The War on Science, a Book for Those Who Abuse Science

I recently came across a book titled The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It:

By one Shawn Otto and was flabbergasted when I read the free sample for it. You see, I wasn't surprised when Otto began his text by misquoting Thomas Jefferson. I've come to accept I am one of the few people I know who actually cares at taking this quote:

I did not at first believe that 11. states of 13. would have consented to a plan consolidating them as much into one. a change in their dispositions, which had taken place since I left them, had rendered this consolidation necessary, that is to say, had called for a federal government which could walk upon it's own legs, without leaning for support on the state legislatures. a sense of this necessity, & a submission to it, is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

And changing it to:

Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. —Thomas Jefferson, January 8, 1789

That is unquestionably wrong. You don't get to change people's quotes by cutting out the first part of a sentence then changing a word in the middle of it to be capitalized to pretend it is the start of the sentence. Honest and accurate writing requires one mark such changes so the reader is made aware of them. People don't seem to care about that sort of thing though so I wasn't really surprised this is how Otto chose to start his writing.

I only became surprised when I read:

Thomas Jefferson’s trust in the well-informed voter lies at the heart of the modern democracy that has, over the course of two centuries, come to guide the world. Much like the “invisible hand” that guides Adam Smith’s economic marketplace, so too does the invisible hand of the people’s will guide the democratic process. Faith in this idea is so central to democracy that George Washington emphasized it in the nation’s first inaugural address. “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States,” he told a joint session of Congress gathered in Federal Hall, which stood kitty-corner to today’s New York Stock Exchange.

To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly. There is nothing in this quote by George Washington which suggests the "invisible hand" he referred to is a reference to any "trust in the well-informed voter lies at the heart of the modern democracy." The only connection between the two items is Otto's claim this is what Washington was talking about - a claim that is a complete fabrication.

Nothing in George Washington's inaugural speech suggests anything like what Otto claims. While Otto puts significant effort into demonizing religion in his book as being party of the war on science, the reality is Washington's speech was him giving credit to "that Almighty being" for the nation's success thus far. Here is the quotation Otto provided in context:

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow- citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.

There has been much debate about just what George Washington's religious views were, but this quote's reference to "the invisible hand" clearly references "that Almighty Being," not some "invisible hand of the people’s will." Shawn Otto has simply fabricated this idea to falsely claim George Washington agrees with his views. There isn't the slightest basis for Otto's portrayal, and there is nothing he could have possibly based it upon.

As troubling as this is, what's truly worrying is Otto's anti-religious biases go so far as to cause him to abuse even science in order to demonize religion.


  1. From the Amazon book bio: Otto is " ... best known for writing and co-producing the Academy Award-nominated movie House of Sand and Fog, and the LA Times Book Prize finalist literary crime novel, Sins of Our Fathers. "

    So he's a fiction writer. That suggests an explanation.

    Did you notice my inclusion of the ellipsis in the quote? I agree fully with your criticism of sloppy quotation.

  2. Gary, that might explain a bit of why he is this bad at getting things right, but it doesn't explain why anyone would listen to him. I haven't been able to find any criticism of his book online, and it appears to be selling fairly well.

    Did you notice my inclusion of the ellipsis in the quote? I agree fully with your criticism of sloppy quotation.

    You actually didn't need to include the ellipsis since the first word of the quotation was lowercase. That signifies to the reader it cannot be the start of a sentence, meaning there must have been text prior to what you quoted. It doesn't hurt though, so it's just a question of which you prefer.

    By the way, this guy's view on all sorts of things is delusional, but his hard-on for Galileo is probably the most annoying. I think he repeats the idea Galileo was a wonderful scientist who had clear proof of his claims and was deemed a heretic purely out of dogma some 30 times. Devoting that much space to something so bogus is just embarrassing.

    Though the worst part is him mindlessly repeating the claim companies like Exxon knew we needed to reduce carbon emissions prior to even 1980. Not only is it delusional BS, what he writes is plainly ripped off from press releases/news articles. As in, it looks like the high school essay writing where people copy and paste something they read then rewrite it a bit to claim it isn't plagiarism.

    Writing delusional nonsense that any idiot should see through is bad and all, but being so lazy with one's writing is just pathetic.

  3. On the issue of plagiarism, it turns out there is at least one case what Shawn Otto didn't even bother to rewrite what he copied from other people's writing. Strangely, he actually quotes the same source he plagiarizes a little while after the plagiarism. It's kind of bizarre.

    Also, it's worth pointing out entire sections of this book were copied verbatim from a previous book of his, "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." This is mentioned on the copyright page for this book so it isn't plagiarism, but it is sad people are buying a 500+ page book to get large swaths of reused text. He could have at least updated and revised the text. Or just excised it all together and cut down on the fat.

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