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2017 Columns


APRIL 2017
by Jonathan Lowe

Some surprising aspects in the life of Prince Charles and Lady Diana are revealed in the new biography PRINCE CHARLES by Sally Bedell Smith, a Vanity Fair contributor who also wrote “For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton,” and “Elizabeth The Queen” and “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.” Diana’s popularity overshadowed Charles, and had an effect to the detriment of their relationship. It quickly and quietly deteriorated. The Prince is revealed to be a narcissist prone to a few conspiracy theories, while the Princess was no angel (except of mercy to kids and causes.) Did they ever truly love each other, or just their kids, with whom they both found joy? What did the Queen think of all this? Did Diana really say that Duran Duran was her favorite band? It is human nature to wonder about such things, which explains the popularity of the unauthorized biography. (Other examples can be cited here, such as Tom Cruise as revealed by Andrew Morton, who also wrote DIANA, and also ANGELINA.) Also covered in this intriguing audiobook is background and anecdotes involving Diana’s death, Camilla, their travels and luncheons with world leaders like George Bush, (with whom they argued about global warming), royal in-fighting, support for charities and business opportunities, William and Harry, Kate Middleton, vacations, marriages, and many other subjects. Actress and narrator Rosalyn Landor employs her natural British accent to great effect, lending the production an air of authority. Landor was in Masterpiece Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes and Rumpole of the Bailey in addition to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jane Eyre (the movie), and many audiobooks, including some by Kate Pullinger, Jane Corry, Jane Austen, Charles Todd, and Julia Quinn. She was born in London.

Also this month, John Oates of HALL & OATES has a new biography out titled CHANGE OF SEASONS. It is read by him and also by co-writer Chris Epting, who told me, “My experience recording the audiobook was really very special. It's the first time I haven't voiced a book alone, and so that in and of itself made it special. What really stood out, after having written the book with John, was realizing that when you have to read a book aloud it takes on a new meaning. You begin to notice things that you missed while writing it. There are nuances and tonalities in John's writing that really fully blossom once read aloud. He has a very poetic way of crafting a narrative and I think it reads wonderfully on the page. But when read aloud, it has a deeper gravity and inner beauty. He does the intro to the book, along with a piece at the end, and so he is well represented in the story. But in the end it's the words that matter, I think, more than the actual Voice speaking those words. Working with John gave me a tremendous insight to how he presents himself and what his thought processes. I think that helped me bring a certain context to the audio that a hired actor would not have been able to achieve. That's what happens when you work with somebody on their story. You spent hundreds of hours together and really climb inside their brain. It's a very intimate process and I'm very proud of the book that resulted from this collaboration. Again, John is a tremendous writer and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to experience the audio portion of this project because it gave me an entirely new perspective, working on it the last two years.” It is an in-depth never before heard account of their time together and apart, as individuals who met at the right place at the right time. The most successful duo of all time, they go on tour in May once more, with Tears for Fears.


Shawn Otto is a novelist, screenwriter (House of Sand & Fog), green architecture practitioner, National Merit Scholar, TV and radio speaker, political commentator, member of Mensa and Phi Beta Kappa, and a consultant for the National Academy of Sciences (including producer of a US Presidential Science Debate in 2016 that included Trump, Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Obama, McCain, and Mitt Romney.) He has published in Science, Salon, Huffington Post, New Scientist, Rolling Stone, Scientific American, and Nature Medicine. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from MacAlester College. My interview with him regarded his book THE WAR ON SCIENCE.

Jonathan Lowe: You describe three areas in which science is under attack. How are they related philosophically, and is the intent short term profits at long term expense?

