Lecture addresses ‘war on science’

Co-founder of sciencedebate.org discussed the disconnect between science and politics.

Lecture addresses ‘war on science’

Rebecca Harrington

During the first two presidential debates, candidates sparred over everything from jobs to health care to Big Bird.

But Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” gave a University of Minnesota lecture Saturday about what they didn’t discuss: science policy.

He concluded the U.S. is in a “cold civil war on science” that is hurting the political process.

Otto is a co-founder of sciencedebate.org, a place for political candidates to respond to science policy questions. Though they avoided the topic in televised debates, both presidential candidates responded to 14 science policy questions from the organization in September.

University President Eric Kaler has added the University to a list of 40,000 other individuals and groups who support the organization’s cause.

In the lecture, which was sponsored by the University’s College of Continuing Education, Otto presented video clips of members of congress and the media sharing their opinions on science-related topics like abortion and global warming. He then fact checked them with scientific
evidence.

“Our democracy requires a plurality of voices — voices from science but also from religion, from business, from industry — to arrive at a balanced public policy discussion,” Otto said.

Science and public policy are disconnected, he said, because scientists aren’t required to be engaged with the public. Before the National Science Foundation was created in 1950, scientists had to present their research to the public in order to get funding.

Without this engagement, the public’s perceptions on science are dictated by political figures seeking votes or the media seeking big headlines, Otto said.

When it comes to climate change, 84 percent of scientists agree humans are causing it, while only 49 percent of the general public does, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The survey also found that 97 percent of scientists believe in evolution, compared to 61 percent of the general public.

Otto said this difference in opinion is also because some scientific issues, such as global warming and evolution, are based on concepts that people can’t physically see, leaving them to trust scientific evidence that it exists.

He said once people start believing science phenomena are not real, it is hard to change their minds.

The audience of about 50 was mostly receptive to Otto’s arguments. Rolfe Leary, a retired University researcher, said he thought the presentation had a lot of “noise” — information that he believed was irrelevant. But he said he agreed with Otto’s conclusion.

“Why can’t we apply the scientific method to the legislative process,” Leary asked, “so we can pass bills and actually get things
done?”

Barbara and Wallace Ritchie said they attended the lecture because they are frustrated with public perceptions of science today. Wallace Ritchie is a retired surgeon and research
scientist.

“This country didn’t used to be anti-science,” Barbara Ritchie said. “It’s just really scary, and I don’t know how it’s going to change.”

To change things, Otto recommended people realize the U.S. is in a “cold civil war” on science, hold the media accountable and speak up for objectivity and tolerance.

“We feel entitled to be critical and to judge for ourselves,” he said. “But we no longer are basing that judgment on evidence.”