Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto)

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto
Rodale Books
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since its inception, America has been a paradox. The Declaration of Independence was written on foundations of reason and science and personal education, a deliberate break from the faith-based authoritarian nations of Europe - yet, from the outset, Americans seemed to value personal opinion over objective fact and practicality over the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Science and anti-science have been in conflict from the start, and lately the latter has gained a worrisome upper hand, backed by powerful interests that play on the most divisive aspects of human nature and religion (and the worst mistakes of science's own history) in a way that actively endangers the future of our country, not to mention our world. The author discusses the history of science, the disasters that historically accompany its rejection in favor of misguided and selfish ideals, and what might be done to correct course before it's too late.

REVIEW: Written in 2011, Fool Me Twice sounded an alarm over the increasing hold on political power that those with anti-science, authoritarian agendas have gained over the past decades - an alarm that, given recent developments, fell on deaf ears. Even reasonably progressive leaders like Barack Obama proved reluctant to openly debate science or campaign on a pro-science platform, recognizing how many Americans have been led to view it with skepticism. What we're seeing, Otto convincingly argues, is the end result of at least a generation of effort by those with vested interests in a less educated, less questioning populace. How we got to this point is a long (and sometimes long-winded) tale, the creation and fomenting of divisions playing out age-old schisms, not to mention the exploitation of flaws in both the political system (which has always valued rhetorical debate over scientific exploration of ideas) and the human mind. One could blame Big Money and the weaponizing of  fundamentalism (a force that didn't used to conflict with science; indeed, many great scientists, past and present, find no conflict between faith and logic), but Otto points out that scientists aren't entirely blameless; not only did science perpetuate some serious problems, but it failed to engage with the public even as the anti-science forces became adept in media manipulation. It failed itself by not recognizing that science, like all human endeavors, is inherently political - particularly in modern times, when science is essential to sustaining civilization. Now, scientists scramble to play catch-up - but, in a country where elected officials openly mock the scientific process, where facts take a back seat to provably invalid opinions on reality, where the public has limited access to (let alone understanding or appreciation of) science, they're fighting uphill against an entrenched opponent, one with very deep roots, deeper pockets, and far more experience on the battlefield.
Otto sometimes uses a heavier (and more verbose) hammer than is necessary; his condemnation of the equal rights and feminism movement, while valid insofar as condemning the extreme ideas that arose from it, ignores the human biases and inequalities that necessitated the movements to begin with, biases and inequalities that certainly affected scientists (being human, and products of the same society as the rest of us flawed humans), if not so much the process of science itself, which has always striven for objectivity. Acknowledging and addressing those biases would seem to increase the likelihood of achieving objectivity. Unfortunately, in university settings and public opinion, the movement didn't end there, according to Otto, giving rise to the "postmodern" idea of mutable reality that he ties directly to modern American notions that facts themselves are matters of opinion based on personal experience.
The book can be a slog at times. but it's ultimately worth the effort, with a few glimmers of light in the darkness. At the end, Otto asks directly what kind of future we want, what country we will choose to be: the one that continues to embrace outdated economic myths and outright lies in the name of immediate short-term gains for the powerful few, creating more schisms and isolating itself further from a world that is (for the most part) marching ahead, or the one that confronts the challenges ahead armed with the best known tool, that of science. He predicted a hard and long road, but a potentially navigable one, for science as of 2011. After 2016, I fear it's become exponentially harder and longer...and quite possibly impassable, at least in my lifetime.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Unbound (Richard L. Currier) - My Review
How to Build a Dinosaur (Jack Horner and James Gorman) - My Review
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Bill Nye) - My Review

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