Science Book Review: The War on Science

diplomacy photo

If there is a war on science, I’d like to hear more about the diplomatic efforts to negotiate a peace. (Photo by Macsous )

Reminder: We’ll have a final video chat to discuss this book next Thursday evening (8/3 9pm EDT).

For those just joining us, I’ve spent the past few weeks blogging through Shawn Otto’s The War on Science, share my reactions and thoughts a couple of chapters at a time (Ch 1-2, Ch 3-4, Ch 5-6, Ch 7-8, Ch 9-10, Ch 11-13). I thought a useful way to cap that discussion would be to review and reflect on the book as a whole. Overall, I thought the book contained a lot of useful information and was admirable in its attempt to cover and contextualize the scope of present day skepticism and rejection of science. To the extent that there really is a war on science, I would preferred more of a peace proposal than marching orders for one side.

Over the course of my blogging and the book discussion, I wonder if I have come across as overly negative. I suppose that’s partly the nature of a conversation as a opposed to a book review; critique can be more fruitful for conversation than agreement. Coming into the book, I was sympathetic to Otto’s goals and share many of his concerns. The concept of objective truth has lost some or perhaps much of its currency. In the US political arena which most concerns Otto, parties no longer separated by what they value. They now fundamentally disagree on the state of reality. That truth is now up for grabs, both in political disputes and elsewhere, impacts disciplines beyond science. Still, since science is ostensibly concerned with objective truth and the state of reality, it is very much affected by a shifting understanding of truth. Like Otto and many others, I find it frustrating at times to hear false assertions proclaimed loudly and boldly and find it difficult to engage in dialogue with individuals who understand the world so differently from how I do. And I agree that such a disconnect makes democracy and shared life in general difficult. How can we negotiate solutions when we can’t even agree on which problems exist? How can we converse if we believe we live in such different worlds?

At the same time, I do share some sympathy for the parties Otto believes are on the other side of a war on science. As a Christian myself, I am concerned that the Christian faith and religion in the abstract are too easily dismissed altogether because of noisy opposition by some believers to specific scientific inferences. Even more worrisome is that some religious views are labeled anti-science not because they dispute the evidence or the conclusions, but because they dare to say ‘no’ to certain applications of science and technology. Having spent some time in academia, I also see value in some post-modern critique of science, history, and other fields which traditionally deal in objective truth. We do need to be careful to distinguish actual truth from our interpretation of evidence, and we do need to recognize that truth-seeking is always a human endeavor subject to the cognitive limits and personality quirks of individual seekers and humans as a species. And even when it comes to questions about climate change motivated by connections to the fossil fuel industries, I can appreciate the power that cheap energy has to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity and even see the logic in not wanting to make definite sacrifices in the present to avoid possible consequences in the future that some apparently knowledgeable people don’t believe will ever come. Of course, none of those considerations justify intentional and deliberate dissemination of lies. But relatively few of us are in a position to so egregiously manipulate the truth.

photo of smoke plumes

Polarizing speech raises the temperature of our dialogue just as surely as greenhouse gases raise the temperature of the climate. (Photo by SD-Pictures)

So when Otto is making his case for objective truth and for the field-leveling, democratizing power of knowledge, I’m right there with him. And I believe he does make that case powerfully and persuasively. I appreciate the historical perspective he provides both to demonstrate how sharing knowledge has made societies more egalitarian over time, and to trace the threads which lead to our current circumstances of deep doubt of science and knowledge by some. Intentionally or not, I think he even makes a solid case for why US citizens in the late 20th century should be more skeptical and less idealistic about science and should question how and when it is researched and applied. Vulnerable individuals and populations have been exploited for experimentation, technologies have been widely used without fully understanding the consequences, and authority is invoked to squash dissent. Overall, Otto constructs a fairly thorough narrative of how we arrived at the current state of public engagement with science. Sometimes I think he overreaches in trying to tie all of the threads into a single narrative–for example, I don’t think postmodern philosophy influences fundamentalist Christian thinking as much as Otto suggests, given that fundamentalist Christians are at least as wary of postmodernism as Otto, if not more so–but that is always a risk when crafting narratives.

Where I found the book disappointing was its commitment to the warfare metaphor. Granted, that is more of a case of me wanting the book to be something it is not trying to be rather than the book failing in its goals. That a book titled The War on Science finishes with calls to arms literally named “Battle Plans” should not come as a surprise, and also answers my opening question of this series about the intended audience. This is a book to whip up the morale of the foot soldiers and coordinate the strategies of the officers on the science side of the war. An army thus equipped is sent forth to win a victory for their side, not negotiate a peace among all parties. But this is an odd war, because everyone involved has a choice about what side they are on. You don’t have to defeat anyone, you could invite them to share your point of view.

Towards the end of the book Otto makes the case for climate and the planet being a limited shared resource subject to the tragedy of the commons. I would suggest that the public sentiment of US citizens, a topic Otto discusses several times, is also a limited shared resource which much be managed carefully. Based on reviews, the sentiment among the scientific community about this book is generally positive, and why shouldn’t it be given how it much it flatters scientists. But very little in the book seems designed to engender positive sentiment from anyone already skeptical of science for philosophical, ideological, or financial reasons. Any single book is unlikely to make much of a difference in public sentiment in any direction, but the cumulative effective of books like this, which demonstrate little understanding of communities it talks about (as opposed to the communities it talks to), is to further entrench sentiment against science among those already leaning that way.

Discussion

  • In the language of economics, from whence comes the tragedy of the commons, deepening the divide between science and its detractors is an externality, or an external cost which the producer (Otto and his publisher) does not have to bear. Do you think it is possible to create an economic model where polarizing authors have to assume more of the costs their writing incurs? What would such a system look like?
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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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