The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
“Team Science” Takes on Its Left-Wing Doubters
Published on February 14, 2013
Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell

PublicAffairs, 2012, 320 pp., $26.99

Adam Garfinkle: What are you and your co-author, Hank Campbell, trying to accomplish in your new book?

Alex Berezow: We’re both science writers, and we’ve noticed that the media likes to paint a narrative of the Republican “war on science.” We do agree that conservatives get a few issues wrong, most notably the members of the religious right-wing who reject evolution, or those who view global warming or climate change as some big hoax or conspiracy. However, we do challenge the idea that progressivism is the “pro-science” ideology, or that the Democratic Party is “pro-science.” We take this opportunity to systematically dismantle many of their pet positions, from their opposition to nuclear power, to genetically modified foods, and a whole host of issues where we take them to task.

AG: I found it interesting that you go to some pains to distinguish between liberal, progressive, and Democrat, on the one hand, and libertarian and conservative, on the other. You use a two-by-two matrix, an adaptation of David Nolan’s device, which is necessary but not sufficient to lay out the differences. You’re basically saying that progressives not only tend toward economic authoritarianism, and liberals do, too, but also toward social authoritarianism. I think that’s pretty accurate.

AB: That’s right. In some ways, both conservatives and progressives have an authoritarian streak. Conservatives want to tell people what to do in the bedroom or what they can’t put into their bodies. But progressives want to tell you how to eat, how much salt you should be allowed to put in your food, whether you can smoke or have trans-fats in your Oreo cookies. I think there’s a deep irony in how conservatives and progressives are similar in this way.

AG: You point out that a lot of people in the Obama Administration, if not the President himself, are pushing various progressivist agendas. You seem to be saying that there are as many anti-science troublemakers on the Left as there are on the Right. Is that really true? Are there as many, and do they have as much influence?

AB: Well, among the political leadership, you’ll see more anti-science Republicans in high-profile positions than Democrats. However—and this is a very big “however”— there can be influential ideologies that don’t come from Washington. Look at the anti-vaccine movement. You see it on both ends of the political spectrum: Libertarians say the government shouldn’t be able to force anyone to vaccinate; others, like Michele Bachmann, think vaccines can cause mental disability; and people on the far Left who prefer homeopathic medicine object because vaccines are unnatural. High-profile non-politicians on the Left endorsed this, too, notably Bill Maher and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who wrote pieces in Rolling Stone and Salon excoriating the pro-vaccine movement, saying vaccines cause autism. Maher’s not a politician, but he’s a very influential leader in progressive culture.

Think of Whole Foods. They sell this idea that their food is healthier, more nutritious, sustainable and better for the environment. None of that is true. The point is that politicians don’t necessarily dictate beliefs. Memes and ideology pervade the culture, and can become policy.

AG: Early on in the book you talk about the precautionary principle, which holds that technical innovations, whether in bioscience or agriculture, must be determined to “do no harm” before they can be approved. As you point out, this is very anti-innovative and ultimately regressive.

It seems to me that if you look at the recent history of science, there’s good reason to take the precautionary principle seriously. For example, people in suburban neighborhoods living amid clouds of DDT and thinking there was no harm in it. You sort of excoriated Rachel Carson for The Silent Spring, and there again, though her book may have been based on bad science, she was trying to get people to think about things in a different way. People once thought that cigarette smoking was healthy. There were ads in Life magazine during the 1950s that feature famous actresses promoting the health benefits of smoking. We didn’t even know that cleaning out the water in the 1930s and 40s would produce a polio epidemic ten years later. So, there are a lot of things we don’t know about science, and there are good reasons to pay some respect to the precautionary principle.

AB: We don’t make the case for throwing out precaution. We like the idea of having a regulatory bureaucracy to make sure our products are safe. And for the most part, they do. Take the example of genetically modified crops. Products have to make it past certain bureaucratic obstacles and earn some sort of FDA approval in order to make it to market. The policy is called “substantial equivalence.” If the modified food can be shown to be essentially the same as the non-modified food, the FDA chooses not to regulate it. But to plant it in the first place, you need to get permission from the USDA and the EPA. These are not insignificant hurdles, and I think having the basic safety check in place is a good thing. We’re not arguing to just get rid of that.

