Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: "Fool Me Twice" by Shawn Otto

I still don't know quite what to make of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Otto.

Don't get me wrong. I think the book is a clarion for what ails our political system. It's a must-read for anyone concerned (as I am) that we've lost all sense of reason in our democracy.

I was hoping for some sort of "silver bullet" at the end that offered a solution. Alas, as I knew deep down, no magic solution exists.

That doesn't stop Mr. Otto from trying.

The book's appendix has "The American Science Pledge" which he suggests political candidates be asked to sign. "Candidates who care about America are asked to sign this pledge to show their commitment to its five core principles and to agree to debate the fourteen top science questions in public forums."

Good luck with that.

Some pledges have been quite successful. Nearly all Congressional Republicans have signed an anti-tax pledge that is largely responsible for the current partisan gridlock incapable of dealing with the federal government's trillion-dollar annual deficit. And that's the problem with pledges — they leave no room for compromise or for reason.

Otto writes, "We need a pledge for reason, equality, transparency and freedom. A pledge that expands reasoned debate. We need an American science pledge." (Emphasis in the original.)

Otto's five core principles are:

1. Public decisions must be based on knowledge.

2. Knowledge is supreme and must not be suppressed.

3. Scientific integrity and transparency must be protected.

4. Freedom of inquiry must be encouraged.

5. The major science policy issues must be openly debated.

After much reflection, I think what bothers me about Mr. Otto's approach is that it misses the mark.

Our leadership, both elected and appointed, is a reflection of the American electorate. You don't like the decisions coming out of the White House, the Congress or the Supreme Court? Well, who put them there?

The American Science Pledge should not be for elected officials. It should be for us.

Much of the world accepts the overwhelming evidence documenting climate change. We do not.

Much of the world accepts evolution as the most likely explanation for the existence of life on this planet. We do not.

The cover of "Denialism" by Michael Specter.

Otto explores the phenomenon of denialism, itself the subject and title of a 2009 book by Michael Specter. (Not to mention a very similar book cover ...) Otto writes on pages 5-6:

Science provides us with increasingly clear pictures of how to solve our great challenges, but policy makers are increasingly unwilling to pursue many of the remedies science presents. Instead, they take one of two routes: Deny the science, or pretend the problems don't exist. In fact, political and religious institutions the world over are experiencing a reactionary pullback from science and reason that is threatening planetary stability and long-term viability at the very time we need science the most, and nowhere in the world is this pullback more pronounced than in the United States.

Otto raises a fundamental, if troubling, question:

Can it be that science has simply advanced too far, or that our world has simply gotten too complex for democracy? In a world dominated by science that requires extensive education to practice or even fully grasp, can democracy still prosper, or will the invisible hand finally fall idle? Are Americans still well informed enough to be trusted with their own government?

Perhaps a more fundamental question needs to be asked — why are Americans not informing themselves enough to make an adequate decision?

A blog post yesterday on the Austin Chronicle web site is only the latest example of this phenomenon. The post links to the 2012 Republican Party of Texas platform. Here are excerpts under the section, "Educating Our Childen":

American Identity Patriotism and Loyalty – We believe the current teaching of a multicultural curriculum is divisive. We favor strengthening our common American identity and loyalty instead of political correctness that nurtures alienation among racial and ethnic groups. Students should pledge allegiance to the American and Texas flags daily to instill patriotism.

Controversial Theories – We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.

Early Childhood Development – We believe that parents are best suited to train their children in their early development and oppose mandatory pre-school and Kindergarten. We urge Congress to repeal government-sponsored programs that deal with early childhood development.

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

This reminded me of a recent sarcastic Twitter message I read:

My science class is cancelled. My parents won't fund it because they believe in magic.

In an era where the Internet has revolutionized and popularized access to the most trivial of information, it seems that many avail themselves of these resources only for entertainment, or to reinforce their preconceptions of the world.

This is a forum for space activism, NASA in particular, so I read Otto's book looking for ways to promote public enthusiasm for space exploration, commerce and settlement.

Most close observers, I suspect, would agree that historically NASA has done a terrible job of self-promotion. Some of that is due to restrictions imposed by law, while I think most of us would agree that engineers and scientists are as a lot fairly awful communicators. For every Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson there are millions of people with science degrees who revel in their geekery, if not outright nerdism.

