The War on Science - Chapters 5 & 6 Summary

In Chapter 6, Otto continues his examination of the evolution of public thought and scientific ideas through the space age and into the 21st century. During this time, he argues, the public’s skepticism of science was due to its focus on research with primarily military and industrial applications. During the countercultural movement of the 1960s, young people were critical and suspicious of the government, and therefore government-funded science.

The Apollo moon landing was perhaps the most iconic scientific advancement of the 20th century, but the Apollo mission was not originally popular among the American public, or even much of the scientific community. To counter the Soviet Union’s space advancements (the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, sending the first human into orbit in 1961), President Kennedy put forward a bold agenda to Congress to get America back into the space race. However, the program was estimated to cost almost $20 billion over 8 years, compromising the administration’s ability to pursue any of its other domestic goals. In 1962, only 35 percent of Americans thought Apollo was worth the price. After Kennedy’s assassination, however, his dream was embraced by the nation, and NASA received significant funding. The success of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 captivated the world and united Americans in shared wonder. Otto argues that this enthusiasm about science in regard to space travel was the exception, as distrust of the “establishment” (which scientists are part of) continued to grow throughout the 70s.

Otto points to a number of technologies that followed a similar pattern of disregarding the consequences of new developments, which then fuel public skepticism towards science as the public discovers these negative consequences. These include DDT, asbestos, acid rain, Three Mile Island, and the hole in the ozone layer (to name a few). He identifies seven stages of technological adaptation:

1.     DISCOVERY 

A new process or tool (for example, a chemical, or, today, a nanotechnology or genetic technology) is discovered that vastly expands utility, power, convenience, or efficiency.

2.     APPLICATION

Industrial applications are quickly developed and commercialized, often increasing productivity and lowering costs. But the science of biocomplexity and ecology—of how the process or tool will affect and be affected by its broader context, from the human body to the environment—lags behind.

3.     DEVELOPMENT

Industries grow up around the new application. Major capital investments are made and its use intensifies.

4.     BOOMERANG

A tipping point is reached at which the application has noticeable negative effects on health or the environment. Fueled by growing public outcry, scientists study the degree of the systemic effect to determine what to do. 

5.     BATTLE

Regulations are proposed to maximize the negative effects, but vested economic interests sense a potentially lethal blow to their production systems and fight the proposed changes by denying the environmental effects, maligning and impeaching witnesses, questioning the science, attacking or impugning the scientists, and/or arguing that other factors are causing the mounting disaster. A battle ensues between the adherents of old science and those of new science. This stage is caustic to science’s credibility, because science becomes a rhetorical tool and facts are cherry picked to win arguments, pitting real science against clever public relations campaigns, with the public unsure about what and whom to believe.

6.     CRISIS

Evidence continues to accumulate from the emerging science until the causation becomes irrefutable, often through dramatic deaths or disasters (or in the case of climate disruption, extreme weather events) that draw increased public scrutiny and outrage, finally tipping the politics in the direction of reform.

7.     ADAPTATION

Regulations are passed or laws are changed to stop or modify use and to mitigate the effects. The industrial approach grudgingly shifts to take into account the relationships between the application and its environmental and/or physiological context. Or this does not occur, in which case the process returns to stage 3.

-The War on Science by Shawn Otto

Even in spite of technologies with positive effects on health or the environment, and thanks to misinformation campaigns and distrust of institutions, antiscience views prevail. Otto dives deep into several modern antiscience views: fear and opposition toward genetically modified food, worries about electromagnetic radiation from electronic devices, and the anti-vaccination movement. These fears and antiscience viewpoint cross political and socio-economic divides, therefore making them more powerful and problematic. 

In chapter 7, Otto connects the rise of antiscience views with the loss of antiscience views promoted by the news media. He traces the loss of balanced news coverage back to the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1987, during the Reagan Administration. The policy had previously required that those with licenses to broadcast on public airwaves present programs on controversial issues of public importance in a way that was honest, equitable, and balanced (in the view of the FCC). Without this policy in place, “…media outlets are now divided into opposing groups of partisans whose primary goal is to manufacture conflict and produce the sort of instant drama that helps win the battle for ratings.” The loudest voices and the most dramatic stories win, to the detriment of journalistic, fact-based reporting. There is very little accountability in the media, especially in talk radio, Internet outlets, and cable news. 

At the same time, postmodern schools of thought have influenced journalism with the view that truth is subjective, and that a reporter must always present both sides of the story without passing their own judgment, no matter what the scientific consensus may be. When knowledge and opinion are presented as equal, this can lead to a false balance and mislead audiences. Otto argues that objectivity is still possible: some facts are verifiably true, and it is possible to be objective when reporting. He pushes for a “journalistic method” based on the scientific method, in which all statements must be supported by primary sources confirming one another, and a system of peer review requiring a “meta-consensus'' of journalists with different perspectives. This is a lofty goal, and seems difficult to implement.


Written by Hanna Bartram & edited by Lindsey Mooney

Hanna Bartram is the Program, Educational, and Outreach Coordinator for the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, and serves as the facilitator of Science Says

Lindsey Mooney is a graduate student in the UC Davis Psychology Department.

For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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