Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, by Shawn Lawrence Otto (Rodale Books, 2011), 376 pp, $26, ISBN 978-1-60529-217-5

Reviewed by William H. Ingham

Fool Me Twice is an ambitious attempt to make the case that (1) citizens in a democracy who wish to govern themselves sensibly must inform themselves about science, especially its process; (2) scientists need to engage much more actively in public policy discussions; and (3) candidates for political office should take part in "science debates."  The author, Shawn Lawrence Otto, is a cofounder of Science Debate. This nonprofit organization tried unsuccessfully to get the two major-party candidates to agree to a debate about science during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.  Science Debate 2008 did elicit written responses from McCain and Obama to fourteen top "science questions facing America" (see The organization continues to press for greater attention to science in the public square, especially in political discussions, and for citizens to affirm five "core principles" contained in "the American Science Pledge." This pledge (along with those top science questions as of 2008) appears in the appendix of Fool Me Twice as the culmination of the narrative.  That narrative is developed through fourteen chapters grouped into five parts: I. America's Science Problem; II. Yesterday's Science Politics; III. Today's Science Politics; IV. Tomorrow's Science Politics; and V. The Solution.

The second chapter of Part I, which bears the title "Is Science Political?," answers its question in the affirmative and also argues that science is inherently antiauthoritarian. In the book's only graphic (on p. 31), Otto depicts politics in four quadrants, using the familiar "left" and "right" wings, but also a "top wing " (antiauthoritarian) and a "bottom wing" (authoritarian). Otto claims that "Any one of the infinite gradations of political thought can be placed on the plane around these axes." Further, he asserts that "When looked at in historical perspective, it's clear that while science and republican democracy are antiauthoritarian systems of knowledge and of governance, respectively, they are neither progressive nor conservative. Both communism on the left and fascism on the right are authoritarian and opposed to the freedom of inquiry and expression that characterize science and democracy, just as fundamentalist and authoritarian religions do."

The author's prose combines clarity with respect for the reader's intellect; in many places it achieves eloquence. Each chapter is divided into several labeled sections (typically 1-3 pages each). For example, the section headings for Chapter 3 (Religion, Meet Science) are "In the Beginning," "God's Natural Law is Reason," "The DNA of Western Thought," "Descartes Versus Bacon," "Puritan Science," "The Scientist-Politician," "How Do We Know Things?" and "The Progeny." This chapter is the author's explication of the intellectual debt owed by America's founding fathers to the writings of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.

Chapter 10 (Climate Change: The Money Battle), the longest chapter, uses two display quotes (from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck) and opens "For two generations, scientists have labored under the notion that science is not political." A sampling of Chapter 10's nearly three dozen (!) section headings should give a sense of the author's readiness to use lively (even edgy) tags when it suits his rhetorical purpose: "Of Polar Bears and Profits: A Case Study in Antiscience Propaganda," "The Hockey Stick Attack," "Climategate," "When You're ‘Splainin', You're Not Gainin'," "A Hundred Yard Dash Into the Weeds," and "You Got to Be Freakin' Kidding Me."

The book's final section, "The Choice," ends with several questions and a claim: "Will we set aside the left-right skirmishes of identity politics and focus as our founders did on the top-bottom battle for freedom?  Will we protect and fund the conditions that encourage diversity, creativity, and prosperity in art and science, not because of what they do for our pocketbooks but because of what they mean to our values as Americans?  Will the people, in short, remain well enough informed to be trusted with their own government?  In a century dominated by the awesome powers and dangers of science, there is no greater moral, economic, or political question."

Fool Me Twice is not flawless. In its reach for breadth and depth, the narrative trajectory risks excessive twists and turns. There are also several points at which the author makes assertions or draws conclusions (some of which this reader agrees with and some not) that haven't been adequately established by the preceding prose. (For example, Otto seems convinced that the growth and design of American suburbs in the middle years of the 20th Century was a conscious response to nuclear-war fears.)  There are also a few minor annoyances: the use of the word "proscribed" when context clearly indicates the intent was "prescribed;" a technically incorrect "explanation" of the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid variable stars discovered by Henrietta Leavitt;  describing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu as a "nuclear physicist and climate scientist."

For this reader, Fool Me Twice is by turns exhilarating and perplexing. It does not always hit the target, but its aim is admirably high. The book is a detailed and worthy preamble to the American Science Pledge and its five core principles: (1) Public decisions must be based on knowledge. (2) Knowledge is supreme and must not be suppressed. (3) Scientific integrity and transparency must be protected. (4) Freedom of inquiry must be encouraged. (5) The major science policy issues must be openly debated.

This book deserves attention and discussion by individuals and groups who aspire to improve the climate for rational public discussion of science. I strongly recommend it.

William H. Ingham, Professor Emeritus
James Madison University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.