How to Make Science Sexier

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Edward Pond / Corbis

After his book The Republican War on Science became a best seller in 2005, journalist Chris Mooney decided to find out what the disconnect is between scientists and regular people. In Unscientific America Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum join together to explain how that disconnect is putting the future of our country in danger. TIME caught Mooney during his book tour and discussed what scientists and teachers can do to raise the level of understanding in the U.S.

TIME: How do you think the debate over global warming has progressed since you published The Republican War on Science?
Mooney: We've come such a long way just because of political change — it's not like the science changed at all, but the politics changed — and yet it's still an incredible struggle. The vote in the House [on a bill to combat global warming] was superclose, and the Senate's going to be probably even closer. The reason that issue is so hard is that we have a gigantic gap between scientists and the public — and by association, the politicians that represent them. Scientists have been quite strong on this for 20 years and still only half of America seems to know what they're talking about.

In Unscientific America you've moved on to a more overarching discussion about "scientific illiteracy" in society that threatens to hinder productivity in the U.S. What are some ways we've fallen behind or are in danger of falling behind?
Science drives innovation which drives growth, and the concerns are very serious that we are slipping in that area. There are attempts to address it but they are nothing like what you saw after Sputnik when we really, really decided that we were going to be competitive. We're not throwing everything into it. People just aren't in tune to the role of science in the future of the country.

The book says it's not just the public that's at fault but that scientists need to do better at connecting with society. Doctors get some training about bedside manner. Would it be good to develop a form of that for scientists?
I love the bedside-manner analogy. What you have to do is change the culture of science in America at its institutions so this kind of bedside manner is part of the training. I do scientist training for media. First you have to fill their heads up with information they've never considered about what the media is and what it does: what the difference is between different kinds of reporters and how they might want something very different from your story and making sure the science is being conveyed in a helpful way. Scientists tend to be sticklers for accuracy but they will not put nearly as much effort into delivering something pithy. It's really hard to get all the nuances through.

Through the Sciencedebate 2008 initiative, which you were involved with, the presidential candidates were brought to task about making science a more integral part of the campaign, yet they were reluctant to because they thought it wasn't quite worth reaching "a niche audience." That's sort of a catch-22, isn't it? How do we overcome that?
It's incredibly difficult. The only thing we can do is continue to work really hard to show why science is relevant to other audiences. We have to make it resonate for them and that also means — and this is what is tricky for scientists — not giving them a scientifically detailed message but a message that is related to something else, like the economy. We need to change the mind-set of politicians too so that they realize how it can be beneficial to them to be more in tune with science and how it's going to help their ability to govern.

Do you worry about the dumbing down of science?
I worry about being accused of dumbing down by scientists, but people need to be realistic. Inaccuracy is bad, but simplification and accuracy are not the same. Simplification is a wonderful thing. There should be more of it. That needs to be respected.

There have been some critics of the book's stance on how religion and science intersect. What has been the sticking point for some people?
[They say] we're too moderate about religion and that we criticize a number of our colleagues and peers in the science world who lately have made their identity all about fighting religion. That is not what we need. It's a waste of resources and it's counterproductive. We know that religion is a key block for people; not just religion but the perception that science is in conflict with their religion. The only way to remove that block is to show them that science and religion can go together. Trying to pull them all the way to atheism is just not realistic and in fact probably puts them off more.

Part of your book talks about the depiction of mad scientists in Hollywood films. Do you think film and television producers can realistically portray scientists considering they have to sometimes use stereotypes or exaggeration to get people to watch what they produce?
I don't think that we can demand incredibly high levels of fidelity to what scientists actually do. What I think we can shoot for is positive role-model figures who are scientists. What really leaves audiences with a positive outlook on the scientific world is if the smart character is actually heroic for being smart. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly is a scientist. It definitely cuts against stereotypes in a lot of ways. First of all, she's a woman and not an old man. She's not nerdy. She's a hero.