A Science Author’s Carelessness Toward Truth, and What It Might Represent

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Yesterday I wrote about massive confusion present in the first half page of Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science. Today I asked myself whether I’d jumped off some cliff of irresponsibility by judging a book by practically less than its cover.

I didn’t. I didn’t judge the book at all, really. But I did judge its author, and I don’t think there’s anything irresponsible in it at all.

I’ve also got some thought about why that judgment matters. You might think that’s wrong, but don’t judge me until you read what I’m about to say. I’m not anywhere near a half page with this yet, so if you judge my judgment to be premature, you’d better duck, there’s a boomerang flying back at you.

Inexcusable Confusion

What I found in the first half page of Otto’s book was, again, serious confusion. It wasn’t on some arcane technical matter, the sort of thing ordinary people can be excused for misunderstanding. When he lifted a quote from George Washington’s First Inaugural address, he had every opportunity to read the sentences preceding and following it. Had he bothered to do that he would have known Washington’s “invisible hand” was Divine Providence and nothing remotely like “the will of the people,” as he said it was.

Otto either didn’t bother to check that, or he didn’t care about what he found.

He referred to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the marketplace, and equated it not only with Washington’s “invisible hand” but also today’s will of the people. To get Smith’s “invisible hand” right would take a bit more time than checking the context of a quote from Washington — but Otto acted as if he knew what he was talking about; and really, for educated people, the bare bones of it are common knowledge.

He got that wrong, too. Publicly. In a very intentionally prepared and (presumably) carefully vetted and edited book on the important topic of preserving and extending knowledge.

He Didn’t Care

Those are just facts so far, not judgments. My judgment is this: He didn’t care. He didn’t care about accuracy. He didn’t care about starting off well. He didn’t care about first impressions in public. He didn’t care about the truth of what he was writing.

That’s the most charitable interpretation I can put on it; anything else would require us to think of him as incapable of sorting out reality from fantasy.

But What About These?

That’s all I can responsibly say about the man based on that half page. In one sense it’s not much, but then I consider the book’s Amazon web page and how heavily it’s has been praised:

  • “A stirring call to action.” — Science
  • The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.” –– Greg Laden, ScienceBlogs
  • “Science is not a body of facts, but rather a structured approach to uncovering the fundamental laws that govern the natural world. As The War on Science shows, policymakers who choose to ignore those fundamental laws imperil us all, for the laws of nature will always trump the laws of man.” — Marcia McNutt, president of the US National Academy of Sciences

… and more of the same.

Are They Not Seeing Clearly?

They don’t seem to care about the truth I think I’ve identified here: that Shawn Otto opened his book so patently not caring about the truth. Could it be that they don’t see it? Could they be so tucked away in the world of science they’re not seeing the rest of the world clearly?

It could be that indeed. There was a time when this question would have wafted in the direction of C. P. Snow’s famous question of the “two cultures,” the sciences and the humanities, diverging so greatly they could no longer communicate. The humanities have veered off in such strange directions since then, I doubt any question like Snow’s could even be raised again in any academic setting. That blizzard has blown.

Clues To a Possible Answer

I’ll resist the temptation to go into that. Instead I’d like you to consider the question in context of something I myself heard only a couple hours ago. This morning at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., Jay Richards (my executive editor at The Stream), moderated an exceptionally literate discussion titled March for Science or March for Scientism? Understanding the Real Threats to Science in America. 

It’s a great conversation. I’d say that even if Jay hadn’t been involved. (But then it wouldn’t have been as great, right, Jay? Just kidding. I mean it. Just kidding.) Admittedly, though, I’m co-opting this panel discussion quite shamelessly to round out my line of thought here. Count on me to do penance tomorrow by featuring it in a post of its own.

Here’s how it fits the current discussion. The first panelist to speak, Marlo Lewis (beginning at about 6:30), has something quite interesting to say, which might be especially relevant in helping us understand how Otto came to be so careless, and others came to give him such a pass on it. In short, there is long (very, very long) historical precedent for thinking scientists might be subject to a certain sort of knowledge-blindness. Jay Richards’ comments on group-think nearer the end might also relate (see also more on that here).

First, Though…

Before you watch, though, realize what I’ve said here, and don’t jump to thinking I’ve said more than I have. I don’t think I’ve overstated anything, even though I used just one half page as my working material.

I’ve stated some concise facts and made just one charitably-directed judgment based on those facts. I’ve noted that some prominent people gave him a pass on his carelessness, and I’ve raised a question: Could it be that they’re not seeing all of reality as clearly as they ought?

Now for you to jump in and say what you think might be going on. But don’t skip the video discussion. It’s well worth the time invested.

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