Science Book Club: The War on Science Ch 1-2

photo of solar panels on a roof

Energy policy should definitely be informed by science; at the same time, people are entitled to nonscientific ideas about how where to put solar panels, for example. (Photo by Photo-Mix)

Welcome to our first blog book discussion. As announced last week, we are reading through Shawn Otto’s The War on Science together and discussing a couple of chapters at a time as we go. I’ll start by sharing a few of my thoughts, organized by topic, and then it’s your turn. You can respond to my comments or introduce new threads of discussion, whatever is on your mind. So let’s get started!

Science & Politics

OK, so that got political quickly. I thought Otto might build to the case for science debate questions as the book went along and finish with some action points, but he went there right out of the gate. He has a point that science impacts policy decisions, although I’m not certain scientific knowledge always translates to power as the second chapter argued. Sure, if you build a better mousetrap, etc. but does expertise in string theory or intracellular protein transport really afford much power? Or to put it another way, is science only valuable if it allows us to control the world? That feels like a very political perspective on science, rather than a scientific perspective of politics.

The candidate questions were interesting. “What should we do about the world’s aging nuclear weapons?” feels very appropriate, since elected officials will be making those kinds of decisions and that decision process should engage with the science of nuclear decay. “Do vaccines cause autism?” feels more like a shibboleth; I appreciate why such a question may seem necessary, but I’d rather hear about a comprehensive vision for public health than a true/false quiz.

Those questions set up what I felt was a central tension of these first chapters. Is Otto trying to encourage broad scientific literacy and a deeper level of scientific discourse in US national politics, or is he rallying support for specific policies and positions? I sense he thinks both are the same, that if we just knew the science we’d come to the same conclusions. But psychological and sociological research is revealing this deficit model of disagreement isn’t always accurate and doesn’t result in persuasion as often as expected. The deficit model supposes that people disagree with me because they don’t know the science, and so if I just explain it to them they’ll come around to my point of view. But there are plenty of situations where people know all the same science and still come to different conclusions. And so I wonder if Otto has tipped his ideological hand too soon, making it difficult for readers with different political or even world views to appreciate his concern for science literacy in general.

Scientific Definitions

mass spectrometer photo

This is one kind of mass spectrometer. I salute anyone who does buy one for home use. (Photo by EMSL )

Otto discusses several matters of definition and seems to place these on equal footing with observations and inferences. For example, he describes a hypothetical disagreement about whether 2 + 2 is 4 or 6. He claims the matter can be settled by observing the world to learn which answer is objectively true and which is objectively false. But arithmetic is not purely a matter of observation; it relies heavily on definitions, at least some of which are arbitrary. In base 3, 2 + 2 is 11. On the ring Z4, 2 + 2 is 0. (And for extra fun, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … and so on infinitely comes to – 1 / 12.) Sure, I’m being deliberately obtuse, but if we are interested in scientific literacy and making strong claims about what we know through science, we can’t gloss over epistemology.

More to the point, it’s not just math where definitions are important. Otto comes back repeatedly to policies about “morning after” pills, strongly implying that there is one correct policy based on science and the “scientific definition of when a woman can be said to be pregnant.” But this is the topic where I think the problems with Otto’s approach to persuasion are most evident. Biology is not the only issue. People are concerned about that particular prescription because of their idea of when life begins, not just when pregnancy begins. Insisting that fertilized eggs fail to implant all the time doesn’t make one particular definition more scientific than another; after all, lives end from natural causes at all stages of life with regularity.

Consider that some humanists make a scientific case for life beginning at fertilization and thus advocate for pro-life policies. I observed some women marching for such an organization at the March for Science earlier this year. These folks are not ignorant of the science. They choose different definitions based on the same observations. It’s unclear where humanists for pro-life fit into Otto’s schema, although the testimonies on that linked page indicate that many atheists and humanists and liberals are suspicious of any pro-life advocates and believe they must really be religiously motivated in some fashion.

