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Set to inspirational choir music and glorious scenes of a rugged green shoreline, Carl Sagan opened his television documentary Cosmos by declaring that “the Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” The famous astronomer then outlined a plan for humanity’s salvation:
For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young and curious and brave. It shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos on which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
Imagine a world where Sagan and his followers controlled science, media, politics, and most everything else. We might call it a “Scientocracy.” And for Sagan’s followers, that goal is reachable, so long as we let scientism—the pretension that science can solve all of our problems—govern society.
If Sagan is Allah, then his messenger just might be Chris Mooney, a science journalist whose recent book with Sheril Kirshenbaum, Unscientific America: How Science Illiteracy Threatens our Future (Basic Books, 2009), mentions the astronomer’s name no fewer than 60 times.
According to Mooney, we need an America where “science has far more prominence in politics and the media . . . and ultimately, far more influence where it truly matters—namely setting the agenda for the future as far out as we can glimpse it.” The key to fulfilling Sagan’s vision is to produce a populace that shows a “broader acceptance” of science and that is “as scientifically literate as anyone could reasonably hope for.”
At base, scientific literacy is certainly not a bad thing. A scientifically literate individual is simply someone capable of making informed decisions about scientific questions in both his personal and his civic life.
One might presume that, so long as a person has a working knowledge of science—perhaps even a college-level science education—he would be scientifically literate, even if he dissented from, say, neo-Darwinian evolution.
Not so. Though Mooney might claim otherwise, Unscientific America appears based upon the premise that “science literacy” requires full assent to the “consensus” on controversial topics like evolution, embryonic stem-cell research, and global warming. It’s not even clear whether scientific literacy demands an understanding of science, provided that one endorses all the proper policy positions.
By redefining scientific literacy from an understanding of science into wholesale capitulation to the “consensus,” true scientific literacy—including the right to debate and dissent—is left in the dust.
Picking the Right Targets
In a Scientocracy, unless you’re a scientist, politician, journalist, or citizen who fully accedes to the consensus, then your opinion not only doesn’t matter, it might even be dangerous. Thus, Mooney sentimentally warns that “in The Demon Haunted World (1996), the final book published before his death, Carl Sagan worried openly that the forces of darkness were beating out those of the scientific establishment.”
Mooney’s writings leave no confusion about the identity of those “forces of darkness.” His previous book, The Republican War on Science, traced “the modern Right’s war on intellectuals” to two leaders of the intelligent design (ID) movement: Discovery Institute co-founders Bruce Chapman and George Gilder. Though they were “once opponents of right-wing anti-intellectualism,” Mooney writes, Chapman and Gilder “are now prominent supporters of conservative attacks on the theory of evolution, not just a bedrock of modern science but one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history.”
Unscientific America elaborates on these “threats” to science as coming from “right-wing ideologues” who make “attacks on the scientific consensus,” and seek to “‘artificially’ maintain a controversy where none actually existed within the scientific community.”
Even worse, there are “the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements.” This movement is purportedly a “reactionary crusade” composed of “science abusers” who are “the epitome of anti-intellectualism” and are waging a “war on science.”
These are the “foes” of Scientocracy, and Mooney’s call to arms avers that “it is long past time to face them, squarely and effectively, unified with allies across our society.”
Kinder, Gentler Atheist
Despite his apparent predilection for invective-laden attacks, Mooney blasts his own atheist allies for their “loud, angry, nasty, and profanity-stewing . . . world that denounces the rest of America for its ignorance and superstition.” But Mooney—who co-founded the Yale College Society for Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics and helped draft the “Bill of Rights for Unbelievers” during an internship with the Campus Freethought Alliance—now hopes to style himself as a more religion-friendly atheist.
The big debate among atheists today is whether to target all religious beliefs for destruction or only those with the audacity to challenge the consensus. Mooney opts for the latter, more incrementalist approach, chiding new atheists who attack the Catholic Church when (supposedly) it “is not even opposed to evolution.”
