When Politics Meets Science

In his new book, Fool Me Twice, writer Shawn Otto tells why he thinks science is under assault in America. Otto, CEO and co-founder of Science Debate 2008, also explains why his "American Science Pledge" for candidates might bring more science into political decision making.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next: science under attack. In his new book, "Fool Me Twice," writer Shawn Otto says science is under assault in America, and especially so in Washington, D.C. While science informs almost every aspect of our lives - think about climate change, energy, agriculture, medical research - Otto says anti-science views are so mainstream and science so marginalized that it's becoming a threat to our democracy.

Science didn't always take a backseat in politics. The Founding Fathers Jefferson and Franklin were themselves citizen-scientists, advocating for an informed citizenry. So what happened? And is there a way to bring science back into our social discussions, even into the presidential debates?

Shawn Otto is here to talk more about it. He is co-founder and CEO of Science Debate 2008. His new book is called "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." He joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome back to the program, Shawn.

SHAWN OTTO: Thanks, Ira. It's great to be back.

FLATOW: Tell us why you wrote this book and how science is under attack in America.

OTTO: Well, in 2008, you know, we noticed that the candidates for president really weren't talking about science issues at all. Coming out of the Bush administration, a lot of scientists were frustrated by the way that science had taken a backseat to policy positions that were determined by other factors.

And one time in particular, in January, we noticed that about 2,975 questions had been asked the candidates for president by the top five TV news anchors. And out of those 2,975 questions, six mentioned the words climate change or global warming, which was arguably - no matter which side you feel about it - a large policy position that they should have been talking about.

So we put together this effort called Science Debate 2008 to get the candidates to talk about that, and we ran into some really interesting snags. So the book starts with that as a jumping-off point to find out why it is that candidates leading the world's leading science country really could only talk about science in a forum on religion.

FLATOW: Yeah. And do you think now that we're now into the next cycle of politics for the presidential candidates? Will - do you think there's any way to bring science into that debate now? Should - how do we get some of those questions answered, or even discussed?

OTTO: Yeah. It's become, in some ways, much more difficult, as we can tell from looking at the current crop of GOP candidates. You know, Jon Huntsman said we don't want the Republican Party to become the anti-science party. But with the exception of Mitt Romney, every other candidate has taken - almost gone out of their way to take positions that are anti-science and that once would have not been accessible from a mainstream political candidate, but now are almost celebrated.

FLATOW: Do journalists and journalism share some of the blame of this not being part of the debate?

OTTO: They do. There's something called false balance that happens in journalism, and it's really something that's only happened in the last generation of journalists. And there are a lot of factors in play, here. It's not just this. But the idea that there is no objective truth that journalists must dig to get to and that their responsibility is fulfilled simply by presenting competing versions of the story and letting the audience decide which is true.

And what that does is that inappropriately weights our public discourse towards extreme views and furthers partisanship.

FLATOW: Can you give us your assessment of President Obama's record on science issues since he took office? What's his science report card?

OTTO: I think it's been mixed. He started out strong, beginning with his inaugural address and his engagement with Science Debate 2008 on the campaign trail. He put together a terrific team of scientists led by Harold Varmus to answer the questions of Science Debate 2008. There were about 39,000 scientists and engineers that had signed on and wanted these questions answered.

And that really did help inform his public policy ideas going in. This is the first time that we were aware of that a president had a fully formed science policy going into office. But that peaked in early 2009, as - after the stimulus bill was passed, which did a lot of good for science, it seemed that the Obama administration began moving in other directions, I think partly responding to the economic crisis, prioritizing health care over climate change in the legislature, I think, was a strategic decision that Obama made.

But it wound up putting immense pressure on climate scientists, because it gave opponents of that another year to spend several hundred million dollars attempting to fight it.

FLATOW: Do you think that scientists themselves sat on their hands too long and let things - let anti-science attack take place?

OTTO: Absolutely. And that's one of the things that I've talked about in the book. There are a lot of factors in play, but, you know, science used to be thought of as an exploration of nature, and much of it still is. But there's also a part of science that, in World War II, came to be used as a weapon, an intellectual weapon to win the war.

