Read It While It’s Hot! The War on Science: A Review

“Science is the foundation of democracy. Science is inherently political. If authoritarians with vested interests who disagree with its findings are allowed to intimidate scientists or quash those results, democracy loses.” Shawn Otto

“One email I got said something like, ‘I hope your child sees your head in a basket after you’ve been guillotined for all the fraud you climate scientists have been committing.’” Katherine Hahoe, Evangelical Christian and Climate Scientist, Texas Tech University

Normally, at this time of year I publish a review of several books on science and STEM that you might want to consider for your summer reading.

This year, I’m limiting that list to one important must-read book, and a timely one at that, given the political season we’re in right now.

Shawn Otto’s latest work, The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (2016) is a real page turner, proving once again that truth can be more exciting than fiction. For about a week, I read it every morning and evening on my commute and over the weekend. I picked it up any spare moment I had, because, even at 400+ pages, The War on Science reads like a thriller. I practically inhaled it and came away even more convinced that we are indeed in the midst of a war on science.


The first section of the book chronicles the rise, over several centuries, and more recent fall from grace of science and describes a current U. S. society, or at least a significant portion of it, “defiantly embracing unreason”— and this at a time when science and technology have a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. We should, in fact, be in a period of Renaissance in which various sciences converge and influence each other, leading to powerful positive outcomes for humanity, including ameliorating the progression and impact of global climate change. In fact, our current times exhibit some of the hallmarks of the Dark Ages, with scientists the target of mistrust and hatred, candidates for burning, figuratively by Congress and the media, if not literally at the stake.

Absent from political discourse in this election season has been a discussion of some of the challenges facing us that hinge on scientific solutions. For example, Otto would like to have candidates in a debate respond to questions like the following: “What are your thoughts on balancing energy and the environment? What steps will you take to stop the collapse of pollinator colonies and promote pollinator health? In an era of intense droughts, what steps will you take to better manage our freshwater resources? What should we do to prevent ocean fisheries collapses? Should we regulate the use of nanoparticles in our environment? Will you support federal funding to study science denial and the threat it poses to our democracy? When is it acceptable for a president or prime minister to implement policies that are contradicted by science? Will you support increased funding for curiosity-driven basic research? Do you support or oppose efforts to prosecute energy companies for funding denial of climate science? What steps would you take to repair the postdoctoral employment pipeline so that highly trained workers can get jobs in their fields? Do you support the banning of antibiotics in animal feed? What other steps should we take to stop the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?”… and dozens more. These are fascinating and important questions. It remains to be seen if any of them will be addressed in the upcoming Presidential debates. Want to place a bet on that?

The middle portion of the book, beginning with Chapter 7, provides a thorough, well-researched, and compelling analysis of the history, nature, and full extent of the war on science, from the rise of the ant-science news media, which under the guise of being “fair and balanced” allow unsupported opinions to have at least equal time with established science, to the assaults on science stemming from ideologues and industries joining forces to serve their own narrow interests.

The final portion of the book provides a blueprint for what can be done to win the war against science, including 14 very specific “battle plans” for various sectors of society to implement. There is even a battle plan for teachers: “Teachers Should Teach Science Civics,” science in conjunction with civics a.k.a. making those real world connections that the NGSS requires. Holding student science debates and establishing science literacy requirements would be part of that battle plan. Otto contends that we don’t lack the ability to win the war on science, but he wonders if we have the will and the vision.

“Winning the war on science is this generation’s calling. But are we capable of battling back the authoritarian resurgence? Do we have an understanding of science adequate to defend its unique role in human history and policymaking, or even to see the issues clearly — to base our political arguments and our journalistic coverage on knowledge and not just on the confused and endless cacophony of warring opinions from when the modern era first emerged? Are we able to look up from the grist mill long enough to consider the vast economic and political potential of a new and innovative world economy, circular, decarbonized, reinventing, wealth-building, and sustainable — and to fight with all we have to make it happen? Do we have the vision to even realize we are in such a battle, and that the future goes to those who act? These are the very serious questions by which this generation, and the human race itself, will ultimately be judged, and they remain unanswered.”

Reading Shawn Otto’s book made it absolutely clear to me that the work STEM teachers are doing is not only important, but is both essential and urgent. No nation can prosper if it either neglects or vilifies scientific endeavor. And our species might not survive if we continue to ignore our scientists and fail to support them in coming up with ways through the dangerous straits we have entered because of man-made climate disruption and environmental degradation, to name two of our most challenging issues. Both issues represent settled science. The only discussion we should be having about them is what must we do to address them.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

“Lost in authoritarian politics, ideology, public relations, and subjectivism, will we return to a state of miserable serfs ruled by a wealthy elite of religious and corporate royalty?” The choice is ours. “What is at stake is the freedom to investigate, debate, and express ideas that run counter to the interests of corporations and their political allies. Attacks on this basic freedom hide behind the guise of transparency but, in reality, are a step toward tyranny.”  Shawn Otto’s book is an important one and should be required reading for all citizens who value democracy and particularly by those who aspire to political office

You can watch Shawn Otto discuss his book here: (It’s 1 hr. 21 minutes and well worth watching.)

A closing thought: Perhaps if enough of us take the “Science Pledge” Otto includes toward the end of the book, we can set our country on a more promising and enlightened course. We must commit to support with our voices and votes the following principles:

• Public decisions must be based on evidence;
• Knowledge must not be suppressed;
• Scientific integrity must be protected;
• Freedom of inquiry must be encouraged; and,
• Mayor science issues must be openly debated.

Now let’s see how those Presidential debates go. You can weigh in here by signing a petition to ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to focus one debate on questions of science. Then order yourself a copy of The War on Science and settle down for a great read!

~ Penny

Learn more about STEM Institute here.


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Filed under book review, Shawn Otto, The War on Science, Uncategorized, war on science

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