Tom Bethell on Science Policy: Some Choice Quotes

Well folks: The debate on NPR's "Science Friday" is today, starting around 3:15 ET. There will be a fair number of listener calls, I believe; remember, you can call in at 1-800-989-8255. To find a way to listen live, click here.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to prepare, and want to thank you all very much for your help on the subjects of evolution and climate change. To further my prep, I also went to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth last night; I thought it was very powerful. True, there were a couple spots where Gore's presentation could have misled viewers into incorrectly thinking that global warming had "caused" Katrina, or a particularly bad typhoon season for Japan, or more outbreaks of tornadoes. But overall, Gore presented the science quite well I thought.

I'm going to go back to debate prepping right now, but for fun I want to leave you with three more Bethell arguments to respond to, this time in the generalized area of science policy:

1. Experts hate to challenge one another, just as doctors do. Often, for a specialist in one field to appreciate what others are saying, careful study must be undertaken. Time is always too short. Outsiders will fear to enter others' fields in anything other than a deferential spirit. So challenge and disagreement rarely arise. The priesthood of science is undisturbed, and that is the way they like it. (p. v)

2. Federal funding is restricted [for stem cell research], but the research itself is legal. Yet if the medical promise is so great, why is the federal government so essential? Do venture capitalists know something the headline writers don't? (p. x)

3. Consensus discourages disssent, however. It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong. (p. xiii)

These are in some ways trickier, but I think they also need answering....


More like this

#1 Displays the fact that Bethel is not qualified to comment on the field. Experts love to prove each other wrong, as soon as there is evidence someone will do so.


the new HPV vaccine

and four recent drugs, all selling over $500 million/year, all discovered and developed with Federal funding.

Taxol® is manufactured by Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) using a patented process technology developed by Florida State University (FSU) with NIH grant funds. In addition, the NIH has rights to an underlying technology arising from a NIH CRADA collaboration with BMS. The NIH has received from BMS tens of millions of dollars in royalties from FY1997 to FY2000 under the license to the NIH technology.

Epogen® and Procrit® are based on different uses of a patented process technology developed at Columbia University with support from NIH grants. Columbia licensed their technology to Amgen for Epogen® and to Johnson & Johnson for Procrit® .

and Neupogen®
Neupogen® is manufactured by Amgen using patented technologies for a process and a composition licensed from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). These technologies were developed with NIH grant support.

There are many smaller drugs, which still save and/or improve lives; and probably all new drugs draw on basic research conducted with federal dollars like the human genome project. Stem cells will be the same way. The federal funding can propel the research forward during the early stages, and later the entrepreneurs and big pharma can develop and sell the products based on those new technologies. We get to buy the products and benefit from them. Without providing funds for the basic research there will not be an opportunity to develop products, thus no VC involvement. (Remember too, that in the area of ESCR, therapies will not just be the use of the ES cells themselves to regenerate tissue/organs. There will also be the opportunity to discover the role of genes important to disease and to develop small molecules (drugs) based on what we learn about development and differentiation from studying stem cells. We cannot study these processes without these cells. Industry won't pay for basic research because they are focussed on developing products.)

#3 " Consensus discourages disssent, however. It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong."

What an idiot. How does Bethel feel about our justice system? Does he believe the requirement for a unanimous verdict to convict is the enemy of justice? A theory accepted by 12/12 jurors may be wrong, but isn't it likely to be correct? Most of the time? At least based on the evidence presented? Would he prefer that juries be required to come up with some other proportion? 9 to 3? 7 to 5?...

Have fun! I can't wait to hear this!

"Experts hate to challenge one another,"

Bethell has obviously never been to a scientific conference. There is nothing scientists love MORE than to challenge colleagues.

"Consensus discourages dissent, however. It is the enemy of science"

This represents a basic misunderstanding of how science works. While new theoreis are not proposed through a consensus process, that does not mean consensus is the "enemy" of science. Hardly.

Consensus actually plays an important role in science, but there are critical differences between "political consenus" and "scientific consensus". Unlike politics, science is not a popularity contest and scientists do not come to consensus through voting.

Scientists come to consensus through experiment -- ie, testing the theories against reality. The theories that are left standing after all the experiments (the ones that are most consistent with and best explain the facts) are the ones that scientists accept -- at least for now. This is the essential meaning of "scientific consensus."

It may seem ironic, but without consensus, science would move forward (probably much) less rapidly because people would be endlessly rehashing old discredited arguments -- the earth is flat, a lead ball falls faster than a wood one, etc.

Consensus does discourage dissent but that is not all bad. It actually has an overall positive effect in the case of science, since it ensures that dissenters have all their ducks in a row before they challenge accepted theories with new ones. Essentially, scientific consensus demands that new theories fit not only newly discovered facts, but also ALL the old facts as well.

By laurence jewett (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

#3 reminds me of the case of Andrew Lyne. Lyne made a presentation at an astronomy conference about the discovery of the first extrasolar planet in 1991, only to have to go before a similar conference two months later to announce, quite plainly, that he was wrong. He had made a mistake in his calculations.

