Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book examines America's turn from science, warns of danger for democracy

Posted on Monday, December 26, 2011
By Renee Schoof

Americans have trouble dealing with science, and one place that's especially obvious is in presidential campaigns, says Shawn Lawrence Otto, who tried, with limited success, to get the candidates to debate scientific questions in the 2008 presidential election. Otto is the author of a new book, "Fool me twice: Fighting the assault on science in America," which opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government." And if the people and their leaders aren't well informed and don't use scientific information to solve modern problems, Otto suggests, the United States could soon skid into decline. "Without the mooring provided by the well-informed opinion of the people, governments may become paralyzed or, worse, corrupted by powerful interests seeking to oppress and enslave," he writes. Today, he adds, Congress seems paralyzed and "ideology and rhetoric increasingly guide policy discussion, often bearing little relationship to factual reality."


Reporters play a role in whether science is discussed in campaigns. A League of Conservation Voters analysis in early 2008 found that prime-time TV journalists asked 2,975 questions in 171 interviews. Only six questions were about climate change, "and the same could be said of any one of several major policy topoics surrounding science," Otto writes in the book. Today's policymakers "are increasingly unwilling to pursue many of the remedies science presents," he argues. They "take one of two routes: Deny the science, or pretend the problems don't exist."


"Science does two things that we don't love. It does lots of things that we do love, but the two things we don't love are: Whenever we extend our knowledge, we have to parse that new knowledge morally and ethically . . . . The other thing is that it either confirms or vexes somebody's vested interested."


What makes dealing with climate change so difficult? "Nobody wants to feel bad about the future. Everybody wants to be hopeful." The nation was settled by "insanely hopeful immigrants," Otto said, and Americans still have a strong sense of opportunity, including the idea that hard work pays off and that people get what they deserve. "It doesn't mean that we're bad or stupid. It just means that it's just hard. It's hard to get our minds around and embrace, because it means maybe we've screwed up somehow and nobody wants to feel that way. But the great thing about Americans is that because of that hopefulness, once we get through this painful process of self-reflection ... then we really kick it in and we can solve problems like nobody else."


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