|SCIENCE LEFT BEHIND
Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left
Alex B. Berezow
New York: PublicAffairs, September 2012
In assessing this book, I must first note two facts:
That said, this book is a strange mixture of sensible objections to such baseless beliefs with talking points beloved of the far right wing of the political spectrum — which talking points are themselves generally baseless.
This is immediately apparent in their Introduction, where they devote a good deal of space to the minor debacle that resulted when the U.S. House of Representatives, with a Democratic majority in 2007, decided to go green. A goodly sum was spent on compostable utensils for the cafeteria; but, alas, the knives wouldn't cut food, the forks broke, and the spoons fell apart in hot soups. The authors lament the extra $475,000 per year this added to the House operating budget, but they don't mention what percentage of the budget this is. They note that the House ended the program and went back to reusable utensils, but they fail to point out how much the budget would have to expand to cover the machines to clean those utensils, the consumables (including wash water) used in the machines, and the staff to handle the utensils and operate the machines.
Note too the tone the authors use: from the phrase "war on spoons" to adjectives like "quirky" (page 3.) They describe the end of the program thus:
Wary of disappointing their environmentally progressive constituents, Democrats waited out the clock until until the Republicans regained control of the House in 2011, at which point they suggested that Republicans kill the program. Republican representative Dan Lungren of California, the new chairman of the House Administration Committee, listened to the advice of his Democratic predecessor, Representative Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, and instructed the cafeteria to revert to using utensils that actually worked.
– Pages 2-3
Since the failure of this program was sure to make the Democrats look bad, I doubt that Rep. Lungren required a great deal of persuasion. The authors note that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried to put a positive spin on the program:
Progressive Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Republicans were the problem: "GOP brings back Styrofoam & ends composting—House will send 535 more tons to landfills," she claimed.
– Page 3
Yes, Rep. Pelosi blamed the opposite party. That's the way the game is played. The authors play it with enthusiasm. If the House GOP did bring back Styrofoam, which the authors do not deny, that is a problem for the environment. Also as far as I was able to discover, the Senate still uses compostable utensils. Could it be that the House just picked the wrong type?
I have read rejections of Rachel Carson's work by many people. Dr. Baldwin is the most nearly correct — because he doesn't reject her work. I've read his two-page review of Silent Spring. Here's part of it:
Silent Spring is superbly written and beautifully illustrated with line drawings. The author has made an exhaustive study of the facts bearing on the problem. It is not, however, a judicial review or a balancing of the gains and losses; rather, it is the prosecuting attorney's impassioned plea for action against the use of these new materials which have received such widespread acceptance, acceptance accorded because of the obvious benefits that their use has conferred.
This is not what Berezow & Campbell imply. An "exhaustive study of the facts" does not square with "not a book based on scientific data."
Here's a bit more of Dr. Baldwin's assessment:
The author's mode of approach to the use of pesticides will undoubtedly result in wider recognition of the fact that these chemicals are poisons and in a more careful and rigorous control of every step in the pathway that pesticides must travel, from the research laboratory, through the process of obtaining government approval, to use in the field.
So Dr. Baldwin did not call Silent Spring unscientific. He did call it one-sided. The reason it's one-sided is because the other side — the rah-rah for DDT side — was then predominant. Rachel Carson advocated careful use, not cessation of use, of DDT.
In Chapter 1, they proclaim their guiding principle: "We don't have a dog in the never-ending political fight between Team Red and Team Blue. However, we are zealous foot soldiers for Team Science..." (page 10)
Only a few pages later, they write this about Rachel Carson:
The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 was the real demarcation point when modern progressives left behind the scientific and über-rational legacy of the past. From that point on, they embraced radical environmentalism and other visions of a natural utopia.
Silent Spring used a lot of the same logic that anti-vaccine progressives use today: anecdotal evidence and dubious statistics coupled with generous doses of paranoia and very little science. Scientists such as Dr. Ira Baldwin, professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin and later vice president emeritus and professor emeritus of the department, dismissed Carson's book in Science as a "prosecuting attorney's impassioned plea for action," not a book based on scientific data.
– Pages 15-16
The authors here distort Dr. Baldwin's assessment of Silent Spring, as I show in the sidebar. They are not alone in condemning Rachel Carson's work. Even now she remains a prominent member of the far right "killers of progress" list — right up there with Al Gore and James Hansen. Indeed, the more rabid right-wingers accuse her of killing millions of people in Africa by causing DDT to be banned. The facts, however, say otherwise.2
It's to the authors' credit that they don't go that far. But they do themselves no favors by dismissing Silent Spring as unscientific. Throughout the book they frequently stoop to a similar sort of condemnation. Al Gore comes in for a share of it, as do Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, John Holdren, Chris Mooney, and President Barack Obama.
