Government vs. Science

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by Tom Bethell. Paperback: 270 pages (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., Nov. 2005) List Price: $19.95.

The Politically 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 focusing on 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 budgets."

This politically 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.

The author 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.

An Exclusive Interview with Tom Bethell, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science

Setliff: 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.

Q: So why The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science?

Bethell: 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.

Setliff: Q. Are there any hopes for depoliticizing science?

Bethell: 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 power.

Many on 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.

Environmentalism 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 upon.

Setliff: 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.

Q. What is your opinion on the matter? Incidentally, what do you think of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health?

Bethell: 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.

Gilder accepts, 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.

Setliff: 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.

Q. Is the politicization of science more pronounced in the United States or is it global phenomenon?

Bethell: 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.

Setliff: 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. Your response?

Bethell: 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.

Setliff: So, who are the real practitioners of junk science? How do they get away with subverting science with their agendas?

Bethell: 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

Journalists 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 of Health.

Setliff: You bust a number of science myths within the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Would you care to share them with prospective readers?

Bethell:

    • That evolution is well supported by physical evidence.
    • That there was a long history of warfare between science and religion.
    • That learned people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.
    • That the ban on DDT was based on sound science and was needed to avoid a "silent spring."
    • That 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.)
    • That species are endangered by economic activity, and that tens of thousands of species go extinct every year.
    • That billions need to be spent cleaning up small traces of chemical substances. (The evidence strongly suggests that such traces actually have a beneficial effect.)
    • That 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.

Setliff: 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:

Most scientists 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 activity.

Global warming 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.

Bethell: 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.

The variables 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 Age.

Setliff: I have a point-blank question for you. Are religion and science really antithetical to one another?

Bethell: 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.

Historically, 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.

Setliff: 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.

Succinctly 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?

Bethell: 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 explanations.

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.

Setliff: 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?

Bethell: 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?

Bethell: 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.

I'll tell 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.

Setliff: 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?

Bethell: 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 of orthodoxy.

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 publicity.

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.

A chapter 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.

Setliff: 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.

I recommend that readers check out the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science for themselves.

Tom, I give you the last word.

Bethell: 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!

January 20, 2006

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