“Fool Me Twice” by Shawn Lawrence Otto

Science denial, I fear, is here to stay. Almost half of Americans believe in creationism.¬†Anti-vaccination sentiment is going strong, despite record pertussis outbreaks. Academics are even leaving their jobs, in part, because of the terrible anti-intellectual attitude in this country. It’s depressing and demoralizing–so what does one do about it? Shawn Lawrence Otto’s “Fool Me Twice” offers an analysis.

Otto’s book is good stuff. He devotes the first quarter or so of the book to understanding how we got to where we are regarding science denial and anti-science attitudes. It’s a nice introduction, moving from Galileo up to modern day, and covering the intersections of science and religion, as well as the “two cultures” thinking. He uses these chapters to argue that science is inherently political, and that scientists need to engage in the public like in the good ol’ days past. Otto argues that today, partisan politics and shock jocks have pushed us further away from valuing science, and scientists are left wondering what they can do to compete against the money and influence that industry wields.

To do this, Otto creates something of a roadmap. It’s probably suggestions many of us in the field have heard before in publications such as Unscientific America and elsewhere, but it never hurts to hear it again. Engage. Talk to churches and other community organizations. Run for office. Be inclusive and avoid identity politics. Don’t be alarmist. Frame your message. Talk about *how* one does science rather than just the findings and the facts. While this is great stuff, he spends less time discussing the difficulties of actually, y’know, *doing* this as a scientist (though he does talk a bit about the Sagan effect early in the book, and so doesn’t completely ignore the problems that scientists can have when they do more communication and outreach).

Not surprisingly, he also brings up the importance of Science Debate, of which Otto is the CEO. Otto notes that candidates are questioned much more on religious issues than on scientific ones, and Science Debate can serve as a non-partisan platform to get important science questions answered by candidates. In 2008, both candidates did respond to a list of 14 questions. How much did it matter in the long run? Probably not a lot, but at least it did get candidates to think about important scientific issues and put ideas down in writing for the public.

In the end, I found “Fool Me Twice” a thought-provoking but dense book. I also wonder who Otto’s intended audience was. One back-of-the-book blurb reads “Before you vote in the next election, read Shawn Lawrence Otto’s “Fool Me Twice.” Bill Nye’s blurb also enthuses, “Here’s hoping some voters and Congress members take [Otto] seriously–soon.” Nice thought, but I can’t see the average voter picking up this book. There are portions within where even I found difficult to get through–his discussion of post-modernism, for example, probably would be fine for those with more grounding in philosophy and familiarity with its terminology, but again it got me thinking about target audience and how many would be able to connect the dots without giving up on the book at that point (and thereby missing out on a lot of the good stuff to come in later chapters). Maybe I’m too cynical. I do hope, however, that at least a number of scientists–especially those just wading into the waters of communication and science politics–do pick up the book, and dog-ear some of the important pages and suggestions as I have done. Otto has hope for a more scientific American future. I hope he is right.

4 Replies to ““Fool Me Twice” by Shawn Lawrence Otto”

  1. Speaking of science denial……

    Dear Tara Smith, Perhaps you would kindly devote one blog, just one, to sensibly “tracking” the extant scientific research on human population dynamics. A great deal of preternatural theory (eg, Demographic Transition Theory), politically convenient ideology (eg, Liberalism and Conservatism) and economically expedient theology (eg, Neoclassical Economics) falsely claim to have the sufficient support of science. Let us set aside these widely shared and generally accepted pseudoscientific branches of thought for a moment so that the best available scientific research of human population dynamics can be rigorously examined and meaningfully discussed. Thank you, Steve Salmony

  2. Really nice review. It’s incredibly important for scientists (and their overly silent organizations/universities) to engage in public dialogue. We take too much for granted, I think. We need to earn back the public’s ear and respect. Or we could just do this:


    and when the drought, pertussis outbreaks happen, people will run to the truth, no? not.

  3. “Think globally, act locally” could be a shibboleth of humanity in these early years of Century XXI. Although not inherently unproblematic, local efforts to communicate about what is forbidden may provide a key for ‘unlocking’ the avoidant behavior regarding such vital issues as human-driven climate destabilization, economic expansion and global population growth. A ground up approach appears to be needed. There is woefully inadequate momentum building within communities to share an understanding of how unbridled population increase, endless economic growth and climate change are becoming manifest on the local level. Human beings can choose to acknowledge, address and overcome problems we have created. Of that one thing can there any doubt? As citizens participate in local efforts to communicate openly, objectively and honestly, we also begin working together to create the supportive environment that is a necessary condition for confronting certain admittedly daunting ecological challenges and engaging in large-scale lifestyle changes.

  4. Shawn Lawrence Otto has a piece in the Nov. issue of Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=antiscience-beliefs-jeopardize-us-democracy
    Scientific American has submitted questions to the Obama and Romney campaigns and their responses are also in the Nov. issue and online here:
    I truly appreciate Mr. Otto’s efforts, but I think he has a profound misunderstanding of postmodernism. Many of my friends in anthropology have been much influenced by postmodernism, yet none of them are climate change deniers. I would think it incredibly sad if some student were to fail to read Foucault, for example, because Mr. Otto claimed that Michelle Bachmann is a postmodernist. Postmodernism is much too complex for her.

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