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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book review: A war worth losing

Peter Dykstra for Environmental HealthNews 

America is a war-weary nation. I’m not talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or ISIS. We’ve fought wars on cancer, drugs, crime, Christmas, Christians, marriage, family values, coal, poverty, prosperity, and gun owners.

Shawn Otto’s new book presents another war, one where the aggressors wage a battle well worth losing. The War On Science is not only a compelling assessment of the battlefield, but a very useful run through the military history that got us to the current conflagration.

Otto, whose varied résumé includes work as a science writer and advocate, screenwriter/producer of a major Hollywood release, and polite hellraiser, doesn’t wait long to return fire in this particular war. 

Three of the first seven pages of the book are consumed by a carpetbombing of pressing science/policy questions, 54 by my count, identifying the high-value targets in the war on science. 

Pharmaceuticals and vaccines, climate and global security, the Internet, journalism and robotics are all queries in this three-page Shock-and-Awe geek mic drop.

I was relieved that climate denial, currently the most high profile theater for the war on science, does not dominate the book. Instead, Otto effectively replicates the techniques of two of my favorite books of the past decade.

Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer-winning Toms River told the story of a New Jersey town ravaged by toxic dumping, but weaved the history of toxicology and environmental health throughout the book. 

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explained the evolution of contemporary anti-science attitudes by tracing the PR-based defense of pesticides, tobacco, chlorofluorocarbons, and other environmental menaces over the decades.

By following the explanatory path of these two great books, Otto reveals much about the dynamics of climate denial by explaining its precedents and parallel phenomena.

He divides The War on Science into three crucial fronts.

First, anti-science attitudes are a product of identity politics, prosecuted not just by conservative demagogues but also by some journalists, scientists and science advocates.

Second is the convergence of ideology and religion—somehow, for many devout people, the answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” is that Jesus would turn his back on fighting pollution or clean energy, and would oppose lifesaving medical breakthroughs.

The third front is the most apparent and easily understood: Commercial self-interest.

Understanding this three-front war is an important tool in understanding climate denial. Many advocates of climate action dismiss climate deniers by simply rationalizing that they’re either industry-funded moles or simpletons. They’re not necessarily either one. Or maybe they’re both. The bottom line is that none of this is simple.

Otto looks at the current frenzy over vaccines and their imaginary link to autism through the same historical lens. Did you know that there were public outcries against vaccines 140 years ago? 

Today’s anti-vaxxers are significant in understanding anti-science in two big ways: First, they’re not ideologically monolithic. Climate denial and similar phenomena are often presumed to be wholly owned by the political right. But anti-vax sentiment is often (but not always) strongest in heavily liberal communities like Marin County, California, and Eugene, Oregon.

Secondly, the most impassioned anti-vaxxers have a perpetual capacity to ignore obvious and adverse information, something that drives both climate denial and currently, the Trump campaign.

Andrew Wakefield was a British physician whose paper linking autism to the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine ignited the movement. When the paper was investigated, discredited, retracted and Wakefield’s license to practice medicine revoked due to fraud, it moved me to become a tiny bit suspicious of the whole thing.

But in true anti-science tradition, the anti-vax movement viewed the multiple disgraces as a War On Wakefield, an affirmation that scientists, the medical establishment, Big Pharma, government and the media were all enmeshed in a giant conspiracy to hide the truth.

I don’t begrudge the fact that Otto devotes the last section of the book to solutions for this deep mess. He rattles off a list of pragmatic, mostly doable notions, a few of which are already underway, like scientists fighting back against harassment or journalists exposing decades of fraud in climate-denying propaganda. 

Others are intriguing, like establishing a “Progressive Chamber of Commerce” to negate the influence of the existing U.S. Chamber, whose clout sustains many anti-science efforts.


But almost inadvertently, Otto’s diligence in the rest of the book undermines any notion that ending the war on science will be easy. If you don’t believe me, ask Galileo, or John Scopes, or Rachel Carson, or Mike Mann. This stuff is a lamentable part of human nature, an ingrained part of current politics, and literally an element in the business plans of many corporations.

The task is made even more daunting by the downward pressure of multiple negative forces: The de-fanging of the news media, the successful and lucrative marketing of fear as a political weapon, the near-total division of science and environmental issues as partisan beliefs, and the drag of popular culture, where scientists have always gotten the short end.

Otto points out that some scientists, charismatic and fluent in communicating to a general audience, have become minor rockstars: Edwin Hubble or Carl Sagan, for example. But the prevailing pop culture images of scientists are unflattering:

The evil genius of Dr. Frankenstein, the buck-toothed oblivion of Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor, the green-blooded half-human, humorlessness of Mister Spock, and the uber-nerdiness of the cast of the Big Bang Theory.

I often wonder if these pop culture stereotypes changed history in a major way: George W. Bush, the guy who many Americans said they’d rather drink a beer with, narrowly defeated (or not) Al Gore, the science-savvy guy who many of those same Americans probably wanted to stuff in a high school locker.

I have two favorite symbols of the power and durability of denial: A half-century after Vietnam, one can still see bedraggled vets near Washington’s Vietnam Memorial, fully convinced that their buddies are still being held in tiger cages in Hanoi.

And in my community in Georgia, some of my neighbors won’t get around to turning the corner on climate denial any time soon: They’re still wrestling with denial over Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. These are deeply-held beliefs, not reasoned conclusions. They die hard. Or perhaps live forever.

Its unreasonable optimism notwithstanding, The War on Science will have a place on my shelf of essential books on both 21st century science and politics. Shawn Otto may not have written the secret weapon to singlehandedly end the war, but he has done a great service by helping us understand it.

(Next: A review of The Madhouse Effect, by Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles.)

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.