Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 12/30/2005 [Archive]

Tom Bethell Takes on Bad Science

Tom Bethell takes on bad science

Global warming, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the danger to humans of nuclear radiation, the environmental harm of DDT, the miraculous benefits supposedly coming from cloning and human stem cell research, the scientific certainty of Darwinian evolution.

These are some of the prevailing scientific myths or mistruths Tom Bethell sets straight in his new book, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science." Bethell, a conservative English-born journalist known for his excellent writing and critical thinking, is a longtime editor at The American Spectator magazine. I talked to him by telephone Thursday from his home in Washington, D.C.:

Q: If science is supposed to be about seeking the truth and being neutral, how can it be politically correct or incorrect?

A: Well, science can get politicized when the facts are uncertain. This has allowed people, in some cases unscrupulous people, to exploit the prestige of science. At first people don't necessarily realize that. They know that water is made of oxygen and hydrogen -- how do you politicize that? But then you come to something like global warming, when you are talking about the average temperature on the surface of the Earth and comparing it with the temperature hundreds of years ago, when they didn't have thermometers, and projecting it 100 years into the future, and the uncertainties are just huge. So it becomes possible for unprincipled people to exploit the prestige of science on some issues.

Q: Besides global warming, what other scientific truths are hidden from public view because they are politically incorrect?

A: A number of environmental issues, I would say. In fact, I quote an interesting guy called Patrick Moore in the book who was a founder of Greenpeace who kind of rethought his whole position. He reports that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lot of people on the Left, who had been essentially advocates on behalf of socialist causes, realized it was not going to work out, so they came over to the environmental movement. Such issues as endangered species have also been politicized.

Q: The growing ozone hole, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, global warming -- most people are not skeptical of these things.

A: Actually, I don't know how much skepticism there is about AIDS, but it is undoubtedly the most politicized of all medical diseases or scientific issues that have come up in the last quarter century. I have a chapter specifically on AIDS in Africa, where the key point, which very few people know about, is that in order to diagnose AIDS in Africa you don't have to have an HIV test. They redefined AIDS at a conference in Bangui in the Central Africa Republic in November 1985 and they came up with various criteria -- weight loss, fever, and so on -- which, if you met them, you could be classified as an AIDS patient without any HIV test. They said it was too expensive to do the HIV test. As one journalist in South Africa, Rian Milan, put it to me, at that point almost anybody in an African hospital could be called an AIDS patient.

Q: Of all the scientific myths or untruths, what's the most dangerous one?

A: Well, global warming would be if the U.S. was about to act on the Kyoto accords and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels. But that is not going to happen. There's no chance. Even if Hillary Clinton was president, she wouldn't do it. The idea that nuclear radiation is dangerous is another myth that is itself dangerous, because it resulted in the more or less cessation or interruption of the development of nuclear power in this country, which needs to be brought back. The DDT ban has been a big problem in Africa because the expansion of malaria means that about 1 million African children a year are dying who probably would not be dying if the DDT use had continued in the Third Word, as it had in the Western world. I'm surprised that the Congressional Black Caucus doesn't get on this.

Q: Is the debate over Intelligent Design and Darwinian evolution a religious squabble or a scientific squabble?

A: I maintain that it is a scientific squabble. When they tried to introduce some kind of balanced teaching on evolution back in the 1970s and '80s in places like Arkansas and Louisiana, the alternative they wanted to import into the classroom was religious and Bible-based. But the Intelligent Design people are not bringing up religious issues in any explicit way at all. They are talking about such things as the complexity of the organisms, the paucity of the fossil record and the feebleness of the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection as being inadequate to explain the species that we see, including us.

Q: Who or what is responsible for spreading or perpetuating these myths, these untruths of science?

A: Overwhelmingly, it's people who are on the Left, I think. The science faculties at most major universities are pretty much dominated by liberals, not conservatives. It's certainly true in physics and biology. The one field where it is not true is engineering, where they are approximately equally divided between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. I like to say that the reason for that is that buildings actually have to stand up.

Q: So where is the skeptical media?

A: Just about nonexistent. It's really shocking. I do complain about that in my book. Woodward and Bernstein told us 30 years ago in Watergate, "Don't accept government (press) handouts." That's good advice, but the media absolutely do not pay any attention to it on scientific issues -- or very little attention. This is why the Woodward/Bernstein philosophy is correct. We need to have journalists trying to shoot down almost anything the government says, because they have the power of coercion, the power of taxing us and so on, to pursue what they are doing. And they need to be resisted.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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