A Primer on Politicized Science

, Julia A. Seymour, Leave a comment

Global warming, AIDS crisis, avian flu: What do these three topics have in common?

Science journalist Tom Bethell thinks that these issues have played prominently in media and have elicited action by the government not because they were greatly important, but because of the “politicization of science.” In a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. last week, Bethell explained in detail what he means by the politicization of science and which through a number of examples he debunks in his new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

“When you are dealing with uncertain facts, scientists can boldly insert themselves into the picture and they are ipso facto armored against many critics…So we don’t necessarily see that it is politicized,” said Bethell who studied philosophy, physiology and psychology at Oxford.

So what happens is a scientist posits an idea saying, “Let’s assume this,” the assumption is agreed to, and the scientist then explains a causal chain leading to a big problem and then the listener sees a need for government intervention or spending, Bethell explained.

“An early example was Thomas Robert Malthus in the early 19th century who warned about the dangers of overpopulation, which then became a great and very resonant, oft repeated and magnified cause in the 20th century,” said Bethell.

The truth as it turned out was that Malthus’ premises as well his mathematical calculations were incorrect and it was very good that the British Parliament had done nothing about his warnings.

But as late as the 1960s Paul Ehrlich took Malthus’ theory and predicted that millions of people in American would be dying of starvation in the 1980s. It never happened.

Bethell also went on to address fear of nuclear radiation as a cancer threat and said that there is significant evidence now to indicate that some nuclear radiation can actually be good for humans and has lowered rates of cancer in exposed people.

“Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Scientists predicted 150,000 possible deaths as a result of fallout. The UN recently put out a report saying that they had only found 50,” said Bethell.

“In the case of global warming, the politics are quite blatant,” said Bethell before explaining the difficulty of getting “the facts straight” on this issue.

“Just think about this: the difficulty of knowing what the average temperature is of the U.S. now. You’ve got to measure it in lots of different places. Are you measuring it in the right place? Are you going to get a reliable average? Are you going to disturb the figures by what is called heat island effect by putting it near a runway or a city? Then extend that to the entire world…Then take it back 200 years in the past when there were no thermometers,” said Bethell.

Bethell also devoted part of his lecture to explain why the politicization of science occurs even more frequently when government funding is involved because there is an incentive other than finding the truth.

Creating scares or promising huge breakthroughs can alternately cause Congress to appropriate more money to the cause, Bethell said.

Also in his book, Bethell takes on issues of embryonic stem-cell research, evolution and intelligent design theories, the National Institutes of Health, the Human Genome Project and the responsibility of journalists to question the motivations of scientists.

More information about Bethell’s new book can be found on the Web site, www.politicallyincorrectguide.com.

Julia A. Seymour is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.