Incorrect Guide to Science is the third installment in new
and increasingly popular Politically Incorrect Guide™
series. Since the arrival of the first politically incorrect guide
American History, it seems Regnery publishing had found a lucrative
franchise in the making. Now, they offer a new guide in the series
– dedicated to the discipline of science.
As the publisher
Regnery notes, "When liberals trot out scientists with white
coats, debate is supposed to be silenced. But many of the high priests
of science have something to hide – from blind intolerance
of religion to jealous guarding of their federally financed research
incorrect guide aims to busts the many myths of science, cast light
on hidden agendas, and expound upon the little-known secrets in
the science world.
boasts some impressive accolades. Tom Bethell is senior editor with
American Spectator magazine. Tom is also an Oxford graduate
with degrees in philosophy, physiology, and psychology. He has contributed
to magazines and writes often on the discipline of science.
Interview with Tom Bethell, author of The Politically Incorrect
Guide to Science
Now Mr. Bethell, I'm gonna be a little tough on you starting out.
So bear with me.
The chief end
of the scientist is the investigation or study of nature through
observation and reasoning. Scientists ostensibly rely on free inquiry
and utilize a dispassionate methodology in accord with the scientific
method. But, it's not political science or history
we're talking about here – it's science. On the surface,
I can easily fathom a Politically Incorrect Guide™ on a topic
like American History, however it would seem the discipline
of science would be both neutral and by its very character, apolitical
– it is science after all.
why The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science?
You're right that science is supposed to be neutral but it often
is not; especially when the facts are uncertain. And they are
uncertain, to put it mildly, when we are talking about such things
as temperature readings on the surface of the Earth 100 years
from now. To say that the Earth will be 5 or 10 degrees warmer
and this will melt the ice caps, therefore we should close down
power plants that burn fossil fuels, is to politicize science
in a flagrant way.
Q. Are there any hopes for depoliticizing science?
Politicization is primarily the work of the Left. They have been
at it for some time, starting with Linus Pauling in the 1950s.
The winner of the Nobel Prize in both Chemistry and Peace –
and the Lenin Peace Prize, incidentally – he helped engender
one of the first science scares, having to do with radioactive
fallout. This led by degrees to the nuclear test ban treaty, and
more generally to a very damaging and unwarranted dread of nuclear
the Left were disappointed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and
the collapse of the socialist economic vision, so around 1990
a whole cohort moved into environmentalism and they displayed
their influence at the Rio Summit, in 1992. That's when global
warming received its first big political push.
is not as potent as it was then, and more and more people have
come to recognize its political component. But the Left is still
very much with us, and all scare scenarios made in the name of
science need to be scrutinized very carefully before being acted
Many from the political Left purport that without substantial
government-funded scientific research that society would not make
nearly as much forward progress in the world than without it.
is your opinion on the matter? Incidentally, what do you think of
the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health?
I have quite a lot about the National Institutes of Health in
my book. I contrast the relatively uncritical treatment it receives
from the Washington Post, compared with the skepticism directed
at the Pentagon or the CIA. I'm all in favor of critical journalism,
I just wish it was directed to all government agencies.
As to government
funded research, I asked George Gilder about this, as he follows
these things more closely than I do. Until the mid 1960s, most
R& D was socialized, he said. As a result, the US could barely
keep up with the Soviet Union in targeted technologies such as
satellites (Sputnik) and rockets. It was only when research moved
strongly into the private sector in the mid-60s that key industries
like microchips took off, giving the U.S. military superiority.
Venture capital outlays, overwhelmingly spent on R & D, have
risen by a factor of a thousand or more since the Bell Labs heyday
of the 1960s. Venture capital now has some $200 billion under
management, and dispenses as much as $50 billion a year.
nonetheless, that most basic research is now done by universities,
which are ultimately supported by governments, notably the National
Science Foundation. “I cannot deny that places like Caltech, MIT,
Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech do a lot of very valuable
research on government money,” he told me. But he also thinks
that the most valuable insights come from making actual devices,
and this is done by private companies.