Rather, we’re going after the principle that until you can prove something is safe, it can’t possibly be marketed. We see that as not only inherently anti-innovative, but also anti-scientific. We can prove that a certain chemical causes cancer, but we can’t prove that a chemical is safe—it’s far too open-ended to be a scientific question.

I agree with you that Rachel Carson brought about a change in mindset. Of course we couldn’t spray pesticides willy-nilly all around the countryside and expect no harm to come from that. We brought her up because she went about this in a very unscientific way.

AG: But no one would have read the book if it had been perfectly scientific.

AB: Right, but as someone who has training in science, I am a little offended by someone who was willing to twist the science to create political propaganda. Scientists don’t talk like that; we don’t sensationalize. We look at the pros and cons and make a reasonable decision from there. Anyone who tries to hype things up upsets me, and that’s why we criticize her in the book.

AG: Wherever there are tradeoffs, wherever things are slightly ambiguous, which is almost all the time in a political system, you’re going to get people trying to manipulate both sides of the bell-shaped curve of ambiguity. That’s just the way life is. Some of your examples of this show that you take the precautionary principle seriously yourself. Farmers feeding antibiotics to animals, for instance. They do this not just to protect them  but also to fatten them up.

AB: Even doing it to protect them is a bad idea.

AG: Right, so you’re not against sensible regulation, but you show how, time after time, politics trumps “team science”, as you call it. For example, you discuss how the FDA wanted to do the right thing—for instance, banning certain antibiotics from being fed to animals—but were stopped by the pharmaceutical companies that profit from selling the drugs, and the dairy and cattle people that profit from fattening up livestock. So you point to various examples of corporate or plutocratic influence pushing politics in a direction team science doesn’t like.

That being so, it seems to me that you have to trust agribusiness quite a lot to say that there aren’t chemical pollutants that can be scientifically proven dangerous, though we might not yet know the dangers for a variety of reasons. I agree with you that organic food might not be more nutritious, but I do think it might prove in the long run to be safer.

AB: First, I trust agribusiness, not because I believe in business blindly but because it is part of the scientific community. If agribusiness is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the scientific community and is doing something unsafe, eventually it won’t get away with it. Other scientists in academia or in government bureaucracies will catch on. That’s partially what happened with DDT after Rachel Carson came along. The hammer came down on Monsanto after scientists raised the alarm. I trust science in general, and that includes industry scientists. My mentor worked for Bristol-Meyers Squibb for twenty years, and I considered going into industry, myself.

As for organic foods, a new meta-analysis came out showing that they do have fewer pesticides than conventional foods, but both meet the FDA’s threshold for safety. So to say that organic food is safe is sort of like saying that an SUV is safer than a sedan. Meanwhile, a new Stanford study, a forty-year meta-analysis, showed that there’s no significant difference in nutritional value.

AG: Well, at least when it comes to feeding infants and small children, it might be reasonable to be more concerned with the marginal difference between organic and conventional foods. As I said, there are things science hasn’t discovered yet.

One of the things that’s really fascinating about the intersection between culture and science is what scientists choose to study, and which become popular fields. Improvements in scientific methodology and instrumentation have really widened the options, but the various funding mechanisms drive scientists into researching some problems more than others. So there are many things we don’t know much about, because we don’t study them until they bite us in the ass.

AB: There is definitely a bias toward medical application, and there was a time after 9/11 and after the anthrax attacks when if you could tie your paper into bioterrorism you’d have a much easier time getting funding. So yes, we always need to be investing in basic research, because we never know what will come out of that.

A perfect example is the discovery of a bacterium that lives in hot springs in Yellowstone Park, called Thermus aquaticus. The enzyme that replicates its DNA is now one of the primary enzymes used in all molecular biology for PCR—polymerase chain reaction. It’s also one of the main enzymes used in gene sequencing. That came from basic research, from just sticking a finger in a lake to see what was there. That led to the genetics revolution.

AG: There’s a lot of fortuity in science. A lot of people have the view­ that first there’s a scientific breakthrough, and then it’s extended into some more specific understanding of natural forces. And then come engineers and technologists who create applications for it. Just as often, if not more often, it works the other way around.

AB: There are researchers who stumble onto something unexpected, and then boom—they’re off into the biotech sector to start a new company.

AG: The point of this is that all the good scientists I’ve ever met are humble people. They know how much they don’t know. We don’t know enough, really, to make categorical pronouncements about what’s safe or isn’t safe.

