Saving Science

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CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

BY JAN SHAW-FLAMM '76 
PHOTO BY DARIN BACK

These days, everyone wants to talk with Shawn Otto ’84Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ira Flatow of Science Friday. Why? Because of Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011).

But some people would rather he just shut up. Climate change deniers don’t like him much. And members of the anti-vaccination movement pressured the Minnesota Book Awards to remove his book from consideration. The committee refused and Fool Me Twice won the top nonfiction award in 2012.

“Science has enabled us to double our life spans over the last 140 years and multiplied the productivity of our farms by 35 times,” says Otto. ”Thanks to science we have a population we can no longer sustain without destroying our environment, so we are dependent on science to find new ways to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact.”

Although properly addressing the world’s major problems increasingly involves science, that discipline is nevertheless too often ignored by policymakers. “Fewer than 2 percent of congresspersons have a professional background in science,” says Otto, who notes that the current U.S. Congress includes three scientists and six engineers.

Realizing that “politicians can’t take the lead on this on their own; they have to respond to public pressure,” Otto cofounded Science Debate 2008 to persuade that year’s presidential candidates to debate science policy. The candidates declined a televised science debate, but did provide online answers to 14 critical questions. Coverage of those answers garnered 850 million media impressions, demonstrating that Americans care deeply about issues such as climate change, pandemics and bio-security, energy, and stem cells.

To Otto, knowledge of science goes to the very viability of democracy. On that subject he quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” But what happens, Otto asks, when the people are not well informed about the science of a problem?

In a recent poll commissioned by ScienceDebate.org, 81 percent of likely U.S. voters agreed that “public policy should be based on the best available science, not the personal opinions of elected officials.” So why then do the minority opinions of climate-change deniers, anti-evolutionists, and anti-vaccination activists garner so much ink? And what can be done to steer the discussion to non-partisan, evidence-based decision-making?

Here are Otto’s ideas for shifting the balance toward science:

  • The media should reject “false balance” reporting that gives equal coverage to two sides. “If 98 percent of scientists in the field say the evidence points to human behavior as a cause of climate change, climate-change deniers should not enjoy equal coverage.”
  • Scientists must be more engaged and visible in their communities. “Most Americans cannot name a single living scientist. That’s got to change.”
  • Politicians should make knowledge-based—not opinion-based—arguments. “Jefferson couldn’t care less about your opinions.”
  • Academics should move away from the “over-embrace” of postmodernism. “It’s a useful idea from a political perspective, that each of us has a valid experience, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as objectivity.”

Before Fool Me Twice was published, Otto was best known as writer and co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film House of Sand and Fog, starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. He has written for DreamWorks, Lionsgate, and Starz studios, and has two film projects currently under discussion. One is a big action film about an illegal program to make the perfect spy, with the working title The Zeta Files. The other film, Sins of our Fathers, which Otto would also direct, deals with a small-town banker’s plot to destroy a competing bank.

In another creative endeavor, Otto designed and built the family’s passive solar, wind-powered, geothermal home near the Minnesota–Wisconsin border. It has since been toured by more than 10,000 people interested in green architecture.

With interests in film, science, architecture, and politics—he also has managed the successful political campaigns of his state auditor wife, Rebecca Wicks Otto ’85 —Shawn Otto certainly sounds like the classic liberal arts/Macalester alumnus, but that was a bit of a fluke. Graduating early from his Golden Valley, Minn., high school, Otto attended the University of Minnesota briefly before dropping out to spend a year in California. At the time, he says, “I was kind of a teen drifter.”

Then a family friend told Otto about a Macalester seminar called Quantum Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness, taught by professors Sung Kyu Kim (physics), Walt Mink (psychology), and David White (philosophy). That unique seminar inspired him to apply to Mac. Says Otto, “Macalester was a great place to grow up and learn how to think.”

And truly clear thinking people are sorely needed in our society today, he says. “There’s a growing gap between our power to change the world with science and technology and our ability through democracy to regulate that to maximize freedom and minimize unintended consequences,” says Otto. “People like Macites are increasingly needed to fill that gap.”

JAN SHAW FLAMM is a staff writer for Macalester Today.

PUBLISHED: 10/16/2012