NPR: When Politics Meets Science
In his new book, Fool Me Twice, writer Shawn Otto tells why he thinks science is under assault in America. Otto, CEO and co-founder of Science Debate 2008, also explains why his “American Science Pledge” for candidates might bring more science into political decision making.
IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow. Up next: science under attack. In his new book, “Fool Me Twice,” writer Shawn Otto says science is under assault in America, and especially so in Washington, D.C. While science informs almost every aspect of our lives - think about climate change, energy, agriculture, medical research - Otto says anti-science views are so mainstream and science so marginalized that it’s becoming a threat to our democracy.
Science didn’t always take a backseat in politics. The Founding Fathers Jefferson and Franklin were themselves citizen-scientists, advocating for an informed citizenry. So what happened? And is there a way to bring science back into our social discussions, even into the presidential debates?
Shawn Otto is here to talk more about it. He is co-founder and CEO of Science Debate 2008. His new book is called “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.” He joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome back to the program, Shawn.
SHAWN OTTO: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be back.
FLATOW: Tell us why you wrote this book and how science is under attack in America.
OTTO: Well, in 2008, you know, we noticed that the candidates for president really weren’t talking about science issues at all. Coming out of the Bush administration, a lot of scientists were frustrated by the way that science had taken a backseat to policy positions that were determined by other factors.
And one time in particular, in January, we noticed that about 2,975 questions had been asked the candidates for president by the top five TV news anchors. And out of those 2,975 questions, six mentioned the words climate change or global warming, which was arguably - no matter which side you feel about it - a large policy position that they should have been talking about.
So we put together this effort called Science Debate 2008 to get the candidates to talk about that, and we ran into some really interesting snags. So the book starts with that as a jumping-off point to find out why it is that candidates leading the world’s leading science country really could only talk about science in a forum on religion.
FLATOW: Yeah. And do you think now that we’re now into the next cycle of politics for the presidential candidates? Will - do you think there’s any way to bring science into that debate now? Should - how do we get some of those questions answered, or even discussed?
OTTO: Yeah. It’s become, in some ways, much more difficult, as we can tell from looking at the current crop of GOP candidates. You know, Jon Huntsman said we don’t want the Republican Party to become the anti-science party. But with the exception of Mitt Romney, every other candidate has taken - almost gone out of their way to take positions that are anti-science and that once would have not been accessible from a mainstream political candidate, but now are almost celebrated.
FLATOW: Do journalists and journalism share some of the blame of this not being part of the debate?
OTTO: They do. There’s something called false balance that happens in journalism, and it’s really something that’s only happened in the last generation of journalists. And there are a lot of factors in play, here. It’s not just this. But the idea that there is no objective truth that journalists must dig to get to and that their responsibility is fulfilled simply by presenting competing versions of the story and letting the audience decide which is true.