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The War on Science will change how you see the world

Posted on 1 July 2016 by John Abraham

Every so often a book comes along that changes the way you view the world. The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto is one of those rare books. If you care about attacks on climate science and the rise of authoritarianism, if you care about biased media coverage or shake-your-head political tomfoolery, this book is for you. 

Cover of the book The War on Science

Otto, an organizer of the US Presidential Science Debates and a global speaker on science and democracy, started on the journey that led to this book in late 2007, when he noticed that the candidates weren’t talking about any of the big science, technology, health and environmental issues. 

Furthermore, the news media weren’t asking questions about these subjects even though they were impacting voters at least as much as economics and foreign policy. In fact, the top five TV news anchors asked the candidates 2,975 questions in 171 interviews, and just six mentioned the words “global warming” or “climate change,” the single largest environmental and economic question to face the planet. To put that in perspective, three mentioned UFOs.

Flash forward eight years. In the week following the Paris climate accord, both the Democrats and the Republicans held presidential primary debates. Yet just days after 195 countries reached an historic agreement to begin rebuilding the world’s economy around clean energy, no journalist in either debate asked a single question about it.

This is par for the course for journalists and politicians who mostly went into the humanities after high school, says Otto. But it’s a problem when science is impacting every aspect of life on the planet, and having more and more concrete things to say about public policy.

Thomas Jefferson would be appalled. Otto traces how Jefferson appealed to scientific thinking when drafting the Declaration of Independence, narrowly circumscribing his argument around the idea that if anyone can establish the truth of something using the tools of reason and science, no pope or monarch had any greater authority to rule than we do ourselves. Science was the great equalizer. “Wherever the people are well-informed,” Jefferson later wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” To secure this, he championed a free press and public education.

But according to Otto, this places an ever-increasing burden on the voter, and in an age when science has grown mind-bogglingly complex, public education and the press are unduly influenced by corporations focused on financial outcomes, religious extremists intent on forcing biblical literalist policies, and postmodernist academics who’ve laid the foundation for all this by teaching that science is but one of many equally valid “ways of knowing” and that all truth is relative.

In particular, Otto argues that journalists are taught there is no such thing as objectivity. This has created an over-emphasis on balance, which these days often pits scientists relaying objective knowledge on the one hand, against impassioned advocates seeking to persuade on the other. This false balance skews public dialogue toward extreme views by presenting opinions as if they had the weight of knowledge, weakening the press’s role as democracy’s tiller. 

These challenges, Otto believes, are getting worse. “Over the course of the next forty years,” he writes, “science is poised to create more knowledge than humans have created in all of recorded history ... One only has to recall the political battles fought over past scientific advances to see that we are in for a rocky ride.” In fact, Otto makes a convincing case that democracy is facing an existential challenge.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. I will be buying a copy of this book. I agree with your comments about post modern ideas about alternative sources of "truth" and how bizarre this is, and the resulting fake balance issues in the media especially on climate change.

    Another issue is science expertise in the mass media, or the lack of this in some cases. By mass media I mean traditional newspapers and television, not websites like this. In the past the mass media, such as newspapers seemed to have science editors and quite decent science articles. I have noticed this has fallen away recently, and wonder if competition between the internet and traditional media has eroded traditional media, and people employed with some science expertise have been the first casualties of job cuts.

    Of course there are excellent science based websites like this one, however most people don’t have huge time to read and get their overall impression from news articles on television or in the newspaper. I'm not sure what the answer is, other than to implore all media outlets to have some qualified science writers of repute, and having respect for mainstream science positions. It would also be great if the mass media was better aware of specialist websites like this, and referenced them more often.

    Another issue is we may be a victim of our own success. Science has delivered a prosperity some people take for granted, and now feel free to indulge in their anti science conspiracy theories when it suits. They are in effect biting the hand that feeds.

    Certain people also seem able to achieve the mental feat of believing in both science and creationism, and I just don’t know how they do this.

    Of course we also have this attack on science from various ideologically driven groups. Ideology is about belief, and science is about evidence, and they make for uncomfortable bed fellows.

    The attacks on science from groups with vested interests, or religious or political ideologies is quite vicious.

