Chris Mooney is Not My Friend Anymore

Posted July 27, 2009

Chris Mooney took his ball and went home. And closed the blinds. But only to me.

I am, of course, talking about a Facebook relationship (I do not know him personally), which he ended after I dared to state that science illiteracy in America is not the fault of scientists as he and his co-author assert.

When I first met Mr. Mooney at a Skeptic Society Conference a few years ago, I thought he was a brilliant young man with a very bright future. My view today is very different, largely because of the manner in which he and his co-author, Sheril Kirshenbaum, have promoted their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.
I purchased the eBook about a week before the print version hit the stores, but did not read it cover-to-cover immediately. In the bits and pieces I picked up from excerpts and skimming, I found some solid points. For example, educated people are more, not less, likely to promote anti-vaccination views than their less educated counterparts. They note, correctly, that this pattern is consistent with what is expected given the kinds of errors humans make when processing information to make decisions. We know from years of study that one of the strongest factors determining the conclusion that a person will draw when evaluating claims and arguments is that person’s current belief. We are biased toward information and statements which confirm what we already hold true. When mothers, who are concerned for their children’s health and well-being, are told by someone they respect that vaccination leads to autism and other health problems, they will be more likely to seek, believe, and remember “evidence” and anecdotes which confirm that claim than those which do not. This is compounded by limited knowledge. Understanding the flaws in some claims requires very specific knowledge which most of us simply do not have.

When PZ Myers wrote a not-so-positive review of the book on his blog Pharyngula, my own bias filed the review away under “this may be a little too harsh”. After all, they had personally attacked PZ in the book. I would be mad, too.

But, I liked The Republican War on Science, and I refused to throw the baby out with the bathwater until I had more evidence.

In preparation for the book’s wider release, the authors wrote articles and blog posts on the subject. I found most, like this one in the Huffington Post, light on substance and heavy on rhetoric. I did not, however, disagree completely with their assessments of science literacy in this country. It was not until a Boston Globe article, in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum place the blame and responsibility squarely on the shoulders of scientists that the camel’s back broke.

Perhaps the tipping point was to be personally offended. That is indeed what this article accomplishes. Yes, it echoes the book, but it does so in a much more blatant and misleading fashion.

I will spare you (or rather, myself) a full review of the book. I believe it is enough to say that although it contains some words of wisdom, it actually does more harm than good. A layperson whose scientific literacy is marginal or worse will walk away thinking that the scientific process is negotiable. It is not.

Scientists disagree about the weight of evidence and sometimes what that evidence suggests. They debate these disagreements rationally, without incorporating personal values such as how attached the public is to their view of Pluto as a planet. Such matters are irrelevant and discussing them is counterproductive.

Problems with the book’s assertions have been discussed by others (Greg Fish, Kay Steiger, Jerry Coyne, and Jason Rosenhouse, to name a few) and although the book also makes some unfair assertions about what scientists should be, those are also covered by others. So in this post, I will stick to the article which prompted the comments for which Chris Mooney “defriended me”.

I knew I was in for an argument when the link Chris posted appeared in my newsfeed on Facebook. The article is titled Why don’t Americans understand science better? Start with scientists.

They began by noting that Americans are not particularly scientifically literate. As evidence of this, they present the results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS]. However, this is the extent of the evidence they present for any claim in the article. In addition, they ignore findings in the survey which refute the claim they make next – that Americans question scientific expertise on politicized issues and feel entitled to discard it. The survey says otherwise – although they vary among topics and questions, approval rates for science and scientist are consistently very high (generally around 85%).

What some Americans feel compelled to do is not discard scientific findings, but seek evidence that the scientific process has been tainted by greed and politics or that no scientific consensus exists. They do not appear to reject science itself or the scientists conducting it.

And their solution?

…Americans should be far more engaged with scientists and what they’re doing. They should know the names of leading researchers (most Americans do not) and the nation’s top scientific agencies (again, most Americans do not). To the extent possible they should know scientists personally, both so they can get a sense of the nature of scientific reasoning and so they feel they are being heard, not just lectured to.

Perhaps Mooney and Kirshenbaum should discuss this matter with Oprah.

First, most efforts by scientists to communicate findings are mangled beyond recognition by “journalists” and other pop news outlets. Scientists are misquoted, scientific findings are misrepresented, fabricated, twisted, filtered, and misinterpreted, and the conclusions drawn are invalid. This is the fault of those who care more about selling magazines and programming to the public than about communicating news. It should not be surprising, then, when scientists avoid such communication.

