I enjoyed it and found it thoroughly readable and a quick jaunt through the history of science and politics in America. It includes a great cast of characters (from Jefferson to Einstein and beyond) and articulates the basics of science in a simple way that makes it an easy pick-up for anyone who has any interest in the subject.
There are some spots that felt a little underdeveloped, but overall it’s probably the book I would recommend most to anyone who cares about any of the following: The Evolution/Intelligent Design/Creationism debate; Climate Change; Vaccines; Politics; American History; Science; Faith and Religion. So, basically, anything.
The subtitle of the book is “Fighting the Assault on Science in America” and that accurately sums up the book’s focus as Otto explores the many ways that the political (and, often, religious) propaganda machine works to undermine the thing that once made the United States the most powerful nation in the world: Scientific Innovation.
Anybody who thinks we can cut scientific funding and expect to still be competitive in the global economy is sadly ignorant of history.
If you included Fareed Zakaira’s The Post-American World 2.0 (an absolute must read) and Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, the three books could be a Graduate course on America’s place in the 21st Century and how the 20th Century led us here.
And here we are. It’s easy to read such books and think, “If we had only…” but there’s nothing to be done about it. We have to move forward. Similar to Zakaira, Otto concludes his book with a prescription for moving ahead.
To get us back on the right track, though, it’s important to understand where we went wrong.
Your Pet Cause
I have friends who are big environmentalists, posting articles all over Facebook about climate change and the growing concerns. And then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I have friends (and family) who think climate change is all a big hoax, a liberal conspiracy.
Other people incessantly go on about vaccines (either pro or con; usually con), with articles lifted from some website or another with all the validity of a guy who had $5 to spend on a URL.
And of course there are those who want to take on Big Pharma or Big Medical (or whatever) by peddling alternative medicine and homeopathic ‘cures’.
What do most of these people have in common? An inconsistent relationship with science. They love to use the language of science to support their causes and will often talk the big game of “doing the research” but their interest in science fades dramatically once they have enough evidence to support their view.
My Pet Cause
I have a pet cause. It’s the Evolution vs. ID/Creationism debate. I will fight that battle til my knuckles are bloody. I read a new book on evolution every chance I get.
I imagine some people would think, “That’s a silly pet cause. It doesn’t have real world implications like Climate Change or Vaccinations.”
Those people are dummies.
Debating Science in America
To truly understand how science has been co-opted and contorted to support ridiculous claims (like, say, vaccines cause autism), you have to understand the history of the Evolution debate in America. Every method of disinformation used in the vaccine debate and every tool for discrediting legitimate science used in the climate debate were perfected by the anti-Evolutionists, going so far back as to even predate Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species (contrary to common belief, the theory of Evolution existed before Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection).
It’s not just evolution and the modern science debates that receive this treatment. Pretty much every new scientific discovery is met with dug in heels and people ready to decry it as a subversive tool of liberals or godless heathens.
Guess which scientific theory was labeled a “hoax” when first presented, spurred protests against it and has been dismissed as being “heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world” (from Conservapedia, an anti-science stalwart, as quoted in Fool Me Twice).
The Theory of Relativity. That’s right, Einstein’s whole E=MC2 thing. Bet you didn’t realize that ‘theory’ was ‘only a theory’, too, just like evolution, and thus open for people who have no training in the field to simply dismiss because, well, whatever.
Ask The Experts
Every scientific theory will have its skeptics among the well-educated and informed people in the field. It’s not inconceivable for a highly trained biologist to question the Theory of Natural Selection, or for a physicist to doubt the Theory of Relativity. Science is led by the skeptics, the questioners, the people willing to go out on a limb.
And science is not a Majority Rules proposition, so the fact that 97% of climate scientists find that man-made climate change is real or 97% of scientists accept the theory of evolution (and 87% accept the theory of Natural Selection) (and arguably 99.9% of biologists, according to Brian Alters) does not make them true.
