“Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America”

by Katherine O’Konski, in a Climate Science Watch cross-post

Shawn Lawrence Otto’s Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America is a fascinating look at the status of science in American society. Otto’s explanation of the climate change denial machine provides a compelling narrative that places the ‘controversy’ in the context of science’s slipping authority vis-a-vis political rhetoric and pseudoscience that passes for fact.  However, the book’s greatest merit lies in the analysis and resulting suggestions for positive reform – an effort that will require the contributions of politicians, scientists, the media, and the general public.

CSW caught up with Otto at the Union of Concerned Scientists Washington, DC, office for a discussion of Fool Me Twice last Thursday, December 1.

Whenever people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”  Wise and famous words from Thomas Jefferson imply troubling questions as the opening line of Otto’s publication.  Are Americans well-informed on important problems facing society?  If we are not well-informed (and even if we are), are we capable of creating and implementing policies to deal with these problems responsibly?  Otto’s book is compelling as it addresses the conflicting opinions on issues that Americans must sort through on a daily basis.

Debates over climate change are just the beginning, yet it is exemplary in that preconceived ideologies and political rhetoric are elevated to the point where they can confront peer-reviewed scientific findings.  And how has this happened? Otto outlines American society’s tumultuous relationship with scientific inquiry since the days of the founding fathers, coming to the conclusion that science has been gradually forced out of political discussion.  “American democracy relies on a plurality of voices representing economic, scientific, and religious perspectives to arrive at balanced public policy,” he maintains. “With the voice of science going silent in our political dialogue, America no longer has that plurality.”

Science has been ghettoized and pushed aside, Otto maintains, absent from policy debates despite the fact that scientific issues have such huge and lasting impacts on American lives. The cause of this unfortunate reality is attributed to an amalgamation of factors, the most prominent of which seem to be the pervasiveness of campaigns, motivated by monetary investment or a conflicting religious ideology, to subvert the value society places on scientific information.  The media’s tendency to seek out conflicting opinions, even opinions that are not scientifically legitimate; scientists’ tendency to operate as though their respective fields are not political; and the general public’s tendency to ignore the importance of science education, all play a part.

Science is political

Though science is not usually thought of as ‘political’, Otto asserts that “science pushes the boundaries of knowledge … pushes us to constantly redefine our ethics and morality, and that is always political.”  He argues that there is a need for scientists to use their expertise and authority to push for policy prescriptions to our societal challenges.  Without their influence, credibility, and authority, there is more room for pseudoscience and vested interests to exert their power, influencing policy in ways that may not be best for the American people as a whole.

But it is no wonder that scientists shy away from delving any further into the political sphere – take, for example, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who called for the prosecution of respected climate scientists by the Justice Department, attacking the integrity and character of these scientists because his political ideology does not match their findings.  (See what CSW has to say on this matter here).

However, without the scientific community providing expertise and authority in policy prescriptions, anti-science campaigns, driven by conflicts of values (as in evolution) to conflicts of investment and wealth (as in climate change) subvert real scientific knowledge, prevent the implementation of responsible policy, and put the future of our country in jeopardy.

To this end, Otto provides an excellent summary of American political controversy on climate change, and our inability to take any corrective action despite knowledge of the problem since Jim Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony bringing attention to the matter.  We note that Otto references CSW director Rick Piltz’s whistleblower action in 2005 in his first chapter, as part of a concise discussion on anti-science in the Presidential sphere.  “Bush public relations appointees were muzzling scientists at other agencies, or altering scientific information in official agency reports to fit a preconceived ideological agenda,” Otto reports, with reference to a New York Times article detailing the actions of an oil industry lobbyist in the White House environmental office to manipulate goverernment climate research communication.

Beyond this reference, Otto provides a detailed chapter on the climate change denial machine, the contents of which CSW readers will find familiar.  Again, we are presented with the implications of the power of an industry with vested interests to manipulate public discourse on a topic, and push policy in a desired direction despite clear scientific evidence that these actions are neither sustainable nor in the long term public interest.  Scientists didn’t stand a chance.

