In Fool Me Twice, Shawn Lawrence Otto Delivers Valuable Back Stories

The individual behind the 2008 presidential campaign ‘Science Debate’ initiative tells where we are with research science in the current political atmosphere. But more importantly, he also tells how we’ve gotten to where we are, and where we may be going from here.

Shawn Lawrence Otto, a principal in the “Science Debate” initiative as part of the presidential election campaign in 2008, has a story to tell about the institution of research science and its current state of affairs.

Actually, he has a number of stories to tell on that subject in his newly published Fool Me Twice. But it may be the back stories to his treatment that could be of most interest to many readers.

Book Review

Otto comes out swinging in outlining what his book’s subtitle describes as “Fighting the Assault on Science in America.” It’s a story certain to warm the cockles of the hearts of those determined that the evidence they see as compelling on climate change isn’t getting a fair break from the American public. Nor, for that matter, from much of the mainstream media, and certainly from the climate “skeptics” for whom no evidence may ever be convincing.

Going well beyond his extensive discussions of climate change science, however, Otto provides real value, particularly for those not qualified as science historians, in outlining the evolution of science in the American political, and highly politicized, arena. It is in these sections that even those staying current on climate change politics issues may find the greatest value.

“Over the course of the next forty years, science is poised to create more knowledge than humans have created in all of recorded history,” Otto writes, with impacts on virtually everyone and everything. “There is unfortunately no similar phase change going on in our politics, and therein lies the rub.”

He cautions of “the potential to produce even more intense social upheaval and political gridlock at the very time we can least afford them.” He points to a total of six questions concerning climate change that he says top prime-time TV journalists asked candidates in the 2008 elections — six out of a total of 2,975 questions asked.

“In a time when the majority of the world’s leading country’s largest challenges revolve around science,” Otto reminds us, “few reporters are covering them from the scientific angle.” Any wonder, one might ask, why the percentage of Americans thinking scientific advance among our country’s most important achievements had fallen from 47 to 27 percent between 1999 and 2009, he asks rhetorically.

Pooh-poohing the “marketplace of ideas” concept on which many journalism students long had teethed, Otto asks “What marketplace?”

“There is no marketplace of ideas; it’s a marketplace of emotions,” he lectures. “Given the choice, the majority of people want drama, sex, violence, and comedy, the four hoursmen of entertainment.”

Citing British physician/philosopher/academic John Locke’s 1689 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Otto writes: “These four elements have driven plays, paintings, and stories for all of history. But they are not news. They are ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge.’ News is knowledge.”

He writes of a “crisis” throughout American journalism and worries that “serious journalism is being forced into small outlets on the Web, many of them nonprofit, or is being wrapped in the guise of one of the four horsemen of entertainment.” Think here, if you weren’t already, of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” both fixtures of cable’s Comedy Central.

The solution to the ills Otto finds afflicting science in America? “Public engagement on a massive scale.” He starts with having scientists “come out of the laboratories and talk about what they know in the public square.” He writes about citizen science initiatives and deplores the “Just trust us” and “It’s too complicated to explain in plain English” approaches as just furthering antiscience sentiments.

A legitimate criticism of Otto’s Fool Me Twice may be that for some the reader finishes listening to some pages before the writer stops writing, and there indeed is some drag near the end of the 376 pages. It’s what’s covered in the first 250-300 pages or so that makes the book a worthwhile read for those wanting to better understand the “back story” of the ails afflicting climate science — and science more broadly — across America these days.

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Rodale, Copyright 2011. ISBN 978-1-60529-217-5. As of the end of November, Amazon.com was listing the book for $15.20, and its 27 online reviewers had given it four out of five possible stars.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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