The War on Science Part 1 - Chapters 1 & 2 Summary 

The first part of Otto’s book truly digs deep into the questions “Why is there a war on Science?” and “Who is Waging It?” Otto begins this section, titled Democracy’s Science Problem, with an explanation of the role of science in our social and political worlds. Science has the power to do great good, but it can also be weaponized against persons and countries. Conversely, scientific contributions are not without fault and the scientific community is responsible for explaining the relevance of their work, as well as fact checking and continuing to remain vigilant in the pursuit of findings.

In the first chapter, Otto describes how anti-science rhetoric has been used in politics to pursue political agendas, and he explains how science has been increasingly politicized since the early 2000s. Otto points out that both the political right and left are part of the war on science, though he argues that the right’s anti-science views, fueled by fundamentalist churches and large corporations have worse public policy effects.

How did antiscience views become such a mainstay of our democracy? Part of the problem is that not very many politicians have scientific backgrounds. Many more members of Congress have law degrees than science degrees, making them more comfortable relying on rhetoric than analyzing scientific information. Likewise, presidential candidates have been reluctant to engage in science-related topics. Scientific questions have not been mainstream in political debates, but Otto and fellow advocates pushed for an explicitly science-focused debate in the 2012 election, an event that never occurred. Instead, ScienceDebate organizers asked science-forward questions online, and both candidates provided answers, a positive step in the right direction. 

Politicians aren’t the only ones to blame for the War on Science, Otto argues. Journalists have a role to play, too. Journalists have the tendency to want to provide two sides to every story in a balanced way. When reporting on science, though, this can lead to a false equivalency problem in which the vast weight of scientific consensus is placed on equal footing with the arguments of a few particularly passionate and persuasive individuals holding an opposing view. This lends legitimacy to anti-science views, fueling partisanship in public policy debates. Additionally, the science sections of major newspapers have been eliminated during budget cuts over the last two decades, leading to decreasing numbers of science-related stories in the news. 

Otto draws connections between different examples of the way antiscience views have shaped history and the present. Galileo, for example, was persecuted for spouting anti-religious rhetoric when he proclaimed that the earth was not the center of the universe. The Roman Catholic Church deemed his claims ‘expressly contrary to the Holy Scriptures’ as well as ‘absurd, philosophically false, and theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.’ A lack of understanding regarding scientific research led Xiaoxing Xi, a researcher at Temple University, to be arrested by the FBI for leaking technology information to China. When in fact, it was discovered that the FBI did not consult experts on superconductor research before arresting Xi, and he was simply collaborating with peers on an unrelated subject, it was clear that scientific understanding and the government do not always appear on the same team.

Knowledge of gestation and fetal development have long tried to inform policy on the legality of abortion and climate research has similarly tried to inform environmental policies, which intense debate surrounding the importance of this research. In instances like these, it is clear that the War on Science is one fought everywhere – particularly on our own soil. Many questions are answered and posed as a result of scientific research, but their acceptance varies based on politics. The question Otto poses is whether and how science fits into political thought. This quote (pg. 51) is particularly illuminating:

“New knowledge was gained by applying the scientific method of making careful observations and measurements of nature and recording the data, then testing and drawing conclusions based on the results instead of on assumptions or beliefs, and then publishing those conclusions about how things really appear to be in nature for others to review and attempt to disprove if they can. The knowledge gained through this incredible process has given us a new power over the physical world, but it also forces us to reevaluate our intuitive assumptions, and to refine - and, in some cases, redefine - the meanings of words and values we thought we understood when we didn’t know what was really going on.

This power and these new definitions have moral, ethical, and legal implications for how we conduct our lives, and this is where science, democracy, and our legal system can come into conflict. As our knowledge becomes more refined and precise, so too must our social contract, and this process is disruptive to moral, ethical, economic, and political authority based on prior definitions and understandings. Science itself is inherently political, and inherently antiauthoritarian.” 

In this way, science is both objective and subjective. Its use in supporting claims cannot be fully objective - and it's in the application of scientific fact that the battlegrounds of the War on Science are fought.

-Summary by Lindsey Mooney and Hanna Bartram