The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, supported by Education Minnesota, ran the 29th annual Minnesota Book Awards ceremony tonight, and Amanda and I were graciously invited by author Shawn Otto and State Auditor and Gubernatorial Hopeful Rebecca Otto to join them at their table. Shawn’s wildly popular, and extremely, increasingly relevant book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It was up for the award in General Nonfiction.
There was a great deal of suspense, as Shawn’s category was the very last one of several, and there were several other awards and recognitions. Lou Bellamy of Penumbra Theater was recognized as a Kay Sexton Honoree, Steven McCarthy received the Book Artist Award, and there were other items on the agenda.
Finally, Shawn’s category came up, and the award was announced. Did he win? Here’s the video:
Read this book now, and act on what you learn from it, for the sake of your own future and the future of our children and their children.
The rise of modern civilization, from the Enlightenment onward for hundreds of years, was the same thing as the rise of modern science. The rise of science was a cultural novelty with only vague foreshadowing. It was a revolution in the way humans think.
People come to believe what they believe in a way that rarely involves scientific thinking. The human mind is not inherently rational in the sense we usually use the term today. The process of learning things, of inference, and developing habits that guide our reactions to the world around us, evolved to function well enough given our usual cultural, social, and ecological context. But the modern world presents challenges that are better addressed, and problems that are only solvable, with a scientific approach. Science is something we willfully impose on our own process of thought and, at the level of society, formation of policy and law.
You have heard of the concept of “diseases of civilization.” For example, we evolved to seek and love sugars and fats, and then we developed methods of obtaining seemingly unlimited quantities of said nutrients. The success of our system of feeding ourselves solves the problem of uncertainty in the food supply and creates the problems of atherosclerosis, widespread obesity, and all too common diabetes.
Self damaging stupidity also seems to be a disease of civilization. One would think that with the rise of science, the opposite would happen, and it has to some extent.
People spend a great deal of time and energy, and other resources, acting on beliefs about food production and personal health that are contrary to their own best interests. Had a fraction of that energy been spent on trying to understand the relevant science of food production and health, those individuals would be much better off, as would the rest of society. The same pattern can be seen in all other aspects of life, from energy production and use to systems of transportation to diplomacy and warfare. Again and again, great ideas emerge that may become excellent new laws or common best practices, only to be watered down and compromised because of this self damaging stupidity. How, when, and why did we get here?
Today, increasingly and powerfully, anti-science forces are strong and shape the way people think and act to our collective detriment. This is the problem Otto addresses.
How is it that humans invented science, used science for all sorts of improvements (and, admittedly, a number of unintended negative consequences), and then came to new ways of developing policy and practice that hobble the use of this important cultural and social resource?
Shawn Otto’s book is a careful and detailed scholarly examination of this question. I struggled for a time with whether or not I should make the following statement about The War on Science, because I want this statement to be taken in a positive way, though it might be seen as a criticism. Otto’s book is similar to, and at the level of, an excellent PhD thesis. I very quickly add, however, that since this is the work of a very talented writer and communicator, it does not read like a PhD thesis. It reads like a page turner. But the substance of the book is truly scholarly, contributes new thinking, and is abundantly and clearly documented and backed up. I can’t think of too many books that do all of this.
The Enlightenment and the early rise of scientific thinking was a self conscious effort by a small number of individuals to rethink the way we think, and it was a very effective one. Almost every advance in technology, economy, and society – from vehicles and energy to the invention of money and markets, to new or modified forms of government – arose from the self conscious application of scientific thinking. The same great mind that contributed so much to the invention of modern physics and mathematics, that of Sir Isaac Newton, modernized the production of coinage and regulation of international exchange of money (as well as modern systems of engaging and neutralizing counterfeiting). The invention of the American system of government was the intentional and thoughtful product of individuals who called themselves and their actions scientific.
But, as Newton would say, for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science is not only a powerful tool for doing new things and improving old approaches, but it is also very inconvenient. For some, under certain conditions.
It isn’t that science itself is bad for powerful entities that make up the political and industrial status quo. Science is as essential today as it has ever been, or more so, to the owners of energy companies, the producers of military gear, the growers and purveyors of food, and so on. But there are times when the best available scientific evidence suggests that the best decisions that society or government should make are contrary to the vested self interest of those power brokers. So, really, the best method, from the point of view of stockholders in major corporations or the owners of vast energy or agricultural resources, or others, is to use science but also to control the interface between scientific action and public policy.
In other words, the scientifically derived answer to a question is different when the premise is different. What is the best way to increase profits from making and selling energy? What is the best way to protect the public health while making and selling energy? These are two valid questions that, at least in the short and medium term, can produce dramatically different answers.