So, why not communicate directly? Well, despite roadblocks such as the work involved in building visibility and learning another skill (effective communication), many scientists do. Most of those who do spend a great deal of their time fending off ridiculous attacks on science by those with competing agendas. ScienceTalent

There are many, many programs, organizations, events, blogs, and other efforts to engage the public in scientific thinking, skepticism, and the products of science. There are many which focus on education and critical thinking. Scientists are involved in these endeavors, as are nonscientists. There are scientists who specialize in the public understanding of science, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Wiseman who, by the way, are very, very good at presenting science to the public.

However, these scientists do so at the expense of science itself. For every hour I spend blogging, presenting at non-academic conferences or conventions, and even in my classroom, I lose an hour which could be spent conducting research.

In addition, Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer no practical suggestions for how to acquire the target audience. People with no interest in science will not tune in to Science Idol on Fox, even if Fox were to pick up such a show.

After I read the article, I posted the following comment on Chris’s Facebook profile link to the article:

I must say, I am very disappointed and somewhat insulted. Blaming scientists for scientific illiteracy is like blaming doctors for disease.

And your solution is that scientists spend their time making the talk show circuit instead of doing their work.


A bit snarky, I admit, but this is a personal conversation and I was pretty angry.

Following another comment which blamed education, I posted a more critical comment:

IMO, JOURNALISTS do more damage to science literacy in this country than anyone else.

I do not believe this comment is unfair. Not only did Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame my profession for the problem, but they presented no evidence to support their claim. I, on the other hand, can cite hundreds of examples of bad reporting which can and have led to persistent myth and ignorance.

In addition, I left a comment on the Boston Globe site. Perhaps this was the tipping point for him. When I returned to Facebook the following evening (last night), I found notifications that others had commented on the link which started it all, but I could not access them or the thread.

Chris Mooney “defriended” me!

What’s more, he did so without responding to my comments and ensured I could make no more on that thread.

On the one hand, this was Chris’s personal profile. On the other hand, he opened the discussion by posting the link and if he did not want to discuss professional matters in personal space…

I have gotten into some pretty heated discussions with friends on Facebook. None have resulted in cut ties. The only incident of “defriending” on my part involved someone I could only call a spammer who, IMO, misrepresented themselves. I did nothing of the sort with Mooney. I have been nothing but supportive until now. So, either he does not like criticism, or he does not want it to influence his book sales which might ensue from his personal relationships on Facebook.

When selling books becomes more important to me than defending what is in them, I hope that someone will dig up this blog post and show it to me.

Criticism is not fun to hear. When it is accurate, it hurts. But I think it is important to hear it.
When criticism is unfair, I refute it or ignore it, but I do not censor it unless it is excessive, offensive (in a social, not intellectual sense), or incomprehensible. Most of the bloggers I read follow a similar philosophy.

Do I agree that scientific literacy in this country needs improving? You betcha.

There are far too many examples of it and those examples give us some insights into its sources. Below and here are a couple of videos which clearly demonstrate the need to combat propaganda, greed, and religious influences on the public’s understanding of science and its products.

So, what solutions do I have to offer?

I have some ideas, but this is not a simple problem with simple solutions.

People fail to understand science and retain scientific knowledge for many reasons. The primary reason, in my opinion, lies in our educational focus. To “see through” the ignorance and idiocy presented in the videos above, one must understand and trust scientific findings. In order to understand and trust scientific findings, one must understand the scientific process. In order to understand the scientific process, one must understand how to think critically.

Science is difficult for many people to grasp because, by its very nature, it is counterintuitive. If it were not, it would not exist.

The scientific process exists because human beings do not reason objectively. We evolved to solve specific problems of survival. The mechanisms necessary for that survival include things like running away from possible danger instead of waiting around for more evidence of probable danger. We evolved to seek patterns, because finding those patterns helps us to accomplish the goals required for daily survival. We gather information, form a schemas (”blueprints” of reality), and use those schemas to understand the world around us.

We have advanced by circumventing our own nature through reason. Understanding logic, epistemology, and critical evaluation are keys to understanding the scientific process and, how that process produces knowledge. In turn that understanding leads to trust in scientific findings, understanding of how those findings relate to one’s personal life, and interest in applying the knowledge gained.

In Australia and other countries, new programs are moving philosophy to the forefront of primary education. This is an idea that is long overdue and an approach which I strongly believe we (the U.S.) should be following. I fear, however, that we are not ready to do so.



