America (and, I’d venture to suggest, the rest of the world) is imperilled by growing scientific illiteracy. So says science journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum in their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. (An interesting review and commentary on the book can be found at RealClimate.) I’d tend to agree with their prognosis.
I’ve spoken before about the conspicuous lack of applied philosophers compared to the default pure philosophers. I’ve also spoken of the importance of philosophy in an endeavour which is yet to be invented, synthesis: the bringing together of insights from disparate disciplines.
But philosophy also has a vitally important role to play in public discourse by applying its rigorous standards to contemporary debate. I suspect you’d agree with me if I said the quality of public discourse, particularly in politics, is appaling. The sheer propensity of logical and argumentative fallacies or outright distortion of definitions or arguments is shameful. Yet most people feel no shame when they utter a banality.
So who’s to hold us all to account? Who’s to tell us that our arguments, our beliefs, our reasoning must be better. That flimsy ad hoc justifications and rampant bias just aren’t good enough? Damn relativism, a poor argument is a poor argument and should not be excused.
Seems philosophers could do this, so why don’t they? It’s simple really: there’s no incentive to. And the world isn’t just going to come knocking on the door of the ivory tower unbidden. Philosophers are going to have to open that door of their own account and get their hands dirty mingling with the masses. We need at least some philosophers who see public outreach as just as important as publishing papers, if not more so. But there are hurdles to overcome to get to this point.
One of Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s key points is that the academic community tends to be ill disposed towards scientists who make efforts at public outreach, and thus find themselves on the covers of magazines or hosting popular television programmes. Whether it’s because it’s considered unbecoming of a professional scientist to mix with the unwashed, or whether it’s plain envy, such popular figures tend to become sidelined in academia.
I’ve seen first hand a reluctance on behalf of some scientists to be quoted in the media for fear of being misrepresented in hyperbolic throes that might be poorly received by their peers.
However, at least science has a few individuals who were willing to stoop to explain some of the wondrous discoveries of that endeavour to the world. Not only polymaths like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (whom I can almost single handedly credit with teaching me science), but popularisers like Richard Feynman, Paul Davies, Julius Sumner Miller and Karl Kruszelnicki, amongst others.
Sadly, philosophy has a pitiful honour roll in comparison. Only a few individuals would even be recognised as philosophers by the general public, perhaps Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer, AC Grayling and Alain de Botton – maybe Bertrand Russell, if memories stretch that far back. Even then, a similar resentment exists within the academy towards philosophers who busy themselves with pursuits other than churning out papers on obscure and impenetrable (and often, quite irrelevant) topics.
This cannot continue.
Come on, philosophy. You don’t have to devote all your time to writing papers and teaching other philosophers. It’s time to fling open the doors of the ivory tower and walk in the Sun.