book review

Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left
Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell
Public Affairs, 2012


O ver the past several years, we've been flooded with dozens of nasty books and articles claiming that conservatives are "anti-science," "ignorant" and "stupid." It's become part of the Left's narrative. But time and again, as Berezow and Campbell point out in this important but flawed book, in issues ranging from animal rights to vaccines, it's been the Left that has exhibited the most scientific illiteracy.

It might not be fun to wrestle in the mud with liberals, but someone had to do it, and the authors deserve credit for taking on this thankless task. These days, liberals want absolute control over everything we do, say, think, and eat. Berezow and Campbell try to distinguish between liberals and "progressives," saying progressives are the ones who are control freaks, but it's a fine distinction. Every liberal I've ever met is the same: they all believe we need more government rules and regulations. The authors, who are politically centrist, seem to want to cajole sensible liberals into agreeing with them. I chalk it up to inexperience. They are young. They will learn.

Just hop over to and read what actual liberals think of this book. Despite the authors' attempts to be fair by claiming that both Left and Right are equally anti-science, the reviews from liberals are foaming. One accuses the authors of being under the influence of fluoride (which is never mentioned in the book), and advocates choking them with a plastic bag. This point of view is clearly based on emotion instead of reason. Introducing such people to reasoned scientific debate will be an enormous challenge.

We've all met conservatives who attack the theory of evolution because it conflicts with the Bible. But as Berezow and Campbell remind us, no one ever died from an irrational belief that evolution is false. The same cannot be said for an irrational belief that vaccinating children is harmful or that all chemicals are "bad." It's true that the meme for being afraid of vaccines will eventually be eliminated from the population as their children gradually die of communicable diseases. But what a price to pay.

Liberals say they're just opposed to technology, while conservatives are opposed to science. Not true: not believing the evidence about vaccines, chemicals, gender differences, and dozens of other well-established scientific facts is rejection of scientific evidence, and it's no different than rejection of evolution. Even though there's a little more skepticism about evolution on the Right than on the Left (largely from religious people), polls consistently show it's conservatives, not liberals, who are more knowledgeable and more pro-science.

Flaws in the book

There are also some mistakes, like saying that the findings in The Bell Curve have been debunked. Again, not true. The fact is, most scientists simply consider this to be an uninteresting question. Even basic science has to have a practical benefit, and there was none to be found in this line of inquiry.

They also miss the truly weird stuff some liberals believe that never made the headlines. For example, there are people out there who sincerely believe that injecting ozone into your veins is good for you. Amazingly, some of these people are still alive. As for those ozone colonics ... the best you can say for putting ozone where the sun don't shine is that it's better than inhaling it.

My main gripe with this book, though, is the idea, common among liberals but now being taken up by some conservatives (and as demonstrated here, by centrists), that disagreement over a scientific result is a form of ignorance.

Take global warming. The authors consider that adherence to the AGW theory is pro-science, and disagreement with it anti-science. But thus far, all we've seen from AGW believers is some wildly inconsistent computer simulations, a few indirect (and often contradictory) measurements, and a lot of dishonest, openly political quangos, hysteria, censorship, fraud, and name-calling. Every time there's a big storm, or a heat wave, or a baby polar bear drowns, liberals trumpet it as proof of manmade catastrophic global warming and start bashing those who disagree as "deniers." If that is science, count me out.

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If being skeptical about AGW makes you anti-science, then what about all the thousands of other results scientists disagree over? For example, you might not realize that the beta-amyloid theory in Alzheimer's disease is highly controversial. Does this make those who think tau or some other protein is the culprit a "beta-amyloid denier"? Do we have "string theory deniers," "cholesterol deniers" and "dark matter deniers" as well? Where does it end? Just as with AGW, it's the ones who are calling their opponents "deniers," not the deniers themselves, that are anti-science.

The same could be said about those who disagree that pasteurizing milk is wholly beneficial. Even those '90s ecoliberals who thought we should banish the element chlorine were at least thinking about chemistry (although they seem to have been ridiculed into oblivion). Debates about evolution should be welcomed as well, as a teaching opportunity. The problem is not with people adopting weird ideas or disagreeing over seemingly established facts. The problem comes when scientifically illiterate people in the government, or the tenure committee, the school board, or the news media, take sides and use their power to pretend their views have a scientific basis and suppress the other side of the argument.

As a biochemist, I know that many of the nutritional guidelines put out by the medical establishment are harmful. As for the drug prescriptions my doctor prescribes for me, most of them end up in the garbage, unfilled. People have more than the right to be skeptical. They have a duty to be, and they should also have the right to eat unprocessed food if they wish.

Skepticism about evidence is the lifeblood of science. People are now getting fired—and in places like Italy, the country that gave us Galileo and Giordano Bruno, imprisoned—just for stating a scientific opinion. Censorship of ideas that conflict with progressive ideology and oppression of the scientists who find evidence for them, as the liberals are doing, is a lot different than disputing evolution when it conflicts with the Bible, because Bible followers, unlike progressives, aren't censoring atheists, trying to ban public displays of atheism, or hounding atheists out of their jobs.

Guess this makes me a science denier denier.

The authors also say they are in favor of embryonic stem cell research, and suggest that opposition to this is also anti-science. But conservatives make a very good point when they say that collection of stem cells for research, and using cells collected from aborted fetuses, pose very grave moral questions. Believing that abortion is tantamount to murder, as many people do, is a philosophical position. It does not make you anti-science.

Political discourse in this country has been seriously damaged by the trend of claiming one's political or religious views to be scientific facts, and then browbeating one's opponents as "ignorant," "anti-science" or "deniers." The intent is to win the debate by calling the opponent dirty names, and it often works. Berezow and Campbell's strategy of tit-for-tat is a tempting response, but two wrongs still don't make a right. In acceding to the validity of politicizing science, the authors intend to restore the balance, but they do science no favors.

oct 30, 2012; updated mar 03, 2013