Shawn Otto’s “The War on Science”

Shawn Otto has written a new book on science denialism, entitled The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About it.

Otto argues that modern science is under attack from three directions: (a) the academic left, which has asserted that science has no claim to objective truth, (b) the religious right, which has fought evolution and more under the banner of biblical literalism, and (c) the industrial world, which has fought scientific findings in the area of health and environmental protection.

Otto observes that science denialism is rooted, surprisingly enough, in the academic left. Postmodernist writers such as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend have argued that science is no different than any other field, in that scientific “truth” is merely the collective opinions of dominant scientists. One might chuckle at this line of thinking, but it has been adopted more or less intact by many journalists, who insist that any public discussion of science-related questions must be countered with “opposing views,” even if these opposing views have little or no empirical backing. This philosophy has also been embraced by many on the religious right, who argue that evolution is “just a theory,” and that public schools must grant equal time to opposing worldviews such as intelligent design.

The war from the religious right is mostly focused on the origin and nature of the earth and universe, the theory of evolution, and the origin of life and reproduction. Some 40% of Americans (and smaller but still substantial fractions in other nations) deny that the earth is more than a few thousand years old, and deny that human beings and other species have significantly changed since their creation. Well-organized groups push their agendas on local school boards, and war-weary teachers often omit teaching anything that may be deemed “controversial.” Otto points out that most of the noise comes from a relatively small group (mainline denominations for the most part made their peace with science long ago), but battling this movement nonetheless consumes a great deal of time and energy.

Otto documents in detail the energy industry’s opposition to the emerging scientific consensus on climate change and global warming, and their largely successful efforts in the political arena, but emphasizes that industrial opposition to science is much older — industry lobbyists (in some cases the same lobbyists) also fought anti-smoking regulations in the 1950s and 1960s and anti-pollution regulations in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In each case, the strategy is the same: fund a few contrary voices and raise a few isolated questions, and then claim that the “science isn’t settled.”

So what can be done? Otto calls for mathematicians and scientists to abandon their decades-old habit of keeping their heads buried in their offices, and instead take to the streets — start a blog, write articles for a newspaper or online news column, give public lectures, or even run for public office.

After all, scientists, who have witnessed first-hand the magnificence of the universe and the elegance of the laws that describe it, have a great story to tell, one that could go far to excite the public and unify the world society, which is now so tragically divided between science haves and haves-not, and (needlessly) between science and religion. As Albert Einstein wrote in 1930,

On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. … Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength.

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