Even more frequently, they condemn progressives as a group for their anti-scientific beliefs. It is true that they are careful to start by distinguishing progressives from liberals.3 But my experience of contemporary usage is that "progressive" and "liberal" mean the same thing.
For Berezow and Campbell, the sins perpetrated by progressives do not stop with excessive environmentalism; they include excessive promotion of renewable forms of energy. Yes, these authors contend that renewable forms of energy are ineffective.
What's behind this myth? Well, progressives truly believe that utopia is possible. Of course, it's their version of utopia, which stems from a sort of condescending, paternalistic conviction that they know what is good for the rest of us. Thus, any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis is anathema to them. Actual green energy is an unattainable goal for precisely this reason—as quickly as scientists come up with a new method for powering our society, progressives dismiss it as too unnatural and dangerous. Indeed, if progressives ran energy policy, most of us would sit in the dark—that is, unless we were filthy rich, like Al Gore, who can afford to plaster his house with inefficient solar panels.
– Page 19
They go on to blame the Obama administration for the 2009 shortage of H1N1 vaccine (pages 27-28) and for misleading the public about the amount of oil from the 2010 Macondo Well blowout.
And the portrait of an administration that withheld information from the public and, more specifically, scientists, about how much oil was getting into the water, how much remained, and how such estimates were calculated appeared to contradict Obama's pledge to make government more transparent and trustworthy."
– Page 29
The citation for this is Neela Banerjee's story in the Los Angeles Times: Report critical of government response to gulf oil spill. According to the Times, "The report was one of four preliminary assessments prepared for the commission created by President Obama. Taken together, two of the reports paint a picture of a government that was as unprepared to deal with a catastrophic spill as BP. And the portrait of an administration that withheld information from the public and, more specifically, scientists, about how much oil was getting into the water, how much remained and how such estimates were calculated appeared to contradict Obama's pledge to make government more transparent and trustworthy."
Note carefully: "The report was one of four preliminary assessments." Note further that it was created by "independent government investigators." The story does not identify these investigators. And let us not forget that it was BP executives who refused to allow independent access to the wellhead for purposes of estimating the volume of the flow. The authors mention nothing about BP's part in causing the spill or minimizing coverage of it. Nor do they point out BP's previous record of shoddy maintenance. If the government went along with BP's lowball figures, is this not what the authors would approve of?
Progressives assume that corporations are bad and that most people are too stupid to take care of themselves, so the government must step in on their behalf. Of course, this is all done in the name of protecting the public. If anyone disagrees on scientific or economic grounds, progressives are quick to label him or her a shill for Big Industry.
– Page 249
The crux of the problem is their claim that progressives are just as bad as conservatives when it comes to anti-scientific beliefs. This is wrong on the numbers and wrong on the influence. Take the belief that vaccines cause autism. The best-connected proponent of this untruth is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He holds no political office. Contrast him with Republicans who deny that human-caused climate change is a problem. The 114th Congress has 170 of them, including Senator Mitch McConnell (Majority Leader) and Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the House. Some, as chairs of committees or subcommittees, have more power over policy and can select like-minded witnesses for hearings. Prominent examples are:
Where are the Democrats in Congress who deny that vaccines are safe or push any other left-wing anti-science doctrine? There are none. Meanwhile, Republicans have sought to block funding for development of wind and solar power (while staunchly defending oil-industry subsidies), to abolish the EPA, to make sure no federal funds go to Planned Parenthood, to keep the HPV vaccine behind pharmacy counters, even to prevent the Defense Department from reducing its dependence on fossil fuels when top military officers have declared such dependence weakens America's strategic position.5 There is no liberal counterpart of the GOP's widespread and persistent objection to policies based on mainstream science. That's why the claim that "progressives" (or liberals or Democrats) are just as unscientific as conservatives (or Republicans) is laughable.
I could go on at some length about what's wrong with this book (and I'm tempted to), but I think I've adequately demonstrated that it is not a fair assessment of the various ways in which progressives misunderstand or distort science. It's not that the authors get everything wrong; in fact, they get a good deal right. For example, Chapters 7, 8 and 15 are generally good. But the authors' tendency to leave out inconvenient facts, to toe the far-right line on issues like fossil fuels, and to describe their opponents with terms like "filthy rich" or "the dubiously named Union of Concerned Scientists" make this a book that you can ignore without missing much that will help you understand how politics distorts the major scientific issues of our day.