I understand you're educated at the prestigious Oxford University
and you are originally a native of England. Presumably you have
gotten around the world a lot, as you now live in the United States,
so perhaps you would be keen in answering this next question.
the politicization of science more pronounced in the United States
or is it global phenomenon?
There are strange anomalies. For example, France is in many respects
drenched in political correctness, and yet the anti-nuclear scare
never seemed to affect them and they use nuclear power to generate
most of their electricity – to a much greater extent than
we do. As to England, to a remarkable extent, it copies developments
in America. Politically, the BBC is very much on the Left. What
is distinctive about America is not so much that science is often
politicized as that there is a resistance movement against that
tendency. It England such resistance barely exists. There is a
real "culture war" here; in England it has already been
lost. For that reason, America (to me) is a much more interesting
country to live in.
I'm going to turn the tables and play devil's advocate… There
are some left-wing critics who grumble about certain scientists
being in the pockets of polluters – particularly that loathsome
monster, big oil – and they claim that a cadre of shady scientists
has an ulterior motive in subverting science to clear the name of
the most culpable environmental polluters. They would say such scientists
advance far-fetched notions that nuclear power is safe, that global
warming is bunk, that DDT is safe, and that small does of toxic
chemicals can be good for you. They might say you're just parroting
these fancifully absurd notions from the same school of pseudo-science.
It's true, they do say such things. Over the years, I have interviewed
various people at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington,
D.C. They oppose various claims advanced in the name of science,
such as global warming, and are accused of being "industry
funded." Myron Ebell told me, however, that in the Washington
area on these issues, the Greens are far better funded and outnumber
him perhaps 500 to one. We need to recognize that environmentalism
is itself a business and the big enviro organizations need to
have scare stories to feature in their fund-raising, subscription-renewal
and direct-mail campaigns.
So, who are the real practitioners of junk science? How do they
get away with subverting science with their agendas?
They have a lot of influence in the news media, who, incidentally,
don't mind having scare stories either, because they generate
headlines and sell newspapers. All the major newspapers seem to
be in trouble because of the internet. Where this is going (as
a print man above all) I shudder to think
are easily intimidated by claims made in the name of science,
in a way that doesn't seem to apply in other policy areas such
as foreign and defense policy, intelligence and so on. In my book,
I encourage journalists to take to heart the old Woodward and
Bernstein adage, "don't accept government handouts."
It's good advice. I just wish journalists would accept it when
it comes to such organizations as the EPA and the National Institutes
You bust a number of science myths within the Politically
Incorrect Guide to Science. Would you care to share them with
evolution is well supported by physical evidence.
there was a long history of warfare between science and religion.
learned people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.
the ban on DDT was based on sound science and was needed to
avoid a "silent spring."
an AIDS "pandemic" has spread through sub-Saharan
Africa, decimating its population. (In Africa, AIDS was redefined
in 1985 so that it could be diagnosed without doing an HIV test;
in the U.S., a positive result on the HIV test is a defining
feature of AIDS.)
species are endangered by economic activity, and that tens of
thousands of species go extinct every year.
billions need to be spent cleaning up small traces of chemical
substances. (The evidence strongly suggests that such traces
actually have a beneficial effect.)
stem cell researchers would probably have come up with treatments
for such diseases as diabetes were it not for religious and
ethical opposition to such research.
Now Mr. Bethell, many scientists from prominent universities
and research labs whom boast some hefty credentials are advancing
the idea of the global warming phenomenon. They have surmised that
the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that global warming
is fast becoming a reality. Consider a recent 2004 issue of the
respected journal National Geographic, Stefan Lovgren gathered:
believe that humans, by burning fossil fuels such as coal and
petroleum, are largely to blame for the increase in carbon dioxide.
But some scientists also point to natural causes, such as volcanic
has been attributed to man-made industry and combustion engines
run amok in the twentieth century as the human population has ostensibly
exploded as well. Global warming is purportedly caused by the increase
of greenhouse gas emissions that are trapped in the atmosphere,
which in turn heats the earth and temperature raises steadily over
time. Also, it is said to be the catalyst for melting ice caps.
