The War on Science will change how you see the world

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.

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Posted by John Abraham on Friday, 1 July, 2016

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