Otto walks us through the “oft repeated five prong propaganda strategy of cloaking rhetorical arguments in scientific legitimacy in order to affect a desired policy objective.”  The consequences and ‘scandals’ resulting from these attacks are listed in a lengthy but informative narrative, united by the sobering fact that these tactics have so far successfully prevented any substantial federal action to address climate change. Otto explains Bush’s failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol, ‘Climategate’, Foxgate and the (minor) errors found in the IPCC reports, and Attorney General Ken Cucinelli’s crusade against climate scientist Michael Mann as defrauding taxpayers.  Otto then takes us through the failure of cap-and-trade as an originally Republican idea that is now ridiculed as experimenting with the economy, and the rise of proposals for geoengineering solutions such as sulfur aerosol injections – an idea that “is easily the riskiest suggestion in the history of human civilization,” which resembles “taking up a crack habit.”

Otto’s points out in this chapter that the controversy over climate change is exacerbated by the inadequacy of media coverage as an intermediary between scientists and the general public. CSW has long advocated for the need for objectivity (i.e., regard for empirical evidence), but not for neutrality (e.g., fake ‘balance’ of conflicting views without regard for evaluating the merits) in press coverage of science-related stores.  Indeed, Otto maintains that “Americans find themselves in an absurd and dangerous position: in a time when the majority of the world’s leading country’s largest challenges revolve around science, few reporters are covering them from a scientific angle.”

To restore science to a place in the American political realm, Otto contends that citizens must be better informed; that the media must work to connect the public, scientists, and policymakers in an objective, nonpartisan manner.  Scientific education must be improved. And, as he did during the 2008 presidential campaign, Otto advocates for holding a televised ‘science debate’ between the two presidential candidates in the 2012 election.  That could be a most interesting and illuminating event.  It would be an opportunity to push President Obama to engage in some forthright discussion of climate science before a national audience, which he has appeared most reluctant to do, and to go toe-to-toe with whatever ‘skeptic’ the Republicans put up against him.

If Americans are not well-enough informed to successfully tackle issues like climate change, Otto contends that seeing political leaders directly address the issues will foster greater public interest in the topics, help Americans distinguish scientific finding from rhetoric, and encourage our children to devote their education to the subject. “By putting science in its rightful place as an ongoing part of the policy discussion of the nation, parents can become educated in the context in which they are used to taking in information – policy decisions that affect their lives.”

CSW also believes that increasing scientific literacy is a necessary component to solving the political indecision surrounding action on climate change, and will contribute equally positively to the broad array of science-based dilemmas that face our society.  Getting science-based issues to the forefront with a televised debate is a simple yet powerful tool to encourage scientific literacy.  It could contribute to increased citizen involvement and advocacy for the creation of a comprehensive US policy on climate change.

At the conclusion of the book Otto asks, “will we take up the mantle of freedom and leadership that science gave us — the commitment to knowledge over the assertions of ‘but faith or opinion’ that led us to the disquieting idea of equality that is the foundation of our democracy?”  A worthy challenge.

by Katherine O’Konski, in a Climate Science Watch cross-post

14 Responses to “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America”

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    I have read two interesting posts today which, taken together, increase my level of doubt as to whether there is a path away from this Unscientific America, as Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum labeled us. This is one of them. Otto describes a very Jeffersonian goal. “American democracy relies on a plurality of voices representing economic, scientific, and religious perspectives to arrive at balanced public policy.” There is an assumption here that those voices are “informed”. However, as CP documents so well, there is more misinformation than ever being foisted on the public by even our best media.

    Also today, NYU Professor Jay Rosen used his Pressthink blog to announce a joint project with Guardian (UK) to try to change the press coverage of the American Presidential Campaigns, to end the sports metaphor coverage of the horse race and to focus on what citizens need (want) to understand in order to cast an informed vote. If Rosen’s “Citizen’s Agenda” is to provide a means of injecting science into the political sphere, then we need to have citizen’s who demand that it be done, it needs the people on this list to participate in creating that demand.

