Prying Open a Mind

Published November 1, 2006

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
By Tom Bethell
Regnery Publishing Co., November 2005
270 pages, $19.95 paperback, ISBN 089526031X
Available on

This is a marvelous book with religious undertones, reflected in three extremely well-written chapters that attempt to undermine Darwinian evolution while opening a door to intelligent design.

I cannot argue expertly in favor of Darwinian evolution. But at the same time, I cannot conceive of intelligent design in such an imperfect world. It appears oxymoronic to me. Yet I strongly support Bethell’s approach to his argument in this marvelous book.

Bethell is an excellent writer and exhaustive researcher who ties information from those he supports and those he opposes into a coherent whole that is a delight to read.

His approach is the opposite of junk science, which gains pseudo-credence by presenting data selectively for the sole purpose of imposing a single conclusion on the reader. Bethell, by contrast, presents the data unambiguously; he offers his opinion but lets you decide.

Dire Warnings Are Suspect

All science based on dire warnings about the future should be suspect, and all such science is almost by definition politicized–if only because democracy as presently constituted responds with undue haste to any claims of crisis.

In 1798, in England, the economist Thomas Malthus warned that the population was expanding more rapidly than the food supply. It was not so.

Thirty years ago, all over the Western world, Malthusian scares about overpopulation resonated anew. Biologist Paul Ehrlich foresaw millions of Americans dying of starvation. Now, however, we are beginning to hear of impending under-population problems.

Governments tend to respond to these purported crises without substantial proof, because their incentives are to persuade the public that it cannot do without them. While this may be true of the Departments of Defense, Justice, and State, it is much less obviously true of more recently created agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA and agencies like it proceed with policy making by publicity, according to Bethell: “The problem is even greater than we thought, but don’t worry, we are making headway in solving it. So increase our budget–now!”

Consensus Is Not Truth

Government funding of scientific research has resulted in the notion that a theory can be regarded as true if it enjoys enough support. Over the years, there has been consensus over many theories–including the flatness of the Earth, and that all planets revolve around it. But consensus discourages dissent. Consensus is the enemy of science … but it is also the “pot of gold” for politics.

The book’s chapter on global warming alone makes it a worthwhile read. Bethell recounts the April 28, 1975 Newsweek story on global cooling, in which the magazine predicted, “the resulting famines could be catastrophic.” To stop global cooling, experts at the time proposed melting the Arctic ice cap. Now we are taught to fear exactly that melting.

Equally good is Bethell’s recounting of the truth about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which resulted in less damage to human health, by an order of magnitude, than was predicted at the time.

Bethell makes an accurate case for the bright future of nuclear energy in the United States, while at the same time acknowledging the anti-nuclear campaign waged by The Union of Concerned Scientists–which he refers to as “The Union of Concerned Scaremongers.”

This is one of the first mainstream books to support what we are rapidly learning about the benefits of small amounts of radiation and the hormesis effect in general–whereby an organism that is given a very low dose of something may then respond to a very high dose in a way dramatically different from what might be expected if the organism had received only the very high dose. This subject is now receiving substantial exposure because of the eminent scientist Edward Calabrese’s recent publications.

In Chapter Five, Bethell summarizes what most sane people know about the benefits of using DDT to prevent malaria. This subject is gaining a mini-foothold in the mainstream press. In our lifetimes, we may yet witness governments doing the right thing and re-approving the use of DDT the world over.

In my opinion, the Endangered Species Act is the worst among many terrible policies to come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If you cannot fathom why, Bethell explains it to you with great clarity in Chapter Six.

Biased in Favor of Religion

The second half of the book is where Bethell shows openly his bias for all things religious when he comprehensively tackles the genome, genetic modification, the genetic rules of cancer, as well as evolution and intelligent design.

While I tend to disagree with his conclusions in most of these areas, I was impressed with the dispassionate manner in which he presented his side of each issue, opening my eyes to more data than I was previously aware of.

My children often tell me I am too opinionated and closed-minded on many issues. They are completely incorrect. They simply do not understand the convictions that arise from absorbing mountains of convincing scientific data. But I am always open to additional data that could alter my position.

I cannot say Bethell changed my mind on many issues … but he certainly pried it even more open.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.