However, when considering such a staggeringly majority in agreement, it’s prudent to consider why these supposed ‘controversial’ topics are so uncontroversial among those who have the training, education and experience to know best. Is it possible that they understand the evidence better than you? Better than your favorite blogger or radio talk show host? Is it possible that the counter evidence is so convincing to you because you’re a layman with only a rudimentary grasp of biology/physics/chemistry and don’t get the intricacies that make such evidence meaningless?
No, that can’t be it.
It must be that scientists from across the globe are all politically motivated (in the same direction) to espouse views that in years, maybe even decades will make them rich, because the big money is in scientific research, doncha know. Oh, also, because they want to undermine religion and faith and turn the world into a debased orgy of godless self-worship.
That’s how Occam’s Razor works, ain’t it? The most convoluted, inexplicable explanation is usually right. That’s what I thought.
There is probably at least one if not a dozen areas of life where you implicitly trust the experts. Your doctor or your dentist, your mechanic or your plumber, your rabbi or your pastor. And yet, when it comes to science, suddenly a decade’s worth of education and a career spent in one’s field isn’t enough to earn even just the benefit of the doubt.
I’m not saying you should just take science on someone’s word. I’m saying you’re inconsistent. If you’re going to be a skeptic, you should shine a measured, skeptical light on every area of your life. When you don’t, you’re showing your bias. If you take your pastor’s word but not a scientist’s, you’ve clearly decided your opinion on the topic and all this “Teach the controversy” bullocks is just rhetorical nonsense. You’re not seeking truth, you’re seeking validation.
Pick and Choose Skeptics
Most of my friends accept the fact of evolution, the Theory of Evolution, and even the Theory of Natural Selection. They accept it because, frankly, they don’t care. They can believe in God, they cannot, it doesn’t really matter how we all got here and they don’t see what all the fuss is about. If someone with an expertise in biology tells them evolution is how we got here, they’re fine with it. They’re not going to think about it a second time. Most of the country is probably this way, more or less.
But then we return to pet causes.
You accept evolution, but you think vaccines might be bad for you. Or you have no problem with vaccines but you doubt climate change is a real issue. It doesn’t matter that in all of these cases, the vast majority or peer-reviewed studies and experts in the field all line up on one side of the issue (Evolution is true, vaccines are safe, human-caused climate change is real), you’ve decided on this one issue that you’re going to be a skeptic.
There is a portion of society that tends to be fairly consistent across the board. They doubt evolution, climate change, vaccines and maybe even Quantum mechanics, because, why not? But they’re still picking and choosing their science. They deny evolution, but still take antibiotics, a medical breakthrough that wouldn’t be possible without the understanding that evolutionary science has brought us. They deny Quantum mechanics, but use computers and phones that couldn’t exist without it.
All technology, all medicine, all modernity is built on a foundation of science. If you want to truly challenge the status quo, you become Amish, you don’t write blog posts claiming climate change is a lie. Your inconsistency is showing.
Challenging the Status Quo
I need to reiterate that I am not saying, “Agree with the majority.” That goes against the very heart of the scientific endeavor. The anti-evolutionists and anti-Vaxers and anti-who-knows-ers are right on one thing: Science has thrived by challenging the status quo. But it does it with vigorous research and a repeatable results, not just by cherry picking data points from someone else’s research.
History is filled with wrongheaded challenges to the status quo. Just because it is the established belief doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong. How ridiculous would that be? There would be no truth, no meaning to anything. We truly would be living in pure relativism.
If we understand the long history of science, its hard fought battles against deep-rooted belief systems, we can see that our victories as a species haven’t been about one idea beating out more popular ideas, it’s about the good ideas beating out the bad ones.
Evolution. Climate Change. Vaccines. These are the good ones.
Fool Me Twice
If this is a subject that interests you at all, whether because you’re interested in science, or the current American political scene, or you’re worried about vaccines or climate change, I recommend you read Otto’s Fool Me Twice. It’s not a science book, it’s a book about how science is portrayed to the public, and about the past, present and future of our country. It’s a good reminder that science isn’t about who has the best rhetoric or the most terrifying “What if’s…?”
Science is about facts: Finding them, explaining them, using them.
And if you don’t have polio right now, thank your local vaccine administrator.