America’s Turn From Science, A Danger for Democracy

Washington – 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.”

In 2008, Otto and a group of other writers tried to organize a presidential debate on science issues. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain was interested. In the end, the two candidates agreed to respond to 14 questions in writing, and Otto's group posted them on its website.

Otto said the group plans to try for another science debate in 2012.

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.”

Otto said he wasn't looking for simple answers in the book:

“I don't blame corporations because they are stuck in a system we have created and they can't solve it all themselves,” he said in an interview. “I don't blame the Republican Party for going anti-science because there are a lot of factors that led to that socially, and I don't think it's a decision of Republican Party leadership to one day say, 'oh, we're not going to accept science anymore.' And it's not just because evangelicals got involved in politics. There's a lot of compex reasons.”

Here are some questions with the author and his answers:

Are Americans rejecting science?

“I think it's a myth Americans aren't interested. It's a myth they don't like science and scientists … But there's some partisan political affiliation going on, and sometimes science tells them they don't want to hear and they don't like to deal with. Climate change is a great example, because the problem is so enormous and the implications mean restructuring our economy and our energy supply system.”

“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.”

Will we hear about science issues in the 2012 campaign?

“I think science is going to remain a charged issue . .. Science is such a major part of everything, but particularly our unsolved challenges.”

On climate change, Republican presidential candidates generally say they don't think the science is settled, even though the nation's scientific organizations have reported a consensus view that the Earth is warming mostly as a result of pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

Things could change after the primaries, when the eventual candidate appeals for swing voters and tries to avoid an anti-science label, Otto said. The Obama administration accepts the scientific understanding of climate change, but rarely mentions it, stressing instead ways that clean energy could create jobs and boost competitiveness.

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.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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