A conversation with the author of “The War on Science”

Science and technology impact many public policy issues today, from energy and the environment, to public health and privacy. But how is public opinion and knowledge of science informed or misinformed by our political discourse? A new book titled, “The War on Science,” is starting conversations about the relationship between science and democracy.

TRANSCRIPT

Science and technology impact many public policy issues today, from energy and the environment to public health and privacy.

But how is public opinion and knowledge of science informed or misinformed by our political discourse?

A new book titled 'The War on Science' is starting conversations about the relationship between science and democracy.

This segment is part of our ongoing series of reports, 'Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.'

Joining me today is science advocate, filmmaker, and author Shawn Otto.

Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me.

So I love how you describe the shift from understanding science among common people from know-how, knowing how to put together maybe a radio, to magic.

I don't know how to put together my cellphone.

And how that shifted things from knowledge to belief.

That's right.

How has this shifted how we talk about scientific issues, especially in politics?

Science isn't really something that we should be thinking about in terms of belief.

When we become vulnerable to disinformation campaigns is when science becomes so complex that it's not really accessible in that know-how way.

And then we have to trust what other people say about it.

And it gets into those areas of belief and whether or not you believe in climate change or whether or not you believe that vaccines don't cause autism.

Right, and I wanna go straight to the first question in your book.

Who is waging the war on science?

There are actually three areas that it's being waged.

One is by fundamentalist evangelicals who really object to what modern biological sciences are saying about human reproduction and sexuality and about origins.

They have been developing language to refute science for about 25 years now.

They're... The next one is coming out of actually left-wing academia, a post-modern movement that refutes the idea that there's any such thing as objective knowledge -- that science is just another way of knowing, like any other kind of truth.

The problem is is that that group has taught most of our journalists for two generations that there's no such thing as objectivity.

So we see the, kind of, evolution of post-fact politics that we're seeing now, where journalists don't take a position on whether something is supported by the evidence or not.

And the third area, the third front on the war on science, is the one that's probably the most powerful, that you're exploring right now, in some ways, which is about climate change.

But it's also about other areas in -- of environmental and biological science that show that we ought to regulate some industry function.

And industry turns around and invests to create uncertainty about that science to shortchange the democratic process.

When you talk about the media, because that's such a big way that people get information, and then they're bringing that to their dinner table conversations --

Mm-hmm.

What is the responsibility of media to find that truth that's not going to be an oversimplification and not going to be a false objectivity?

Well, it's really a profound responsibility in a democracy.

That's really the original conceived purpose of the free press.

That's why Thomas Jefferson really advocated for the free press so that the people could hold those in power accountable to the evidence.

And when the press has moved away from the idea of that there is evidence that you can hold the powerful accountable to and gotten into this idea of 'We're going to just wash our hands of it all, and we'll present both sides.

And we'll find a scientist in one side that's representing all the known hard-won evidence created from billions of measurements over decades.

And then, well, because we have to be balanced, we'll find somebody with a different opinion from the 'other side,'' Then that creates a false balance between opinion and evidence.

And what that winds up doing is skewing democracy further and further towards extreme opinions by elevating those unsupported opinions and acting as if they have the same weight as the tested evidence that we've developed through science.

So if users -- readers and viewers can't always rely on what they're seeing and hearing, where should individuals find the information that they need to know?

It's getting harder and harder to do that, especially with... You've heard in the last couple of days, talk about Facebook and other social media groups, Google, and about how people are tending to isolate themselves in social bubbles where they're surrounded by people who think similar to them.

And social media is now the number-one sharing of news clips.

So people wind up seeing very different realities, sometimes, and very different accounts.

And that, again, allows disinformation players... And in the climate battles, for instance, they're spending about a billion dollars a year to create uncertainty about the findings of climate science.

So who should we be looking to to correct all this misinformation?

It's very difficult.

That's why there is a growing movement of fact checking.

Factcheck.org and SciCheck do a good job with that.

But we need a verification process.

And the media really needs to start rethinking their role in democracy and what their purpose is.

Their purpose is not necessarily to be an outside player outside of a democracy.

It's to hold the powerful accountable to the evidence.

And that's one of the reasons that I've written the book and am talking about it.

Shawn Otto, author of 'The War on Science,' thanks very much for being here.

Thanks so much for having me.