Book Review – Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

In his 2011 book, Shawn Lawrence Otto lays out the evidence of a theory for the origin of scientific illiteracy in the United States. Fool Me Twice begins with a discussion on what democracy really means and how it remains effective. He quotes Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Otto’s argument is essentially that the American people are no longer well-informed. Through a series of examples and statistics, he lays out the ways in which the American government has become dominated by those who, by their lack of scientific education, either disregard science or actively attack it.

Otto’s first discussion pertains to the silence on scientific subjects in politics. As a combination of both political candidates’ avoidance of the subject and the media’s separation of science and politics, people rarely get to hear what candidates have to say about the big scientific debates. In both print and video news media, reporting on science issues has seen a precipitous decline over the past three decades. This drop seems to coincide with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Otto presents a compelling argument that this relationship is causal. With a dearth of science in mainstream media, only those who actively seek out science news are actually following it. This situation allows politicians to sidestep the issues they themselves do not understand. Former U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) states that of the 435 members of Congress, 420 know little about science and do not care to learn. His statement is based on the fact that only nine congressmen of the 113th Congress came from careers in science or engineering.[1] Otto points to the dangers because of funding cuts to major research that arose as a congressman’s failure to understand the importance of the research. Otto shows that the scientific illiteracy extends to the White House, most notably with President George W. Bush, whose appointees altered and withheld scientific reports that did not fit preconceived beliefs. Otto cites a number of incidents in which NASA research was discredited and medical research was disregarded because of their contention with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists. There exists a clear link between the power of the religious right in the Republican party, but Otto shows the impotence of the Democratic party to help the issue. Even after the election of President Barack Obama, who openly advocated for the revitalization of scientific education and research, the political atmosphere became so volatile that many of his ideas were dead on arrival.

As many scientifically-minded people like to think, science should not be political. Science deals with facts whereas politics tends to deal with opinion. Otto claims that this type of thinking has been the death of science and that, in fact, science is inherently political. Otto defines a two-dimensional political theory as an extension of the one-dimensional left vs. right system we think of today. Instead, he claims that there are four wings (top, bottom, left, and right). On the left and right axis, we have the conventional progressive vs. conservative debate, those who want change against those who want constancy. On the vertical axis, we have authoritarianism at the top and antiauthoritarianism at the bottom. He shows that we can have authoritarian regimes on either side of the left-right debate: Maoist China was highly progressive and Nazi Germany was highly conservative, but they were both authoritarian autocracies. By considering only left and right, the United States has reached a point in which liberty-loving Republicans have become the party of increasing government spending, restricting individual freedoms, and defying human liberties in an attempt to appease conservative voters. This authoritarian position depends upon the beneficial actions of its leaders. Science, on the other hand, finds itself at the very top of the spectrum at the antiauthoritarian extreme. Neither conservative nor progressive, science aims only to establish the facts. In that way, it does not bow to any authority figure. From this understanding, Otto aims to show that science is inherently political and that a scientific society is the freest.

Chapters three and four strike out to show that science and religion are more interrelated that someone watching current American political debates might think. In fact, modern science was born out of Puritanical beliefs that claimed reason was God’s natural law. By understanding the world through logic and reason, true believers could understand the greatness of God even better. Going back to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, Otto shows that the birth of Protestantism was the acceptance of science as the antiauthoritarian movement within the Christian church. Only a year later, Christopher St. Germain’s The Teacher and the Student, which established English common law’s moral basis, showed that God does not contradict reason. Puritans, born out of the protest against the authority of the Catholic church and later the Anglican church, became one of the largest immigrant groups to early colonial America. In America and in Europe, Puritans made up most of the seventeenth century’s “natural philosophers” as they were called before the term “scientist” took hold in the nineteenth century. Science held great influence in America through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the founding fathers of this nation had dabbled in science and invention. Jefferson, a mental progeny of the natural law thinkers John Locke, Renee Decartes, and Jean Jacque Rousseau, with the help of the wise Benjamin Franklin crafted what is perhaps this country’s most defining document, The Declaration of Independence, not with an appeal to religious authority but an argument of logical evidence.

With the liberties the United States afforded its citizens and the rise of its economic might at the end of the nineteenth century, America became a bastion of scientific progress. Massive funding from private donors like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller incited a boom in American science through the early twentieth century. However, this rapid advance in progress of both technology and understanding along with the liberalism of the 1920s spurred reactions from religious conservatives like Aimee Semple McPherson who led the charge against moral sins like alcohol use and the teaching of evolution. By the mid-1920s, several states had already banned the teaching of evolution. In the climactic “Scope’s Monkey Trial,” Clarence Darrow, in his arguments against fundamentalist and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, successfully vindicated the teaching of evolution in public schools. It was a great success for science, but the debate had already begun, and it showed no signs of stopping. Controversy over the nature of humanity and origins of the universe continued to pit science against religion for the next several decades, but science took on a whole new image at the close of the Second World War.

In August of 1945, American warplanes delivered payloads in two sorties over Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan that would change the nature of warfare forever. The development of atomic technology for destructive purposes launched the world into an uncertain future. With development of atomic weapons in Soviet Russia and the beginning of the “space race,” science became more than just a tool for exploring the world, it became America’s key to survival. Otto draws some  connections between the dispersion of cities into the suburbs and the threat of nuclear attack on cities as well as massive initiatives to expand science education and research. The 1950s became characterized by the preparation for a nuclear attack. It was the scientists who advocated these protections, and the people listened. However, over first couple decades of the Cold War, a war in which politicians innately recognized the necessity of strong science, scientists retreated to their labs content with their federal funding. Public sentiment began to turn against the science community, who they saw as cold, valueless, and arrogant. Their evaluation was not unexpected and not wholly undeserved. Scientists, wholly focused on their own research, worked within a system that rewarded publication and punished public outreach. Even the great science educator, Carl Sagan, was denied admission to the National Academy of Sciences and failed to achieve tenure at Harvard in what were retributive moves by his peers who saw his public engagement as a sign of his scientific ineptitude. This occurred despite Sagan’s extensive body of peer-reviewed publications and the later determination that scientists who engage the public tend to be better scientists.

