Shawn Lawrence Otto is an American novelist, nonfiction author, filmmaker, political strategist, speaker, science advocate, and screenwriter and co-producer of the movie House of Sand and Fog. He is the author of THE WAR ON SCIENCE and SINS OF THE FATHERS. He has spoken at the Nobel Conference, on NPR, at the White House, the NY Academy of Sciences, and EuroScience; he has published in Scientific American, Science Friday, and other magazines. A MENSA member, he is an Alfred P. Sloan fellow who lives in Minnesota.
Tower Review) You describe three areas in which science is under attack. How are they related philosophically, and is the intent short term profits at long term expense?
Shawn Otto, author of THE WAR ON SCIENCE) All three areas are motivated by protection of their vested interests, and they do this by attacking the objectivity of science. Science creates knowledge, knowledge is power, and that power is political because it either confirms or challenges someone’s power base. In the war on science, attacks are coming from the postmodernist academic left, the fundamentalist religious right, and industry whose business models are threatened by new advances in health or environmental science. Postmodernists argue that science is just one of many ways of knowing, and that there is no such thing as objectivity. What gives one authority to speak on a subject is one’s membership in a political identity group, eg, one’s race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, political party, etc. Instead of objectivity, authenticity is viewed as having more authority. But science was developed to strip what we actually know away from all those subjective biases. If it rains and we both stick a ruler in a bucket, we’re going to get the same objective result no matter out identity subgroup. Yet this false idea has been taught in journalism and education schools for forty years and has eroded the public’s capacity to think about what is real. Journalists are especially guilty of this when they take the view that the only thing they can do is be fair and balanced. They will present in one half of the story a scientist relaying all the objective knowledge created by scientists over thousands of experiments, and in the other half, to be “balanced,” they will present someone with an opposing opinion. This false equivalence of facts and opinions elevates extreme voices on our public dialog. And, it opens the way to authoritarianism, because if there is no objective standard on which we all agree, how do we settle arguments of contested facts, such as those made by Donald Trump? The only means left is by the person with the biggest stick or the loudest megaphone funded by the biggest wallet. Around the same time postmodernism was taking root in academia, fundamentalist religion found its power base threatened by advances in the bio sciences, particularly around human origins, especially reproduction and sexuality. So we began to see a very sophisticated development of alternative theories to compete with, attack, and cast doubt on or outright deny science around evolution, birth control, when pregnancy begins, sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, stem cells, abortion, HPV vaccination, sex education, and in-vitro fertilization. They took advantage of the foundation laid down by the postmodernists to argue that science was something you either believed in or not, rather than a matter of know-how. This view was also adopted by industries who sought to forestall or prevent science-based regulations that affected their business model. So we see industries opposed to pesticide regulation, tobacco regulation, CO2 regulation, farming regulation, pharmaceutical regulation, sugar regulation, and mining/extractive industries regulation all mounting sophisticated public relations campaigns taking advantage of postmodernist ideas to create public uncertainty about the science, and then argue that since we are uncertain it’s premature to do anything.
TR) I saw a Wall Street Journal ad featuring a two legged battle vehicle similar to the Avatar model that Col. Quaritch climbed into, bristling with weapons. The caption was “The future of everything.” The new novel American War postulates a new dystopian civil war in America between north and south in the coming decades. Do you think we are headed for a breakdown of society or economic collapse if we continue down the anti-science, pro-military path, as Einstein said, “Nationalism is the measles of humanity?”
SO) Yes, it’s one of the things that I worry about and have been warning about for several years. The breakdown in the enlightenment idea of objectivity that modern democracy was founded on is putting democracy itself on a shaky political foundation, allowing authoritarians to find a new legitimacy for their arguments that they are the only way to bring stability, when it is authoritarian attacks on democracy that are producing the instability in the first place. Adding to that, there is a growing sci-tech – democracy gap. Thomas Jefferson encapsulated his thinking about democracy when he wrote that: “wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” But we have anti-democratic PR campaigns that should be illegal as attacks on democracy confusing the people about what is real, combined with this growing gap between increasingly complex sci-tech and the general public’s ability to understand it. Arthur C Clarke once said that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. When that happens, and I’d argue it’s happened with microelectronics and AI, when the average American can’t take something apart and figure out how it works, science and tech cease to be a matter of knowhow and become a matter of belief. Both Harry Potter’s broom and your smart phone were made by people cloistered away wearing long robes and uttering strange incantations. What’s the difference? And at that moment, we become vulnerable to disinformation campaigns and democracy begins to face an existential crisis.
TR) One of the crazy things about social media is all the fake news going viral. Youtube is awash with Flat Earth nonsense. I have tried to engage some of the most prolific of them in answering questions, but they either ignore the questions (and ask their own) or block me outright. Do you see this as diversion from admission of climate change, or do they really believe the Earth is flat? The ads they attach to videos and their repetition and frequency suggest they just want ad revenue from ignorant viewers who hate government and all regulation, but the detailed and lengthy discussions suggest some actually believe it, although they know next to nothing about how science works (not by observational empiricism, but rather by idea leading to testing leading to theory, with the intent to find better explanations.)
