Skip to main content

The War on Science - Shawn Otto ****

If, like me, you are a consumer of popular science books, it can be bewildering when reading newspapers and following social media that there is so much antipathy, confusion and hostility towards science and scientists. Where does it all come from, is it a problem and what can we do about it? Those are the questions that Shawn Otto attempts to answer in The War on Science. While the book primarily covers science policy and politics, it contains a wealth of information on scientific topics (creationism vs evolution, the anti-vaccine movement and climate change) that feature heavily in the political debate today. 

Although the book is very US-centric, the topics and debates are of worldwide concern and, one could argue, the degradation of science in the public debate has progressed the farthest and is at its most extreme in the United States. Otto does an excellent job of describing the backstories on a number of scientific issues behind the shift in the US from a country based on the principles of the enlightenment and its veneration of reason and science to the situation today where science is often considered ‘just another opinion’. Chapters focusing on the research, corporations and political movements behind the denial of climate change on the US are particularly fascinating and extremely informative. The alignment of a wide array of different interests to sow doubt on climate science and even intimidate climate scientists could be the subject of a book of its own. Throughout The War on Science, Otto argues why this change in the role of science in society is an enormous problem, and how the scientific community and scientists have contributed to their own problems. 

Otto also makes an excellent case that ‘science is inherently political, but it is not partisan’. He describes a number of steps that the scientific community should take to move science back into the political debate so that public policy can be determined on the basis of fact to as large an extent as possible. Here, Otto uses a number of international examples, such as the New Zealand idea of a governmental science advisory office that conducts scientific reviews of policy proposals and that includes peer reviews of the advisory’s recommendations. While many of Otto’s recommendations make excellent sense, they seem more suitable for parliamentary based governments than they do for the United States with its division of powers and federalist structure. 

I found The War on Science to be an excellent and informative book and highly recommend it. Otto has a very good journalistic style to his writing and is obviously well versed in science. The book is also an important one, particularly in today’s political climate, where both the US and Europe are facing looming issues that require science to provide facts in order to inform possible options and solutions. 

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…