Thursday, August 25, 2016

The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, by Shawn Otto (Book Review)

The War on Science is a must read book for scientists and anyone even remotely interested in science or policy or politics or decision-making or life. Yes, that means you.

The book is actually much more than the title suggests. Shawn Otto (one of the founders of delves deep into the history of science, but also in the psychological, sociological, political, educational, and religious histories and their interactions with science. He points out that the early leaders of this nation were promoters of science. George Washington said "There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of Science and Literature." Jefferson heavily promoted science during his presidency and noted as he was leaving office that "Science is my passion, politics my duty." Great Republicans presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and William McKinley all emphasized the importance of science and technology. The author notes that Republicans were once the party of progressive optimism and tolerance, of environmentalism and finance, of rationalism and national parks. Only recently have Republicans turned against science. [But Democrats have their anti-science as well, which he discusses]

The reasons for this turn toward antiscience are discussed in great detail. Otto digs into the history of religious intolerance for science that contradicts scripture, most notably by the excommunication of Galileo (who, ironically, was devoutly religious), but also with many other examples ranging through history to today. He examines the interplay of antiscience and "freedom," including how fear of annihilation from Cold War/nuclear weapons led to the "live for today" attitude of the 1960s. But not just nihilism, this constant stress and attachment to the "military-industrial complex" caused a suspicion of science.

Further, the book delves into the turn towards postmodernism, which denied the existence of objective truth, claiming that all "truth" is subjectively in the eye of the beholder and that your opinion (often, ignorance) is as good as decades of scientific fact. This postmodernist belief severely damages education, where no longer are students expected to learn from accumulated facts but how they "feel" about reality. The media promotes this subjectivism, combined with the need to create controversy to garner ratings, as well as promote "false balance." All of these erode citizen confidence in science for no reason other than to assuage their fears of the unknown.

Otto also takes a closer look at the "three-front war on science" from identity politics, ideology, and industry. All three provide substantial and substantive background and analysis and should be read closely. The third, "The Industrial War on Science," is extensive and examines the long and fruitful strategies of industries (often working in tandem with religion and media) to deny established science and delay or eliminate any policy action. We saw this for decades as the tobacco industry denied smoking causes cancer, and today as fossil fuel and libertarian lobbyists deny man-made climate change, as well as many other examples. Otto documents in detail the tactics used by denier lobbyists and their hired spokespeople; even quoting from their own strategy materials. He shows also how companies like Exxon and the Koch companies shifted from paying directly to denier front groups to slipping the money in through "dark money" vehicles like Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

The final three chapters look at "winning the war" in the sense of how do scientists and others battle against the misinformation of identity politics, ideologies, and industrial disinformation campaigns. In short, it isn't easy. Otto discusses how to engage in conversations in ways people can relate to. He also proposes a series of 14 "battle plans" to communicate science and overcome denial. The plans begin with something as simple as "doing something;" getting out there and trying to communicate. They continue with specific actions like creating a science advisory organization, pushing for science debates, using science advisors more effectively, and reaching out to religious, educational, and political leaders to help them understand the importance of science and its role in policy making. Otto also suggests that scientists need to fight back against the harassment, disinformation, and personal attacks of denial organizations.

All of this can get rather intense. The book is dense in both information and thought. Otto has done tremendous research in a wide range of science and sociological history to develop the incredible insights he displays in this book. I highly recommend that all scientists read it, but I also highly recommend everyone who has an interest in honest discussion and policy making to read it. Finally, every responsible American citizen should read it as it helps put into context our role as citizens in this democracy. 
Amazon page for War on Science