Monday, March 27, 2017

The War on Science (Shawn Otto Interview)

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.

JL) 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 (out 4/4) 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?”  

SO) 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.

JL) 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. Do you see this as diversion from admission of climate change, or do they really believe the Earth is flat? The ads they attach to videos and their repetition and frequency suggest they just want ad revenue from ignorant viewers who hate government and all regulation, but the detailed and lengthy discussions 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.) 

SO) 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

JL) What can we do to stop this madness? 

SO) I make several suggestions when I talk to groups.

• 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.

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

SO) 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.  (Shawn Otto is also author of the novel SINS OF OUR FATHERS, read by Jim Meskimen.) 

Friday, March 10, 2017


His title was inspired by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. There is also the rock band. And of course weather itself is going viral, with the Weather Channel now doing dramatic plane crash and disaster programming. In Change of Seasons, John Oates shares his story for the first time, from his own motorcycle accident to meeting Andy Warhol at the Denver airport during a snowstorm. He takes listeners on a wild ride through all the eras, personalities, and music that has shaped him into what he is: the first true account of the band and his memories as half of a genius music duo, perfectly paired, whose iconic songs have universal appeal and will stand the test of time. Not that either of them ever wanted to be considered half of anything. They are individuals who have sometimes collaborated, and through highs and lows they forged ahead, together or separately. Rebels and individualists, John was a journalism major in college when he met Daryl, who studied music education. A swirl of people and circumstances, including ever changing commitments, led them to collaboration. What happened next was both happy coincidence and the result of hard work and talent. Narrated mostly by his co-writer Chris Epting, but also by John, the audiobook is a surprising and long-awaited peek into the lives of two who once sang the words “No Can Do,” recommended for anyone who loves the 80s era, how time changes people, and yet how friendships forged early grow stronger. Technology may have killed much of the old school, as lamented by Joe Walsh at Daryl’s House. (“It’s drum machines, and you can tell.”) Yet Daryl and John remain true to their long-standing belief that technology is something to embrace. And so, with innovative videos and tours sponsored for the first time ever by outside corporations, (including a highly publicized Lear jet race) they created whatever it took to “push the envelope,” and to “stay ahead of the curve,” with the ultimate desire to keep making music. Today “Hall & Oates” remain the biggest duo ever, unique, and possibly never repeated. Who knows? No one can predict where it’s all going. Interestingly, when I showed my pre-release copy of the audiobook (due 4/4; pre-order HERE now) in downtown Greenville SC as a test, I discovered that some young people (18-25) didn’t know who they were. But then Clark Gable never heard of William Faulkner. When they met, Gable said, “what kind of work are you in, Mr. Faulkner?” Funny, because Nobel Prize winner Faulkner was writing Gable’s screenplay! (Gable’s narcissism is also recounted in the James Garner biography.) It was never just about the fame, with Daryl or John, as it is in much of the music business today. It’s about having fun doing new stuff, not flaunting what you have or who you know. I heard from co-writer and narrator 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.” And with that said, let me add that this is my AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.  

Monday, February 27, 2017


NPR said that Viola Davis should win a Grammy by recording an audiobook, then she would have won EGOT status: Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy. Wonder if they knew she has recorded an audiobook? BLIND FAITH. This is from the description: “Although Stevland Judkins was blind virtually from birth, Lula noticed that this little boy impressed everyone with his outgoing personality, his intelligence, charm, and his incredible musical talent. Berry Gordy dubbed the boy Little Stevie Wonder and launched him into musical history when he signed Stevie to his Motown label. When Innervisions won a Grammy award for Album of the Year in 1973, Stevie Wonder refused to accept the award unless Lula walked with him to the podium where he proclaimed, ‘her strength has led us to this place.’ Indeed, it was Lula's drive and her willingness to sacrifice the now for the future that saw them through. Blind Faith is not only the story of the birth of a superstar, but a stirring testament to a mother's love.” Order HERE