    Pressthink Post:

  2. Spike says:

    In the UK the assault by former Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation has been rebutted by Frozen Planet’s scientific advisor

  3. prokaryotes says:

    The attacks on Science are an attack of the foundations of Society itself.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    I don’t know why attacks on science are sanitized with words like “politics” and “ideology”. Especially in the case of climate science, it’s all about maintaining markets for products that are killing us. The motivation is psychopathic greed, not politics.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    I’ve been champing at the bit to write about this.
    The importance of narrative in communicating scientific evidence to the public has been brought home to me over and over this week. Like others, I easily recall true narratives, whether those are Jim Hansen’s references to his grandchildren or Joe Romm’s reference to his brother’s experience with Hurricane Katrina.

    On Monday I attended a conference on a 600-page New York State NYSERDA-sponsored report, “Response to Climate Change in New York State,” nicknamed ClimAID. The dauntingly large document is actually made up of many accessible pieces, so I have hope of seeing it disseminated around New York State.

    Lauren Chambliss, Communications Director for the Cornell University Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, encouraged the policy makers, regulators and scientists to deliver the climate change message with narrative. This met with resistance from a statistician who justifiably pointed out that anecdotes might mislead. It also met with the experience of the Earth Institute, which had experimented with stories versus fact lists, and found the public split on what kind of information they trusted. Chambliss reminded people to identify their audience in the context of the Six Americas, survey research reviewed earlier by Joe Romm.

    In recent days, others have been stressing narrative for science-based communication, such as medicine. At scienceprogress, Jason Karlawish, wrote “The Importance of Narrative in Communicating Evidence-Based Science.”

    For a copy of the ClimAID report, preferably downloaded chapter by chapter:

  6. BA says:

    When the assault on science is talked about it is almost always implicitly referring to the “hard” sciences: physics, chemistry, climatology, biology and yet our society has almost limitless faith in technology (when it wants to) to include: drugs, surgeries, aerospace/missile defense, perhaps geo engineering. There is great faith in math that produces “results.” As science diverges from technology/results based fields so to does the willingness to invest belief as in the case of evolution.

    What is seldom if ever talked about is the same sort of assault on or neglect of the “soft” sciences and I think that is probably where the ideological divide has its deepest roots. I suspect many scientist hold onto ideas about education, incarceration, child development, drug abuse, economics, economic disparities, and societal issues that adhere to their personal belief systems and world views without regard to the research. A great deal of statistical and observational data gets ignored by policy makers and the public. There is a broad, societal disregard for the “soft” sciences. So, it is little wonder that we have become even more selective about what we choose to believe in.

    To address the larger problem we should do well to take a closer look at what the soft sciences have to teach us.

  7. Brian R Smith says:

    Here’s an unwelcome irony that will need a teeth-gritting explanation:

    At about the same time the author was interviewing Shawn Lawrence Otto for this post at the Union Of Concerned Scientists offices, Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, was helping to pen today’s NYT op-ed DISASTER for public understanding of human caused ruin of the planet’s climate & ecosystems,

    “Hope in the Age of Man”

    It includes statements like this one:

    “We can accept the reality of humanity’s reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon. We can restore once magnificent ecosystems like Yellowstone and the Gulf of Mexico to new glories — but glories that still contain a heavy hand of man.”

    “We can design ecosystems”?!!!! You and who else? At what cost? In what time frame? And with no mention of the immanent collapse of the planet’s natural ecosystems that you vaguely claim to be able to emulate.

    Yellowstone? The Nature Conservancy had better check it’s priorities before making a manifesto of acquiescing to the continued destruction of the earth’s forests & atmosphere. To be replaced with the wise creativity of human engineers? Please, God…

    The op-ed ends with this:

    “The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism. It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.”

