BOOK REVIEW: Fool Me Twice – Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Fool Me Twice
Fighting the Assault on Science in America

by Shawn Lawrence Otto
Rodale, 2011

Shawn Otto is a big name in the campaign to restore science to its rightful place as a major player in the public sphere. He spearheaded the first “Science Debate” effort in 2008 to get the presidential candidates to address scientific issues, and has been working, tirelessly but not entirely successfully, it would seem, since then to keep the home fires burning. The frustration that comes with failure — the best the group could do back then was elicit written responses to a list of science-oriented questions from Barack Obama and John McCain  — evidently got him thinking about why Americans care so little about science. Fool Me Twice is the result.

Like the books that preceded this one (Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America and Randy Olson’s Don’t be such a scientist!), it’s long on description and short on prescription. The subtitle, Fighting the Assault on Science in America, implies the latter, but alas, precious little is offered.

That’s not to say Fool Me Twice doesn’t make important contributions to the quest for an answer to the question of why so many Americans distrust scientists and ignore the success of 400 years of Enlightenment-based inquiry into the nature of reality. Otto devotes much of the book to a synthesis of the disparate forces behind this sad state of affairs and he comes up with more suspects that any of the authors before him, delving into rarely explored nooks and crannies of the cultural landscape.

Science’s credibility had by then been damaged by a constellation of silence, postmodernism, failure to anticipate biocomplex consequences, environmental mismanagement, and rhetoric.

The usual suspects are here, of course: the right-wing’s decision to embark upon a long-term strategy of pushing pseudoscience with the help of think tanks and a compliant and ignorant media, scientists’ penchant for withdrawing into their ivory towers, and our lack of caution in embracing technologies like nuclear fission and DDT. But the inclusion of the influence of postmodernism, its rejection of objective reality and all the epistemological consequences that come with it, is perhaps the most valuable contribution.

Conservative students and those who would eventually become conservative did not forget the arguments they learned there — that science was just another “way of knowing” and that people in authority could get away with passing off bullshit as trust as long as their arguments sounded credible and included cherry-picked bit and pieces of science.

Otto argues that an entire generation of journalists and policy wonks carried those postmodern assumptions with them into positions of power. Whether consciously or not, they embraced the notion that facts are pliable, and so why should we respect the voices of experts? The result? Sarah Palin’s ridiculing of fruit fly research in Paris, and John McCain’s description of the country’s first major computerized planetarium projection system as just an expensive “overhead projector.”

There’s also a devastating chapter devoted to demolishing the fanciful notion, one that appears to getting a fair bit of traction in Washington these days, that we can safely hack the planet’s climate. The science of geoegineering is not entirely on-topic, and the book as a whole has a few too many paragraphs and longer digressions that probably should have been either moved about or deleted. But the material is almost always provocative.

His wanderings through U.S. history, meanwhile, lead to some fascinating places that turn convention wisdom on it head. He wonders if we’d have gotten to the moon by 1969, or even 1979, if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated. This because support for the Apollo program was faltering until a nation in grief rallied around Kennedy’s legacy after his death. Otto posits that the invention of surburbia can be attributed to a military-dominated government fearful of high-density targets for Soviet ICBMs, and not so much, as is usually taught, to enriching the automobile and oil industries. And what if America’s fundamental nature isn’t all that welcoming to science in the first place? What if respect for science and engineering, the zeitgeist that took as to the moon, gave us the Internet, plastic, and iPads, was an aberration, “a temporary boom” brought on by influx of European scientists starting in the 1930s? After all, Otto points out, “the importing of such talent declined sharply in the wake of 9/11.”

None of these hypotheses are original; some are questionable. Still, they are usually at least somewhat relevant to issue of why we think about science the way we do. Less compelling are his takes on what ails journalism (yes, things are bad now, but were they ever really that good?) and his interest in functional magnetic resonance as evidence of a neurophysiology of partisanship (fMRI scans are still a controversial tool in that realm, to say the least).

But to return to the main point. How do we fight this assault on science? Otto doesn’t get around to it until the last few pages out of 317 (not counting appendices and notes). First, there’s the old admonition to stay clear of “apocalyptic messaging” without including constructive solutions.

This is perhaps the most common suggestion being bandied about and it’s largely a straw-man argument. In the case of climate change, which figures prominently in the book, and deservedly so, Otto disparages of Al Gore’s alarmism in “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the truth is, Gore invariably makes a point of including more than a healthy dose of hope in the form of potential technological and policy fixes. He even instructs his slide-show army, in no uncertain terms, to make sure there isn’t a “hope deficit” in their presentations. It’s simply not true that climate activists are one-note prophets of doom and gloom.

Then there’s this piece of advice to scientists: “Emphasize the process.” Unfortunately, it’s never made clear just what they’re supposed to do with that one. (Randy Olson explores what scientists can do much more explicitly in Don’t be such a scientist, if you’re interested in this line of thinking.)

Finally, Otto suggests taking advantage of the power that lies in the Church:

“There is every reason for every preacher in America to be a member of the AAAS and to have subscriptions to Science, Nature and Scientific American

This is the practical side of his earlier observation that “science can no longer be separated from policy making, religion, and economics.” It is arguably the most debatable prescription, particularly for those among us who remain skeptical that science and religion can ever be reconciled productively. Maybe it’s hard to disentangle religion from anything else now, but surely that can change. Otto only makes things worse, betraying a fondness for religion, by wrapping up one of the final chapters with a line of scripture, followed by “Amen.”

