Chris Mooney - Unscientific America

October 9, 2009

Chris Mooney is a 2009-2010 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science, Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Chris Mooney talks about the growing divide between science and society. He contrasts the issues addressed in The Republican War on Science with the current problems facing society as outlined in Unscientific America. He argues for the unique public policy significance of science for society, and why scientific literacy matters more than other kinds of cultural or historical literacy. He discusses the policy relevance of scientific illiteracy in terms of global warming and biotechnology. He talks about the need for scientists to become better communicators to the public.

He shares his criticisms of the New Atheists and explains why their attacks against religious moderates work counter to the goal of scientific literacy. He recounts his experiences as an atheist activist while in college, and how his views have changed about campus freethought activism since that time. He explores other underlying causes of scientific illiteracy, including our educational system, the media's dysfunctional treatment of science, and growing anti-science movements such as the climate deniers and vaccine skeptics. And he details concrete actions that science advocates can take in order to increase scientific literacy.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:

Related Episodes

PZ Myers - Science and Atheism in the Blogosphere
June 20, 2008

Comments from the CFI Forums

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The rise of the New Atheists has created an intellectual and social counterweight to the rise of fundamentalism in this country. I don’t think the Four Horsemen and other prominent, belligerent atheists have anything to apologize for—they have broken the taboo against criticizing religion, and opened up the field for a wide variety of voices. However, I think it is also important for more moderate atheists and skeptics to criticize them publicly, as Chris Mooney does, to show that atheists are not all alike. The more the public becomes aware of choices of worldview, the more people will flock to moderate positions (especially now that the New Atheists criticize the moderates just as harshly as the fundamentalists do). I doubt someone like Kenneth Miller would have an audience otherwise. The decline in mainline Protestantism has drastically slowed, and fundamentalist churches are no longer growing. The word “atheist” is less and less stigmatized among younger generations. “Spiritual but not religious” is the fastest growing belief segment in America. The triangulation is working.

Posted on Nov 16, 2009 at 1:11pm by rcreative1 Comment #1

As it happened, I listened to the podcast featuring Russell Blackford just after hearing this one with Chris Mooney.  While I understood and appreciated Mr. Mooney’s views with regard to the need to bring “moderate” believers to the defense of science and science education given just the sheer numbers of such folk in the U.S., hearing Mr. Blackford helped remind me that distortion of science and the promulgation of scientific ignorance is just the tippy tip of the iceberg when it comes to belief-generated harm to humankind.

Therefore, I too, cheer everyone who speaks out vigorously against supernatural superstition, and if they/we sometimes upset some people by so doing, I believe such is the cost of progress. 
Both diplomatic and more strident approaches are necessary given current circumstances, and in the long run only both approaches will produce the needed results.

The only excesses I would criticize or censure when it comes to debate over this most important public issue are those of fundamental lack of civility or of gross vulgarity/ignorance.  To my knowledge, none of the “Four Horsemen,” for example, all of whom are very articulate and civilized gentlemen, have EVER exceeded those bounds, except in the minds of those with exceedingly thin skins.

Some of the sniping back and forth between Mr. Mooney and his critics, however, may be another thing…

Posted on Nov 23, 2009 at 10:48am by Trail Rider Comment #2

I thought I heard D.J. bring up the statistic that 1/2 of Americans don’t know that the earth goes around the sun ?
Tried to look it up on the WWW -here is what I found so far—article in NY Times…

Dr. Miller’s data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Even 20% is kind of amazing.

A Princeton Guide to the NY Regents Earth Science exam had back questions, and one of them that our family remembers is “where does the sun set?” (i.e. in the West…)  We thought that was a pretty stupid question but maybe not….


Here are some actual numbers from a yearly NSF survey….

Posted on Dec 03, 2009 at 5:14pm by Jackson Comment #3

The correct answer is that the sun doesn’t set, that is an illusion! The earth rotates and as the part of the earth where you live moves out of sight of the sun, due to the curvature of the earth, it appears to set onto the earth.
Actually, there was a big brouhaha a few years ago in the Bay Area when a similar survey was taken, with similar results. I remember that one of the questions had to do with whether the moon rotated around the earth or the earth around the moon.

Posted on Dec 03, 2009 at 8:05pm by asanta Comment #4

The correct answer is that the sun doesn’t set….


Posted on Dec 04, 2009 at 3:54am by Jackson Comment #5

....He [Mooney]  shares his criticisms of the New Atheists and explains why their attacks against religious moderates works counter to the goal of scientific literacy.

D.J. got him to agree that the New Atheists are not responsible for the state of science literacy in America—and it isn’t clear to me how Richard Dawkins’ position on religion keeps people from learning science in other areas.

Jerry Coyne has commentary on [ on his blog ] today [Dec 5] regarding important books of the last decade.

His comment on Dawkins:

Hitchens’s blurb reminded me of two things.  The first is all the criticism of Dawkins, much of it unfair, for being “dogmatic and militant”.  He’s simply forthright.  If Dawkins took after, say, Republicans with the same tone he took after religion, nobody would call him a dogmatic, militant, anti-Republican. (Do you hear anybody criticizing the “militant fundamentalist Democrats” who mock Sarah Palin?) It is only religious opinions that bring out those epithets.  For reasons that still elude me, it’s perfectly fine to use frank, strong language when criticizing someone’s politics, but not someone’s religion.  I have yet to understand this difference, since political opinions are often held with the same tenacity as religious ones.  At any rate, it’s time to stop exempting religion from the same kind of criticism that we level at other beliefs and opinions.

Posted on Dec 05, 2009 at 12:56pm by Jackson Comment #6

[ HERE is a link]

to a blog with a lot of links to the “accomodation debate” through July 2009—should atheists accomodate with liberal theists who believe in evolution, or should atheists focus on both science&reason; plus “deprogramming” theists, even if supposedly that makes them more resistent to reason….

Posted on Dec 05, 2009 at 6:29pm by Jackson Comment #7

The recent issue of Discover magazine notes that Chris Mooney discusses science and religion on his blog.

It is referring to this blog entry at the end of March,

[ which reviews D.J.‘s interview of Chris Mooney]

Most comments above apply equally to the blog.—there are others on the blog itself if you want to follow up.

Posted on Apr 12, 2010 at 5:33pm by Jackson Comment #8