Upping the Anti
December 8, 2005
Initially, the question of whether or not to even write this column gave me pause. In criticizing Tom Bethell—author of the conservative Regnery Press’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge on issues ranging from global warming to the vulnerability of endangered species to evolution—I wondered whether I would simply wind up bestowing upon its author more attention than he ultimately deserves.
It was a serious fear, but I decided to overcome it, for two reasons. First, Bethell’s book is already getting plenty of attention. It’s selling well, and one prominent conservative outlet, the Heritage Foundation, has even sponsored an event to promote it. And second, precisely because of its misleading content, the publication of Bethell’s book represents a highly significant development that’s well worth remarking upon. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science takes what is already a well-documented war on scientific knowledge from the political right in this country to a new level of intensity. In the process, it flushes out into the open the anti-science sentiments that are unfortunately nourished by all too many conservative Republicans today (although rarely by the party’s moderates).
Indeed, in some sense Bethell’s book provides a useful service. It offers, in one place, a nice catalogue of all the discredited arguments that are ritualistically used to undermine evolution, global warming, and much else that’s well established in modern science. Rather hilariously, if you look closely at the book’s cover image on Amazon.com you will see the tagline “Liberals have hijacked science for long enough. Now it’s our turn.” “Our turn” to “hijack science,” presumably. This revealing slogan has been changed for the final paperback version of the book—which now reads, “Liberals have hijacked science for long enough. It’s time to set the record straight"—but the Freudian slip remains memorialized on the Internet.
And sure enough, there’s plenty of science hijacking in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Take the chapter on global warming. The excellent science and statistics blogger Tim Lambert has proposed a game called ”global warming skeptic bingo,” in which all of the various discredited arguments that are repeatedly used to undermine the consensus view of human-caused climate change are arranged in a series of squares. Well, by my count Bethell manages to fill 9 out of 16 bingo squares with claims like the following: “Environmentalists not so long ago believed the earth was cooling"; and “satellite measurements of atmospheric temperatures do not agree with surface readings.”
A closer look at the latter charge suggests that Bethell isn’t really interested in what science shows, but rather in compiling scientific-sounding arguments to bolster a political conclusion. Over the summer, several papers came out in Science showing that contrary to previous assertions, there does not appear to be any significant discrepancy between measurements of surface temperatures and of atmospheric temperatures—both more or less show the warming predicted by climate models. In other sections, Bethell’s book covers developments at least up to September of 2005, but it makes no reference to these publications, which undercut his claim that surface and atmospheric temperature readings are at odds.
Bethell’s attacks on evolution follow a similar pattern. Although I'm unaware of any online “anti-evolutionist bingo” games, if they existed many of Bethell’s arguments would no doubt be included. Indeed, Bethell has been attacking evolution for nearly 30 years; in a prominent 1976 Harper’s article he declared evolution to be “on the verge of collapse.” The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science employs many of the same arguments that Bethell made back then, such as the claim that the concept of natural selection amounts to a “tautology” and simply reflects a social philosophy prevalent during the intensely competitive and capitalistic Victorian era of Darwin’s time. Such arguments were ably debunked by Stephen Jay Gould in 1976, and they're no stronger now than they were then.
More generally, it is difficult to trust Bethell’s factual assertions about the lack of evidence for evolution (his is a purely negative argument) because he often misrepresents his sources. For instance, Bethell quotes the famed philosopher of science Karl Popper calling the concept of natural selection “almost tautological,” but does not inform readers that Popper later changed his mind about this. Similarly, he quotes a paper from Science to question the concept of bat evolution. In fact, the paper cited is about bat evolution, and seeks to explain how it may have occurred.
