Shawn Otto is an award-winning science advocate, writer, educator, and speaker. He is the author of The War On Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, which the Guardian called “one of the rare books that changes the way you view the world.” He is the cofounder ScienceDebate.org and the producer of the first US Presidential Science Debates, for which he received the IEEE-USA’s National Distinguished Public Service Award, and has advised science debate efforts in several countries. Otto is also a novelist and filmmaker. His first novel, Sins of Our Fathers, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and his film House of Sand and Fog was nominated for three Academy Awards. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, Rebecca Otto, in a wind-powered, green, solar home he designed and built with his own hands.
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Books by Shawn Otto
Author Q & A
Shawn, why is there a war on science?
Science creates knowledge about reality, that knowledge creates power, and that power is political because it either confirms or disrupts vested interests. Right now the vested interests in academia, religion, and industry are all being threatened in various ways by what science is telling us about the world, and they are fighting back by attacking science.
What can be done to counter those who dismiss, ignore, argue against, and selectively deny science?
We need to fix our broken media and education systems, renew our value of science being important to freedom and democracy, call authoritarianism what it is, and create a stigma and penalties for those who use public relations campaigns to defraud investors, their followers, and the public into supporting policies that run counter to the evidence.
In 2008, you formed an organization now called ScienceDebate.org, to push for debates of science issues in the presidential election. We’re now in the 2016 race. How do things look?
Not great. The leading Republicans deny climate change and other science, and the media do little to hold them accountable. I spent hours negotiating with the Democratic campaigns, trying to get them to attend a primary debate dedicated to the science issues impacting everyone’s lives, to no avail. I had a network producer, but the campaigns said they would do it if the DNC pushed it, and the DNC said they would do it if the campaigns wanted, and it was the chicken and the egg. There’s something wrong when you have Leonardo DiCaprio using his Oscar speech to talk about climate change but journalists and presidential candidates are largely ignoring science. There were two debates following the Paris accord—a massive international accord involving nearly 200 countries discussing how to remake the world’s economy and get us off carbon—and not one of the journalists in either debate asked a single question about climate change. And that’s just one example.
If science offers a remedy to a problem, why are policymakers increasingly unwilling to pursue such a solution?
Because policymakers are increasingly influenced by the spending of vested interests. Most of them don’t have science advisors and in America they have closed their science advisory body, the Office of Technology Assessment, so policymakers largely rely on lobbyists and the Internet for their science information, neither of which are very reliable sources. They sometimes have scientists in to present in committee, but in the end it’s about getting reelected for many of them. It’s hard for them to say, “I’m going to do what the evidence suggests even if it’s not popular with the people that could run ads and PR campaigns against me.”