"For the Democracy of Science"

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Alyssa Pelish in Science Magazine, October 28, 2011

For the Democracy of Science

The bio attached to Shawn Lawrence Otto s blog on science and politics (1) notes his accomplishments as a science advocate, political strategist, and screen- writer (House of Sand and Fog). It also mentions that he s an Eagle Scout, although that seems in keeping with the persistently civic-minded project of Fool Me Twice. The book is not a stand-alone critique, lancing exposé, or purely philosophical treatise such as others with undoubtedly similar concerns have written within the past decade. It is not that Otto doesn t critique, expose, or philosophize; certainly, his dissatisfaction with the dismal state of scientific literacy among the American public and its lawmakers is readily apparent, as are his progressive ideals. Rather, what distinguishes the book is his determination to simultaneously educate and move to action both lay readers and scientists.

Otto s most urgent concern is the overwhelming absence, in both the public and its elected representatives, of the science literacy required to make informed policy decisions. This illiteracy is troubling for many reasons not the least of which are the consequences of policy based on highly subjective beliefs and assumptions rather than the relevant science. Otto points to dismal policies effected after largely rhetorical skirmishes over climate change and evolutionary theory, but he could just as easily have singled out what s at stake in, say, the hackles raised by the idea of vaccinating preteen girls against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus. A public and its elected policy-makers who don t understand the science behind these issues will inevitably respond with their guts.

Ottofindsthisgut-based,ideologically driven displacement of science from policy decisions to be problematic on a more fundamental level: the way in which laws based on faith and assumptions instead of evidence pull the United States from its democratic foundations toward an increasingly authoritarian government. Otto s argument that the independence declared by Jefferson et al. hinged on freedom of inquiry and reason is perhaps the canniest part of the case he makes for science literacy. He reminds us of the thinkers (e.g., Bacon, Newton, and Locke) whose arguments for the inductive reasoning and empiricism so crucial to science influenced Jefferson s ideas of democracy and its aims. A key tenet of Jeffersonian democracy is that an educated, well-informed citizenry can be trusted to govern itself. Something has gone wrong, Otto argues,when those who are supposed to represent the public are not adequately informed about the science behind important issues yet continue to insist on their beliefs. Such a top-down, empirically empty method of governance, he notes, is closer to the blind ideology of authoritarianism than to democracy.

Instead of simply insisting on the preeminence of science (a subject many people know little about and, consequently, are intimidated by), Otto ties its importance to the ideals and demands of democracy. Aiming to instill a sense of duty in his readers, he walks them through the relevant histories of both government and science in the United States. He draws out the parallels between the scientific method and democracy so that it seems inevitable that the two should be entwined.

Of course, at this point science and government in the United States are not as entwined as Otto argues they should be. After discussing several major policy issues to demonstrate problems that arise from the gap between the two, he exam- ines why Americans have become so effectively distanced from science. He contemplates how the fears raised by the atomic age and, later, environmental disasters have left a lingering distrust among the public. Intriguingly, he considers how both the undeniably authoritarian Christian right and the ostensibly anti-authoritarian postmodernist denial of objec- tive truth have undermined appreciation for science. Otto also takes a look at how corporate interests have confused our sense of science s credibility. And he doesn t overlook the many scientists who have turned inward, preferring not to have to explain their work or its relevance to a public that is ever more ill-equipped to understand it.

After outlining America s science problem and discussing science politics of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the author offers a concluding section, The solution. Otto strongly endorses working within people s comfort zones to acquaint them with the science behind public issues that affect them. He lauds the biology professor who encourages religiously conservative students to reconcile their beliefs with their study of evolution and the religious leader who challenges parishioners to think critically about scripture and, by extension, the scientific world. Admittedly, these are the sorts of local gestures that may only lead to small changes here and there. Otto s most intriguing idea, however, is science debates, in which candidates discuss their stances on science-based policy issues. He and scientists who support the idea would like to make these a part of all presidential and congressional election seasons. They believe such public debates will force politicians to ground their opinions in scientific knowledge instead of rhetoric. And, just as importantly, placing science in discussions of policies that affect the public allows them to become familiar with science and knowledge-based argumentation as opposed to mere rhetoric, to learn or relearn how to distinguish the two, and to use this thought process not only in making electoral decisions but also in dis- cussing things with their kids.

The cynics among us would argue that bringing this idea to fruition requires the optimism of an Eagle Scout. (Could the protocol of such debates guard against politicians habits of cherry-picking scientific facts at their own convenience? Would the public be willing to educate themselves enough to actually follow the content of the debates?) Yet the assumption that a well-informed people will act in its country s best interest is fundamental to the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. The solutions Otto suggests require a great deal of dedication and optimism. Nonetheless, the problems he identifies are quite real. Fool Me Twice offers a compelling consideration of the United States political estrangement from science. One would very much like to attend to Otto s equally compelling hopes.


1. http://shawnotto.com/neorenaissance/.