    No, it is not entirely ruined yet. But with this kind of environmental suicide-bombing of the science coming from the Nature Conservancy Conservancy it soon will be.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This is the perfect illustration of the radical incompatibility of ‘democracy’ with ‘capitalism’. In a capitalist economy, money rules. That is blindingly obvious across the planet. Democracy is reduced to a contest between parties which represent alternative capitalisms, and the differences have been atrophying for decades. A Government that goes outside the ‘Washington Consensus’ of ‘Free Markets’ ie the rule of money, will face ostracism and capital flight, then subversion, sanctions, blockades and, finally military aggression, either directly or through proxies.
    As St Margaret of Finchley said, ‘There is No Alternative’, a pretty succinct summation of ‘capitalist democracy’. The problem is to ‘take the risk out of democracy’, first by ensuring that no political leader arises who offers any sort of alternative. We learned that lesson here in 1975, when the very mildly reformist ‘social democratic’ Whitlam regime was terminated after a brutal media hate campaign, led, of course, by the Murdoch apparat, active subversion by state Rightwing regimes (constitutional precedents ignored and reversed)and undisguised US pressure.
    The MSM is entirely Rightwing, and growing ever more biased and mendacious. The public is relentlessly brainwashed by the media and those other mental and psychological molesters, the advertising industry, to see greedy, anomic, consumption as the sum of human existence. And democracy itself, with its ‘one man, one vote’ premise, is also to our detriment. It gives as equal weight to the vote of the imbecile, the ignoramus, the credulous fool, the bigot and the fanatic as it does to their opposites. Moreover the owners of society long ago entered a de facto alliance with the peddlers of religious stupefaction that they would aid each other in controlling society, and it has nowadays reached a sordid apotheosis in the influence of the worst type of religious misanthrope, the Rapture addicts, the Apocalypse devotees and the Armageddon lovers, all positively salivating at the prospect of an imminent cataclysm, and so despising this world that they are actively, if ignorantly, working to realise its destruction.

  9. Raul M. says:

    I’ve often wondered how a wife could believe in the functioning of the corporation if her only contact with it is being able to go shopping for what she might want that day for herself, her husband the CEO, or for her children.
    How may the rank and file employees have real faith and backing for her position when by all appearances she would think that her husband is the company lock,stock and barrel?
    It could be too wearying for them to show themselves to the common employee.
    And now I read that real professionals should bow and be quiet as they pass to go do more shopping.

  10. Raul M. says:

    Or not.
    A wife of a corporate leader could involve herself with the wellbeing of the farming that makes the food available. Is it working out the way she would have hoped. What do the people say about the misery flood and the leavings for their homes? What do the common degree holding collage grads. say about taking a stocking job when they thought they would be a real professional paying back the student loans?
    Is it to wearying to see what is going on outside where people might get caught in the rain? Get caught in a flood?
    What can the Corp. Do to lesson the hardships of the weather?
    If it is too wearying just to meet with the rank and file how could you ever hold up to helping to see that things will be OK?
    Isn’t doing your part to lower the carbon emissions that harm our weather important to you?

  11. John McCormick says:

    Brian, thanks for posting the link to that article. What planet do the authors inhabit? Have they any idea how close we all are to suffering a 2 degree C temp increase? Have they no clue about feedbacks? Do they know the Congressional House rethugs are in control of environmental policies, regulations and funding?

    In fact, I read it as a”fundraising letter” posted by Nature Conservancy. It basically offers contributors a reason to keep the faith, keep those dollars flowing and keep Nature Conservancy in business because the fate of the Gulf of Mexico and Yellowstone hang in the balance.

    Naive and filled with false hope. But, it does make one wish the calendar says 1960, not 2011.

  12. adelady says:

    We can do this, and that, and a dozen other things.

    Can I interject the classic political question. Who’s going to pay for this?

    Even if we could do these things (and succeed), we’re talking unbelievable sums of money. And just for the one and only richest country in the world. Let’s add in a few choice projects in Mexico and Canada to round out North America. Now do another set of selections for all the other continents.

    Let’s save the Great Barrier Reef on this approach! Madness. What this fool proposes is not just futile, it defies all logic. If we added up the spending for all these desirable species and places, we could probably spend half as much ….. and benefit all of them at once.

    Perhaps he’s just very young. And no-one’s ever told him the story about fences at the top of cliffs versus ambulances and hospitals needed to deal with casualties at the bottom of the same cliffs.

  13. adelady says:

    That would be

    ‘spend half as much .. on climate mitigation .. and benefit all of them at once.’

  14. BA says:

    Truly Faustian.