Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To Science

The Politically Incorrect Guide To Science, by Tom Bethell

This book is definitely politically incorrect, that’s for sure, and it manages to avoid the blind hostility to empirical fact that one would fear upon picking up a book like this one.  Make no mistake, though, about the way this book pummels politically expedient but inaccurate scientific theory throughout its slightly more than 200 pages of material.  I found it enjoyable to read [1] and I agreed with the author’s perspective, but not everyone is going to enjoy this book’s approach to science.  That said, this is definitely a book that I can wholeheartedly endorse and that I enjoyed reading, especially given the way the authors pointed out how government funding and the lack of connection between progress and empirical viability and public support of science ends to a great deal of waste and the corruption of science by political concerns.  The author does a great service in mythbusting some of the cherished illusions that are held about the scientific enterprise in contemporary American society and the way that bad science has often been used to support political worldviews as well as give a veneer of respectability to inaccurate views.

After an introduction about the lure of politics to science, the contents of this book are divided into fourteen chapters.  The author begins with a thorough and somewhat entertaining debunking of global warming (1), discusses the issue of nuclear energy (2), and the virtues of low amounts of radiation (3) as well as low amounts of what are often considered toxic chemicals like dioxin (4).  He discusses the negative effects of the ban on DDT (5) and argues that the best way to preserve biodiversity is to turn endangered species into commodities that bring a benefit to people (6).  He talks about the political epidemic of AIDS (7), and the follies and problems of cloning (8) and stem cell research (9).  The author waxes pessimistic on the possibilities of the genome map (10) as well as the supposed genetic basis of cancer (11).  He, quite amusingly, discusses the origins of the myth that the Middle Age was full of B.O.B.-chanting flat-earthers (12) and spends a couple of chapters talking about Darwinism (13) and the missing evidence that improves the case for intelligent design (14).  Overall, this book will be best appreciated by those who have the same sort of economic and political worldview of the authors, and who lament the waste and distortion of money that invents crises in order to encourage public spending.

Central to the author’s approach to science is a vigorous defense of empiricism and an abiding mistrust of the way that politics distorts good science by funding what is expedient or convenient to the agendas of those in power rather than that which is true.  The author shows himself to be someone with a deep mistrust of certainty and a willingness to accept the uncertainty that encourages a variety of views rather than a mistaken view that we know things that we in fact do not know, wasting resources and causing a great deal of harm.  There are at least a few things that I learned from reading this book, including a concept I had been unfamiliar with before, namely that of hormesis, which is likely something that I will write about in the future.  Anytime a book can provide me with some sort of insight I was unfamiliar with before is something to be appreciated, and this is a book whose skepticism is justified by the human and material cost of the sort of politicized science that can cause real harm in the real world by neglecting that which can help serious problems or by following the wrong trails to the public health problems we face in the contemporary world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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