(And I say that as someone who hung out at Star Trek conventions for decades ...)

NASA's current administration seems to have embraced the Internet, releasing videos promoting current programs and apps for smartphones. The most recent example is ISSLive!, where people can watch live the activities aboard the International Space Station. But in typical NASA fashion, it's not on the home page nor does it have a simple link.

On Twitter, NASA has many accounts for all sorts of interests. I'm on Twitter all day looking for breaking news. Many astronauts are on Twitter, including three currently on the ISS — Don Pettit (@astro_Pettit), Joe Acaba (@astroacaba) and Andre Kuipers (@astro_andre).

And despite access to this wealth of knowledge, the denialists ignore facts, and some revel in their ignorance.

Otto on page 143 refers to an "intellectual erosion" that has been playing out on both ends of the political spectrum for many decades. He cites as a critical turning point the abolition by the Reagan administration in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine. This Federal Communications Commission policy since 1949 required station licensees to "afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance," according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

The Fox News claim to be "fair and balanced" is a play on the Doctrine's requirement that licensees "ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair," to quote the Museum.

Thanks to the Doctrine's abolition, "the age of yellow journalism was reborn," Otto writes.

Chief among the early gainers were angry and opinionated baby-boomer talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh, who began engaging in political rants that charged up listeners' amygdalae with outrage in a sort of pro wrestling of politics, attacking examples and perpetrators of the pet peeves of cultural conservatives, driving audience numbers sky-high.

In such an era where reason itself is under attack, the obvious candidates to defend it are those whose careers are dedicated to reason and logic — scientists.

But scientists, with rare exception, are horrible communicators, or simply choose not to engage politics, believing that there's no place for opinion in science.

Politicians, however, have no problem injecting themselves into science, and NASA's struggle for relevance is a clear example.

Members of the House and Senate space subcommittees show little interest in NASA other than directing jobs to their districts and states. The Space Launch System, derided as the Senate Launch System by its critics, was created by a group of politicians looking to protect jobs in their districts left from cancelled programs. Little thought or reason was given to the need for the SLS, and more than two years later the SLS still has no missions or destinations. It exists simply to exist.

NASA management has been attacked and insulted by some committee members because it won't divert money from the International Space Station and commercial space programs to accelerate the SLS. Unlike SLS, the ISS has demonstrated incredible scientific potential, beginning with candidate vaccines for salmonella and MRSA.

But reason be damned. We need the "monster rocket" to protect a few thousand obsolete jobs in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Utah.

Is the answer for scientists to become more engaged in politics?

Otto writes on page 87 that scientists "view politics as dirty." But "public sentiment is everything," and the only way to reach the public is to engage them.

In my opinion, NASA can no longer be the perfect place on a shiny hill that is both admired and resented for an air of smug superiority. Like it or not, public discourse is a necessary and critical tool for NASA to rise above bitter partisan rhetoric, to circumvent political provincialism, and to deny denialism.

I see a glimmer of hope in the current Administration's efforts to reach out to a smartphone-savvy generation with cool apps and streaming videos and space tweets. Today's astronauts are not on a pedestal. You can text them, and maybe you'll get an answer from 240 miles above.

But scientists, and those of us who support science, must be more vocal in standing up for reason. We must find ways to communicate rationally with those who can be reasoned, so they make informed decisions that elect to office representatives who defend Otto's five core principles.

Watch online "Things to Come." You may be subjected to ads.

In the 1936 classic film Things to Come written by H.G. Wells, a global government of scientists imposes worldwide peace after decades of horrific war. The scientists introduce decades of technological progress, but the masses come to resent those behind these advances. In particular, they oppose the planned first manned flight to the Moon. A mob rushes the launch pad (a "space gun") so the ship is launched ahead of schedule.

In the final scene, two characters representing philosophical opposites muse the fate of humanity. One argues that progress must stop for now out of fear of the unknown. The other argues that it is humanity's destiny to endlessly explore. Which direction humanity will take is left unresolved at the end of the film.

Seventy-five years later, we still don't have that direction.

I had hoped to find it in Fool Me Twice. The direction is there, but I'm not sure we have the answer for how to remain on the right path.

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