Author and screenwriter Shawn Otto has written a fascinating book about the right's war on science. It's called "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America", and it's won praise from authors and scientists ranging from Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard to Bill Nye (the Science Guy.) Author Otto is also the co-founder of Science Debate 2008 and ScienceDebate.org, the largest political initiative in the history of science.
In your book you refer to a concept called "anti-science." What is anti-science, and why is it something Americans should worry about?
Well--to answer that well, we should talk about the relationship between science and freedom.
Francis Bacon, who was both a lawyer and a scientist, said knowledge and power go hand in hand, such that the way to increase in power is to increase in knowledge. Bacon was English and he was an opponent of the King having too much power; he wanted individuals to have more. This thinking eventually led to the American revolution.
Bacon is also the father of inductive reasoning, which we use in science. He realized that science is our best tool for individuals to gain knowledge about the physical world, and thus power over the physical world. Using it, we have been able to literally double our lifespans and multiply the productivity of our farms by 35 times in the last 140 years alone.
That’s a huge increase in our freedom – freedom from death, from hunger. Science has given each of us twice as much life. By embracing science, America has become the most powerful nation in history--by using the tools of science to create freedom.
Ben Franklin’s friend the great Scottish economist David Hume defined freedom as the freedom to choose, and that’s the foundation principle of American-style democracy: science and democracy go hand in hand for giving freedom and power to the individual.
But because of its ability to create knowledge and thus power, science is inherently political. It’s political because it doesn’t judge something as true because the King or the Pope says so; it says “let me see the evidence.”
So science is inherently anti-authoritarian, just as democracy is. It’s about the individual, about deciding for yourself. And the evidence it discovers either confirms or challenges vested interests and beliefs.
So--what is antiscience?
Antiscience is the elevation of ideology ahead of the knowledge of the real world gained from science--the views of church or political authorities, just because they are powerful.
Any time that happens, it is by those seeking to restrict science and thus freedom because it is in conflict with their ideology – in other words, authoritarians. Otherwise, they’d have nothing to fear from science.
So you see these power struggles when the evidence challenges vested interests, and the vested interests fight back by trying to deny the evidence and fool people with pure politics.
One example is the fundamentalists who seek to have creationism taught in science classes as an alternative to evolution. They seek to reduce freedom in order to assert their ideology over the evidence of hundreds of thousand of science experiments that all support evolution--which, by the way, is the whole basis if the science of biology that underlies modern medicine. Medicine doesn’t work, virology and antibiotics don’t work without evolution.
That’s authoritarian. This is usually done under the argument that we should “teach both sides of the debate,” an argument that sounds like it is about increasing discussion when in fact it is seeking to fool people.
When one side of the debate is based on knowledge and the other is based on mere belief or opinion, it’s really a battle over freedom versus authoritarianism that shortchanges our kids’ education. If we love them, we shouldn’t handicap their ability to compete by denying them knowledge of the real world.
Other common examples are climate deniers who work to create doubt about the vast, overwhelming body of scientific evidence that human behavior is warming the planet, which has been confirmed and reconfirmed over the last fifty years by every national academy of sciences there is. Frank Capra, who was friends with the astronomer Edwin Hubble and who directed the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, even made a movie about global warming in 1958 – over fifty years ago. http://www.youtube.com/...
But antiscience advocates have thrown billions of dollars into trying to confuse the public to forestall legislation to deal with it. On the political left you have activists who seek to convince people that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary vaccines cause autism or cell phones cause brain cancer. One of these groups recently tried to censor my book, pressuring the Minnesota Book Awards to pull it from consideration as a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Blatant censorship. That’s authoritarianism.
The left’s antiscience usually focuses on concern over possible unseen health hazards while the right’s antiscience focuses more on efforts to assert fundamentalist religious beliefs or on anti-regulation economics.
The reason Americans should worry about it on either side is because it’s dangerous. Those pushing a political ideology over the evidence are seeking to reduce your freedom and increase their own. They are authoritarians, and that is why they attack science.
Science is the best means of providing evidence on which we can base even-handed public policy. It’s not perfect; it doesn’t have all the answers; and anything science tells us is provisional and subject to change. But it can give policymakers the best shot at saving money and finding solutions that work, and it has a track record that swamps anything else we’ve been able to come up with.
Shawn Otto's blogs: