The best books about how and why people reject science and endanger themselves

Robert P. Crease Author Of The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority
By Robert P. Crease

Who am I?

In the summer of 2017 I went to see the Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France and a tourist spot for over 200 years. But this dramatic and overwhelming glacier had all but melted away and I found myself in a dry valley a mile across and half a mile deep – concrete evidence of global warming. It was one of the most disturbing experiences I have ever had. As a philosopher and historian of science, I dedicated myself to discovering how and why people were accusing reputable scientists of dishonesty, incompetence, and aloofness while staring at the evidence. The answer is not simple, and requires a lot of telling and hearing stories.

I wrote...

The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

By Robert P. Crease,

Book cover of The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

What is my book about?

Rejecting scientific authority is an established feature of US life. Politicians and ordinary citizens find that conclusions of the scientific “workshop” collide with their agendas, and treat science as their political opponent. Astonishingly, science denial is difficult to deter because its practitioners exploit well-known vulnerabilities in science itself.

This book uses the stories of ten remarkable individuals – a surprisingly diverse group who include Mary Shelley, Kemal Atatürk, and Hannah Arendt – to explain how this came about, and what will be necessary to change it. These ten individuals confronted severe problems with scientific authority and took action. Some risked their lives. Taken together, their stories show why the dwindling authority of science is as threatening to human life, and what can be done to keep our world from falling apart. 

The books I picked & why

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By Peter Benchley,

Book cover of Jaws

Why this book?

It’s a novel, I know. Sheer fiction. But the way the plot unfolds, and hurtles towards disaster, couldn’t be more current. A scientist says there’s danger out there, the police chief wants to close the beaches to protect citizens, the mayor refuses in order to promote his voters and local interests. I don’t require my students to read the book, but I do play for them the scene in the movie (similar scenes are in the book) where the three argue and the mayor, who has the power, has his way. I tell the students that this is the scariest part, far scarier than any involving sharks.  

An Enemy of the People

By Henrik Ibsen,

Book cover of An Enemy of the People

Why this book?

This is a play, a made-up story about a town in Norway a century ago. But the story couldn’t be more familiar. The protagonist is the medical officer who inspects the town’s baths, on which the livelihood of the inhabitants depend. He discovers that the baths are increasingly contaminated, and that money and time have to be devoted to fixing them. When he informs the community he expects politicians to act, and that he will be treated as a hero for saving the town. Nope. Newspapers revile him and accuse him of conspiracy, people insult him, and his life is destroyed. The drama shows, in pared-down skeletal form, how and why science denial happens.  

Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines

By Jennifer A. Reich,

Book cover of Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines

Why this book?

Why do many parents endanger their children by refusing to vaccinate them? They aren’t, writes Jennifer A. Reich, who studied such parents for over a decade. They aren’t ignorant or irrational – they are highly committed to protecting their children, and are trying to make sense of what they hear and know in their environment. Read this book if you want to understand why people selectively hear, mistrust, or reject scientific information, and seek out alternative ‘experts’ who tell them essentially what they want to hear.

Democracy and Truth: A Short History

By Sophia Rosenfeld,

Book cover of Democracy and Truth: A Short History

Why this book?

Why do democracies seem particularly vulnerable to populist movements that promote conspiracies and science denial?  It’s as old as democracy itself, argues Sophia Rosenfeld, who points to seeds of our current predicament planted at the birth of our republic. Social and technological stratification encourages groups, in the name of “the people” to reject advice and decrees of leaders, and seek political action based on their gut feelings.  

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway,

Book cover of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change

Why this book?

Why does such a large sector of the population doubt robust science about so many things? Partly because industries – associated with vaccines, global warming, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and so forth – have recruited people in a deliberate campaign to sew disinformation about scientists, scientific institutions, and scientific studies. This book reveals the dynamics of deception, and puts us all on alert.

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