The War on Science | Shawn Lawrence Otto

Summary of: The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It
By: Shawn Lawrence Otto


In the face of the tidal wave of new knowledge the 21st century will bring, ‘The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It’ by Shawn Lawrence Otto delves into the critical public concerns that society must confront, such as climate change, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods, among others. Despite holding solutions to many of these problems, science often encounters resistance from fundamentalists, profit-driven corporations, and even some liberals. Otto’s book sheds light on obstacles to scientific progress and the spread of science illiteracy, punctuating the urgency with which society must address these issues.

Tackling 21st Century Challenges

Science continues to make great strides in understanding the natural world but with this progress arise a plethora of public questions. Can society keep up with these challenges, and in what order should they be addressed?

As the 21st century advances, science yields a tsunami of newfound information regarding the natural world. How do humans accommodate the consequences of such progress? The big concerns, such as climate change, cyber security, genetically modified foods, immigration, stem cell research, biosecurity, droughts, vaccines, and nuclear weapons need answers. Additionally, issues such as pollinator colony collapse, and human papillomavirus lay alongside policy questions regarding curiosity-driven research and the effects of science denial on democracy. Can engineers and scientists go faster than policymakers? And how long do we have to address these pressing concerns and in which order?

Undermining Science

Science may hold the key to solving the problems we face, but various groups are standing in the way. From religious fundamentalists to corporations, politicians, and even some liberals, science is being undermined and its importance is downplayed. This culture of science illiteracy is spreading across North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, leading to unintended consequences. Examples of these consequences include the wrongful arrest of a Temple University professor who was accused of spying based on faulty assumptions by the FBI, and the arrest of a Texas high school student who was suspected of building a bomb when in fact he had simply designed a clock. Without a better incorporation of science into policymaking, democracy may ultimately fail its promise. As it stands, science denial and undermining touches everyone, including in the case of Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell who has actively led climate change denial. The question remains – will we be well-informed enough to be trusted with our own government?

The Perception of Science

This article explores the scientific method as a trusted approach for generating reliable knowledge through observation, experimentation, and peer review. However, converting knowledge into policy requires political support, and in recent years, the public increasingly confuses knowledge with opinion. Even the iconic achievement of the Apollo 11 space mission occurred amidst social unrest and skepticism of scientific progress due to issues like environmental pollution and drug scandals. In 1999, 47% of Americans viewed scientific breakthroughs as major achievements, but only 27% saw them that way a decade later, emphasizing the declining perception of scientific importance among the public.

The Dark Side of Science

American astronomer Carl Sagan’s warning against anti-science sentiments is demonstrated in his own experience of being rejected by the National Academy of Science and losing his Harvard tenure due to jealous critics. Despite publishing 500 scientific papers in peer-reviewed publications over 40 years, Sagan faced backlash for his popular TV show, Cosmos, which drew 500 million viewers. Sagan’s experience demonstrates how scientists can turn on their own and highlights the danger of failing to distinguish between what is true and what feels good, which could lead to a slide back into superstition and darkness.

The Vaccine Misinformation War

The discredited link between vaccines and autism, propagated by British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, gained support from celebrities and liberals in upper-income areas, leading to epidemics of preventable diseases as nearly half of school children in Marin County, California, went unvaccinated. This illustrates a “war on science” based on ignorance and persisting despite overwhelming scientific evidence, according to a 2011 study. Even by the 2008 elections, antiscience views had become political planks of the Republican Party.

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