Shawn Lawrence Otto’s Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America is a fascinating look at the status of science in American society. Otto’s explanation of the climate change denial machine provides a compelling narrative that places the ‘controversy’ in the context of science’s slipping authority vis-a-vis political rhetoric and pseudoscience that passes for fact. However, the book’s greatest merit lies in the analysis and resulting suggestions for positive reform – an effort that will require the contributions of politicians, scientists, the media, and the general public.
CSW caught up with Otto at the Union of Concerned Scientists Washington, DC, office for a discussion of Fool Me Twice last Thursday, December 1.
“Whenever people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Wise and famous words from Thomas Jefferson imply troubling questions as the opening line of Otto’s publication. Are Americans well-informed on important problems facing society? If we are not well-informed (and even if we are), are we capable of creating and implementing policies to deal with these problems responsibly? Otto’s book is compelling as it addresses the conflicting opinions on issues that Americans must sort through on a daily basis.
Debates over climate change are just the beginning, yet it is exemplary in that preconceived ideologies and political rhetoric are elevated to the point where they can confront peer-reviewed scientific findings. And how has this happened? Otto outlines American society’s tumultuous relationship with scientific inquiry since the days of the founding fathers, coming to the conclusion that science has been gradually forced out of political discussion. “American democracy relies on a plurality of voices representing economic, scientific, and religious perspectives to arrive at balanced public policy,” he maintains. “With the voice of science going silent in our political dialogue, America no longer has that plurality.”
Science has been ghettoized and pushed aside, Otto maintains, absent from policy debates despite the fact that scientific issues have such huge and lasting impacts on American lives. The cause of this unfortunate reality is attributed to an amalgamation of factors, the most prominent of which seem to be the pervasiveness of campaigns, motivated by monetary investment or a conflicting religious ideology, to subvert the value society places on scientific information. The media’s tendency to seek out conflicting opinions, even opinions that are not scientifically legitimate; scientists’ tendency to operate as though their respective fields are not political; and the general public’s tendency to ignore the importance of science education, all play a part.
Science is political
Though science is not usually thought of as ‘political’, Otto asserts that “science pushes the boundaries of knowledge…pushes us to constantly redefine our ethics and morality, and that is always political.” He argues that there is a need for scientists to use their expertise and authority to push for policy prescriptions to our societal challenges. Without their influence, credibility, and authority, there is more room for pseudoscience and vested interests to exert their power, influencing policy in ways that may not be best for the American people as a whole.
But it is no wonder that scientists shy away from delving any further into the political sphere – take, for example, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who called for the prosecution of respected climate scientists by the Justice Department, attacking the integrity and character of these scientists because his political ideology does not match their findings. (See what CSW has to say on this matter here).
However, without the scientific community providing expertise and authority in policy prescriptions, anti-science campaigns, driven by conflicts of values (as in evolution) to conflicts of investment and wealth (as in climate change) subvert real scientific knowledge, prevent the implementation of responsible policy, and put the future of our country in jeopardy.
To this end, Otto provides an excellent summary of American political controversy on climate change, and our inability to take any corrective action despite knowledge of the problem since Jim Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony bringing attention to the matter. We note that Otto references CSW director Rick Piltz’s whistleblower action in 2005 in his first chapter, as part of a concise discussion on anti-science in the Presidential sphere. “Bush public relations appointees were muzzling scientists at other agencies, or altering scientific information in official agency reports to fit a preconceived ideological agenda,” Otto reports, with reference to a New York Times article detailing the actions of an oil industry lobbyist in the White House environmental office to manipulate goverernment climate research communication.
Beyond this reference, Otto provides a detailed chapter on the climate change denial machine, the contents of which CSW readers will find familiar. Again, we are presented with the implications of the power of an industry with vested interests to manipulate public discourse on a topic, and push policy in a desired direction despite clear scientific evidence that these actions are neither sustainable nor in the long term public interest. Scientists didn’t stand a chance.
Otto walks us through the “oft repeated five prong propaganda strategy of cloaking rhetorical arguments in scientific legitimacy in order to affect a desired policy objective.” The consequences and ‘scandals’ resulting from these attacks are listed in a lengthy but informative narrative, united by the sobering fact that these tactics have so far successfully prevented any substantial federal action to address climate change. Otto explains Bush’s failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol, ‘Climategate’, Foxgate and the (minor) errors found in the IPCC reports, and Attorney General Ken Cucinelli’s crusade against climate scientist Michael Mann as defrauding taxpayers. Otto then takes us through the failure of cap-and-trade as an originally Republican idea that is now ridiculed as experimenting with the economy, and the rise of proposals for geoengineering solutions such as sulfur aerosol injections – an idea that “is easily the riskiest suggestion in the history of human civilization,” which resembles “taking up a crack habit.”
Otto’s points out in this chapter that the controversy over climate change is exacerbated by the inadequacy of media coverage as an intermediary between scientists and the general public. CSW has long advocated for the need for objectivity (i.e., regard for empirical evidence), but not for neutrality (e.g., fake ‘balance’ of conflicting views without regard for evaluating the merits) in press coverage of science-related stores. Indeed, Otto maintains that “Americans find themselves in an absurd and dangerous position: in a time when the majority of the world’s leading country’s largest challenges revolve around science, few reporters are covering them from a scientific angle.”
To restore science to a place in the American political realm, Otto contends that citizens must be better informed; that the media must work to connect the public, scientists, and policymakers in an objective, nonpartisan manner. Scientific education must be improved. And, as he did during the 2008 presidential campaign, Otto advocates for holding a televised ‘science debate’ between the two presidential candidates in the 2012 election. That could be a most interesting and illuminating event. It would be an opportunity to push President Obama to engage in some forthright discussion of climate science before a national audience, which he has appeared most reluctant to do, and to go toe-to-toe with whatever ‘skeptic’ the Republicans put up against him.
If Americans are not well-enough informed to successfully tackle issues like climate change, Otto contends that seeing political leaders directly address the issues will foster greater public interest in the topics, help Americans distinguish scientific finding from rhetoric, and encourage our children to devote their education to the subject. “By putting science in its rightful place as an ongoing part of the policy discussion of the nation, parents can become educated in the context in which they are used to taking in information – policy decisions that affect their lives.”
CSW also believes that increasing scientific literacy is a necessary component to solving the political indecision surrounding action on climate change, and will contribute equally positively to the broad array of science-based dilemmas that face our society. Getting science-based issues to the forefront with a televised debate is a simple yet powerful tool to encourage scientific literacy. It could contribute to increased citizen involvement and advocacy for the creation of a comprehensive US policy on climate change.
At the conclusion of the book Otto asks, “will we take up the mantle of freedom and leadership that science gave us -- the commitment to knowledge over the assertions of ‘but faith or opinion’ that led us to the disquieting idea of equality that is the foundation of our democracy?” A worthy challenge.