The Magazine

Ignoble Experiment

This is what happens when dogma distorts science.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By MICHAEL ROSEN
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A meta-study that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine last September found no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” A dozen Stanford researchers combed some 237 studies that analyzed food consumption and health outcomes among thousands of people, only to conclude (in the words of the study’s senior author) that “there isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.” 

Petri Dish

In the weeks that followed, progressive foodies and activists were, predictably, apoplectic. The study was “an exercise in misdirection” and “junk science” that “conveniently obscur[ed] important features of organic agriculture,” according to Mark Bittman of the New York Times, who likened the Stanford findings to “declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats” and to “comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness.”

When scientific facts collide with the ingrained worldview of left-wing activists like Bittman, chaos ensues—and it is such disorder among progressives that Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell capably catalogue in this penetrating, entertaining world tour of what they label the “anti-scientific left.”

For all the bluster on opposition to science emanating from conservatives, Berezow and Campbell note that it’s progressives—whom they distinguish from less-leftist liberals—who “have mastered feel-good fallacies” and “bully the scientific community into playing along.” The authors don’t excuse the right’s faults, but train their focus, instead, on “highly influential progressives who misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse science to advance their ideological and political agendas.”

Berezow, who holds a doctorate in microbiology and is the editor of Real Clear Science, and Campbell, founder and editor of Science 2.0, traverse the unplowed terrain of left-wing Luddism—ranging from vaccine refuseniks to nuclear energy opponents to anti-animal-testing zealots to ANWR lovers to Keystone XL haters—methodically demonstrating how progressives seek to “replace scientific research with unscientific ideology.” A prime example is genetically modified (GM) organisms, which present no significant health risks but which promise better, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly living for humanity, especially for those mired in poverty. As the authors point out, “GM crops are spreading across the entire continent of Africa because of the numerous advantages they confer over conventional crops.”  

Yet progressives the world over decry the production and consumption of “Frankenfoods” despite overwhelming scientific evidence of their safety. Fortunately, even in my left-tilting home state of California, voters in November (narrowly) rejected a ballot measure that would have required special labeling of all GM food sold in stores, a costly and pointless regime that would have most perniciously affected those who could least afford it. (Still, Berezow and Campbell believe GM products “should be closely monitored or regulated” and subjected to “long-term studies.”)

Another instance of progressive hostility to science lies in the “precautionary principle.” This is especially true in Europe, which has placed itself at the cutting edge of opposing technological breakthroughs. The authors fault this principle because it requires proponents of new technologies to prove their safety beyond a shadow of a doubt, and because it “assumes that older technologies are safer than newer technologies”—which simply isn’t so as a general proposition. Recent years have seen a mushrooming of European antagonism to nuclear power, natural gas exploration, and electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones and even Wi-Fi, which a European Union directive sought to ban from classrooms. Small wonder that Europe badly lags behind the United States in research-and-development spending. 

Science Left Behind also includes an instructive chapter documenting the steady decline of science journalism, which is Campbell’s area of expertise. Mainstream science writing, the authors contend, has shifted “toward opinion and even political activism,” and has been “overrun by partisan interests who do not love science as much as they hate their political opponents.” (One recent study of British science journalism found that only 12 percent of stories were generated by actual reporting, not press releases.) The authors also take obligatory, yet deadly accurate, potshots at Al Gore, prophet of the global warming catastrophe that always lies just around the corner; at John Holdren, President Obama’s science czar, who once collaborated with the discredited Paul Ehrlich of Population Bomb fame; and at the lunatics of PETA who oppose, sometimes violently, lifesaving animal research. 

Ultimately, Berezow and Campbell conclude, it appears that “environmentalists believe any technological progress at all .  .  . is at odds with protecting the environment.” But they roundly reject this “false choice,” arguing instead that “we must choose both, for we have no other ethical option.” Scientific innovation aims to extend and enhance life on Earth—a physical, cultural, and moral imperative for all of humanity, regardless of ideology, faith, or socioeconomic status.

To be sure, Science Left Behind occasionally suffers from some of the flaws it attributes to its subjects. While the authors often meticulously document their assertions with citations to various studies—the endnotes alone span some 30 pages—they sometimes fail to present, in the text, figures or other evidence supporting their assertions, such as when they criticize the wasteful cash-for-clunkers program without rigorously quantifying the waste. They might also have expanded their discussions of other controversial issues at the intersection of science and public policy, such as fracking and IQ tests.  

Of course, Berezow and Campbell could address these subjects in a sequel as incisive and well-written as this, their first book. Given the increasing stridency with which progressives decry scientific progress, they may need to.

Michael Rosen is a lawyer and writer in San Diego.