In 2012, Shawn Otto posed the conundrum, “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.” One could ask the same question about leaders of industry. The answer may be fairly obvious. This became acceptable the moment the interests being served by those politicians shifted from the populous to the smaller subset of owners and investors of business and industry. The money trail, which one is often advised to follow to find a truth, leads pretty directly to that answer.
A harder question is, how did large portions of the academic world also decide to be anti-science? For this, one needs to take a more fine grained cultural approach, looking at self interest in the context of scholarship.
How does religion fit in here? The modern, mainly social network-bound, conversation about religion science, secularism, etc. is over-simplistic and mostly wrong. It is not the case that religion and science are opposite things. Rather, the rise of science was part of revolutionary changes in European religious institutions, culture, and politics. There are ironies in that story and the details are fascinating and important. Otto covers this.
Otto also identifies and discusses at length something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time. The nature of the conversation itself. If a conversation proceeds among those with distinctly different self interest, it quickly goes pedantic. If, on the other hand, a conversation proceeds among those with the common goal of understanding something better, or solving a particular problem, then it progresses and discovery and learning happen. On all of the different fronts of the “war on science” we see the honest conversation breaking down, or even, not happening to begin with, and from this nothing good happens.
Otto identifies a three-front war on science: The identity politics war on science, the ideological warn on science, and the industrial war on science. Conflate or ignore the differences at your peril. Postmodernism problemtizes the very concept of truth. Much of what you think of as the war on science is part of the ideological war on science, often with strong religious connections. The industrial war on science is in some ways the most important because it is the best funded, and the anti-science generals have a lot at stake. When cornered, they tend to be the most dangerous.
The last part of Otto’s book is on how to win this war. He is detailed and explicit in his suggestions, producing a virtual handbook of action and activism. Recognizing how the system works, how to marshal resources to reshape the conversation, what scientists need to do, what communicators need to do, are part of a coherent plan. He ends with a “Science Pledge” which is “a renewed commitment to civic leadership based on the principles of freedom, science, and evidence.” And there is nothing new in this pledge. It is, essentially, a fundamentalist approach to science, society, and policy, going back to the beginnings of the coeval rise of science and civilization. There is little in Otto’s pledge that would not have been said by Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, or Francis Bacon.
You will enjoy Otto’s “The War on Science” and it will enrich and advance your understanding of the key, existential, issue of the day. And, it won’t just inform you and rile you up, but it will also help you define goals and give you tools to meet them.
The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.
How about a television series made by some very talented people set in the context of a Renaissance Festival?
That, lords and ladies, is the plan.
Renfest is a serial set in a RenFest, filmed at an actual Renfest, that combines the themes of “office politics,” a sort of anachronistic Big-Bang Theory, produced, written, stared in, and developed, by an outstandingly talented team including Shawn Otto (a Renaissance man himself, whom readers of this blog know well), Mary Jo Pehl, Jamal Farah, Dave Allen, and Trace Beaulieu.
The trailer demonstrates that this is an excellent project, and the plot layout of the first season makes me want to binge watch it as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the show does not exist yet. The creative team has decided to get this off the ground with a very ambitious but I think quite doable Kickstarter. The idea is to develop the project to the extent that it will be impossible to avoid it either getting picked up by a major distributor, or to become an excellent web based project. Personally, I’d love to see it be a Netflix Original or something along those lines, as the quality of the material is top notched.
Politics and battles of profound import and little consequence ensue. RenFest is a thoroughly entertaining workplace satire that will have you snorting your turkey leg as it skewers today’s complex social issues ripped from the headlines and writ ridiculously small. Sample future episodes listed below.
The show features the comic antics of Elisabeth (Mary Jo Pehl: MST3K, Cinematic Titanic) and her Somali-American assistant, A.K. (introducing Jamal Farah), as they tangle with festival general manager and despot Lloyd Gunderson (Dave “Gruber” Allen: Freaks & Geeks, Ned’s Declassified, Bad Teacher), the woefully inaccurate Viking (Trace Beaulieu: MST3K, Freaks & Geeks, Other Space) and other festival denizens. Think “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” set amid the vibrant world of Renaissance festivals.
We shot a trailer and an incredibly funny mini-pilot in the fall of 2015. It’s written by Shawn Otto, who wrote House of Sand and Fog and developed a TV show with the legendary Joel Surnow (co-creator of 24). Award-winning veteran commercial director Joe Schaak helms the series with world-class cinematographer Jeff Stonehouse crafting the imagery. Paul Sadeghi oversees postproduction at Pixel Farm and we have a built-in cast of thousands.
The Kickstarter page for the project is here, rich in information and including a teaser video, and down the page a bit, a trailer.
