Our New Priesthood: A Review of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science

The intellectuals of the French Enlightenment and their modern-day counterparts are agreed on one thing: when it comes to bludgeoning the Catholic Church, any weapon will do. The main reason Voltaire and the philosophes were enamored of both the China of their day and the civilizations of classical antiquity, for example, was that they seemed to prove what Christian intellectuals had long doubted: that a society could prosper and thrive in the absence of Christian influence.

How the Ideal of Reason Became Superstition in Practice

These societies were then pressed into the service of Enlightenment propagandists, who searched the historical record to confirm their own anti-Christian prejudices rather than to produce an accurate and dispassionate overview of these cultures. Greece, for example, an intensely religious civilization whose every aspect was accompanied by religious ritual, began to be portrayed instead as a society of eighteenth-century rationalists in order to demonstrate that a successful and exemplary society was possible without religion as an organizing principle.

The natural sciences played a similar role in the eighteenth century. Science was said to be everything that theology was not: rational, testable, and amenable to free and open debate. In the wake of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious wars that devastated Europe, the scientific method was held up as the model for human knowledge. No longer should mankind quarrel over theological issues that the human mind could never resolve. Instead, man should turn his attention to the here and now — and, following the advice of Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620), acquire practical knowledge of the world around him through observation and experimentation, in order better to dominate and harness the forces of nature for the sake of improving his own well-being.

Tom Bethell’s indispensable new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Regnery, 2005, 270 pp., $19.95), punctures a good deal of the mythology and the superstitious reverence that surround science in the Western world. That is not to say that Bethell’s book is “anti-science,” whatever that may mean. Bethell believes in the scientific method and celebrates the improvements that science properly practiced has brought to our lives.

What The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science tries to overturn is not science itself but rather popular misconceptions about it. For one thing, the book disputes the standard view, seared into the Western consciousness by the Enlightenment, that religion and science have been engaged in relentless “warfare” throughout the history of Christendom (as the title of a famous book by Andrew Dickson White once claimed). To the contrary, Bethell suggests, the Church helped create the kind of intellectual culture that made the Scientific Revolution possible. And although he doesn’t put it quite this way, Bethell suggests that the Enlightenment’s picture of science, an intellectual discipline uniquely committed to reason and evidence and supremely indifferent to nonrational or even venal considerations, does not correspond to how science, all too often, is actually practiced in our own day.

On the first point, Bethell examines two of the most frequently cited cases of religion’s alleged trespass upon the terrain of science: the Galileo affair and the flat earth. On the Galileo matter Bethell argues, among other things, that the Copernican system had not been and could not be proven in the seventeenth century, and that the Church was well within its rights to be skeptical. The scope of Bethell’s book forces him to try to summarize the Galileo matter — no easy task, though competently accomplished. Further reading on the subject would include Wade Rowland’s Galileo’s Mistake and Anthony Rizzi’s The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century, both of which argue that Galileo’s main error was not so much his cosmology as his attempt to conceive of everything — colors, tastes, and other such attributes — in mathematical terms. None of these things really existed, Galileo contended; they were all merely various forms of quantitative intensity.

On the issue of the flat earth, Bethell cites Jeffrey Burton Russell’s brief but essential Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), which presents overwhelming evidence that essentially no one believed in a flat earth during the Middle Ages, and traces the origins of the myth to anti-Catholic propagandists of the nineteenth century. But this myth refuses to go away, as children continue to be taught that Christopher Columbus sailed to prove that the earth was a sphere against an ignorant European population duped by the Church into believing the world was flat.

The Multiplication of Expensive Lessons

Most of this book, however, focuses on the present. One of Bethell’s key points involves the way government funding perverts science. Science, he argues, must be carried out in an intellectual environment in which competing theories freely circulate. But that’s not what government funding encourages. “A government strategy of funding conflicting theories would look hit-or-miss: not much better than trial and error. Plainly, most research money would be ‘wasted,’ and politicians don’t like that because they get the blame. Better to let the experts decide — form a consensus among themselves, form committees, and let them allocate the funds that way.” Thus government-funded science inevitably privileges one theory at the expense of others.

That’s the opposite of how private-sector research and development is carried out. There, capital “is invested in a wide range of ideas and approaches, and maybe only one will pay off. In the private sector it’s called risk, not waste.” Historically, Bethell notes, “the competition of theories has been the driving force behind scientific progress. Isolated individuals and private companies have been the most fruitful sources of this advance.”