Robert Grumbine on July 28th, 2009 at 06:53:
Apt timing of your post as I’d had much the same response to the Boston Globe article, and posted something at Discover that got Chris’s attention — enough that he responded to a facebook comment I’d sent 2 weeks earlier, after a different problematic (to me) article of his. Hasn’t defriended me there yet.
After the prior irritant, I was prompted to post at my blog about communicating science. No interest in bashing the book or authors, but definitely to share ideas. Some good starts from readers already.
One issue I did not take up there, and you mention so I’ll comment here about it — ’science literacy’ is something we should spend some time figuring out.
1) I think that ultimately, it can’t really be a matter of everybody knowing the entire content of science, scientists certainly don’t. And besides, we change it. That’s our job — add to and change our current best understanding.
2) The trivia lists, imnsho, are somewhere between useless and actively harmful. You can get people to memorize that the earth goes around the sun, electrons are smaller than atoms, and so on. But knowing that the earth goes around the sun will not help you deal with the next bs artist who tells you that there is no climate change, and besides it’s all El Nino (c.f. recent paper by McLean et al that I look at in my blog, with links to other looks; very bad). The actively harmful bit is that it leads people to believe that science _is_ lists of trivia that we just make up.
3) More important, I think, is that everybody understand how science is done — it is an active process, and most of the more egregious anti-scientific stuff violates several principles of how to do science. You don’t need to be a scientist to see those problems.
4) Probably more important still is to value reality-based decision making, and saw science as an important part of a reality base.

3 I have ideas how to do (partly shown at the ‘doing science’ tag at my blog)
4 I have few ideas

Abbie on July 28th, 2009 at 13:36:
Yup, welcome to me 3 years ago. Expect an anonymous blogger to do a hit piece on you shortly.
Chris Mooney on July 29th, 2009 at 02:26:
We all make mistakes. Please accept my offer of refriendship.

Physicalist on July 29th, 2009 at 03:51:

The scientific process exists because human beings do not reason objectively. We evolved to solve specific problems of survival. . . . We evolved to seek patterns, because finding those patterns helps us to accomplish the goals required for daily survival. . . . We have advanced by circumventing our own nature through reason. Understanding logic, epistemology, and critical evaluation are keys to understanding the scientific process and, how about process produces knowledge.

Good stuff. I just might give it to my students in Intro to Philosophy.

Abbie on July 29th, 2009 at 04:14:
While its technically true that ‘we all make mistakes’, in this particular instance, *you* made the mistake, Mooney. *highfive* on the notpology here, champ.
Oh, btw, Luskin called. He wants his personality back.

Ophelia Benson on July 29th, 2009 at 06:45:
Chris Mooney, we all make mistakes, very true, so while you’re at it, how about either deleting the comment on your blog that says I’m lying (in asking how exactly you know that overt atheism causes people to be hostile to science) or stop blocking my reply which denies the (libelous) charge? I’ve emailed you about this twice, with no result. I consider this behavior a ‘mistake.’
You chose to send my your book, remember? But now you’re taking your unattractive revenge because I’m critical of it. That is a ‘mistake.’

Abbie on July 29th, 2009 at 06:48:
Hey Ophelia! You know Mooney is gonna be on InfidelGuy tomorrow, right? IG is a call in show. Or, you can put your questions up in the chatroom in red.

Barbara Drescher on July 29th, 2009 at 10:10:
I have been awake for a couple hours, chatting about other matters while I ponder how to say this:

Ophelia Benson commented on my little blog?? I shall surely faint!

Seriously, though. You’re a hero of mine.
Physicalist That is the best kind of compliment. I hope if you use it, you’ll correct my typo (which I have on the post). I think I have dictated for the last time (stupid &%$# software!). Question, though: if you dictate it, is it still a typo? Or is it a “speako”?
Back to the question of the day.
Chris Mooney – Kudos: I cannot think of a more appropriate response (save addressing the criticisms). You won’t hear any more playground jokes from me about this incident.
Regarding the friend request: although I appreciate the olive branch, Chris, I think that boat has sailed. I would feel the need to consider your feelings whenever I posted anything related to the topic and self-censorship has never been my forte.
If you would like to discuss my criticisms, share information, or just chat about the weather, I hope you will feel free to send email, Facebook messages (my profile is public), or tweets (although I do not pay much attention to Twitter). Or comment on my posts here.
Athena Andreadis on July 29th, 2009 at 13:41:
Dear Dr. Drescher,
I agree wholemindedly with what you said.
As a working scientist who also wrote a popular science book (To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek), I have faced this issue repeatedly. Here’s one of my recent brief takes on it: On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks
I also wrote an essay on the topic that won a national award. You can find it here, under the title The Double Helix.
Thank you for articulating the problems with Unscientific America so eloquently and cogently.
My very best,
Athena Andreadis, PhD

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