AB: That’s why scientists will say, “We think it’s like this, at this time” or “the evidence seems to be pointing in this direction.” That’s not how politicians talk. They say, “This is going to kill you!”

AG: In the book you try to identify the essence of the progressive idea, and you have four criteria. One is the notion that everything natural is good; everything unnatural is bad.

AB: That’s kind of the root of the organic food movement.

AG: Another criterion is the relativist idea that a scientist’s view is worth no more or less than anyone else’s on a given subject. That seems to contradict the insistence of progressives that theirs is the party of science. How can you invoke the authority of science and at the same time relativize it?

AB: I would love to see a poll that examines whether liberals or progressives are more likely to use alternative medicine. It’s interesting because Western medicine has a pretty solid, proven track record. We do evidence-based medicine, we find disease, we use Koch’s postulates, we see what causes the disease and we create a vaccine. That’s how small pox was eliminated. Alternative medicine practitioners aren’t interested in evidence. They’re more interested in how the person feels after treatment. They’ll say that Western medicine offers one way of looking at a problem, but there’s also acupuncture, and hot rocks and herbal tea, or crystal pyramids. That’s an example of what we mean by “scientific relativism.” We see that as very dangerous.

AG: A long time ago one of my professors was fond of the phrase “uninvited guests.” Up until the 1950s, Americans and Western Europeans were Whigs in how they thought about moral progress and material progress walking in lockstep. No one thought much about the downsides of technology. But then, all of a sudden, we have the “uninvited guests”: the DDT phenomenon, pollution, environmental degradation, the tragedy of the commons. I think the authority of science began to take a licking at that time. As you point out, by now it has gone way too far. It’s one thing to be humble, to say that science doesn’t know everything, that it’s selective in its attention—fine. But to say that crystal pyramids are as good as going to a cardiologist—you’d have to be a nutbag to think like that.

AB: In the last chapter of our book we list the 12 main issues facing science policy in America. Regarding the uninvited guest, we ask what kinds of things we can foresee that might be problematic. One of these concerns bioethical implications. We could possibly clone human beings, for example. Is that something we want to do?

AG: Did you hear about the scientist at Kyoto University who recently created a viable mouse egg out of stem cells, which then produced mice?

AB: Another good example. What happens when you take human embryonic stem cells and inject them into a non-primate blastocyst? That’s a legitimate scientific question. Do we want to do it? I’m not one to get my philosophy from movies, but I do like the quote from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

AG: Well, that’s the precautionary principle again—but this time in the philosophically sound sense of the phrase.

AB: We also talk about technical ethical problems. We will soon have the technology to sequence the genomes of every person on the planet. Should we? Should we sequence the genomes of unborn children so that we can abort them if they’re not perfect genetically? Facebook has given us the ability to spy on millions of people.

AG: There’s also the grey area rapidly emerging between medical treatment and enhancement. 

AB: Right. Most people would probably say it’s okay to fix a gene in utero that would cause cystic fibrosis. But what if a parent doesn’t want the child to have blue eyes?

AG: Yes, and it’s a slippery slope from legitimate diagnostic and interventionist, almost cosmetic, fixes. The line between those things is dim and getting dimmer. That’s troubling.

AB: In chapter 12 we discuss the subject of corporations patenting human genes. It’s an unresolved issue that needs further discussion. You could write a whole book just on that. I don’t know where I come down on this. I understand the need for intellectual property—without it I couldn’t have written this book. At the same time, science is a little bit different. It needs to be more open. People need to have access to information that’s not proprietary, and I don’t know how to put a balance between those two. That’s something, I guarantee, that will occupy the courts for the next twenty or thirty years.

AG: I think that American culture leads us to be too cavalier. We can invent something, market and sell it, and always think about the consequences later. There’s only been one example in American history when we didn’t do that. That was in 1946, when the Atomic Energy Committee was founded. Some people, apparently, thought nuclear energy wasn’t something we should just let the market handle. I think that biotechnology today is as portentous, for good or for evil, as nuclear energy was then. I think we need some kind of institution to at least collect statistics about who is doing what in this field. We don’t even have a database.