And that's a valid use of knowledge. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said. So why not use it as power? But after World War II, Vannevar Bush made a terrific pitch called, "Science the Endless Frontier," about how the government should continue to fund science moving forward.

And he sold Truman on the tremendous advantages that that could bring to the nation, and indeed, it has. It's possible that he made part of that pitch too well, in that scientists really, after that point, didn't have to engage in the same level of public outreach that they did before.

And in fact, university tenure programs grew up that did not reward public outreach, and often it was a disincentive. There is even something that happened called the Sagan effect, after Carl Sagan was denied admission to the National Academy of Sciences.

And that idea is that your popularity with the public is inversely proportional to your contributions as a scientist. In Sagan's case, that wasn't true. He published some 500 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, probably about one a month over his 39-year career. And indeed, recent research has shown that scientists that engage in public outreach actually generally perform better academically, too.

FLATOW: And so now scientists are more fearful, then, that if they speak up, the same thing would happen to them? They're afraid of being ostracized?

OTTO: Exactly, and not only that, but that science - or that politics came to be viewed as something that was dirty or that was beneath scientists, and that it could taint your objectivity. So why engage? Why take a risk in something like that?

FLATOW: And has - when has science become so political, and why is it so political? Or (unintelligible) be that way?

OTTO: Yeah. There's - okay. So there's two questions there that are both actually pretty interesting. First of all, why is it political? You know, again, Francis Bacon said knowledge is power, and science is about creating knowledge, and politics is the exercise of power.

So science is always inherently political. Any time we extend the bounds of our knowledge, that is going to have moral and ethical consequences that are going to be political questions. Also, it's also going to disrupt vested interests.

Climate change is a great example of that. Scientists aren't out pursuing a political agenda. They're pursuing the truth, and the truth is pointing them in a particular direction. And we've seen this kind of thing happen over and over again, when science has disrupted vested interests, be they monetary, financial or be they religious interests.

FLATOW: There's a section in your book where you talk about the book "Super Freakonomics," written by an economics professor and a journalist, and you say it is full of misinformation and propaganda, and you quote climatologist Raymond Pierrehumbert talking about the book, calling it, quote, "sloppy, politically motivated thinking."

OTTO: That's right.

FLATOW: I mean, that's pretty heavy criticism.

OTTO: Well, that comes from Ray. But that part of the book is - was belittling climate scientists in a certain tone and also really taking a partisan point of view in advocating for something called geo-engineering, which Pierrehumbert and most climate scientists view as a terribly dangerous thing to be promoting as if it were a simple technological solution.

And that's the idea that we don't have to worry about the causes of climate change. We can just dial down the Earth's thermostat in a number of different ways, some of them cheap enough that any one of several billionaires could probably personally afford it. But what happens when you do that is you can disrupt a planetary climate system and essentially create an addictive situation that you can't ever get out of.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You also talk about something we see over and over again that is - especially when you talk about climate change or any other issues of science, and that is if you say something over and over again, people think that it will become true. You say that climate change is not real, and you think if you say it over and over again you can negate the 97 percent of the climate scientists who believe it is.

OTTO: Right. It kind of reminds me of that old cartoon of a person covering their ears and saying I'm not listening, I'm not listening. If you say it loud enough and often enough, maybe it will go away. And there's a lot of research actually that's coming out on this now about the different ways that people think about problems in navigating their daily lives. And scientists are a little bit different in the way that they approach that than the average, you know, Joe public, who cherry-pick bits and pieces of information and make rhetorical arguments to sell their point or to win the argument, to get what they need. And that's the way many people approach political questions. Scientists are trained to do really just the opposite, to set all that aside, to measure reality, to look at those measurements, to make inclusions based on the observations of the data.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Gary(ph) in D.C. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

GARY: Hi. I think that one of the reasons specifically the voting public does not trust science much as it might is because scientists often use their data to make conclusions that are beyond the realm of science, and they actually enter the realm of what could be called philosophy or metaphysics or religion. For instance, a lot of, you know, I've heard scientists say that, you know, we have proven that the human being is nothing more than a material organism, that there is no soul. The brain controls the being. And I think that really upsets people to the point where they no longer trust scientists because they've heard scientists so often go beyond the scope of their discipline.

