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The War on Science

Guided Reading Introduction

Introducing Dr. Karel Vander Lugt:

The Library Associates board is delighted that Dr. Karel Vander Lugt, Professor Emeritus of Physics, agreed to lead our first ever guided reading event featuring Shawn Otto's The War on Science. One of the lessons we learned from the pandemic is that technology exists to bridge time and place in ways we hadn't previously considered.  As a result, Shawn Otto's presentation on Tuesday, October 12, will be in person, if possible, with live stream for certain.  We invite you to use the notes that Dr. Vander Lugt has provided to engage with Otto's work and learn more about the challenges we face as a society when facts are under attack daily.

Chapter Summaries by Dr. Karel Vander Lugt

Overview: 

Shawn Otto's book, The War On Science, is insightful and timely. Otto is an American writer who is passionate about the importance of basing public policy on the firm foundation of science.  He is alarmed by the growing trend to disregard science both in the US and around the world. Since 2016 when the book was published the problem has only gotten worse - consider climate change, vaccines*, masks, lock downs, stem cell research, energy policy, GMO fears, etc. According to the book's cover three questions are addressed: Who's waging the war on science? Why does it matter? What can we do about it? 

*[Just yesterday in USA Today I read the following quote from Dr. Poland who is the Director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group: "What has surprised me most is the incomprehensible rejection of science even by otherwise intelligent people. I'm truly flabbergasted to be watching this on an grand scale."]

Chapter 1:

The first chapter (40 of the 500 pages) gives a good preview of the entire book.  Otto begins by arguing that democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry and that science plays a key role in good policymaking.  But increasingly, and especially for the past two decades, science is being ignored by many citizens and many politicians - both in the US and worldwide.  Science seeks to find objective truth, but today many persons are challenging the very concept of objective truth.  He decries the lack of any discussion of the role of science by those running for political office.  He argues that the intensity of the war on science has increased markedly since 2000 and the election of George W. Bush.  He places part of the blame on journalists and the news media in general for not covering science or for not sufficiently separating objective truth from subjective opinion. 

Chapter 2:

This chapter deals with the relationship between science and politics.  He argues that science is inherently political in that all new knowledge either supports or challenges the current power structure.  He elaborates the relationship by introducing the concepts of authoritarian and antiauthoritarian in addition to the left (progressive) and right (conservative) politics. Science is more antiauthoritarian than either anti-right or anti-left.

Chapter 3:

Chapter three deals with the relationship between science and religion, especially as this was worked out in the founding documents and principles of our country.  Contrary to some, he argues America was not founded as a Christian nation, but rather on the principles of science and as a natural outgrowth of the scientific revolution.  Referring back to chapter 2, he argues America was explicitly founded on antiauthoritarian principles.  Reason, the laws of nature, and self-evident truths were key factors in forming a secular form of government rather than a theocratic one.  Jefferson is obviously his hero.  

Chapter 4:

I found chapter 4 especially interesting.  It begins by discussing the relationship between science and art. Next, it distinguishes between basic science and applied science.  Using examples from history, this chapter argues that basic science is critical for a nation's long-term health. Applied science is often funded by corporations and tends to have shorter-term financial goals.  He further argues that in the early 20th century Republicans were more supportive of science than Democrats.  Now, in the early 21st century the situation is reversed.  In discussing how this reversal came about, the chapter integrates biographical snippets of many interesting persons.  Among the players discussed are Darwin, William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, Aimee Semple McPherson, Harlow Shapley, and Edwin Hubble.

Chapter 5:

This chapter deals with how the American people's perception of science was changed by WWII and the Cold War.  Particular focus is on our use of the atomic bomb in 1945, on the existential threat of mass destruction, and on the impact of Sputnik in 1957.  General Omar Bradley is quoted as saying in 1948, "Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it." (pg. 103)  Science had lost its innocence, and in 1959 C.P. Snow famously lectured on "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution."