    Conservative think tanks are not always friendly towards science, although doubtless some liberal ones may not be either. However the more interesting thing is what drives this. Make no mistake these bodies wield a pervasive power beyond their apparent size. Maybe the drive in recent decades towards belief in "free markets" and the private sector has created the environment that generates powerful and well funded behind the scenes lobby groups and policy foundations that become in turn quite driven by their own need to exist and prosper, the same criticism that has been made of government bureaucracies!

    However the bottom line is these attacks on science are rarely soundly based, and are driven by vested interests, ignorance and fear in many cases.

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  2. Recommended supplemental reading:

    The GOP’s Denial of Science Primed Them for the Illogic of Trump by Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy, Slate, June 30, 2016

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  3. Article: "Over the... next forty years... science is poised to create more knowledge than... in all of recorded history... democracy is facing an existential challenge"  Indeed, if, as seems possible, China heads up many of these scientific advances and leads in Climate remediation, she could triumphantly claim 'who needs Democracy?', and others around the World might listen.

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  4. It is important to clarify that the fighting is not against any and all Science.

    Science can be described as the development of better understanding of what is going on through observation and experimentation (and as such must exclude Spirituality which is a relevant area of thought that cannot be observed or experimented upon).

    What is going on is some people are fighting against raised public awareness and understanding of certain types or areas of developing better understanding.

    The fight against certain areas of better understanding is done by people who get away with becoming wealthy or powerful through actions they come to understand, or always knew, are not justifiable sustainable improvements of global humanity. They then need to fight against the deserved end of their developed method of acquiring wealth and power.

    However, to be fair, many of those people love to abuse a development of specific better understanding that would allow them to temporarily personally gather more wealth and power such as a new drug that can make lots of money before its negative consequences are understood.

    So it is not fair to say they are fighting against all science. In fact, the science of marketing and the ability to create popular support through careful marketing message creation and delivery is a favorite of those people.

    So it is no a "War on Science". It is a fight by people who have developed undeserved perceptions of prosperity, wealth and power against any increased awareness and understanding that is contrary to their interests.

    A good example of this distinction is the recent Conservative government of Canada. They did not dislike all science. They redirected government funding to areas of research and reporting (message development and dissemination) that they believed would be beneficial for the interests of the likes of them. They also deliberately reduced funding for areas of research that could be contrary to their interests or tried to carefully control the reporting of the results of such research (refer to "The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada" by Chris Turner).

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  5. OPF - I am inclined to disagree. The fight is actually against the very idea of science - that you use data to change your mind. Obviously no one objects to data that doesnt conflicts with wishes/ideology/values. However, we are increasing seeing an attacks on science when there is a conflict, especially when it generates value conflicts since scientists themselves have values too. There is no acceptence of hypothesis evaluation by data in these and so in fact a rejection of scientific method.

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  6. OPOF @ 4.

    Agree with your reasons why science is being attacked, but it has unfortunately spilled over into a more general attack.

    The war on science is mostly coming from people with vested interests. They have some financial interest (and as you say may partly know this is not an entirely ethical interest) and the science threatens their interests. The science may also threaten their world view, or prejudices, etc. As a result they may extend their response to a sweeping attack on all science, to strengthen their case.

    The attack is indeed on the idea that "you use data to change your mind" but the attack is only happening because of pre existing vested interests. It is not an attack on scientific method just for the sake of it.

    Science has challenged ideas about creationism, and homosexuality (by suggesting its largely genetic), and has suggested we are degrading the environment. That challenges a lot of vested interersts or cherished beliefs.

    Science, or "evidence based thinking" also challenges dubious politics, or foreign affairs exploits, and whether very liberal gun ownership is a good thing. In fact evidence based thinking challenges both sides of the gun debate!

    With so many things recently science in general has thus come under attack.

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  7. scaddenp@6

    Many people may be responding in the way you describe but they are motivated into that way of thinking by influential messages from people who abuse their understanding of how to influence such easily impressed people to get what they want (the pros change their messaging based on data evaluation of the response they get - science of marketing).

    And the people who respond to such appeals are a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is the people who deliberately abuse better understanding to gain unjustifiable personal advantage rather than trying to advance humanity to a better future. They love science that will benefit them.

    Political Science and Business Science (particularly marketing) that promote the understandably damaging economic status-quo are conspicuously free from having a war on science waged against them.

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  8. The issue is whether a science subject is profitable or not.

    Genetic Modification is seen as profitable and it is all about control of the environment, hence it gets the thumbs up. Climate change is seen as disruptive and largely as costly to us all, so it gets the thumbs down.