Shawn Otto: All three areas are motivated by protection of their vested interests, and they do this by attacking the objectivity of science. Science creates knowledge, knowledge is power, and that power is political because it either confirms or challenges someone’s power base. In the war on science, attacks are coming from the postmodernist academic left, the fundamentalist religious right, and industry whose business models are threatened by new advances in health or environmental science. Postmodernists argue that science is just one of many ways of knowing, and that there is no such thing as objectivity. What gives one authority to speak on a subject is one’s membership in a political identity group, eg, one’s race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, political party, etc. Instead of objectivity, authenticity is viewed as having more authority. But science was developed to strip what we actually know away from all those subjective biases. If it rains and we both stick a ruler in a bucket, we’re going to get the same objective result no matter out identity subgroup. Yet this false idea has been taught in journalism and education schools for forty years and has eroded the public’s capacity to think about what is real. Journalists are especially guilty of this when they take the view that the only thing they can do is be fair and balanced. They will present in one half of the story a scientist relaying all the objective knowledge created by scientists over thousands of experiments, and in the other half, to be “balanced,” they will present someone with an opposing opinion. This false equivalence of facts and opinions elevates extreme voices on our public dialog. And, it opens the way to authoritarianism, because if there is no objective standard on which we all agree, how do we settle arguments of contested facts, such as those made by Donald Trump? The only means left is by the person with the biggest stick or the loudest megaphone funded by the biggest wallet. Around the same time postmodernism was taking root in academia, fundamentalist religion found its power base threatened by advances in the bio sciences, particularly around human origins, especially reproduction and sexuality. So we began to see a very sophisticated development of alternative theories to compete with, attack, and cast doubt on or outright deny science around evolution, birth control, when pregnancy begins, sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, stem cells, abortion, HPV vaccination, sex education, and in-vitro fertilization. They took advantage of the foundation laid down by the postmodernists to argue that science was something you either believed in or not, rather than a matter of know-how. This view was also adopted by industries who sought to forestall or prevent science-based regulations that affected their business model. So we see industries opposed to pesticide regulation, tobacco regulation, CO2 regulation, farming regulation, pharmaceutical regulation, sugar regulation, and mining/extractive industries regulation all mounting sophisticated public relations campaigns taking advantage of postmodernist ideas to create public uncertainty about the science, and then argue that since we are uncertain it’s premature to do anything.

Jonathan: I saw a Wall Street Journal ad featuring a two legged battle vehicle similar to the Avatar model that Col. Quaritch climbed into, bristling with weapons. The caption was "The future of everything." The new novel AMERICAN WAR postulates a new dystopian civil war in America between north and south in the coming decades. Do you think we are headed for a breakdown of society or economic collapse if we continue down the anti-science, pro-military path, as Einstein said, "Nationalism is the measles of humanity?”

Shawn: Yes, it’s one of the things that I worry about and have been warning about for several years. The breakdown in the enlightenment idea of objectivity that modern democracy was founded on is putting democracy itself on a shaky political foundation, allowing authoritarians to find a new legitimacy for their arguments that they are the only way to bring stability, when it is authoritarian attacks on democracy that are producing the instability in the first place. Adding to that, there is a growing sci-tech - democracy gap. Thomas Jefferson encapsulated his thinking about democracy when he wrote that “wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” But we have anti-democratic PR campaigns that should be illegal as attacks on democracy confusing the people about what is real, combined with this growing gap between increasingly complex sci-tech and the general public’s ability to understand it. Arthur C Clarke once said that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic. When that happens, and I’d argue it’s happened with microelectronics and AI, when the average American can’t take something apart and figure out how it works, science and tech cease to be a matter of knowhow and become a matter of belief Both Harry Potter’s broom and your smart phone were made by people cloistered away wearing long robes and uttering strange incantations. What’s the difference? And at that moment, we become vulnerable to disinformation campaigns and democracy begins to face an existential crisis.

Jonathan: One of the crazy things about social media is all the fake news going viral. Youtube is awash with Flat Earth nonsense. I have tried to engage some of the most prolific of them in answering questions, but they either ignore the questions (and ask their own) or block me outright. Which is why I started a literacy blog at Good-Reads.blog. The detailed and lengthy discussions on Youtube suggest some actually believe it, although they know next to nothing about how science works (not by observational empiricism, but rather by idea leading to testing leading to theory, with the intent to find better explanations.)

Shawn: These social media bubble that focus on science denial extend into the real world and are dangerous because they mentally entrap people in a self-referential virtual reality where if you accept one precept, you become trapped in an intellectual web of all of them. A lawyer seeing this stuff on social media also hears it on AM talk radio, in email blasts targeted to the cookie in his browser, in school textbooks containing text denying science inserted by industry or religious-funded interest groups, in fake newspapers like Environment & Climate news, which the Heartland Institute mails to every legislator in America and a good number of government relations people, in unfounded Fox news headlines about NASA fudging their measurements, in “conservative” online sites like Breitbart, and all this “evidence” reconfirms for him the pre-determined conclusion that the folks pushing this want him to have. It becomes psychologically and sociologically nearly indistinguishable from cult behavior, which is characterized by:
• Deeply partisan allegiance to a strong creed or authority figure
• Denial of conflicting information: “We have the truth and you don’t.”
• Deception and coercion in persuasion techniques
• Authoritarian, us-versus-them worldview; scapegoating
• Ideology explains everything; unfalsifiable; “moving goalposts”
• Personality changes and/or dramatic shifts in values
• Confrontation causes doubling down on ideology
• Leaving causes anxiety, depression, identity loss, social loss
• Factors that make people more vulnerable to recruitment:
• loneliness
• depression
• uncertainty
• insecurity — the same factors that characterize heavy social media users