A dire cataclysm of rising sea levels has been predicted by some
scientists to occur within the century, and they see the inundation
of major port cities throughout the world by rising ocean levels
to be expected. Yet, in your guide you question the likelihood of
these assumptions. You reject the idea that global warming is in
fact man-made. Likewise, you seem to dismiss the flood cataclysm
predictions as sensationalist.
Global warming is the issue that comes up most frequently in the
discussions I have had about the book, mostly in radio interviews.
And that is because it is the most obviously politicized science
topic today. We have something that on balance most people would
regard as unremarkable and perhaps even beneficial – a small
degree of warming over the last 25 years – and yet we are
told that this is a great crisis demanding an immediate political
response. Everyday life as we know it must be changed, automobiles
re-engineered, power plants using fossil-fuels shut down, and
so on. The characteristic note is the use of a small number of
experts to engender an extreme response to an almost inconspicuous
set of events.
that must be included in any formula intended to predict the global
climate 50 or 100 years from now are so numerous and so unstable
that those who warn of dire consequences ahead if we ignore them
should be viewed as demagogues. There has been no demonstration
that humans were responsible for the small warming we have experienced
in recent decades. Nor are we justified in extrapolating that
warming into the future. Nor do we know that the small amount
of warming in the last century was anomalous compared with previous
fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice
I have a point-blank question for you. Are religion and science
really antithetical to one another?
Not at all, although we have seen undoubted antagonism to religion
among quite a number of academics and intellectuals in the past
century or so. Today, Oxford's Richard Dawkins is the most forthright
exponent of that anti-religious outlook.
though, there was no "warfare" between science and religion.
This is a story that was largely concocted by two Americans in
the 19th century, John Draper and Andrew Dickson White,
then picked up by Bertrand Russell and others. The fact is that
Christianity in its heyday encouraged science and the full exercise
of the faculty of reason. Galileo's run-in with the Pope in the
early 17th century has been much played up, but he
was personally insulting to the Pope in something that he wrote.
For that reason he was subjected to house arrest and instructed
to recite seven psalms daily. His daughter, a nun, took on that
heavy burden for him.
In public schools where I received my primary education, I was
told that my ancestors were monkeys, and that all life essentially
evolved over billions of years from a primordial soup of proteins
and amino acids. (Though I am cognizant of the difference between
microevolution and macroevolution, the former being tenable to me.)
As a Christian who believes in the God of the Bible, I have found
the aforesaid teachings antithetical to my beliefs. Yet I'm told
religion is not on the side of science, and religion's base presumptions
about theism and creationism are errant in light of science.
stated, what evidence have you found for your readers to suggest
that human-caused global warming is a myth, and its purveyors are
perpetuating bogus science?
It is true that in doing science we should always seek naturalistic
explanations and physical causes ahead of anything else. Self-reproducing
organisms of fantastic complexity do exist, so how did they get
here? If we adopt a philosophy of materialism, or naturalism,
in which nothing exists in the universe but atoms and molecules
in motion, then we are bound to assume that these atoms whirled
themselves into ever more complex structures, including ourselves.
And that is evolutionist worldview.
But we are
not obliged to be materialists. We know from introspection that
minds exist, and that they are capable of directing intelligent
action. We are not obliged to accept that our minds are mere matter.
It would take too many evenings to go into this in detail, but
we may conclude that non-material agency or causation is possible,
without abandoning the protocols of science or embracing supernatural
It is meanwhile
important for non-experts to realize that the material evidence
for evolution is thin on the ground, or perhaps I should say thin
under the ground, in fossil form.
In your book, you discuss intelligent design – which is
the idea that the universe itself and the living things thereof
tend to exhibit the characteristics of a creation resulting from
an intelligent cause or agent – that is God. The idea of intelligent
design is discarded by most evolutionary theorists, particularly
secular humanists. Now, I've read Michael Behe's Darwin's
Black Box back in 2001, which advanced an incredible theory
about the irreducible complexity of organisms which seems to profoundly
buoy evidence for intelligent design. This remarkable theory contravenes
the wisdom of secular humanists and their preference for macroevolution.
You present this theory and other evidences in your book.
Q. Now, how
would explain irreducible complexity to laity? How does this theory
give credence to the idea of intelligent design?