Chapter 6:

This chapter discusses how our perception of science continued to change in the decades following WWII. The story is rather complex and shows why, despite some exceptions, the general trajectory was a growing anti-science sentiment. The chapter begins with the counterculture of the 60s and progresses through the next four or five decades.  The rise of antivaccination scare tactics provides a logical transition to the next chapter. 

Chapter 7:

The rise of anti-science in the news media is the topic of this chapter.  When the Reagan administration abolished the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters were no longer required to present news in a balanced manner.  This set the ball rolling, and many factors have contributed to the unfortunate scientific illiteracy and mistrust of today.   Emotion, hype, and subjectivity dominate truth and analysis in the market place of ideas.  He uses Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly as two interesting cases.  Are CNN, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh, etc. producing informed voters? [Misinformation from the internet and social media are serious problems today, but are mostly not addressed.]

Chapter 8:

The next three chapters form a unit that explores the three major battlefields of the war on science.  This chapter explores the postmodernist front waged by academics and the press which began in the 60s and essentially denies the reality of objective truth. "Such academics and reporters insist that all truth is subjective or derivative of one's political identity group, and they confuse the process of science with the culture of scientists, thereby falsely equating knowledge with opinion." (pg. 171)  Considerable time is given to Thomas Kuhn's influential book from 1962 called the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Multiculturalism, relativism, civil rights, New Age, social constructivism, and many more aspects of our culture are interwoven into an analysis of how postmodernism has contributed in a major way to the anti-science attitudes of many Americans today.

Chapter 9:

Chapter 9 explores the front of the war waged by many conservative, mostly evangelical, Christians.  Among particular persons discussed are Billy Graham, Ben Carson, Michele Bachmann, and Eugenie Scott.  Evangelicals have issues with science in three main areas: theory of evolution, origin of Earth and Big Bang theory, and origins of life and sex education in schools.  Creationism and Intelligent Design are offered as better alternatives.  The last part of the chapter explores several possible psychological reasons for their rejection of science.  Recent books by militant atheists contribute to the polarization.  The chapter ends with discussion of how communication could be improved between scientists and the religious doubters.

Chapter 10:

The third battleground front described is the effort of the American companies (mostly the oil and gas industry) and their allies to discredit the findings of science.  Industry-funded anti-science is a massive enterprise and involves hundreds of millions of dollars yearly.  The chapter gives many details of the tactics used in this multipronged public relations (propaganda) campaign.  It focuses on the important topic of climate change.  A resolution from South Dakota's legislature is used as an example of those questioning the scientific consensus on climate change.

Chapter 11:

Concerning the current and future state of anti-science in our democracy he writes, "Most of the points of conflict in the war on science are going to pivot on the growing battle between the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the collective on a finite planet." (pg. 342)  He uses Garrett Hardin's well-known article on "The Tragedy of the Commons" along with Milton Friedman's work on economic externalities to develop this idea.  He argues that a healthy economy and a healthy environment are not incompatible and that various types of authoritarianism threaten the proper application of science.

Chapter 12:

This chapter suggests 14 ways to push back on anti-science.  It describes possible "battle plans" from various directions such as government, the science community, teachers, journalists, business, faith community, and concerned individuals. [Facebook and other social media could be added today.  Before this chapter I had wondered whether the author thought religion could make a positive contribution to democracy, and this chapter affirms that he does.]

Chapter 13:

The final chapter is called "Truth and Beauty."  Science is often promoted for the practical benefits it can provide, but in this concluding chapter he takes a much broader, and what I might call a liberal arts, approach.  He decries that the "triumph of commoditization is plaguing much of Western culture." (pg. 421) As a retired teacher of physics and astronomy I especially appreciated him saying: "[Science] is about who we are as human beings, about our ability to love, to wonder, to imagine, to heal, to care for one another, to create a better future, to dream of things unseen.  To figure out the world and our place in it, and to capture the great beauty of the world in representations others can apprehend." (pg. 416)
 [Could the same be said of religion?]