The War on Science (Excerpt)

Excerpt from The War on Science by Shawn Otto (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Shawn Otto. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. You can purchase the book here.

Science and engineering are providing us with increasingly clear pictures of how to solve many of our challenges, but policymakers are increasingly unwilling to pursue the remedies that scientific evidence suggests. Instead, they take one of two routes: deny the science, or pretend the problems don't exist. Vast areas of scientific knowledge and the people that work in them are under daily attack in a fierce war on science. Scientific advances in public health, biology and the environment are being resisted or rolled back. Political and religious institutions the world over are pushing back against much of science and reason in a way that is threatening social and economic stability.

This pullback is affecting leading and emerging economies alike. The name of the radical pan-national Islamist group Boko Haram roughly translates as "Western education is forbidden."The Islamic drive for al-asala, or authenticity, leads some fundamentalist Muslims to reject Western science in favor of Quranic instructions, says Islamic scholar Bassam Tibi. But radical Islam is not alone in this rejection. The vanguard of the retreat is in the Western democracies, where Christian fundamentalists; postmodernist academics, teachers and journalists; liberal new age purists; and industry front groups all attack science for their own reasons.

Politically, the war on science is coming from both left and right. But the antiscience of those on the right -- a coalition of fundamentalist churches and corporations largely in the resource extraction, petrochemical and agrochemical industries -- has far more dangerous public-policy implications because it's about forestalling policy based on evidence to protect destructive business models. As well, the right generally has far more money with which to spread disinformation and attack science on a host of issues.

Those on the political left often unwittingly abet the right's antiscience efforts by arguing that truth is relative, harboring suspicions about hidden dangers to health and the environment that are not supported by evidence, and selectively rejecting science that doesn't affirm their health-food and back-to-Eden value system. While they are right that there are serious environmental and health threats afoot from poorly regulated industries, they undermine their credibility when they extend these suspicions to scientifically unsupported ideas like vaccines cause autism, cell phones cause brain cancer, or genetically modified crops are unsafe to eat. By seeking arguments that support preexisting beliefs (however laudable the concerns that motivate them) instead of looking to scientific evidence, these progressives give up the very critical-thinking and argumentation tools liberals once used to defend modern society against its authoritarian attackers.

The split is happening not just in science, but across the engineering world as well. Unlike a generation ago, when a radio could be made sitting at one's kitchen table, a smart phone cannot be made in the same way. This lack of plain accessibility is making complex science and technology less a matter of knowhow and more magical. Smart phones and flying brooms are both made by people cloistered away wearing long robes and uttering strange incantations. This inaccessibility makes science and technology more into a matter of belief than know-how, making people more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. It is also increasingly difficult for the non-science literate to accurately perceive the threats, challenges, and opportunities of this complex new world so dominated by inaccessible and magical science and technology (something that, for the reader, will hopefully change by the end of this book).

This is having effects across society from education to law enforcement. Consider the case of Xi Xiaoxing, the chair of Temple University's physics department. Xi was arrested by the FBI in 2015 for leaking top-secret technology information to China. The FBI had intercepted schematics of a sophisticated device known as a pocket heater, used in classified superconductor research, that Xi had sent to scientists in China.

The only problem was that Xi had done nothing of the kind. Independent experts in superconductor research looked at Xi's schematics and one after another told lawyers that the design wasn't for a pocket heater. Xi was simply doing what scientists and engineers the world over do every day: he was collaborating with colleagues over the Internet. It was an embarrassing acknowledgment that prosecutors and FBI agents did not understand the science involved in their case -- and did not make enough of an attempt to learn it -- before bringing charges that jeopardized Xi's career and left the impression that he was a spy for China. "I don't expect them to understand everything I do," Xi told the New York Times after the Justice Department dropped all charges. "But the fact that they don't consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn't do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game."v

Something similar happened in the fall of 2015. Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth grader from Irving, Texas, brought a clock to school that he had designed and built himself using some integrated circuit chips and a circuit board. He mounted it in an aluminum project case with a big LCD readout and took it in to show his new engineering teacher. He had been part of his middle school robotics team and now, a few days into high school, he was anxious to impress his new teacher with what he could do. The teacher told him that it was nice but advised him not to show anyone else. When the clock beeped during English class, the English teacher asked to see what was in his backpack. Ahmed, who was wearing a NASA T-shirt, brought it forward. The English teacher examined it and said "that looks like a bomb." The police were called and Ahmed was arrested. When he was brought into the principal's office, one of the police officers said, "That's who I thought it was." He was interrogated by five police officers and the principal before being handcuffed and taken to the police station, where he was fingerprinted.

"They interrogated me and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention," Ahmed told MSNBC. "They were like, 'So you tried to make a bomb?' I told them no, I was trying to make a clock." But the officer said, "It looks like a movie bomb to me."

With the help of the sci-tech community, the story went viral on social media. The school and police officers were caught by their ignorance of electronic engineering. In the face of that ignorance, fear and racism took over, as our worst qualities often do when we are ignorant and afraid. In the end, Ahmed received invitations from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and President Barack Obama, who tweeted "Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great."

The clash between the science-literate and a science-illiterate society creates unique problems not just for hapless individuals that run afoul of ignorant or racist authorities, but for the mainstream media as well. Budget-strapped and increasingly unable to discern between knowledge and opinion, science-illiterate journalists too often aid the slide into unreason. Many journalists believe there is no such thing as objectivity, rendering otherwise brilliant minds unable to discern between objective knowledge developed from years of scientific investigation, on the one hand, and a well-argued opinion made by an impassioned and charismatic advocate on the other. This problem extends beyond journalists. Cumulatively, newspaper editors have allowed themselves to be heavily manipulated by antiscience public relations campaigns. One cannot be certain exactly why an opinion editor chooses to run one piece and not another, for example, but in December, 2015, the nonprofit Media Matters did an analysis of opinion pieces that mentioned the recently concluded Paris climate talks and ran in the ten largest-circulation newspapers in the United States: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, and The Washington Post. Nine of the pieces, or 17 percent, included climate science denial. Just 3 percent of climate scientists in any way dispute human-caused disruption of the Earth's climate system. This means that the major US papers expressed views that were more than five times as doubtful about climate change as the actual climate scientists publishing in the field. By engaging in this sort of misrepresentation, the media deprives the public of the reliable information necessary for self-governance.

A vast war on science is underway, and the winners will chart the future of power, democracy, and freedom itself. The War on Science is an account of that war, and what we -- concerned citizens of all political persuasions, in all countries -- can do to win it.

Shawn Otto is a science writer and producer of the US presidential science debates.