“When all research eggs are in one basket,” Bethell warns, “it’s a different world. Competition may stagnate, or be eliminated entirely, if that is what the government decrees (as happened under Communism). When any single source of funding dominates, science will almost certainly become the handmaiden of politics. There is no recognition in our leading journals that this is a problem. Science magazine, for example, keeps a vigilant watch on government science funding, unhesitatingly equating ‘more’ with better.” Bethell counters:

Government funding has also promoted the idea that a theory can be regarded as true if it enjoys enough support. There is certainly a consensus behind the gene mutation theory of cancer. Consensus discourages dissent, however. It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong. Committees at the National Institutes of Health that decide which projects shall be funded are inevitably run by scientists who are at peace with the dominant theory. Changing the consensus on cancer will be an arduous task, like turning a supertanker with a broken rudder.

The cancer example is particularly apt. The US government officially declared war on cancer in 1971 and, in classic Soviet fashion, announced that the war was to be won by 1976. Yet for all our vaunted progress, cancer mortality rates have not improved; even correcting for the aging of the American population, the percentage of Americans dying from cancer is the same as it was in 1970 — and in 1950, at a time when age-adjusted mortality rates for heart disease and stroke have declined by 59 percent and 69 percent, respectively. What victories we’ve had in five-year cancer survival rates are largely attributable to early detection and treatment.

In 1971, when the National Cancer Act became law, 330,000 Americans died of cancer and another 650,000 cases were diagnosed. The National Cancer Institute got an increase in its budget, which was slated to reach an annual $800 million by 1976. In 2004, about 560,000 Americans died of cancer, with another 1.25 million cases newly diagnosed. The National Cancer Institute now has a budget of $5 billion. Billions more pour in from other sources.

Bethell makes a compelling case that the reason for our lack of progress against cancer, far from a problem of insufficient government funding, is more likely the product of government funding itself. He cites the work of Peter Duesberg, who offers a compelling alternative to the gene mutation theory to which billions of taxpayer dollars have been directed. “As to the interaction of science and politics,” Bethell concludes, “Peter Duesberg may in the end have shown that in order to ‘think outside the box,’ it is better not to be funded within the box. If so, we will all have learned a very expensive but indispensable lesson.”

Sometimes the Reigning Dogma is Wrong

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is filled with interesting and compelling arguments, and facts few people know about, from nuclear power to Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. Some readers will be familiar with the banning of the pesticide DDT (thanks to environmental extremists), which resulted in hundreds of millions of avoidable deaths from malaria. Bethell manages to locate quotations from major intellectuals who have actually favored the demographic effects of banning DDT. “My own doubts came when DDT was introduced for civilian use,” wrote Alexander King, co-founder of the Club of Rome. “In Guyana, within two years, it had almost eliminated malaria, but at the same time the birth rate had doubled. So my chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it greatly added to the overpopulation problem.” That’s nice: DDT’s problem was that it saved too many lives.

Bethell is skeptical of stem-cell research, not for religious reasons (though he doubtless has those as well) but because in recent months we have begun to learn that science has, so to speak, over-promised. Grandiose claims of major cures being just around the corner, Bethell shows, are massively overstated. Stem cells don’t seem to behave the way researchers thought they might. Bethell points out that attacks on religious objectors to federal funding for stem-cell research began to appear only when the science behind it — and, with it, private funding sources — began to fall apart, and supporters sought scapegoats.

Then there’s hormesis, the principle according to which certain things that are toxic in high doses are positively beneficial at low doses. This insight, which the scientific mainstream disdained for so long, is impossible to deny today. The US government, on the other hand, has spent countless sums and disrupted countless lives on the basis of the standard view that toxins are toxins, whether in large doses or in trace amounts. Entire schools and communities have been evacuated on this basis.

Bethell shows, for instance, that cancer rates are often lower — indeed much lower — among people who have had mild exposure to radiation than among control groups with no such exposure. This defies the oft-repeated claim that there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation.

At its best, modern science is a wonderful thing, responsible for a great many inventions and innovations that have improved our lives. But science is no more exempt from politics, pettiness, and personal or ideological agendas than any other field of human endeavor, as Bethell shows in example after relentless example. Given the media’s and the general public’s intimidation in the face of science and scientists, though, behavior we would never tolerate in any other aspect of life is routinely given a pass in the scientific fields.

The usual suspects are already out in force attacking Tom Bethell for his book, so we can be confident he is hitting them where it hurts. Critics who obviously haven’t even read the book are posting reviews at online booksellers warning you not to read it. But you should — and they should, if for once in their lives they could show evidence of the open minds such people are always telling us they have.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the author, most recently, of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter at ThomasEWoods.com) and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times bestseller.

This review originally appeared in The Latin Mass and is used by permission of the author.

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