AB: I would disagree in that biotechnology is very difficult. In graduate school I gave a presentation on bioterrorism, and at the time I took the viewpoint that if a terrorist gets a hold of a biological weapon and modifies it to be deadly, we’d be in a world of hurt. But when it comes to modifying pathogens, nature has already done it for us. The bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population, is resistant to a couple of antibiotics, but not all of them. It depletes the body of iron; it can mask its outer membrane so that the body’s immune system can’t even see that it’s there. And if you inhaled it, it could kill you within 24 hours.

Smallpox wiped out 500 million people in the 20th century alone. And we won the fight with our vaccination program. So I’m now less concerned about someone getting a bug and modifying it when mother nature has shown that she can do this far more efficiently than we can.

AG: I’m not as sanguine about this as you are. There’s a small probability it would happen, but if it did it would be truly calamitous.

AB: I am more concerned about someone finding a bug that has been sequestered—say, smallpox—and then releasing it. But that’s not what biotechnology is.

AG: That’s true, but I think that when people worry about weapons proliferation in conjunction with terrorism people almost always talk about nuclear weapons. But those are far more difficult to build, more expensive, harder to conceal and transport. Biotech, on the other hand, makes weapons that are much easier to conceal and deliver.

AB: I don’t take that perspective, though I did at one time. I’ve been convinced the other way around on this. The nastiest, deadliest bugs we can imagine have already been invented by mother nature. If someone gets a hold of one of those and releases it, that’s a problem. But the idea that someone can be more clever than billions of years of evolution? I’m not buying it.

AG: To move to one last question, there have been several different structures devised over the years for conveying science advice to the President and the Executive Branch. A variety of advisory panels have been created and disbanded, and different Presidents have used them in different ways. There are science advisers all over the government, including the State and Defense Departments. But as far as I know there’s no design function here. No one has stepped back and noticed that the scientific environment is changing, and the way that the government needs to understand and use science for the public good is changing along with that environment. There has not been a systematic evaluation of the personnel structure of scientists in the government for at least half a century, or of the role of advisory committees in the private sector, or of public-private partnerships. My sense is that there’s a misalignment between what the government needs to do, on the one hand, and how it uses scientists, on the other. So I’m interested in your thoughts about how out of whack this is.

AB: I’ve never actually thought about that. It’s a great question. My political philosophy leans more toward small government. So the idea of increasing bureaucracies is something I instinctively recoil from. But I have been thinking that perhaps it’s time we had a Cabinet-level science and technology position.  Maybe we could eliminate some other one we don’t need. If I were President, I could see merging the Departments of Labor and Commerce together, or putting Veterans’ Affairs under the aegis of Health and Human Services. Then you could have a Department of Science and Technology as the core advisory body to the Executive Branch. The NIH, the EPA and the FDA could then be under its control. As it is, they’re all scattered around.

AG: We have what I like to call “incremental feudalism” in the government structure.

AB: Right, no one likes to give up turf.

AG: It’s all related to congressional oversight. You can’t get anything changed unless you propitiate Congress. For example, the FDA handles drugs and food (all except meat, which the Department of Agriculture does) for no real reason. That’s just how Teddy Roosevelt happened to have it set up. This arrangement has become quite dysfunctional.

AB: And why are there three different organizations—EPA, FDA and USDA—working on the same GMOs?

AG: We’re lucky there are only three. Count the number of spigots from which foreign aid comes out—there are 16 of them. And then, at the end of the Bush Administration, we just created a new Undersecretary of State position to manage all the spigots. The point is that there’s a connection between the policies we want to be bold and innovative about, and the government delivery systems in place. You can’t get new policies with old structures.

AB: Could we imagine a President making it a priority to reorganize the Federal bureaucracy?

AG: I’ve thought a lot about this since my time in government. One way to go about it is to create a Cabinet-level department. The second way is to create a permanent interagency group, and the third way—the least efficient way—is to create a science czar, which isn’t too different from what we have now.

AB: That would be what John Holdren does, right?

AG: Yes, but he doesn’t have budget authority. His budget authority and responsibilities aren’t aligned. This President hasn’t used his science adviser particularly well, and neither did the previous one. But “team science” should be alarmed, because this is way off the radar; we’re not thinking about it at all.

AB: That’s a good point. Until this discussion, I had never heard anyone speak at length about this issue.

AG: Well we need scientists to help think this through. And you’d be one of them, because you’re young, smart and not inured to old ways. Anyone who reads the book will be able to see that—and I hope lots of people do read it.  Thanks.

Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience and holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.