Given that so much criticism of the anti-intellectual strains now running through America involves blaming religious infliuence, it is interesting to see Otto try to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I, for one, remain unconvinced. But as with so many public policy challenges involving science, there will be no silver bullet, and the war will have to be fought on myriad fronts. He may not have found any practical solutions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. And if Otto keeps at it, he’s as likely as anyone to come across something that just might work. File under “promising, but incomplete.”

And two little nitpicks: First, the David Bowie song is “Space Oddity,” not “Major Tom.” And second, Gore didn’t ride a scissors lift to reach the top of the 1,000-year, tree-ring-proxy-derived “hockey stick”; the graph in question illustrated several hundred thousand years of ice-core data. Everyone seems to make this mistake, but still.

Reviewer James Hrynyshyn blogs at Class M on 

UPDATE: Via Greg Laden’s Blog, (cleverly entitled “Greg Laden’s Blog”) here is a video of Shawn Otto speaking about the book and the topics therein.


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  2. it's long on description and short on prescription. The subtitle, Fighting the Assault on Science in America, implies the latter, but alas, precious little is offered.

    As I like to say (recently), it's strange that people (e.g. Mooney) talk about a "War on Science", but when it comes to actual practice, their strategy has been to try to find 'common ground' with the Tea Party types in the (vain) hope that they'll not attack him so often.

    Duh. If, as Mooney and others say, we're faced with a "War on Science", why do they keep refusing to treat it as a war?

    If we're in a "War on Science" and if indeed we want to fight in this "War on Science", then surely David Roberts has a better strategy:

    Let's remember the goal. The goal is [climate] action. The support of CWM [conservative white males] is a means to that end, but not necessarily the only means to that end. Perhaps instead of hiding from the fight, or transcending the fight by finding common ground, climate hawks could win the fight. A crazy notion, I know.

    CWM are blocking the entire, diverse climate coalition from taking action by virtue of [messaging] intensity (not to mention a broken and utterly dysfunctional political system). The poll numbers are consistently on climate hawks' side, but their support is shallow and fickle. The Tea Party, on the other hand, views even efficient lightbulbs as incipient tyranny. As I've said many times, intensity wins in politics.

    If that's true, perhaps the answer is not to reduce intensity in hopes of attracting CWM. Perhaps the answer is to increase intensity in order to overcome CWM. Intensity is increased first and foremost through organizing, but also through clear, inspiring messages that draw sharp lines between those fighting for progress and those fighting against it.

    -- frank

  3. "... particularly for those among us who remain skeptical that science and religion can ever be reconciled productively"

    Well, they don't have to live in each other's pockets. What we could hope for would be a good outcome in a family dispute. Everyone can sit down together at grandma's birthday lunch and the previously warring parties can mind their manners well enough not to spoil the occasion for the group.

    And the more often this happens, Mothers Day, weddings, birthdays, Xmas parties, the more the dynamics of the whole family will improve. Maybe even for more than a day at a time.

  4. The war needs to be fought on a couple of fronts.

    First, the sciences need to make common cause with the humanities, to end the old feud. Our enemies are trying to roll back The Enlightenment itself. Recognize that scientists are generally not very good at dealing with the people attacking it now, and beg for help from your colleagues on the other side of the divide. The barbarians may actually win. If they do, the only place for an academic to get a job will be in a bible college.

    Second, science curriculum needs to focus less on the content of science, more on its history. Most especially, where science as a human activity, as an outcome of society, gets it's authority. Why should we trust something that is a human activity? Something that (some) people do?

    I don't recall in school being taught that science is done in journals - the role of publishing, of peer review. I don't recall being given to understand the scope, the amount of work and data collection that backs a scientist's sound bites.

    Science as an important activity whose conclusions deserve trust needs to be adressed in history class, in "people and ther societies" class. The people who can do this are in the humanities. And science *belongs* to them in this sense: it is the outcome of one of the great programs of effort, over centuries, of philosophers and people of letters. The program to find a way of understanding the physical, natural world. The Sciences are a child of The Arts.

    Understanding that climate scientists vigorously challenge each other's conclusions is more important than knowing the atomic number of Boron - for almost all citizens. Preparing children for citizenship is one of the mos important goals of a school system.

  5. Paul, these are excellent comments and suggestions and I wholeheartedly endorse them. They are similar to the solutions I offer in the book, which makes the point that the solutions are as multifaceted as the way we got into this mess, and it's going to take a massive reengagement by scientists in the civic process, emphasizing those qualities of science you list - the process and context - not the conclusions. When polled most American's can't name a living scientist. That's got to change. As well, it will take science-literate clergy, humanities professors and others who value knowledge and science to hold conversations. And it will take science debates to encourage candidates to tie policy back to knowledge and reengage adults in knowledge-based arguments versus rhetorical ones, in the context of the nation's ongoing policy debate - the context in which they are familiar with taking in information. It will take reforming the tenure system to reward public outreach, and a reforming of the teacher and J-school education system to purge certain ideas of postmodernism that have taught a generation of teachers and journalists that there is no objective truth but many constructed truths, equally valid. That's nonsense and is corrosive to democracy. And reinstating the fairness doctrine would be a big help as would getting the money out of big politics, and reeducating practicing journalists that there is such a thing as objective truth and reporting as if there is not, as reporters are now told to, (witness the recent NPR move to he-said she-said reportage) is corrosive to democracy and allows a coopting of the democratic process by anti-knowledge authoritarians. None of these are silver bullets. None easy or simple or clear. But nothing worthwhile ever is. The book itself, beyond offering these solutions, attempts to be a part of the solution by sparking a discussion of these ideas and observations in both the science and lay communities.

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