On other issues, Bethell is equally unreliable. In his discussion of the need to resume using DDT to prevent malaria in Africa, he fails to note that many mosquitoes have developed a resistance to the chemical, reducing its effectiveness (perhaps because such an admission would bolster the case for evolution). In debunking concerns about decreasing biodiversity, meanwhile, Bethell even has the gall to suggest that human beings may not be causing species extinctions: “Even in modern times, it is not possible definitively to attribute any given extinction to human activity.” On this point, I'd rather trust the National Academy of Sciences, which stated in 1995: “Species extinctions have occurred since life has been on earth, but human activities are causing the loss of biological diversity at an accelerating rate. The current rate of extinctions is among the highest in the entire fossil record, and many scientists consider it to have reached crisis proportions.”
Some of Bethell’s more general science policy arguments are almost as problematic. For instance, there’s his concept of a “priesthood of science,” an elite caste of scientific leaders whose words are taken as gospel and whose received wisdom never challenged. Alas, this mythic priesthood does not exist. The scientific process is inherently a contentious and antagonistic one, in which vast incentives exist for scientists to publish research that undermines what everyone thought was known and well established. In essence, the scientific process represents the institutionalization of doubt and skepticism. It is nothing like a priesthood.
Bethell also nourishes the misguided notion that journalists, when reporting on science, ought to act like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did when covering Watergate: They should be exposing bad science and looking for evidence of wrongdoing and scandal. This is fundamentally wrongheaded. It is within the scientific process itself that challenges to the veracity or accuracy of scientific work should be lodged, not in less critically equipped media venues. Bethell’s misleading book shows exactly why it’s a bad idea to turn non-expert journalists loose to evaluate scientific claims according to their own whimsy. That’s not to say that journalists reporting on science shouldn’t think critically themselves. But they should also understand and appreciate the strengths of the scientific process.
Finally, Bethell sneers at scientific “consensus,” noting that even if 99 percent of experts in a field accept a given theory, that doesn't make it automatically true. But this fact notwithstanding, consensus plays an important role in the scientific process. It is how our knowledge progresses. Scientific conclusions are eternally subject to revision, but when consensus develops, it is based upon repeated testing and retesting of an idea or theory—and that’s hardly something to be taken lightly. In fact, when it comes to pressing matters of public policy where decisions depend upon a clear understanding of the underlying science (such as global warming), we ignore scientific consensus positions at our own peril.
All of these arguments made by Bethell—the scientific ones as well as the science-policy oriented ones—are very problematic. But what’s most disturbing about The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science book is not the lack of scientific accuracy or its poor arguments. Rather, it’s the overall message that it preaches to conservative readers—in essence the following: “Don't trust the nation’s scientific community, they're a bunch of politicized liberals who are hooked on government funding.”
In making such an argument so brazenly, and with such zest, I believe that Bethell takes the “war on science” to a new level. Consider that in, 2004 when many of the nation’s leading scientists criticized the Bush administration for misuses and distortions of scientific information, the administration’s response was not to attack science itself or the individual scientists. Rather, the administration claimed to have the best interests of science at heart, and simply disagreed about the facts.
That veneer of respect for science is gone in Bethell’s book, which reeks of a deep distrust of science as it is currently conducted, and the nation’s scientific community generally. The book’s back cover calls scientists “white-coated, lab-cloistered purveyors of political correctness"—as if there is no merit to what they do, no process that ensures the testing of results to determine their durability and robustness. A radical disdain for the scientific establishment, and especially its dependence on government funding, is rampant in the book. And the scorn spreads to encompass the government’s own science-centered agencies as well; at one point Bethell even suggests that we may not need the Environmental Protection Agency.
Overall, then, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is a very saddening and depressing read. While they have undoubtedly made mistakes, and certainly nourish individual biases just like all the rest of us, scientists in universities and in government have generally worked very hard and have—thanks to the scientific process—come up with a great deal of important and relevant knowledge. But along comes someone like Bethell and, in a book that’s likely to be read by a lot of people, radically distorts and undermines their conclusions and findings, while whipping up resentment of the scientific community among rank-and-file political conservatives. That Bethell is finding such a ready audience underscores the severe threat to the role of science in modern American life and, most importantly, in political decision-making.