SO) These social media bubble that focus on science denial extend into the real world and are dangerous because they mentally entrap people in a self-referential virtual reality where if you accept one precept, you become trapped in an intellectual web of all of them. A lawyer seeing this stuff on social media also hears it on AM talk radio, in email blasts targeted to the cookie in his browser, in school textbooks containing text denying science inserted by industry or religious-funded interest groups, in fake newspapers like Environment & Climate news, which the Heartland Institute mails to every legislator in America and a good number of government relations people, in unfounded Fox news headlines about NASA fudging their measurements, in “conservative” online sites like Breitbart, and all this “evidence” reconfirms for him the pre-determined conclusion that the folks pushing this want him to have. It becomes psychologically and sociologically nearly indistinguishable from cult behavior, which is characterized by:
• Deeply partisan allegiance to a strong creed or authority figure
• Denial of conflicting information: “We have the truth and you don’t”
• Deception and coercion in persuasion techniques
• Authoritarian, us-versus-them worldview; scapegoating
• Ideology explains everything; unfalsifiable; “moving goalposts”
• Personality changes and/or dramatic shifts in values
• Confrontation causes doubling down on ideology
• Leaving causes anxiety, depression, identity loss, social loss
• Factors that make people more vulnerable to recruitment:
• insecurity — the same factors that characterize heavy social media users
TR) What can we do to stop this madness?
SO) I make several suggestions when I talk to groups.
• Academics need to expose and discredit the authoritarian aspects of postmodernist science denial. We need someone to fund a national group like ALEC but that is there to defend individual citizens and the idea of democracy, and to craft model bills attacking denial, alternative facts, and other attacks on our fundamental form of government.
• Social media companies need to be pressured to take more responsibility for insuring an equitable exchange. They have effective taken over the public square and monetized it, which has inserted perversions into our public dialogue that need to be addressed.
• Journalists need to stop the false balance; your true job in a democracy is to hold the powerful accountable to the evidence. That should be your ethic, not “balance.” Without that, how can the public hope to steer the ship of democracy? Viewers who hear a false balance story should immediately complain to the news show or publication, and get their friends to as well. Those station managers, news directors, editors and publishers listen to that feedback and you can have an impact. If you aren’t satisfied, white an oped in a competing publication taking them to task.
• Industry leaders need to stop it. Take a broader view of “shareholder value” and corporate citizenship. There is no legal basis for prioritizing shareholder value above all else. An ethical business is there to add value in every sphere it interacts in: adding value for shareholders, but also for customers, for employees, for the economy, and for society. Business leaders who fail to do this are acting not only unethically, but sociopathically.
• Science Journal publishers really need to look at other funding streams so they can afford to become open access. The public and journalists need to linkable access to primary knowledge so they can understand the know-how piece of science, and that presented conclusions are not a matter of belief, but of evidence.
• Granting bodies need to require and fund 5% on lab outreach; labs have a responsibility to maintain good relationships with and education of the public funders of their work, and by focusing on the how-to, the process of science, over the product, scientists can begin to make science more accessible. As Richard Feynman one said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
• Teachers need to focus more on process vs outcomes, which I know is very difficult in an environment of heavy high stakes testing. I speak to teachers a lot and have lots of suggestions, lesson plan ideas, and other resources to tackle these issues in a politic and successful way. But start with team-teaching science and civics, and have a unit on science as a civic foundation. It will make both more relevant to students’ lives.
• Faith leaders need to stop rejecting science or going for the political message and start subscribing to the major science journals and publications. Houses of worship are great places for moral and ethical reflection, which is always necessary as science advances, and science-literate faith leaders could, like the faith leaders at the beginning of the scientific revolution, seek to better equip their flocks to navigate the many nuances of science in a complex world.
• Attorneys who care about the erosion of facts, reason, and science and the rise of authoritarianism should read the book and use it as a foundation to begin to develop legal strategies to defend democracy from denial, which is an authoritarian tactic and thus unAmerican.
• Scientists need to come out of the labs and meet people where they are, in churches, civic clubs and organizations, and in the media; to speak out about their work and the importance of facts, objectivity, science, and evidence in self-governance, to use inclusive language, to create cognitive dissonance, and to be concrete in their expression and examples.
TR) What reaction have you received to your books, and what’s next for you?
SO) I’ve spoken in several countries about this growing threat, and across the United States from the National Academies to conservative churches to universities and non-profit functions. People are beginning to recognize just how shaky our current situation is, and that the rise of authoritarianism is a real and present danger. If people care about democracy, they should read The War on Science, review it, and share it with their friends and associates. The stakes are too high, and people need to understand what is happening behind the scenes that is causing this dangerous situation.