This wasn’t always Mooney’s approach. When I confronted him at a Seattle bookstore in 2006 about the antics of P. Z. Myers, he refused to speak ill of his atheist colleague. Three years later, in Unscientific America, he is quick to publicly censure Myers for an “outright combativeness” that is “strongly counterproductive” in the fight “to create an America more friendly toward science and reason” and “bring science to all the people.”
But Mooney also warns that “many U.S. religious believers are just as extreme” as the new atheists because these “zealots” have the temerity to “reject bedrock scientific findings—including an entire field, evolutionary biology—because they wrongly consider such knowledge incompatible with faith.”
Mooney exhorts us to only “think about taking a rest after the percentage of Americans” who have certain non-evolutionary views “drops below 20%.” “But until then,” he counsels, “we must be constantly vigilant.”
The real threat to Scientocracy, therefore, isn’t mere faith, it’s faith that dares to think for itself and disagree with the consensus.
Bias Is the New Balance
Being a kinder, gentler atheist, Mooney hopes to usher in Scientocracy without firing a shot. His “ultimate solution” is “nothing short of redefining the role of the scientist in today’s society.” This means that the cure for scientific illiteracy is for scientists and the media to engage in “public outreach” to convince the largely religious public that “scientists, and the people who care about their work, know best” how to solve society’s problems.
As far as the media is concerned, this requires a systematic propaganda campaign.
In September 2005, just before the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial over teaching ID, Mooney co-authored the cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review—a flagship media insiders’ journal—outlining the media’s role in the path to scientific enlightenment. The primary purpose of his article was to instruct editors on the proper coverage of the evolution debate. He advocated nothing less than media censorship of viewpoints that dissent from evolution:
Worse, [journalists] often provide a springboard for anti-evolutionist criticism of that science, allotting ample quotes and sound bites to Darwin’s critics in a quest to achieve “balance.” . . . The pairing of competing claims plays directly into the hands of intelligent-design proponents who have cleverly argued that they’re mounting a scientific attack on evolution. . . .
For opinion editors, Mooney cautioned that “the mission of the opinion pages and a faithfulness to scientific accuracy can easily come into conflict” and, therefore, it might be a bad idea to “give voice to alternative ideas” like ID.
For news editors, the article offered more covert advice: “newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing ‘both sides’ of the issue.”
Unscientific America picks up where the Columbia Journalism Review article left off. “If there’s one thing that truly enrages scientists about journalistic coverage of the subjects they know intimately,” advises Mooney, “it’s the notion of ‘balance’: the idea that reporters must give roughly equal time or space to two different ‘sides’ of a controversy.” According to Mooney, “Balance can be misleading, even downright biased.”
I always thought that balance was the cure for bias. But apparently, in the coming Scientocracy, certain viewpoints must be scrubbed from the public dialogue by journalists who don’t trust people to think for themselves.
The public is increasingly skeptical that the media is telling the whole story, but it still trusts scientists. Thus, Unscientific America ends with an emphatic call for scientists to “engage” with society because “science itself must become the common culture.”
The hope is that scientists can become cool, hip, and chic, and thereby convince everyone to accept their views. If the plan succeeds, we’ll witness an army of graduate-degree-boasting and sound-byte-spewing scientists carrying the good news of scientific consensus to the ends of the earth.
And for those academics who feel that telling the public what to believe is below their pay grade, there’s a cleaner option: “Arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and to get into better touch with our culture.”
In fact, a whole government-supported science-media-nonprofit-industrial complex can be built around campaigning for the consensus:
[L]et’s encourage the public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropists who care about the role of science in our society to create a new range of non-profit, public interest fellowships and job positions whose express purpose is to connect science with other sectors of society.
Once the army is trained and the network is in place, perhaps the unwashed masses will finally surrender to whatever the consensus demands.
Even if some vestige of religion remains, Carl Sagan’s dream—a Scientocracy—will then become a de facto reality: The Cosmos may not be all that there is, but it will be all that matters. •
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