Fool Me Twice

Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Shawn Lawrence Otto, Rodale.

“Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “They can be trusted with their own government.” In “Fool Me Twice,” Shawn Otto argues (or at least strongly implies) that Americans are no longer well informed enough to be trusted with their own government. And one of the core problems, he says, is that far too many Americans can’t understand the complex science that increasingly dominates our world.

The 112th Congress is emblematic of the problem. Otto highlights the fact that 122 members of Congress have law degrees, but only nine have professional backgrounds in science. Then there’s the problem that countless Americans—and many of their elected representatives—are defiantly anti-science, denying the science of climate change and evolution, to name but two.

The author—cofounder and CEO of Science Debate 2008, a political initiative that attempted to get the 2008 presidential candidates to debate scientific issues—explains many of the arguments partisans make to sway the public debate. “The first is, Lacking certainty, we should do nothing.” Never mind that “science has never offered absolute certainty, only the certainty offered by the preponderance of the evidence,” he notes.

The second is, “Since the conclusion is not certain, we should get a balanced perspective from both sides,” an argument that frequently succeeds because so-called journalists have all too frequently been willing to present “both sides,” hardly an admirable trait if one side’s account is completely untrue.

In the course of the book, Otto also traces the relationship between science and politics throughout American history, before finally offering “The American Science Pledge,” which Otto hopes political candidates will sign, thereby demonstrating their commitment to science and promising to debate top science questions (including climate change, biosecurity, stem cells, genetic research and ocean health) in public forums.

It may be too soon to tell whether the United States will embrace a return to reason, and whether Americans will ultimately reject ideological conformity and reward a facts-based press. But Otto makes a convincing case that the future of America lies in the balance.