Science as Magic

I am perhaps critiquing Otto a fair bit, but I sympathize with his advocacy for better science education and deeper engagement with science in public discourse. The book’s statistics about science journalism do reflect the reality of reporting at the moment. Perhaps more fundamentally, science has left many people behind. Otto touches on this when he compares smartphones to broomsticks and describes science and magic as effectively indistinguishable for some. Invoke the right magic words and inanimate objects spring to life; is that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or programming in a robotics lab?

Science is fundamentally observational, but so many contemporary inferences follow from observations that few of us can make. And while I appreciate Otto’s attempt to make some of them seem attainable, his proposal of purchasing a $2,000 mass spectrometer seems out of touch with a country where half of the adults couldn’t find $400 for an emergency expense. And that’s not counting the cost of learning how to use such equipment; I have a hard science PhD and zero experience with acquiring and preparing the samples involved or interpreting the output, which almost certainly doesn’t read out Batcomputer-style as a direct answer to the age of the Earth question. Encouraging DIY experiments is good, but science has been diverging from unaided observations since we invented the telescope 400 years ago. I suspect we need more comprehensive solutions; hopefully Otto has some in store for us.


Wow, I’ve already said a lot and not even touched some big topics — Galileo, the nature of legal rhetoric and scientific reasoning, the role of interpretation in making inferences from observational data, the authoritarian roots of republican democracy, and so on. Perhaps some of you would like to take up those issues. The floor is yours.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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7 Comments

  • patrck.walsh@gmail.com'
    Pat Walsh commented on June 15, 2017 Reply

    Thanks very much for hosting this, Andy. Courageous choice of a book for this discussion.

    1. “Is Otto trying to encourage broad scientific literacy and a deeper level of scientific discourse in US national politics, or is he rallying support for specific policies and positions?” I hope it’s the former, although I wonder if the use of the word “war” in the title is helpful in that regard. The scientific community and the nation at large will not benefit from more polarizing arguments. We should, instead, be looking past our biases, stepping outside our echo chambers, and educating ourselves about the current world situation in ways that will enable us to contribute to solutions to widely recognized issues. I would refer readers to your online Christianity Today article about biases: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/june/how-our-unconscious-biases-shape-our-beliefs.html

    2. About political reticence to discuss science in public (Chapter 1). Let’s acknowledge the nature of governing and political activity in general. Elected officials, especially Congressmen, Senators, and State legislators, who are representatives of specific populations, follow priorities that differ from what we might expect.
    *Raise money to fund the next election campaign or to repay debts from past campaigns.
    *Get re-elected if eligible.
    *Support the candidacies of other elected officials in their party or caucus.
    *Avoid scandal.
    *Enact laws on behalf of their constituents.

    Contemporary issues such as climate change that have a strong connection to science might also require that governing bodies ask sacrifices of their constituents. The last science-based federal government project that had broad popular appeal and support was probably Apollo 11. Since then we’ve had Apollo 13, agent orange, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Challenger and Columbia disasters, Hurricane Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy. Is it really a surprise that elected officials stay away from science-related issues in public discussion?

    I wonder if contemporary issues that have a strong connection to science can be taken up instead by others in such a way as to make federal government involvement in particular less relevant. Consider the number of entities and individuals–states, cities, NGOs, and corporate executives–that pled with President Trump not to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Treaty. Consider also the number of entities that have since pledged their commitment to the terms of the treaty in spite of the official withdrawal by the U.S. federal government.

    3. The choice of Galileo as an example of science being politicized is a cliché, but maybe that’s an acknowledgment that some readers, myself included, have degrees in the humanities. Readers of this blog will undoubtedly be able to name scientists and contributions that they made that were not highly politicized.

    Thank you again for hosting this.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on June 16, 2017 Reply

      Thanks for these thoughts (and the plug).

      1. Despite the title, I thought based on the contents and summaries that the book would be less polarizing than the first couple of chapters shaped up to be. But then again, I was hopeful that even if the book was polarizing, the discussion here in this forum could provide some more nuanced counterpoint. You mentioned cognitive biases; there is some research suggesting that very intelligent people are actually less likely to recognize their own cognitive biases rather than more likely.

      2. Politicians do have a number of priorities, not all of which are establishing optimal policies and some of which are counter to that goal when the optimal policy has a tragedy-of-the-commons dimension. So you’re probably right that there is a pragmatism about how politics operations that Otto has thus far overlooked. I’d connect that with his idealistic scientism or confidence that science is the best/only way to make progress, as the other comment thread brought up.

