A decade ago, screenwriters Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman founded ScienceDebate.org, a campaign to organize a televised presidential science debate. And while a TV debate has yet to happen, John McCain and Barack Obama did both agree to answer science questions online. Otto thinks that was a great first step.
“That really did have a profound effect on President Obama’s early administration,” Otto says in Episode 232 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It gave him a new conception of how science and the role of evidence in policymaking could really be a central organizing principle of his administration.”
Since then candidates such as Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson have all answered questions from ScienceDebate.org. But Otto has also seen a gradual erosion of science content in major media outlets. He’s horrified that the three presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton didn’t feature a single question about climate change.
“ScienceDebate was the only place that asked President-elect Trump any questions about climate change on the campaign trail,” he says. “Which was kind of a remarkable and sad development in our media.”
His new book The War on Science explores ways that citizens can fight back against a creeping tide of anti-science nonsense promulgated by everyone from postmodern academics to greedy oil companies to nature-loving hippies. An important step is to make journalists understand that science and opinion should not be given equal weight.
“The purpose of a free press in a democracy is to hold the powerful accountable to the evidence,” Otto says. “Journalists have really lost sight of that purpose, of their entire reason for being.”
He fears that the war on science will only intensify once Donald Trump takes office in January. “I’m very concerned, as is the rest of the global scientific community,” Otto says.
Listen to our complete interview with Shawn Otto in Episode 232 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Shawn Otto on the media:
“I was on a TV show not long ago, and we were talking about the book, and we were talking about climate, and the reporter clearly understood what the evidence was indicating about climate change, but when we were on the air he was very cautious about indicating what the evidence actually suggested. … And I talked to him about it afterward, and he said, ‘If I say that we think that climate change is actually happening—that that’s supported by the evidence—we’re going to just get tons of letters and emails, and it’s going to upset the news director and the station ownership, because it may affect our bottom line.’ And that is a great example of exactly what’s happening here.”
Shawn Otto on Carl Sagan:
“Carl Sagan was an extremely successful science communicator with the series Cosmos. … But at the same time, this attitude had grown up in the US science enterprise that those who did science communication did that because they really couldn’t hack it as a real researcher, and scientists looked down on Sagan, partly perhaps because they were jealous of all the media attention he was getting. When he was put up for election to the National Academy of Sciences, the members voted him down. … And in fact he also did not get tenure, even though he was so incredibly well-known as the global ambassador of science.”
Shawn Otto on Albert Einstein:
“Einstein had been persecuted by a particular right-wing group, that was led by an engineer, which was traveling around the country holding these demonstrations against relativity theory. This was right before [Einstein] decided finally that he had to leave Berlin, and ultimately had to leave Germany. He wrote a friend a couple of weeks after the high point of those demonstrations and said, ‘The world is a strange madhouse. Currently every waiter and every coachman is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief on this depends on political party persuasion.’ Sounds familiar, right?”
Shawn Otto on Millennials:
“They did not come out to vote in large numbers, unfortunately, this last time, but when they do, they have the power to change the direction of US politics in quite a profound way, and certainly as profound a way as the Baby Boomers did in their pivotal election in 1980. … [Boomers] were pretty much anti-government and self-absorbed—not as individuals, but as a theme of the cohort—throughout their entire lives. … Millennials are different. They’re connected through social media, and by and large they aren’t as self-absorbed. They are much more egalitarian in their views, and believe in justice, diversity, and tolerance in ways that the Boomers did not. So I think that there is an opportunity there for a large sea-change to happen.”