- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO SCIENCE

By Tom Bethell

Regnery, $19.95, 270 pages

REVIEWED BY BRENDAN CONWAY

This week’s news that Dr. Hwang Woo-suk fabricated all his human stem-cell research seems likely to go down with Piltdown Man and cold fusion among the great scientific frauds of the last hundred years. If Tom Bethell is right, however, this could one day look like small potatoes. Mr. Bethell claims he has spotted significant scientific fraud in subjects ranging from global warming and AIDS in Africa to intelligent design and cancer. Most unusually, he places political motivations and biases at the heart of each.

Mr. Bethell is the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science,” a layman’s tour of scientific controversies for the conservative reader. “Liberals have hijacked science for long enough,” reads the book’s cover. “It’s time to set the record straight.”

The softcover book looks much like a high-school text, complete with sidebars and pullquotes — and could probably be marketed as such. It is identifiably “conservative” in its approach to science, however, at least insofar as it covers subjects familiar to conservatives and tends to blame liberals for many distortions.

The somewhat predictable observation about a conservative’s guide to science is that it contains distortions of its own, whatever the merits of some of Mr. Bethell’s arguments. Not every scientific distortion can be boiled down to political differences or government malfeasance, and sometimes scientific controversies — like Dr. Hwang’s stem-cell research — take turns that no one no matter their persuasion could have predicted.

That said, there is much to recommend in this book. The five chapters on global warming, nuclear power, radiation, dioxin, and DTT — the first five chapters, coincidentally — are incisive and deserve a much wider readership than a conservative’s guide to science could ever attract.

Most notably, Mr. Bethell’s global warming chapter shows a high-profile instance of the politicization of science — a case in which scientific institutions, government funding and media coverage interlock to push scientists toward a single outcome despite the unknowns and factual complexities (most are all too happy to oblige).

He recounts this damning quote from the University of Alabama’s Roy Spencer: “It’s pretty clear that the editorial board of ‘Science’ is more interested in promoting papers that are pro-global warming. It’s the news value that is most important.”

Then there is the story of climatologist Michael Mann’s cloistered refusal of the Wall Street Journal’s request to see a critical algorithm undergirding the “hockey stick” theory which posits that temperatures were stable for 900 years and then jumped suddenly in the last 100, because doing so would be “giving in to the intimidation tactics.” What kind of scientist refuses to reveal his methods after his paper is out?

Mr. Bethell’s DDT chapter is also useful; it shows the awful human costs of a wrongheaded ban in malarial parts of the world. Whereas the United States, Europe and other developed countries used DDT to eradicate malaria and then proceeded to ban it, African countries never enjoyed DDT’s antimalarial effects.

“Since 1972, at least 50 million people have died from malaria. Heaven alone knows how many might have lived, if their countries had been able to control this mosquito-borne disease,” Mr. Bethell quotes one pro-DDT activist. The DDT hysteria has cost many millions of lives, for no reason but the anti-DDT activism of Rachel Carson and others — a genuine instance of politics intruding on science in tragic ways.

The game of scientific myth-slaying is a dicey one, however, so it’s no surprise that Mr. Bethell ends up in strange territory with some of his arguments. For instance, Mr. Bethell’s chapter on AIDS in Africa takes the probability that the number of AIDS victims in Africa has been overestimated as a sign that a great deception on the part of homosexual activists has occurred.

This is clearly giving too much credit to the activists. He also seems to pooh-pooh the concerns of people who fear they might contract the disease: “[C]areful U.S. studies had already shown that at least a thousand sexual contacts are needed to achieve heterosexual transmission of the virus,” he writes.

It’s not just politically charged subjects that Mr. Bethell mistreats; he also boots it on cancer. In his chapter probing cancer’s unknown and highly variable causes, Mr. Bethell casts doubt on, among other people, researchers who theorize that viruses cause cancer.

This is fine insofar as the origins of many cancers are still unknown, but not without mentioning the most-publicized virus definitely proven to cause cancer. A few decades of Pap-smear tests have gone lengths to counter the human papillomavirus, the virus which causes cervical cancer.

How can a popular science text discuss the history of research on viruses and cancer without even a mention of the most famous cancer-causing virus? Maybe because it doesn’t fit into a “political bias caused the problem” viewpoint.

That gets to the heart of the shortcomings in Mr. Bethell’s book: Politics and government in science are not all bad. “Governments can’t do science,” he concludes. This is plain wrong. The Manhattan Project was government science. So was ARPANet, the predecessor to the Internet. Basic research from the National Institutes of Health undergirds many modern advances. Sure, government bungles many scientific efforts, as Mr. Bethell demonstrates. But in some cases it is downright critical.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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