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard

If you follow the news (and I’m sure you do) you have heard reports of cruise ship incidents involving crimes on board (not just accidents and noro viruses.) Most ships are registered in Caribbean or African countries to avoid taxes in the United States, which is why they are such bargains for passengers (and why the cruise lines spend billions on new luxury ships.) In addition to the gambling and drinking which make cruises profitable (they just break even if you don’t gamble or drink or take shore excursions) there is the setting, on the high seas of international waters, that make them appealing to criminals. Thefts, rapes, murders: these happen in descending order of frequency. The cruise lines do not want publicity on this, and so tend not to report incidents. Even if someone is thrown overboard (unless the FBI might be called because of US connections.) They try to offer compensation: free trips, money, exchange for a non-disclosure signature. Think about it—you are on a ship full of foreign service workers with increasing animosity to American or UK passengers, paid low wages for long hours servicing those a few may perceive as fat or spoiled revelers who get drunk, talk loud, brag, and laugh. Gluttons (by comparison) who return again and again to the lavish buffets that…well, nevermind. (Go Here for that.) How easy would it be to toss someone over the rail? I once wrote a mystery story series for Porthole cruise magazine, and included a “tossed overboard” scenario at the climax of my novel The Methuselah Gene. Anyway, I’ve just completed a great audiobook by debut novelist Catherine Ryan Howard, who was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Here’s Downpour’s description of DISTRESS SIGNALS: “A debut novel that channels Gone Girl. The day Adam Dunne’s girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads “I’m sorry—S” sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her. Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate—and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before. To get answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground.” Now, first novelists, being unknown, have to do their research and really impress. Remember The Firm by John Grisham, or James Patterson’s first novels before he got famous and started hiring dozens of co-authors? You can’t be lazy, not with a first novel. Bear that in mind when I tell you to give this audiobook a listen. Distress Signals goes deep into character, with many twists and turns, an awesome setting befitting the news, and some great pro narrators like Alan Smyth, actor Bronson Pinchot, and Suzanne Toren. A must hear: AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH. Prior to writing full time, Catherine worked as a campsite courier in France and a front-desk agent in a hotel in Walt Disney World, Florida, and most recently as a social media marketer for a major publisher. She is currently studying for a BA in English at Trinity College in Dublin.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Money Pit Radio Show as Audiobooks

In The Money Pit, named among America’s 100 Most Important Radio Shows by Talkers magazine, Tom Kraeutler and Leslie Segrete combine quick wit and clever advice to help listeners tackle a variety of home improvement and d├ęcor projects. It’s a series covering every imaginable home repair project, as download or on CD and Mp3-CD. Entertaining and informative, recommended for anyone looking to buy, flip, or repair. Real estate agents can learn a lot, too! 
Audiobooks Today) How did the show come about, and how has the audience changed and grown? Who is the typical listener?
Tom Kraeutler) The short answer is I spent 20 years as professional home inspector and was frequently asked to be a guest on radio/tv shows on topics related to homes, home safety, remodeling and decor. In the early 90's this led to an opportunity to host my own Saturday morning call-in home improvement show. That led to an opportunity to syndicate which we did n October of 1999. Now, almost 18 years later, we're the largest home improvement show on radio and heard on over 330 stations, covering every state in the nation, and a few cities in Canada. There's a lot more that happened along the way but this was essentially the path.  I eventually left home inspection behind and focused full time on radio. However, there's no way I'd be able to answer all the questions I do without that solid experience learning how homes are put together and how they fall apart.
AT) What is the most heard problem or question, and the most bizarre? 
TK) We tend to get a lot of questions about floors (repair, replace, clean stains, fix squeaks and lots of question on the wide variety of flooring choices). We also get lots of questions about energy efficiency, friendly improvements, kitchen and bath remodels, as well as outdoor living.
AT)  Putting all the shows on audio is genius, given they eliminate commercials and can be paused or replayed by consumers. What gave you this idea, and what is the production process like....any challenges?  
TK) Not my idea. Blackstone approached us actually. Our shows are produced in-house so providing the audio is just a matter of building the files they need for production, which is a higher quality (bit rate) version than what goes out on the radio or by podcast. We remove the commercial breaks but everything else is pretty much the same as the national show.
AT) Vanity Fair is now on audio. Do listen to other radio programs on audio? 
TK) No much other radio programs but I like audio books so listen to those a lot when I'm driving. 
AT)  Used to review for Cracker Barrel stores, which rents audiobooks, and XM. Truckers are big listeners. Do you get many calls from truckers?  
TK) Yes, those calls are always fun. It's like "Joe from North Dakota is calling about the Lanai for his home in Florida."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

HIT MAKERS by Derek Thompson

HIT MAKERS by Derek Thompson is a new book showing that “hits” in music, movies, and books depend on Chaos theory: a “Happy Days” alignment of people, culture, ideas, and timing. Since we have moved to a Twitter society of many choices and low attention span, people tend to gravitate to fewer things by following what is most popular (instead of what is best.) This creates an environment of many failures and fewer successes, with a “microscopic few” reaping most of the benefits. Essentially, we are bewildered by choice, and look to social media to direct us…while social media platforms spy on us and direct our attention to those things which generate the most profit. (Junk food, prescription drugs, blockbuster cartoon movies, bestsellers.) An interesting sociology and psychology/marketing book with the subtitle, “The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” it reveals why things become hits (songs/movies/books/ideas.) Mostly it's the right alignment at the right time. The song "Rock Around the Clock" was a dud when first released. Then, with a different venue, (due to its being the opening song in Blackboard Jungle,) it went viral to become the first and biggest rock song of all time. Same influences could be cited for The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey, which went viral not simply due to controversy but because celebrities mentioned them, and an aura was created by influencers and fan fiction sites. The author narrates, displaying an ability to maintain interest through an engaged curiosity and fascination with his subject. Recommended for anyone who wants to know how culture and social media affects buying decisions, and also for those who don’t realize why and how they are being manipulated.