In evolutionary theory, it is assumed that organisms developed
from antecedent organisms that were simpler; each stage having
survival value. There was a progressive development from the simple
to the complex. One of the things Behe is saying is that even
the simplest machinery inside the cell, or connected with living
organisms, are incredibly complex. So it is hard to see how they
could have evolved step by step. He gives the example of the mousetrap,
which at its simplest consists of no more than half a dozen parts;
far simpler than anything in a living organism. Behe says that
just as all the parts of the trap must be there at the outset
if it is to work at all, so it is with organisms if they are to
function, reproduce and so on. Something that has to be assembled
by stages must have at least some ability to function at each
stage. It would have no potential for survival unless a functional
organism were there from the beginning; and that is highly improbable.
Q. Also, what
other findings have you come across in support of special creation
and intelligent design?
I don't really discuss special creation, and I agree with those
who say that intelligent design is not really a scientific theory
because it is difficult to see how it can be falsified. What experiment
would show it to be false? The same objection can be raised against
Darwinism, however. It is the survival of the fittest and the
fittest are defined as those that survive. At the heart of Darwinism
is a disguised tautology.
you what I do not believe: I do not believe that the cell
evolved as a result of a series of random events. The cell is
as complex as a high-tech factory. Those who want to believe that
it self assembled by chance, as Darwinism requires – then
let them believe. Faith is needed, because the cell alone defeats
the materialist philosophy. Intelligence was surely required to
assemble the cell. How that happened I do not know. But I do not
rule out intelligent design a priori.
I see your book has elicited some praise from George Gilder,
senior fellow at the Discovery
Institute who writes,
In this masterly
book, venerable science writer Tom Bethell names and nabs all
the subsidized fear-mongers and their gullible press. Whether
debunking human-caused global warming, or discrediting the species
extinction panic, or bringing down the touts of spurious cancer
causes, Bethell has upended every bogus claim and taken the number
and the measure of the groups that uphold it. Fun to read and
edifying for the expert and citizen, Bethell's book should turn
the tide against the charlatans.
So, have you
received any other praise from colleagues in the science world?
Yes I have had some support, although I do not have "colleagues"
in the science world. But those who support what I am saying as
a rule do not want me to trumpet their own deviationism and lack
So, what other
intriguing things do you have in store for readers of the Politically
Incorrect Guide to Science?
I have some
information about the AIDS "pandemic" in Africa that
might interest readers, especially as it has received almost NO
I have a
chapter questioning the reigning dogma of the genetics of cancer
– that gene mutations are capable of transforming a normal
cell into a cancer cell. I believe that theory to have been both
unproductive and false. A more glaring feature of cancer cells,
that they have the wrong complement of chromosomes, has been overlooked,
even though it was the first thing that was noticed about cancer
cells when they were studied under the microscope for the first
time (about 100 years ago).
I also have
a chapter on the Human Genome Project. It may even appeal to people
on the Left, because it questions some of the reigning dogmas
about genes; in which respect I think the Left will be at least
partially vindicated. (The Left, recall, has been on the side
of "nurture" in the nature-nurture debate.) Also, I
question whether the mapped human genome will yield much in the
way of cures or treatments, as was widely expected six years ago.
on stem cell research proceeds along similar lines. I do not raise
the normal ethical objections that we have grown to expect from
conservatives but question the science itself. We are nowhere
near realizing the dream of stem-cell therapy for diseases like
diabetes or Parkinson's. With or without government funding, such
treatments are far off and may never arrive.
Finally, I've enjoyed the interview Mr. Bethell, and I wish
you success with this venture. Likewise, I appreciate that you have
been a good sport. As the book cover says, u2018Liberals have hijacked
science for long enough. It's time to set the record straight.'
I give you your due for a well-written and meticulously-researched
book. Your book is enjoyable, it is broad in scope, well-done, and
very intriguing at times.
that readers check out the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
Tom, I give
you the last word.
If you read of some new crisis in the headlines, and it rests
on scientific claims and means that more scientists must be hired
and government agencies must be expanded to take care of the problem
– be suspicious. Be very suspicious!
Setliff [send him mail]
is an aspiring jurist, an active Bible preacher in the pulpit, freelance
journalist and a southern conservative.