A decades-long assault on science threatens democracy and civic progress in the U.S. and around the world, according to The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters and What We Can Do about It (Milkweed Editions, 2016), the latest book by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Despite the overwrought title, Otto marshals an astonishingly broad range of facts, trends and history to make his case that “scientific advances in public health, biology and the environment are being resisted or rolled back.”
Otto grounds his inquiry into current antiscience attitudes by examining their cultural and intellectual roots in, among other things, the anti-Darwinist reaction of the 19th century, the wholesale retreat by many scientists from civic discourse after World War II and the postmodernist movement of the late 20th century.
At times, Otto seems to be criticizing everyone—from academics to industrialists to journalists to politicians. But, despite cogently eviscerating the ultraliberal anti-vaccine element and the “brutal, blame-the-victim aspect of New Age thinking,” he reserves his greatest ire for the “antiscience of those on the right—a coalition of fundamentalist churches and corporations largely in the resource extraction, petrochemical and agrochemical industries.” Their effort, Otto writes, “has far more dangerous public policy implications because it is about forestalling policy based on evidence to protect destructive business models.”
And it’s in discussing public policy issues that Otto performs the greatest service. Since 2008 Otto and a handful of supporters have tried to convince major media outlets and the presidential candidates to conduct a national debate that addresses the fundamental scientific nature of major political challenges—from energy policy to climate change to water shortages to future economic growth. (Full disclosure, Scientific American partnered with Otto during the 2012 presidential election to evaluate the candidates’ responses to 14 questions about the scientific underpinnings of their proposed policies.) The War on Science provides Otto the room to make the case in sweeping detail.
Those who argue that science should stay out of the political arena are easily dismissed. “The practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical because it takes nothing on faith,” Otto writes. Science, by its nature, does not fear or favor any single human being or group. Thus, the knowledge it produces almost invariably upsets the status quo, challenging whomever or whatever depends on that status quo for their staying power.