Please click through and have a look, and give them money.
I’m going to publish my full review of The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto closer to the publication date, which is June 7th. (I believe you can use the above link to pre-order the book.) But I just wanted to let you know the book exists, and is amazing, you will want to read it. You will definitely, absolutely, not want to not read it. It is a must read.
This isn’t just someone yammering about the lack of respect for science in America, or about the Republican Party’s antiscienceosity, etc. Shawn’s book is actually a history of science, in a sense, exploring the interrelationship between major evolutionary changes in how science works and how it has related to the parallel evolution of politics, and how politics works. It really is one of the more important books on this topic written.
Here’s a way to get a special, signed, copy of the pre-print of Shawn Otto’s book, and donate to a good cause at the same time:
Here’s a great way to support the environment and good environmental policy action while getting ahold of a collectible pre-publication version of my next book, THE WAR ON SCIENCE. I have just a couple collectible uncorrected advance reader copies left, and I’ve donated two of them to the DFL Environmental Caucus, who is auctioning them off on Ebay as a fundraiser. These have gone for over $200 each at other fundraisers. I will sign and personalize them for the winning bidders per your request and mail them to you. If you care about science-related environmental issues like climate change, clean water, clean energy, and a host of others, then policy action is where the rubber hits the road, and electoral politics like the kind the DFL Environmental Caucus engages in helps bring pressure to bear on lawmakers on the campaign trail, giving them reason to do the right thing when it comes to passing evidence-based policy. So bidding massively on this book should be a no-brainer. Help the world, help your kids and grandkids, help the DFL Environmental Caucus, and get a great book at the same time. What’s not to love? Dig deep! And PS: if you’re a lobbyists, ignore this. They don’t solicit donations from lobbyists during the regular legislative session.
Shawn otto Shawn is the screenwriter and coproducer of the Oscar-nominated film House of Sand and Fog starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. He has also written for several of film and TV’s top studios. A few years back he started Science Debate 08, an effort to get a real debate over science policy issues as part of the presidential debate process. I promise you that all of the presidential campaigns have been aware of this effort, and many have agreed, but never all the candidates in one election. So that’s politicians running away from science. (We’ll see about 2016.)
Anyway, Shawn then wrote “Fool me twice,” a book about politics, science policy, and related matters. I interviewed him about that here.
Recently Shawn took a break to manage his wife’s campaign for State Auditor, which turned out to be a much more difficult and time consuming campaign than it should have been because some bone-head decided to run against her in the primaries. Not that running against someone in the primaries makes you a bone head. That’s independent.
Anyway, along the way, Shawn wrote a literary suspense thriller type novel, “Sins of our Fathers,” set in Minnesota, which I reviewed here. Excellent book.
So, this Sunday at 9:00 AM, I’ll be interviewing Shawn about his new novel. We’ll probably talk about some other things as well. TUNE IN.
JW, protagonist, is a flawed hero. He is not exactly an anti-hero because he is not a bad guy, though one does become annoyed at where he places his values. As his character unfolds in the first several chapters of Shawn Otto’s novel, Sins of Our Fathers, we like him, we are worried about him, we wonder what he is thinking, we sit on the edge of our proverbial seats as he takes risk after risk and we are sitting thusly because we learn that he does not have a rational concept of risk. We learn that his inner confusion about life arises from two main sources: the dramatic difference between his temperament and upbringing on one hand and the life he ended up with on the other, and from unthinkable tragedy he has suffered. And so it goes as well with the other hero of the book, Johnny Eagle, who is a flawed, almost Byronic antagonist. Flawed because he is not the bad guy yet is an antagonist, Byronic because of his pride. There is also a troubled young man, a full blown antagonist we never come close to liking, and a horse.
When I moved to Minnesota from the East, I quickly encountered “The Indian Problem.” Not my words; that is what people called it. Very rarely major news, but still always a problem, the concept includes the expected litany. Poverty, fights over spear fishing rights, casinos and fights over off-reservation gambling, and the usual racism. I lived near the “Urban Res” but was told never to call it that. Doing some historic archaeology in Minneapolis I came across a hostess, of the first hotel built in the city, who had written elaborate stories of Indian attacks in South Minneapolis, part of the Indian Problem, after which she and her hotel gave refuge to the victims. None of which ever actually happened. I read about trophy hunting by the farmers in the southern part of the state, who took body parts from the Native Americans executed as part of the Sioux Uprising, and heard rumors that some of those parts were still in shoe boxes in some people’s closets.
