About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Russell finishes Unscientific America

I'm warming up to write a full-scale review of this book, but probably not here. For now, what I'll say in its favour is that it's clearly written. In fact, I found the style quite enjoyable. Mind you, something a bit denser might have been necessary if the arguments were going to be explored in any depth. What tends to happen is that a very simple argument gets presented in the main text, but there will then be a lengthy comment in the notes on anything at all tricky. The notes tend to say, "On the one hand this, on the other hand that," when what is really needed is some deep analysis of premises and arguments ... but at least they do seem to realise that there are problems for some of their claims.

Unfortunately there's a depressing shallowness about the book, perhaps because so much of it reads like an attempt to rationalise the authors' pet prejudices on what are really quite peripheral issues: "Pluto should still be classified as a planet!" "Carl Sagan was persecuted by the scientific establishment!" "PZ Myers is a big meanie!" In all of these examples, the proposition is dubious, as is the connection to the actual argument (something about the importance of getting more of the American population to understand something about science). Still, credit where credit is due: Mooney and Kirshenbaum write well enough from sentence to sentence.

Though they have rendered the book unreadable, at least for me, with the decision to use enormously long notes for any points where they feel that (slightly) more sophisticated argument is required, someone who doesn't care too much about following the argument in real time, as it were, could read the main text very quickly, then savour the notes at leisure. That seems to me like a very strange way to read a book, but I can only assume that something like this is what the authors had in mind. Maybe they'll turn up here and tell us. All in all, it's a pretty disastrous structure that they've chosen, but it might work for some readers, and again, the quality of the actual prose is not the problem. No one should doubt that they can write. The question is, can they argue fairly and in depth? On that score, well not so much.


Ophelia Benson said...

I'm a big meanie, but the style grated on me. It is lucid and clear, and that's good, but...it has a talking down note that I don't like. I think of it as a mass circulation newspaper/Time-Newsweek style - carefully simple and kind of coaxing - as if written for children. Too many buzzwords (community, mainstream, culture wars, etc), not enough...sharpness, surprise, difficulty, unfamiliarity.

Blake Stacey said...

I'm also a fan of difficulty and unfamiliarity in their proper dosages. . . Switching into faux-Elizabethan iambic pentameter for a few scenes hasn't stopped me from being the highest (on average) rated author on Amazon.com! :-)

Ophelia Benson said...

Ha! Yeah that's it - if only they'd done a little pastiche in the style of Sir Thomas Browne now and then.

Blake Stacey said...

I'm starting to like this idea: Unscientific America, written in the stylistic mixture of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

"Oedipa Maas came home that afternoon from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue, to find she had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, for the estate of Carl Sagan, a science-communication mogul whose legacy was complicated enough that the job of sorting it all out was more than honorary."

Steve Zara said...

I'd be interested to know if you think the book is worth the time to read, even just as an education about a certain position.

Coming across elsewhere some statement by authors about the importance of the reclassification of Pluto was a real 'WFT' moment.

Blake Stacey said...

The introduction to the book, which brings in the Pluto business, is available online. Whether or not one thinks that the IAU came to the "right" decision is beside the point: M&K's treatment of the Pluto question isn't even historically accurate. To pick just one, suitably ironic point, they ignore the public education efforts in the years prior to the IAU decision, including those by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the most mediagenic scientists active today. They also take the size of the Facebook group "When I was your age, Pluto was a planet" as evidence that people were aghast at the astronomers' behaviour. I mean, seriously? First of all, saying that Pluto was a planet back then can just as well imply acceptance of Pluto's not being a planet any more; more importantly, a Facebook group people can join in a moment of whimsy hardly counts as "encouraging people to vote on Pluto's status and override the experts". To invoke a modern idiom: Understanding online culture FAIL.

Steve Zara said...


Being an (albeit very lapsed) amateur astronomer, I have been following the discussion about Pluto for a long, long time.

The debate about the nature of Pluto was exciting, particularly with the discovery of more distance bodies in the Solar System.

The idea that there was some mass public shock at the re-classification is silly. Just as silly is that scientific classifications should be influenced by public vote.

What a total irrelevance anyway. M&K can't just not see the wood for the trees; they can't even see the tree for the leaf.