      And Otto has also thus far ignored all of the reasons you cite for the public to genuinely be wary of scientific topics, and politicians as well. To that list, I’d add the recent revelation that longstanding government nutrition recommendations were based on minimal research and heavy lobbying. There is definitely a place for healthy skepticism of science in general, and government-endorsed science in particular.

      On climate science in particular, I am heartened by the notion that the transition to renewable energy will proceed with or without federal endorsement simply because the economics are favorable. And so yes, non-federal and non-government entities have an important role to play on climate and many of the other topics Otto brings up.

      3. That’s a good point that Galileo is a familiar figure for many, which has value. And Galileo’s case does illustrate important lessons. I guess I just think that, when folks are so quick to say that if 97% of scientists accept climate change then 97% of the discussion should advance that perspective, a proportional balance should be applied to the relationship between science and religion.

  • truittandsabina@gmail.com'
    T. Wiensz commented on June 16, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for leading this discussion! As you say, there are definite aspects to be appreciated in Otto’s approach; it’s an important conversation, given the status of public discussion today. Though the media has a different flavor in here in Canada than many of Otto’s descriptions of the US, there are common elements. A few thoughts.

    You identify a central tension of these chapters between A) encouraging broad scientific literacy and deeper level of discourse and B) rallying support for specific policies. This seems to get to the heart of the issue with Otto’s book pretty quickly. It seems like not doing the second is almost impossible: it’s difficult to describe issues without in some way ‘tipping your hand’, but surely there are several ways that Otto’s account could have been perhaps articulated more carefully …

    While not explicitly endorsing a worldview, he seems to be advocating for something stronger than a merely naturalist stance: there’s a strong stream of scientism throughout the first two chapters. Examples: he seems to equate “science-illiteracy” with “unreason”; equates interesting questions with those raised by science; he emphasizes the importance of expertise, but seems to effectively limit this to the expertise of scientists; he makes claims like “the reliable knowledge it produces is responsible for every advance in the modern world”. This kind of advance closure to other areas of enquiry doesn’t accord well (to me, at least) with openness to enquiry for the types of important issues that he lists. How might the range of broader societal debates connect to this list of (important) issues that he identifies?

    On his narrative shaping: He seems to place most of the blame for today’s antiscience (does he clarify this?) with ‘religious fervor’ in response to the 9/11 attacks. This seems very inadequate. Surely there are other anti-authoritarian and anti-intellectual elements at work? Surely there could be other societal changes (even over this 15-year timeline) that have in various ways influenced these events?

    On method and discourse: He mentions the rhetoric of lawmakers, which is valid; yet his argument relies strongly on the notion of purely disinterested scientists. There is also an element of rhetoric in scientific discourse: not mere rhetoric of course, but rhetoric nonetheless, which is relevant to science’s political dimension. It seems that many of the interesting problems in science lie near the areas of the qualifications, uncertainties involved, and unsolved problems. The epistemological nature and meaning of uncertainty is very different for a scientist than for a layperson; issues like this seem like a critical part of the discussion, but are often avoided to avoid being misconstrued (e.g. debate means lack of knowledge). I’m interested to see to what extent this finds a place in Otto’s account.

    On politics: While he acknowledges the implications of science for politics (helpful; scientific discoveries open up material possibilities that, in time, end up becoming useful) he is a bit too quick to speak as though science isn’t political in its own workings; or at least, claiming that it’s strictly anti-authoritarian. It seems like an important part of Otto’s account of science that it works according to Popper’s falsificationism (observation, forming hypothesis with ‘risky prediction’; designing, conducting a falsifying experiment; etc.) This is an attractive position for Otto’s strategy and has a lot going for it; but it’s not entirely true to the day-to-day work. As per Thomas Kuhn’s work, there is something like a difference in modes between the (relatively-conservative) work within a paradigm and the (relatively-liberal) work in times of crisis science. Also, there is an internal role of authority within science in its own way and by its own rules (being inducted into the practice via supervision; evaluation by peers; some researchers’ authority having a certain tacit sense; etc). The picture that Otto presents – an egalitarian community of experts – serves to legitimate his picture of science as intrinsically anti-authoritarian; but the philosophy and sociology of science have enriched this quite significantly in the past 50 years with quite interesting and important questions.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on June 16, 2017 Reply