Later I married into a family with a cabin up north. I remember passing Lake Hole-In-The-Day on the way up to the cabin, and wondering what that meant — was a “Hole in the day” like a nap, or break, one takes on a hot lazy afternoon? And the cabin was an hour or so drive past that lake. Many months later, I did some research and discovered two amazing facts. First, Hole-In-The-Day was the name of two major Ojibway Chiefs, father and son, both of whom were major players in the pre-state and early-state histories of the region, of stature and importance equalling or exceeding any of the white guys, like Snelling, Cass, Ramsey, after which counties, cities, roads, and other things had been named. But no one seemed to know Hole-In-The-Day. It was just a lake with a funny sounding name like most of the other lakes. The other thing I learned was downright shocking: The cabin to which we have driven many summer weekends is actually on an Indian reservation, as is the nearby town with the grocery store, ice cream shop, and Internet. On the reservation, yes, but not near any actual Indians. So, I could tell you that I spend many weeks every summer on an Indian Reservation up north, and it would not be a lie. Except the part about it being a lie.
Otto’s book pits the white, established and powerful, Twin Cities based banking industry against an incipient Native bank and the rest of the reservation. The story is a page turner, but I don’t want to say how so, because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. I am not a page-turner kind of guy. I am a professional writer, so therefore I’m a professional reader. I can put a book down at any point no matter what is happening in order to shift gears to some other task awaiting my attention. But I certainly turned the pages in Sins of Our Fathers. The most positive comment one can make about a piece of writing is probably “this made me want more.” That happens at the end of every chapter in Otto’s novel.
But just as important as Sins of Our Fathers being a very very good book, which it is, it also addresses the Indian Problem. It does not matter if you are in, of, or familiar with Minnesota. The theme is American, and I use that word in reference to geography and not nationality, through and through. Everybody has an Indian Problem, especially Indians. Tension, distrust, solace and inspiration in modernized tradition, internal and external, are real life themes and Otto addresses them fairly, clearly, and engagingly. “Fathers” is plural for a reason, a reason you can guess.
It is important that you know that Sins of our Fathers is not Minnesota Genre though it is set here; it is not Native American Relations and Culture Genre though that is in the book. It is action, mystery, adventure, white knuckle, engaging, well-paced, and extremely well written. There are aspects of this writing that recommend this book as an exemplar in plot development, character construction, dialog and inner dialog, narrative distance, and descriptive technique.
Shawn Otto is the founder of Science Debate. He is a science communicator and advocate. He is also a film maker, and among other things wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie “House of Sand and Fog.”
So, it turns out that Heartland was behind the Heartland leak after all.
The evidence seems to suggest that Heartland’s Joe Bast wrote a memo, then he and/or Heartland-symp blogger Steven Mosher sent it secretly to Peter Gleick. Peter Gleick then obtained additional material from Heartland, which came to him at his request but all to easily to be explained as a mere oversight on the part of some administrative or secretarial staff. The only thing missing here is evidence that Bast or Mosher or someone suggested to Peter that he verify the memo by asking for related documents from Heartland. But that would be too easy.
Anyway, it now seems clear that the document, the allegedly faked internal strategy memo with the most damning text in it (but nothing really different from what is shown in other verified Heartland documents) was fed to Gleick, presumably in an effort to engineer his downfall as an incipient board member of the National Center for Science Education.
Brilliant. Heartland: 1 … NCSE: 0
The evidence for this is the analysis just published by Shawn Otto. Shawn does not go quite as far as I do in suggesting the details of this conspiracy, but maybe he’s just a nicer guy than I am. Shawn notes that Heartland did not expect the tables to be turned on them. I’m thinking they did, and that the outcome that occurred … setting the NCSE back in their efforts to address climate science denialism … is what they were looking for, and what they managed to engineer. Shawn Otto’s analysis is here.
Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” was officially released last night in Minneapolis with appropriate fanfare and celebration. Everyone who gets to know Shawn likes him from the start and quickly learns to respect him and eventually hold him with a certain amount of well-earned awe, and like any book, we’ve all seen this one coming for quite some time. (I have an old pre-release copy in which every page is “00” but, surprisingly, the front cover is just like the final form.)
Shawn gave a talk at the release party, but since he is held in such high esteem, there was a problem deciding how he would be introduced. A book as important as “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” which examines the increasingly insignificant role science plays in the policy making process, written by the much beloved Shaw Otto would require an equally important and beloved personage to make the introduction. And, if such a person were to go on stage to introduce Shawn, there would have to be a fairly significant and widely respected person to introduce that person as well. And so on and so forth. I hear there were several meetings about this, and the UN was called in briefly to settle the evening’s program, and a solution was worked out that was more than acceptable. Continue reading Science is always nonpartisan, but it is always political: Fool Me Twice→