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.