      Thanks for joining the conversation! Your point that Otto’s perspective is very focused on the United States is well taken; I expected that would be the case, but was still surprised at the degree and at how quickly that focus revealed itself. I know this blog has an audience beyond the US; I’ll try to do a better job next time of picking a book with a more universal approach. Still, I appreciate your graciousness in engaging with the points of intersection.

      I also got a flavor of scientism from these chapters, particularly in the way that science is equated with ever-advancing progress. Last week, commenting on the preface, I noted Krauss’ apparent disregard for the science of the Middle Ages. One theory for why that science is overlooked is because very few of its models or hypotheses contribute to our present understanding of the world. As a result, it doesn’t fit well into the notion that science is about being increasingly right; whatever they were doing for all those centuries couldn’t have really been science because they kept being wrong. But in the sense that they were studying the world through observation and experimentation, either for curiosity or technological application, there was plenty of science in the Middle Ages. A greater appreciation for the history of science as a distinct, nonscientific discipline which is nevertheless rational and capable of discerning truth seems like it would be helpful.

      Yes, there was a strong emphasis on religion (which is conflated with political conservatism) as the cause of anti-science sentiment, at least in these chapters. There are later chapters which look specifically at other factors and other groups – because you are right, there are others. But already we get the sense that, in Otto’s mind, the religious right is somehow more wrong than liberals. I remain hopeful Otto’s discussion will be more balanced going forward, but we didn’t get off on the best foot.

      The actual practice of science definitely involves both rhetoric and politics. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I think you are right that Otto is operating from a Popperian perspective on how science proceeds. This topic has come up previously on the blog and Gerry Rau pointed out that philosophy of science has largely moved away from falsification. But he agreed that in the popular mind and in the way many scientists describe science, falsification is the dominant paradigm. So we have yet another disconnect between the best work in a non-science discipline and what scientists and scientism claims.

      You mentioned that advocacy of specific policy positions is likely unavoidable, but could be done more artfully. I’d be curious to hear if you have more thoughts on how you would approach that challenge.

      Thanks again!

      • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
        Andy Walsh commented on June 16, 2017 Reply

        Oh, and if we’re going to play the “quote the founders” game, we also need to acknowledge the rather authoritarian perspective some of them had which motivated their creation of a republican democracy rather than a direct democracy—and one with fairly restricted voting privileges even within the democratic portion at that. For example, John Adams had this cheery and optimistic view of how the masses would govern themselves: “Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”

        So yes, neither science nor American government are as purely anti-authoritarian as Otto would have us believe.

      • truittandsabina@gmail.com'
        T. Wiensz commented on June 19, 2017 Reply

        I suppose my opening comments were meant to point to the issues noted in the further paragraphs, and that considering these aspects in addressing policy positions will depend on the issues involved. Thanks for asking; I’ll keep that in mind throughout further reading of the book.

        I think one aspect of what I was trying to draw attention to is the way we use the language of ‘facts’. From MacIntyre, “It is of course and always was harmless, philosophically and otherwise, to use the word ‘fact’ of what a judgment states. What is and was not harmless, but highly misleading, was to conceive of a realm of facts independent of judgment or of any other form of linguistic expression, so that judgments or statements or sentences could be paired off with facts, truth or falsity being the alleged relationship between such paired items.” (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 357-8) Our ways of speaking about, and being trained in, the sciences sometimes let us forget this.

        • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
          Andy Walsh commented on June 20, 2017 Reply

          To me, there is a curious parallel here with Biblical interpretation. We might hope that both the text of scripture and the facts of nature can be understood via a ‘plain reading’ such that fallible interpretation never has to get involved. In reality, both always involve some form of interpretation. As you note, science and scientists can sometimes underappreciate the impact of interpretation. Otto makes some allowance for this in chapters 3 and 4, but I’m still a little concerned his picture is overly optimistic.

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