Shawn Lawrence Otto Explores the Dismal State of Science Policy in America

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Greg Laden

Cover of Fool Me Twice, featuring liquid in a beaker.

“Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

With this quote, Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of the newly published book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” opened his talk before the Minnesota Atheists gathered at the Southdale Library on January 15th. Shawn’s talk was a rousing and inspiring critical look at the large and growing gap between science knowledge and public policy, which is very alarming given that most of the major problems facing this country at the national level are science related. Stating that science is never partisan, but that scientific findings always have political consequences, he noted that science is also anti-authoritarian and in this way, ironically, resembles the early days of European Protestantism.

When John Kennedy ran for president, Shawn noted, he was obliged to state that his Catholicism would not be interjected into his governing. Today, many politicians seem obliged to not only promise to interject their religious beliefs into their work as elected officials, but often do so as an explicit contrast to science, and even go farther to make strong and noxious anti-science statements.

Shawn Otto may be known to many of you as the key organizer of Science Debate 2008, an effort to get candidates running for president in that year to engage in a topical debate on science.  Shawn notes that Science Debate 2008 developed into the largest political initiative in the history of American science.  Today, Shawn is asking candidates to take the “Science Pledge” which affirms the importance of scientific integrity and openness, of knowledge over belief, and, most importantly, the use of science as a foundation for developing public policy, among other things.

According to Shawn, the roots of anti-science sentiment and activism include fundamentalist thinking on the right as well as post-modern thinking from the left, which, combined, serve to (incorrectly) frame science as just one of many possible ways of viewing the natural world, and which engenders bad – even unethical – journalism. He notes that the loss of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, changes in broadcast, cable, and Internet environments, and the elimination of science departments and editorial units from major news outlets have converted news media into places less conducive of, and often hostile to, good science reporting.

The assembled audience received Shawn Otto’s talk very enthusiastically, and engaged the speaker in a lively discussion during the Question and Answer period.

Shawn is an accomplished and prolific writer, author and co-producer of the Oscar nominated House of Sand and Fog and writer for other film and television productions. He has published articles in Rolling Stone, Science, Issues in Science and Technology, Salon, Huffington Post, Minnpost, New Scientist, Scientific American, and Nature Medicine. He writes the blog Neorenaissance. He grew up in Golden Valley and now lives on the other side of the Twin Cities in a solar and wind powered home known as “Breezy,” which he and his wife Rebecca Otto built as an exemplar of green architecture.

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