing. They know how to make people laugh; they serve food,” she explained, “And they have a unified message so a lot of the really valuable stuff that should be making it’s way to the Hill gets lost in all of the noise.” Lobbyists with pseudoscientific agendas may work to discredit the threat of climate change or ban vaccines, she said.

Moreover, for important research that addresses 21st-century challenges to get necessary funding, “We’re going to have to get involved on the Hill and in discussions well beyond Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Both authors worked to get these issues on center stage during last year’s presidential election by helping found Science Debate 2008, an initiative to get the presidential candidates to talk about their science policy positions on national television.

Although Science Debate 2008’s supporters—which included Nobel laureates, government leaders, and universities—did not achieve their ultimate goal, they still made a lot of progress, according to Mooney. The effort was important, he said, because of two words: “science matters.” Science matters to policy and the economy, he said, and given that it is germane to what politicians do, “they should talk about it publicly and often.”

Kirshenbaum emphasized that the project galvanized the scientific establishment. The initiative, now simply called “Science Debate” is hoping to “push towards the next presidential election” and get people talking about science issues on the local level, she said. The ultimate goal is to move science from its “special interest status” into our “common culture,” she explained.

We need to employ scientists in more communication outlets so they can explain why science matters to the public, Mooney said. Cultivating more of those communicators will provide “a unique asset because they’re the small part of the public that not only knows why science matters, but is deeply engaged and has the technical ability” to correctly explain the science. And that, he would argue, is good for the United States.

Interview produced by Andrew Plemmons Pratt, managing editor for Science Progress, and Vivian Cheng, intern with Science Progress.

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