The Book's Message
One of Otto's main themes is the idea that science is inherently political, because it is antiauthoritarian. Science is about challenging preconceptions, following the evidence wherever it leads, however uncomfortable it makes us.
This is directly at odds with the way politicians maintain power, which is by clinging to an ideological viewpoint even when it stands in direct opposition to new evidence. For this reason - and many others - Otto believes that it's in the best interest of the country and its citizens if science takes a place firmly within the realm of political discussions, which is why he was one of the founders of the Science Debate initiative in 2008 ... an initiative to openly debate the role of science within the context of national issues.
In this book, Otto lays out his case in great detail, pointing to the way science has historically interacted with politics in America and at the various political/science conflicts of our modern era. The solution, as he describes it, is to bring the scientific process directly into the discussion, so that our problems can be solved by appealing to fact-based evidence, rather than emotional appeals. The hope would, of course, be to gain political leaders who have a higher degree of scientific literacy than those we currently have in place.
The Book's Structure
- Part I: America's Science Problem - This portion (2 chapters, around 30 pages) contain an overview of Otto's thesis that America's current problem: the our current problems demand science to be presented firmly into the realm of political discussion, rather than avoided by politicians.
- Part II: Yesterday's Science Politics - The bulk of the book is comprised of these these 6 chapters (about 130 pages total) which outline the history of science in America and, specifically, how science has interacted (or avoided interaction) with the political realm.
- Part III: Today's Science Politics - These two chapters focus on two of the major political debates of our day: the debate over teaching evolution in schools and over climate change. The evolution chapter comes in at just over 20 pages, but the climate change chapter is a bit of a bear, taking about 60 pages. This is where the bulk of Otto's background comes in, so he lays a very strong case for the scientific consensus of climate change and the lack of scientific integrity surrounding the climate change deniers and skeptics. Still, toward the end of this chapter, I found myself skimming, because there was just so much information being presented, and I wasn't particularly interested in reading a book on climate change at the moment.
- Part IV: Tomorrow's Science Politics - In this one-chapter section, Otto brings things full circle again, restating his case about the need for scientific understanding in the political realm. The argument made at the beginning of the book is all the more forceful with the weight of information he's brought to bear through the rest of the book.
- Part V: The Solution - In these three sections, Otto presents the path forward which he thinks that America should follow. Predominantly among this is focusing on discussing the scientific process, which he feels is uniformly helpful and inherently non-partisan. If we can agree to discuss valid scientific processes, then the facts about science will tend to fall out of that discussion naturally.
"Whenever the people are well informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government."
"Knowledge and power go hand in hand," said Francis Bacon, "so that the way to increase in power is to increase in knowledge."
The very essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe, to dream up experiments that test those questions, and, based on the observations, to incrementally build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs and assumptions. A scientifically testable claim is utterly transparent and can be shown to be either most probably true or false, whether the claim is made by a king or a president, a pope, a congressperson, or a common citizen. Because of this, science is inherently antiauthoritarian, and a great equalizer of political power.
There is no one "scientific method"; rather, there is a collection of strategies that have proven effective n answering our questions about how things in nature really work.
As our knowledge becomes more refined and precise, so too must our social contract, and this process is inherently and continuously disruptive to moral, ethical, financial, and political authority.
... since we have a limited view of the universe and cannot see everything at once, we cannot make absolute conclusions. That is why math and statistics have become such important parts of science: They quantify the relative probability that a conclusion is true or false.
The desire to create knowledge that motivates science ultimately shares some of the same drives as that of its progenitor, religion: to understand the mystery and wonder of the world and our place in it, to find meaning and hope, and to make life better. These are courageous aspirations in the face of fear, which scientists would do well to trumpet--along with science's track record of actually achieving them.
A scientific theory is not a hypothesis or guess, as the word commonly means when used in casual conversation. A scientific theory is the one explanation that is confirmed by all known and validated experiments performed to date.... A theory is thus among the most certain forms of scientific knowledge ...
The one thing we do know about science, the one thing that is predictable about it, is that if we don't value it, if we become inhospitable to the tolerance, freedom, and open exchange of ideas that stimulates it, if we wall it off and call it a separate culture instead of something we all should do, if we cease funding it, if we try to be overly directive of it, if we elevate ideology over science in our public policies, we will stifle creativity and science will go away. We won't get the big breakthroughs. We won't get the economic boons. We won't get the national defense advantages. We won't get the clean environment or healthy children.