FLATOW: Shawn, any comment?

OTTO: Well, Eugenie Scott talks about this quite a lot. She's the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. And I like her definition of science. And she says that science - good science concerns itself with the material world, the study of the physical world. That science is metaphysical in the same way that plumbing is metaphysical. It's just is about how things work. And once science begins to make statements beyond what we can observe, that gets into the realm of faith. And that's not really an appropriate place for science to go.

On the other hand, there are also people like Pat Churchland, a neurophilosopher, who have compiled a lot of work in neuroscience, and - who wonder about this issue because as different brain systems are injured, for instance, it can radically change what appears to be a person's spirit or soul. So these are always complex, often ethically and morally disturbing and painful questions. But they are questions that we have always had as human beings. And as we extend our knowledge, these are the kinds of discussions that we have to have.

FLATOW: Talking with Shawn Otto, author of "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Let's talk about the subtitle, "Fighting the Assault on Science in America." In what way would you begin that fight?

OTTO: Oh, how to begin the fight? Well, partly, I think that the way to do that is as multifaceted as how we got into the problem. Scientists need to re-engage civically, not necessarily running for office, although I think we need some more Vern Ehlers and Rush Holts and Bill Fosters up in Congress. But also perhaps even just running for school board, or more than that talking to their friends and neighbors and speaking out in their community, not about a conclusion to science, but about the process of science, about critical thinking, about how to make informed public decisions based on data instead of on opinions or ideology, which is really something that we have begun to get away from.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask you this, Shawn, don't you think that people are smart enough to do that if they want to? I mean, even the politicians, they're, you know, they're pretty smart people. Don't you think if they wanted to take a critical look at things, they know how to do that?

OTTO: Part of this is - again, there's a lot of research that's starting to come out on this as well. People often process belief and knowledge using the same brain centers. And sometimes, they hold very conflicting ideas and they apply them differently in different circumstances. For instance, it's very interesting to note that when, you know, this big brouhaha - I think it was last year - about the national - gosh, who was it - it was in the change in the way that we asked the polling question about evolution and whether or not you believe that man evolved in the current - or man was created in its current form about 6,000 years ago, or whether humans evolved over time.

And it turned out that Americans who had constantly scored below many other nations on this question, when the question was rephrased and they were asked according to scientists humans evolved from earlier species of animals, they answered that pretty much on par with other nations. So there is this cognitive dissonance that goes on. And what happens is that extends out into our culture, and people adopt ideas that they see others adopting around them.

I once said at a conference we have to shame anti-science thinking into submission the same way that we shamed racism. And that was - it engendered a lot of controversy, but it was getting to that same point, that acceptance of science in public discourse is almost a matter of cultural pride.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Shawn Otto, author of "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." We're going to take a break and come back and take more of your phone calls. Also, you can tweet us, @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. You can leave some comments and join the discussion on our website at sciencefriday.com. So stay with us. We'll be back more with Shawn Otto and your questions. Don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about science and politics in America with Shawn Otto, co-founder and CEO of Science Debate 2008. His new book is called "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." And as I promised, we're going to go to the phones when we got back. Let's go to Jerry(ph) in Cookeville, Tennessee. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY: Hi. How are you today?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JERRY: Yeah, listen. When Shawn said 97 percent of all scientists agree with this, well, there's been over 30,000 scientists who signed - I guess it would be kind of like a document - saying that they don't believe it's manmade global warming. They believe it's cyclical and that it happens. And then I guess critical thinking is when everybody thinks the same, and if anybody questions it or has other data that shows otherwise, that they compare it to the civil rights or Holocaust denials. I think that's a little bit of a stretch, don't you, Shawn? Especially in the light of stem cell research.

FLATOW: Well, let me get an answer because I think it deserves an answer. Shawn?

