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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…