    Remember that ideology drives what science is acceptable. Why would a political ideologist and activist accept a science that would mean they would have to change their ideology or activity?

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  9. What bothers me the most is that they try to paint science as the same thing as religion and a large number of people, and most of the media, never question that.

    Science is basically the opposite of religion. Religion is based on faith, and requires no objective evidence. Science eschews faith and is based enitrely on objective evidence.

    The fact that this is not obvious to most people is a huge failure of our educational system. Kids from grade 5 or 6 on should fully understand this difference, let alone adults.

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  10. OPOF - what you are describing fits my definition of War on Science. You say "They love science that will benefit them" - but they dont. They love the results. It could be created by witchcraft or religious incantations for all they care. That is very different from an attitude to the discipline itself.

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  11. Scaddenp @10

    You seem to be saying some people just hate science, all science. Maybe you are right, but there has to be a reason.

    It could be because of specific ideological reasons like religion (Im not suggesting here all religious people hate science), or that they have massive vested interests in something like fossil fuels that takes over their entire attitude to science.

    It could be related to conservative beliefs. There is some polling / research that suggests conservatives are not hugely comfortable with science. This suggests a deep cause.

    Or is it because some people just aren't very good at science? So they are just dismissive of science, unless it happens to generate something they like.

    Personally I think there are probably millions of different reasons for the war on science, reflecting the millions of individuals who are so engaged in this war. I doubt there is one root cause.

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  12. I dont think it is a case of "hate science". For the myriad of reasons you mention, they perceive that science gets the "wrong answer", therefore they mistrust science and/or scientists. When there is a perception that acceptance of science results is undermining their values, then the antagonism goes deeper than mistrust.  Time to shoot the messenger by defunding or whatever. I would say some of this is definitely a deep misunderstanding of science and scientists work (some classic examples of projection out there in denierland), but it is also a fact of post-modernism where there is no one way to apprehend to truth. Whatever route someone used to get the "right answer" is seen as just as valid as science. Like it or not, post-modernism permeates our cultural understanding.

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  14. Scaddenp @ 12

    I can definitely go along with all that. I broadly trust the science community, and it mystifies me how people become so distrustful. I'm not naive. I realise science is a work in progress and sometimes gets it wrong, but its vastly preferable to anything else, and far more rigorous.

    I even sometimes get annoyed when science does not give results I was expecting, or threatens my own belief system, but I tend to mainly adjust my belief system, I dont end up with a deep misstrust of scientists. 

    Post modernism is possibly an outgrowth of extreme liberalism that seeks to legitimise individualism and tolerance of widely divergent viewpoints. Maybe it has gone too far at times.

    Looking at the video in the Tom Curtis link, the media have often drawn the wrong conclusions about research and over simplified things or exaggerated things, presumably to grab peoples attention. This is very unfortunate and irresponsible.  Real scientific conclusions are often nuanced, and that is what the media should be honest about. They can still portray science in a colourful way, without so blatantly distorting the findings. The mass media have confused issues, and thus hurt the reputation of science. The video was spot on and very amusing.

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  15. I also very much like that video!

    "Post modernism is possibly an outgrowth of extreme liberalism".  Or is liberalism in your sense of the word an outgrowth of post-modernism? Post-modernism is a many-faceted cultural phenomenum with extremely complex origins and development. Distinquishing cause from effect is difficult and probably not productive.

    However, it is the cultural reality we find ourselves in, and one in which we still have to find a way to make scientific communication effective. The Oliver video shows how broken some of that is but also I think accurately identifies the cause - most of us are lazy media browsers and we get the media we deserve.

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  16. "If you care about attacks on climate science and the rise of authoritarianism [you should read that book]"

    This, parallel to the war on science issue, is only mentioned but disapointingly, not explained by John in this article. What is it about? Perhaps related to the "Trump phenomenon" as we discussed in another thread? Anyone knows more about the book to reveal its take on "authoritarianism"?

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  17. Tom@13,

    Your video without comment does not adhere to the comment policy (no link only posts) although it's self explanatory, with almost 100% of it very much on topic here.

    It's worth noticing that in it, John Oliver provides extensive critique of a distorted image of science not just by media but also by politicians. Remarkable is John's assertion at 8:00-8:20:

    No shit ... This is science and not the US senate.

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