November 10, 2016

Science-puffing book may have science right, but flunks history

The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About ItThe War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Lawrence Otto
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Too much blind praise from unskeptical 'skeptics'

This book is uneven in spots, has seeming straw men in spots, and has errors of commission and omission in spots, among other things.

As best as I can tell, at least some of that is related to what I suss out as its apparent target audience — moderate mainline Protestants who aren't totally liberal politically but aren't totally conservative either. In fact, given some of the specific straw men and errors of omission, and Otto's residence, I'll venture that he's thinking about (fellow??) Minnesota Lutherans of the ELCA persuasion in writing this.

Arguably, the book is worth a third star, but with all the tribalism apple-polishing, per my headline, it gets knocked down. Even without that, I'm not sure it's worth three, though.

First, Otto projects a Democrat/Republican split on science backward and overreaches — badly. Related to that is a factual error, claiming that William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in part due to evolution. Reality is that evolution was a VERY minor campaign issue, if it was any at all, in 1896 and 1900, a full generation before the Snopes trial. McKinley won because he had a lot more campaign money, employers threatened employees with job loss if Bryan won, and the race was fought over the gold standard vs. free silver. Otto's clams are ahistorical at best, antihistorical at worse.

Second, his "Religion, Meet Science" chapter is chock full of errors.
1. The Puritans didn't come to America for religious freedom. They came for religious freedom for *themselves only.* BIG difference.
2. He straw mans Catholics by pretending that only Protestants of the Reformation and beyond had a serious natural theology. That would be a surprise to the thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic scholars who still study Thomas Aquinas.

Third, in a later chapter, he claims antivaxxerism basically started as a left-wing stance, then spread to religious conservatives over HPV. Wrong. Orange County, California, is full of anti-government libertarian antivaxxers.

Fourth, he gets a number of things at least partially wrong in relation to modern media and news coverage. That includes an exact discussion of the issue of "objectivity."

I remember Otto's Science 2008 project. It sounded promising. Maybe there was already then less than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, by dipping below the three-star level, I put myself in the company of climate change denialists. Don't blame me; blame Otto for serious errors elsewhere. (He's totally correct on climate change.) Blame "skeptics" for failure to give a more critical read. Blame Otto again for his presumed Minnesota nice liberal Lutheran target audience.


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