Exclusive Human Events Interview: Journalist Busts Science Myths

The third installment in Regnery Publishing’s Politically Incorrect Guide series offers a look at science and the contentious debates over global warming, stem-cell research and evolution played out in the news media.

Author Tom Bethell, a science journalist, is no stranger to the topics covered in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (publisher Regnery is a sister company to Human Events). I spoke to Bethell about the book.

Why did you decide to tackle this project?

Tom Bethell: I have been writing articles for a long time about scientific matters. In fact, I’d like to think I wrote one of the first articles questioning Darwinism—not from a creationist perspective, just from a scientific perspective—which was published in Harper’s almost 30 years ago in 1976. I noticed it got an incredible response—far more than they or I were expecting. That’s the thing about this subject—it attracts significant interest from all sides. I had also done some work in science at Oxford as a major in philosophy, physiology and psychology, so I was familiar with the arguments about false science, which had been outlined by Karl Popper in particular. More recently, I started to pay a lot more attention to science issues, and I had been writing about these things for the American Spectator.

You start the book with an analogy to Watergate and journalist’s today not being thorough enough in their questioning on science issues. Why are they to blame?

Bethell: A lot of the problems that we’re dealing with come from claims made by governments, particularly from the National Institutes of Health. In the book there are chapters on cancer research, AIDS in Africa and the human genome project. Journalists covering these issues simply do not question, on the whole, press releases put out by people at the NIH. They don’t question them in the same way they question what they hear about the CIA, foreign intelligence, the military and so on. Newspapers are very much involved in second-guessing everything in those areas, which, I hasten to add, is a good thing. But we should question, just as much, what the government is putting out in the name of science.

The excuse, which you cite in the book, is that journalists say they’re not experts in science. But they’re also not experts in foreign affairs. Why aren’t they more skeptical of NIH?

Bethell: I think, to some extent, they have been intimidated. They are told, “The nation’s health is at stake; thousands of lives could be lost,” if you print that. So they are just afraid. On this influenza business, for instance, they’re told it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to issue the warnings than to overlook it. But then you will find if you look back to the ’60s, the same argument was made that journalists should not publish stories about national security because thousands of lives might be at stake. But they overcame that with the Pentagon Papers. Then there was Watergate. But today, I’m afraid the situation is going to get worse. The NIH’s budget has more than doubled in the past few years. It is able to hire all sorts of people to respond to queries, while at the same time newspapers have had to trim their staffs. It may be harder and harder for journalists to mount these critiques of established government science.

Do you believe the people working for NIH are overtly liberal and advancing a political agenda?

Bethell: I certainly don’t think that’s the case with cancer research. I think what’s most important is that a dominant paradigm or a dominant theory gets established and isn’t challenged. In the case of the gene mutation theory of cancer, this happened in the mid-1970s. All the committees in the NIH, which decide what grants to give to what researches, were dominated by experts in the field who were comfortable with the reigning theory. It then becomes very difficult to fund competing theories in government science. Whereas, in private-sector research, there has been tremendous competition and progress.

You cover the issue of global warming in Chapter 1 of the book and put forth some alarming statistics to rebut the theory of temperature change. Where is this debate headed in the future?

Bethell: One of the things about global warming is that it’s not just politicized science, but it’s also an area of science that people realize has been politicized. And for that reason, it’s sort of been exposed—the game is up. Environmentalists realize if they were to implement the Kyoto agreement, it would mean cutting back tremendously on economic activity in the United States. There’s an obvious, blatant political agenda at work.

Shifting to stem-cell research, which you cover in Chapter 9, why is it that more private businesses don’t take on this research? Why is there so much pressure on the government to fund it?

Bethell: The fact is, some biotech companies have been looking into this, and there’s one in particular whose stock price rose rapidly when it discovered stem cells in 1998. And then, in 2003, the stock price collapsed. I think they realized at that point, it was going to be a lot harder scientifically to do this than they had imagined. Then, you started to see all the ethical and religious objections being played up. When I was reading all these articles, I asked myself, why are they always focusing on the religious aspect and not the scientific issues? And I came to the conclusion that it was being played up deliberately to disguise the lack of scientific advance and the difficulties involved in coaxing embryonic stem cells into becoming pancreatic stem cells or whatever is needed to cure diabetes. They were nowhere near being able to do it, and they still are not.

Finally, on the debate over evolution and intelligent design, which you write about in Chapters 13 and 14, how do you make the case against Darwinism in the book, and what does the future hold for intelligent design?

Bethell: The main problem with evolution, as I saw it, from way back when is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is very weak. It is inadequate to explain the tremendous complexity of the life of the cell and of the variety of organisms. It’s a theory that was derived from free-market economics. Darwin saw the emerging bustle of economic competition in mid-Victorian England, and he translated it into the biological realm.

As for intelligent design, the conventional position on that now is that it’s not a scientific theory because it cannot be falsified. I think that’s true and it’s a valid criticism. You can’t think of an experiment, a result of which would show that intelligent design is wrong. It’s really impossible to think of any such experiment. And for that reason, I’m inclined to accept that criticism.