While scientists were running from the public, religious fundamentalists were reaching out. With the rise of Billy Graham and other fundamentalist preachers following his lead, the American people began to turn toward this message of hope in a world of uncertainty and fear. This movement refined and perfected its ability to preach emotional and inspiring sales pitches to the world while scientists were becoming more socially inept. As much as current science supporters vilify religion for its condemnation of reason, irrational thought began to spread in the secular world as well. Supported by the ideas of philosophers like Thomas Kuhn, post-modern relativism began to take hold across the country. Although many accepted these ideas as a form of tolerance, they led to the natural conclusion that there was no objective reality, a core tenant of scientific thought and a fact that can be easily observed. The combination of the flood of Americans toward religious conservatism and the rise of the idea that science is only one way of knowing anything spelled the end of the respected status of the scientist in the white lab coat.

All of these phenomena coalesced just in time for the federal impetus of continuing to support science came to a close with the fall of the Soviet Union. Now with science seen as just another way to frame an opinion and the pool of candidates of political leaders comprised almost entirely of businessmen and lawyers, the government had no reason to dump such funding into the science world. In 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed for the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment, the last link Congress had to scientific engagement. Congressman Holt termed this move “a lobotomy” for the government, which would no longer have a connection to its rational, critical brain. Free market Republicans wanted to see the “marketplace of ideas” take over and allow the debate to settle the issues. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Instead, the United States saw the rise of propaganda, fed by those with the deepest pockets instead of those with the scientific knowledge, determining the direction of public opinion.

With public policy makers determining education policy, the effects began to fester in the public school system. Studies in the first decade of the new millennium showed that misplaced funding, poor prioritization, and scientific illiteracy were pulling American students down in the rankings of international competitiveness. In 2012 the Programme for International Student Assessment, which evaluates the education levels of 15-year-olds in 34 OECD countries put the United States 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science.[2] Of the 45 OECD regions, the U.S. aggregate score came in at 35th, just behind the Slovak Republic and the Russian Federation. Otto used the data from 2006, which had the U.S. at 29th, so the problem has only worsened since his book’s publication. Based on Otto’s development of the political atmosphere over the past half-century, he claims that American scientists must regain their role as trusted advisers to the public, not only in providing the correct information, but in providing an understanding of the scientific method. It has become a simple strategy of misinformation to paralyze the country because the public does not understand why scientists understand what they do.

Otto spends over fifty pages on what is probably the most pressing science problem facing both the U.S. and the world: climate change. Although the debate has only been in full swing for a couple decades, the science of climate change is quite old. The relationship between carbon dioxide (CO2) and increasing global temperature was first recognized by Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius. In the 1950s, geochemical researcher Charles Keeling began measuring the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. His readings have been continued, and today we have a “Keeling curve” that shows that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are rising at an increasing rate. Not only that, but measurement of the isotopes of CO2 (those that occur naturally and those created through the combustion of fossil fuels) show that human activity is having a marked impact on these levels. Thousands of researchers around the world have used sound science and objective research to try to disprove Arrhenius’ correlation of CO2 and global warming. They have all been unsuccessful. The Earth is warming, and human activity is exacerbating the trend.

These findings, however, are not politically palatable. The world economy runs on fossil fuels, and those who are making fortunes on it want to preserve the status quo. Through their efforts, the American public and American politicians have been duped into believing that there is a legitimate debate on the issue. Otto lays out a 5-prong method for achieving this end.

1. Promulgate phony science.

2. Feed canned stories to the mainstream media.

3. Allow partisan talk radio and cable news to pick up on the debate.

4. Have government allies propose a corrective response.

5. Reluctantly plead a case as a victim, gaining political and public support.

Otto uses a series of examples to show how this method has been implemented. Even with a Democrat in the White House, sympathetic to the calls of the science community, public sentiment against a response to climate change has left the American government immobilized on the issue. Otto holds out hope though. He, and others in the science community, believe that with continual outreach from the science community, the facts will come out, and the American people will see the truth.

Unfortunately, the problem is often not that Americans do not understand the problems, but that they refuse to believe them. Otto shows startling statistics showing that most Americans know what the science says about evolution and climate change, but they refuse to believe that scientists are correct. It will take not only a preponderance of information, but it will take a change in the way Americans think. This is going to take a resurgence of scientific outreach to the general public. Scientists must share their method for understanding that there are objective truths. Ideally, some of these scientists would achieve the star status of many politicians and perhaps replace them. Only with a healthy rational debate among American leadership will the United States retain its place on the forefront of scientific and technological advancement.

Otto closes the book with a chapter on how to fix the current situation. His ideas center around reinvigorating the sentiments of hope and wonder through science. As science was once the way in which humans understood God’s creation, so it again should be the way in which we make a more beautiful and peaceful world. Through the liberation of the American mind from the propaganda of the corporate machine and the nonsense of the political pundits, the United States may be able to take back control of its government. As Jefferson claimed, only an informed citizenry can be trusted with its own governance. It will take the return of science in America to again build a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

[1] Manning, J.E. (Sept. 24, 2014). “Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile”. Congressional Research Service.

[2] “Snapshot of Performance in Mathematics, Reading, and Science.” Organization of Economic and Co-operative Development, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015. .

[3] “Programme for International Student Assessment Country Note: United States.” Organization of Economic and Co-operative Development, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015. .


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