OTTO: Yeah, absolutely. Well - and this is a problem, I think, that scientists fall into on both sides of this question, is the appeal to authority. Thirty thousand scientists say this. The National Academy of Sciences says that. OK? So now you've got just two different groups of scientists butting heads on it. And really what scientists need to do - and this is what I talk about in the book - they need to find ways to work with the media to do a better job of explaining the process of science, the steps that they've gone through to come to the conclusions that they have, because when you just make an appeal to authority, well, that may carry a lot of weight with people that believe in science. But for those who - or that believe in climate change because it's become a matter of political belief now. But for those who don't, it won't carry any more weight than, say, if a bunch of bishops said something to a - you know, that wouldn't carry any more weight with someone who wasn't catholic. So...

JERRY: Yes. But I'm not talking about bishops or anything. I'm talking about other scientists who have used other data, and their data shows that it's not manmade. In fact, most people don't even know how - do you know what the percentage of carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere right now?

FLATOW: Jerry, can I ask you a question?

JERRY: Yes.

FLATOW: Is there any amount of data that we could show you from those 97 percent of scientists that would convince you that global warming is manmade?

JERRY: Well, see, there again you use the term 97 percent of scientists.

FLATOW: Well, take away...

JERRY: That was from one study.

FLATOW: Well - no. Let's take away that 97 percent. Is there any amount of data that we could show you that would convince you that global warming has a manmade element to it?

JERRY: Well, there might be - very small, but it's - let me ask you a question. How much carbon dioxide...

FLATOW: No, no. Jerry, I'm asking...

JERRY: ...percentage is in the atmosphere? Do you know that?

FLATOW: Jerry, I'm not going to debate the exact amount, the exact data itself.

JERRY: Well, it's less than four-hundredths of 1 percent.

FLATOW: Jerry, is there any - if I could show you a million pieces of paper with research on it, would that convince - is there any amount of data that would convince you?

JERRY: Well, I'm always open for looking at all different points. But I have, and I've read other scientists' stuff. And their conclusions are different. They're not using projected out in the future. They're using real live data.

FLATOW: OK.

JERRY: You could project anything in the computer.

FLATOW: Shawn, this is very typical, is it not?

OTTO: Oh, it's very typical. And what will happen is that - for instance, you can say all right, you can dispel that and say most of those 30,000 scientists were meteorologists who don't have any training in climate scientists...

JERRY: Well over 9,000 of them have Ph.D.s.

OTTO: And - doesn't matter.

JERRY: Well, they're not researchers who are getting paid by the government to do global warming studies. And let me ask Shawn one more question. About the embryonic stem cell research. There has not been one treatment of human beings with embryonic stem cells that have shown any sign or anything that can help them. But using your own stem cells, there's been all kinds of people that are being helped today. In fact, just a week or two ago...

FLATOW: Well, Jerry. Jerry, I'm running...

JERRY: ...own cell and create stem cells...

FLATOW: Jerry.

JERRY: ...then genetically make it into what you want.

FLATOW: I'm running out of time.

OTTO: This is a great example of what happens then, especially on - like I'll put a blog post up on Huffington Post, say, and there will be all kinds of climate deniers that will come out and comment. And you can dispel it with science, and you can dispel it with arguing the facts and presenting, and then just move on to the next of 10 or 12 talking points and just cycle through them. So the conclusion is already made. And what is happening here is people are cherry-picking little bits and pieces of data that agree with their predetermined conclusion.

FLATOW: And that's a - and as I say, that if people really wanted to be objective about things, they could be. But you're saying...

OTTO: They could be.

FLATOW: ...they're coming here with political or religious ideas that's going to limit to what - the kind of things they want to consider.

OTTO: That's right. And when, you know, partly this is tied to the lack of science information in the main broadstream, I'm sorry, the broad mainstream general culture. As scientists removed themselves over the last 20 years from the dialogue, evangelical religion in particular, organized, but also a lot of anti-science and bogus science think-tanks were set up and funded by - particularly the energy industry, who wanted to create enough of a smoke screen to confuse people. And it's become a, you know, Vikings versus the Packers. It's my team versus your team. And people don't think about it objectively anymore. They just root for their team.

FLATOW: All right. Shawn, thank you, but we've run out of time. And I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

OTTO: Thank you. It's good to talk to you again.

FLATOW: Shawn Otto, co-founder and CEO of Science Debate 2008. His new book is called "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." Interesting read. Gives a lot of history and balance on where the science debate is today.

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