Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto, New York, NY: Rodale, 2011. 376 pages. Hardcover: $25.99.
Article first published online: 7 JAN 2013
© 2013 The California Academy of Sciences
Curator: The Museum Journal
Volume 56, Issue 1, pages 139–141, January 2013
How to Cite
Ellenbogen, K. (2013), Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto, New York, NY: Rodale, 2011. 376 pages. Hardcover: $25.99. . Curator: The Museum Journal, 56: 139–141. doi: 10.1111/cura.12014
- Issue published online: 7 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 7 JAN 2013
Science is my passion, politics is my duty. —Thomas Jefferson
Shawn Otto's detailed account of the history, resurgence, and rhetoric of the anti-science movement in the United States is important for any professional at a science-rich cultural institution who has wondered how the relationship between the public and science can change so quickly from one of wonder to one of fear and distrust. Fool Me Twice examines how people come to understand and act upon science in their everyday life and considers how the founding of the U.S. created a lasting link between science and politics.
The book is wide ranging but has a single thesis: Science and politics have always been related, so we need to understand the history and changing nature of that relationship in order to effectively respond to the current anti-science movement in America. In framing and establishing evidence for this thesis over the course of the book, Otto goes from the founding of Western science to the founding of America and then traces the decline of science from the mid-1980s to the current day “science ghetto.”
One of the most useful sections of the book is where Otto talks about the problem of presenting both sides of an argument. Museums have grappled with this complex issue and have often found that the public rejects efforts to simply present both sides of an argument and instead demands a more involved facilitator (Chittenden, Farmelo, and Lewenstein 2004). Otto criticizes journalists who claim their job is simply to relay information, explaining that this erodes the public's ability to make decisions. He includes a careful analysis of the problems caused by the false notion of impartiality, but also demonstrates the dangers of presenting science as absolute truth. Otto shows that the discipline of science has always focused on observation and process, which has successfully distinguished it from monarchy and religion, which have relied on authority and faith as the basis for their strength. When science is presented as authoritative or definitive, it is using a weak and inappropriate argument and is likely to be dismissed as just one of many opinions.
Otto dissects example after example of how partisans portray science as opinion. A critical tool of the anti-science movement in America, this strategy uses rhetorical argument or opinion very effectively against science, which is usually framed as a knowledge issue. A rhetorical argument—such as, “If we do not know for sure, we should not trust it”—will always be stronger than the approach of Western science, which tends to rely on falsification tests. Science can rarely say that something is true. Instead, when all efforts to falsify something have failed, science honors it as a theory (such as gravitational theory or the theory of relativity). The very nature of Western science makes it susceptible to attack. Given this weakness, Otto strongly encourages conversations, not authoritative statements, as the best counter to the anti-science rhetoric. He is co-founder of the Science Debate—a grassroots effort to elevate science and technology in the political election dialogue—so it is no surprise that conversation is his tool of choice.
Fool Me Twice poses some very difficult questions. Early in the book, Otto wonders whether democracy is an appropriate governance model given the rapid growth of new knowledge. He explains that the United States was founded on the belief that if the public is well informed, the people can self-govern; this is the basis of democracy in America. Otto asks, as science advances and becomes more complex, can the public be informed enough to be trusted with their own governance? Science is growing increasingly complex at an increasingly rapid pace: “Over the next 40 years, science is poised to create more knowledge than humans have created in all of recorded history” (4). Are the scientific advances of the world so extreme that public decision-making, and therefore democracy, cannot keep up? Is democracy still an effective form of government in this era of rapid knowledge growth? It is a compelling question for museums, as institutions that are committed to engaging the public in new knowledge.
Some of Otto's statements are so absolute that they sound reductionist, with little room left for the world beyond science. For example, his statement that almost all of the world's major problems involve science and technology ignores the major humanitarian crises in our world. Where does Otto leave space to account for the huge impact of human nature and the role of the arts in shaping the world we live in? My guess is that Otto would explain that science, as he describes it, is a fundamental human pursuit that intersects with the arts at its core.
In the end, there is very little consideration of the arts in this book, and museum professionals may be left wondering how Otto's theories inform disciplines beyond science. Otto does use consilience—the theory that evidence from different sources can converge to produce strong conclusions—to say that we are not just connected across science disciplines, but also economics, religion, and the arts. It is a rare moment of cross-disciplinary consideration in the book. Despite this lack of cross-disciplinary focus, Fool Me Twice is a valuable read for any museum professional because of the strong interconnection between museums and democracy. There is usually a democratic basis to a museum's history, politics, and educational approach (Barrett 2011; Hein 2005). This book is a rare example of an answer to the question: Why should we care that museums are democratic institutions? Otto's writing will challenge all museum professionals to better understand the role of their institution and their work in a democratic society.
Otto provides an extensive historic context to science in America. Some readers may feel that the book lingers too long in discussions about Francis Bacon and René Descartes, but the history of science is a critical aspect of Otto's argument. He reminds us of the long history of interconnection between Western science and religion. The history lesson continues on as he demonstrates how Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke connect directly to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which is related to the writing of Science, the Endless Frontier, the document that made a case for the creation of the National Science Foundation. Otto also takes the reader through a history of anti-science movements. The discussion about relativity-deniers who fought against Einstein was a particularly compelling example of how we should learn from the history of society. I found it reassuring, rather than disappointing, that this battle has been fought before.
Throughout this history lesson, Otto repeatedly demonstrates that science is of central importance to freedom. Much of the language he uses will help science-rich cultural institutions bolster their explanations of why science matters to everyone, not just the “science interested.” Unlike a typical history-of-science text, Fool Me Twice weaves the history of science throughout a discussion of the current anti-science movement in this country, always reminding us that the nature of democracy in America is tied to the nature of science.
I work at the Science Museum of Minnesota where the mission of my organization—“Turn on the science: Realizing the potential of policymakers, educators, and individuals to achieve full civic and economic participation in the world”—makes it impossible to ignore this book. But if you do not work at an institution like mine, why should you read Fool Me Twice? Otto explains, “Science is never partisan, but it's always political” (30). Professionals at science-rich cultural institutions, and perhaps professionals at all cultural institutions that consider themselves to be democratic public spaces, should read Otto's book and better understand the ways in which science policy is our duty.
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