Jonathan: What can we do to stop this madness?

Shawn: Academics need to expose and discredit the authoritarian aspects of postmodernist science denial. We need someone to fund a national group like ALEC but that is there to defend individual citizens and the idea of democracy, and to craft model bills attacking denial, alternative facts, and other attacks on our fundamental form of government. Social media companies need to be pressured to take more responsibility for insuring an equitable exchange. They have effective taken over the public square and monetized it, which has inserted perversions into our public dialogue that need to be addressed. Journalists need to stop the false balance; your true job in a democracy is to hold the powerful accountable to the evidence That should be your ethic, not “balance.” Without that, how can the public hope to steer the ship of democracy? Viewers who hear a false balance story should immediately complain to the news show or publication, and get their friends to as well. Those station managers, news directors, editors and publishers listen to that feedback and you can have an impact. If you aren’t satisfied, white an oped in a competing publication taking them to task. Industry leaders need to stop it. Take a broader view of “shareholder value” and corporate citizenship. There is no legal basis for prioritizing shareholder value above all else. An ethical business is there to add value in every sphere it interacts in: adding value for shareholders, but also for customers, for employees, for the economy, and for society. Business leaders who fail to do this are acting not only unethically, but sociopathically. Science Journal publishers really need to look at other funding streams so they can afford to become open access. The public and journalists need to linkable access to primary knowledge so they can understand the know-how piece of science, and that presented conclusions are not a matter of belief, but of evidence. Granting bodies need to require and fund 5% on lab outreach; labs have a responsibility to maintain good relationships with and education of the public funders of their work, and by focusing on the how-to, the process of science, over the product, scientists can begin to make science more accessible. As Richard Feynman one said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Teachers need to focus more on process vs outcomes, which I know is very difficult in an environment of heavy high stakes testing. I speak to teachers a lot and have lots of suggestions, lesson plan ideas, and other resources to tackle these issues in a politic and successful way. But start with team-teaching science and civics, and have a unit on science as a civic foundation. It will make both more relevant to students’ lives. Faith leaders need to stop rejecting science or going for the political message and start subscribing to the major science journals and publications. Houses of worship are great places for moral and ethical reflection, which is always necessary as science advances, and science-literate faith leaders could, like the faith leaders at the beginning of the scientific revolution, seek to better equip their flocks to navigate the many nuances of science in a complex world. Attorneys who care about the erosion of facts, reason, and science and the rise of authoritarianism should read the book and use it as a foundation to begin to develop legal strategies to defend democracy from denial, which is an authoritarian tactic and thus unAmerican. Scientists need to come out of the labs and meet people where they are, in churches, civic clubs and organizations, and in the media; to speak out about their work and the importance of facts, objectivity, science, and evidence in self-governance, to use inclusive language, to create cognitive dissonance, and to be concrete in their expression and examples.

Jonathan: What reaction have you received to your books, and what's next for you?

Shawn: I’ve spoken in several countries about this growing threat, and across the United States from the National Academies to conservative churches to universities and non-profit functions. People are beginning to recognize just how shaky our current situation is, and that the rise of authoritarianism is a real and present danger. If people care about democracy, they should read The War on Science, review it, and share it with their friends and associates. The stakes are too high, and people need to understand what is happening behind the scenes that is causing this dangerous situation. Next for me is to continue to write and speak and organize on these topics. Perhaps I’ll find a way to capture some of the ideas in popular fiction to find a new audience, we’ll see.

Jonathan Lowe

Columnist Jonathan Lowe is a longtime judge in the Audie Awards, and is author of Postmarked for Death, Awakening Storm, Fame Island, The Methuselah Gene, and The Miraculous Plot of Leiter & Lott. His own books can be sampled at TowerReview.com/Lowe.html

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