Review of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” by Shawn Lawrence Otto

“Lack of absolute certainty is not weakness in science, it’s the only way you know it is science.”

In Fool Me Twice, Otto takes us on an intellectual journey through the history of and the public response to science, from the foundation of the United States to some of modern day’s most pressing political issues. Otto argues that our country’s current anti-science opinion neglects the fact that science and technology are integral parts of almost every facet of our lives and that our quality of life is entirely dependent upon sound science and the way that it shapes policy. Although it may seem preachy at times, Otto effectively outlines that we ignore science at our own risk.

Central to discussion is the lack of scientific literacy needed to make informed policy decisions. A public and its elected policy-makers who do not understand the science behind public issues will react with their instincts, leading to policy based on beliefs and assumptions rather than sound science.

After giving brief histories of government and science in the United States, Otto draws parallels between the scientific method and democracy. The belief that an educated, well-informed citizenry can be trusted to govern itself is central to Jefferson’s ideas of democracy and its aims, influenced by contemporaries whose arguments for inductive reasoning and empiricism were central to the development of the scientific method. Otto argues that something has gone wrong when policy makers are not adequately informed about the science behind important issues, yet continue to insist on their beliefs. He then highlights that current anti-science sentiment is pulling the United States from its democratic foundations toward an increasingly authoritarian government.

“As Hume pointed out, freedom is the liberty to choose. Its sources are knowledge, science, democracy and fair and equitable regulation, all of which work to maximize the liberty to choose… Generally, most people appreciate these laws and regulations for the freedom they provide from the tyranny of other’s decisions and actions imposing upon them… Ignorance is not bliss. It is tyranny.”

(click here to listen to a discussion of the philosophy of Hume) Otto argues that when we choose not to believe in evolution or climate change or choose to believe that vaccines cause autism, we are buying into fear-based disinformation and deciding that reality is entirely subjective and based on the most forceful argument rather than knowledge. This disinformation paralyzes political decisions, leading to a reduction in freedom and an imposition of tyranny.

Fool Me Twice contains quite a bit of finger-pointing at right-wing conservatives. However, the blame does not stop there and includes a discussion on how postmodernist claims of relative truth have undermined appreciation for science, as well as how corporate interests have muddled our perceptions. Scientists also share in the blame after retreating from the public for two generations, preferring not to explain their work or its relevance to a public that is increasingly ill-equipped to understand it. Otto is especially critical of media outlets. Following the abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” by the Federal Communications Commission and the ensuing devolution to yellow journalism, Otto claims journalist are now more interested in selling hype rather than informing the public, “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘faith, or opinion, but not knowledge’, simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press”.

There are no quick and easy answers provided; instead, we are given ideas on how best to approach anti-science culture through dialogue and debate. Candidates are urged to discuss their stances on science-based policy issues, grounding their opinions in scientific knowledge rather than rhetoric. Moderate churches are encouraged to reach out to scientists and to address both science and politics to their congregations. Scientists are urged to engage with the public (see Upcoming Meet-Ups to participate in these discussions!). They are warned to discontinue ignoring belief resistance and urged to maintain that science is about increasing one’s freedom, not taking it away. Otto argues that science should be viewed as an expression of our culture, rather than on a purely monetary basis, and that its true value lies in exploring the unknown.

“The one thing we do know about science… is that if we don’t value it, if we become inhospitable to the tolerance, freedom, and open exchange of ideas that stimulates it, if we wall it off and call it a separate culture instead of something we should all do, if we cease funding it… if we elevate ideology over science in our public policies, we will stifle creativity and science will go away. We won’t get the big breakthroughs. We won’t get the economic boons. We won’t get the healthy children. Germany already proved this can happen with its precipitous fall from arguably the most powerful science nation on Earth to a nation bereft of scientific enterprise in a single decade of Nazi intolerance.”

There are those of us who shudder when we hear beliefs put forward as facts and scientific theories described as mere unproven “alternative hypotheses”. There are those of us who lament that this country has lost its sense of wonder and amazement in science, despite an almost constant string of new technologies, discoveries and ways of looking at ourselves and our world. If you consider yourself among this group, go read Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Even if you think the attitudes toward science in American culture are right on par, you should still read this book; it just might change your mind.