This article appears in November issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
READERS MAY HAVE NOTICED that science has been my preoccupation lately. That is because I have been writing a book. Regnery Publishing is putting out a “Politically Incorrect Guide” series, and mine is the third, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. (Guides to American History and to Islam are already out.)
I have chapters on such hot topics as global warming, cloning, stem cells, endangered species, AIDS in Africa, the need to bring back DDT, and of course Intelligent Design. And more.
Normally, we think of science as being above politics. It is a neutral field in which facts are observed, theories are tested, and so on. Increasingly, though, science has been politicized. How come? In many fields of science there is great uncertainty about the facts — as there has always been — and therein lies an opportunity for those who would connect science to the great money machine of politics.
Agenda-driven scientists can choose the facts they want and present them in a certain way, send out press releases, and let the media take it from there. A key step is the proclamation of an approaching crisis. Scientists, we are led to suppose, can see it coming even if we cannot, because they have the measuring devices and the early-warning systems. So we must heed their warnings — they are our white-coated priesthood — and respond accordingly.
Respond how? By increasing government spending. That never changes. More government will be needed to solve whatever crisis has been spotted by the radar of science. A highland sheep has died of an undiagnosed disease? Seven people have come down with a strange flu in Ho Chi Minh City? Drops of mercury have been found in a school basement? More disease surveillance officers are needed and the CDC budget should be increased.
Look at Science magazine. The maintenance of government spending at undiminished levels is perhaps its leading preoccupation. The federal budget is a major topic, scrutinized by editors week after week. A few recent headlines: “Tight Budgets Force Lab Layoffs,” “Bush Victory Leaves Scars — and Concerns About Funding,” “A Dangerous Signal to Science.” (There was great concern in this last editorial because the EPA and the National Science Foundation “actually had their funding reduced from FY 2004 levels.”) Dozens of such articles are published every year.
When you think about it, more government is not a particularly “scientific” response to any crisis. How many problems are solved by government spending? But that isn’t the way we tend to look at it. Government spending does help some people, including the recipients of government grants, and those who administer them. The recent events in New Orleans suggest that government poverty programs succeeded, over the years, merely in locking the underclass into the welfare system. But the government workers were certainly helped. They enjoy lifetime tenure, and more money helps to separate them from the problems they are supposed to be addressing (which is the way they like it).
Or take public education. It has declined in quality, even as the taxpayers’ money spent on it has dramatically increased. Step by step, the teachers and their unions learned they could put their own welfare ahead of the students’. And get away with it. Most people can’t follow what’s going on anyway. President Bush himself was played for a sucker by the education lobby when he called for “no child left behind.” For years, the decline in public education has been construed as just another indicator that more money is needed.
Science is going down the same path. A problem is discerned, or invented, the government steps in, and then the problem seems only to grow more serious. And that suits the scientists just fine. They are more interested in their own funding, tenure, and security than in any detailed accounting of progress or decline in their own field.
They have learned to “game the system,” in other words. Scientists didn’t start out that way, any more than the teachers did. But slowly, incrementally, year by year, they learned what was to their advantage: discern a crisis, set up a hue and cry, send out press releases, and so on.
THE MEDIA COOPERATE with the scare stories, partly because they, too, have an unswerving devotion to government spending as the cure for all ills. More straightforwardly, crises sell newspapers. So the relationship is symbiotic. “You give us a crisis and we’ll play it up,” the journalists tell the scientists. “Give us the readers and you will get the funding.”
One field in which scientists have played the game is toxicology. The original player was Rachel Carson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before she published Silent Spring in 1962. She “alerted us,” so it was said, to the dangers of chemical pesticides. The New Yorker spread the word. (The New York Times at that stage was not in crisis-mongering mode the way it is today.) From that time on it has been an article of faith (masquerading as science) that minute traces of toxic substances threaten our health.
The EPA didn’t even exist in Rachel Carson’s day. Today the agency’s budget approaches $8 billion, with over 17,000 employees (“full-time equivalents,” as they are called). The toxic-alarm story has continued in serial fashion, with officials detecting traces of dioxin and PCBs in places like Times Beach, Missouri, and the Hudson River, leading to immensely expensive clean-up mandates. The full-time equivalents have kept themselves fully employed.
It turns out that small doses of all these chemicals are good for you. The beneficial effects of poisons in small doses is called hormesis, and I am grateful to the New York Times for letting me have a virtual exclusive on that story. (I have two chapters on it in the book.)
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