Lyne did go on to become a well-respected astronomer with a number of extra-solar planets found and verified, but his retraction is held up as a stellar (pun intended) example of how science is done: when you're wrong, admit it!

Bethell shows his total ignorance of the history of science. Nobel prizes are not awarded for scientists who are part of the current consensus. They are awarded to scientists who overturn or substantially modify the current consensus. Furthermore, science is inherently a conservative enterprise in that substantial evidence is required to overturn a current consensus. As Carl Sagan put it, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

It's ironic that he uses the word "priesthood" here, because the use of that term in the perjorative sense that he's using it can be traced back to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

Man, How the hell did Bethel get on the topic of science? It is not his strong point. Neither is accuracy or coherence.
1. Experts hate to challenge one another, just as doctors do. Experts LOVE to challenge one another. Often, for a specialist in one field to appreciate what others are saying, careful study must be undertaken. Time is always too short. Outsiders will fear to enter others' fields in anything other than a deferential spirit. He is quite right that careful study is necessary, something he should try. He seems to think that he is doing the scientific process some good by NOT being deferent on issues that he hasn't read too much about. I smell antielitism. So challenge and disagreement rarely arise. The priesthood of science is undisturbed, and that is the way they like it. (p. v) He is thinking about the scientific process as though it were a politically-aligned group of people, merely a group whose actions are socially determined, and have no connection to things such as evidence. No one likes to get proven wrong, however, it means instant scientific fame to do so and the "priesthood" reward such upsets greatly. Take, for example, when Robin Warren and Barry Marshal demonstrated that Heliobacter Pylori cause ulcers. The skeptical scientists were convinced by the evidence, and it was so great a paradigm shift in medicine, that they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2005. Priesthoods don't do that kind of thing.

2. Federal funding is restricted [for stem cell research], but the research itself is legal. Yet if the medical promise is so great, why is the federal government so essential? Do venture capitalists know something the headline writers don't? (p. x) Yes, they know quite a few things that the media don't know, such as how much money it takes to make advancements in such areas. Bethel suggests that the venture capitalists don't need federal funding to do the research and make advancements. Some do, actually, but as many other people point out, governmental collaborations and federally-funded research makes a huge portion of the discoveries today. Bethel also doesn't seem to understand how people get money for research at all. And by the way, California's stem cell fund should help a lot, as soon as the people trying to put a stop to it are defeated - that's another issue as well.

3. Consensus discourages disssent, however. It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong. (p. xiii) I disagree, I do not think that consensus per se is the triumph of politics, as, for example, in the preparation for war in Iraq, dissent was discouraged when there should have been more, which could have changed policy. ABSOLUTELY, a theory accepted by 99% of scientists can indeed be wrong, but they aren't pressured to just go along with it just because other scientists do. 99% of scientists on the side of one theory, such as evolution, for example, means that they find that the evidence is quite strong. Meanwhile, the theory of evolution is constantly changing, being refined as more data comes in. These scientists do not dogmatically resist changes to the theory as they improve and strengthen the idea. You can't just expect, like through some sort of scientific affirmative action, that all you need are dissenting scientists and it just tips the balance and creates new research - the intelligent design folks are a case in point because they can think of no research that they could possibly do to undermine evolution, and so they pass up available funds from donors to explore research in their own (untestable) ideas.

Currently, there is a slight debate over Homo floresiensis, aka the Hobbit, that is very lop-sided. Some scientists are dissenting from the view that the hobbit is a new species of ancient human, saying that they are modern humans that were diseased. They've ignored quite a bit of evidence, especially the fact that fossils of 9 individuals spanning 10,000s of years have been found, the equivalent of finding a long long long term leper colony. There is little of a scentific debate about what they are, but those scientists are free to make their claims. They will look bad when they don't incorporate important evidence into their explanation, however. But the rewards are very high for shaking the establishment, so there is a huge incentive to do so if the evidence is on your side. So all you need to do is find that evidence.

I won't be satisfied unless you've surgically implanted several new anuses in Bethel for making all these unfounded claims!

"Federal funding is restricted [for stem cell research], but the research itself is legal. Yet if the medical promise is so great, why is the federal government so essential? Do venture capitalists know something the headline writers don't?'

There are two problems with this.

First, "benefit-risk" analysis determines what the private sector will pursue in the medical arena. So, private companies will simply not touch certain research ventures that the federal goverment CAN afford to pursue.

Second, when it comes to overall public health, public ownership of medical research (eg, patents on drugs) often has clear advantages with regard to public access and cost.

If private stem cell research leads to dramatic results (cures for degenerative nerve disaease, for example) that are privately onwned (perhaps even proprietary), these may ONLY benefit those who can afford to pay a lot of money.

By laurence jewett (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

As for #3 I always love to go back to Dick Feynman. I think one of the things he most emphasized in his public writings was 1) the need to go back and redo the previous work, don't assume it's correct and 2) tell people if it doesn't work, that's just as important as discovering new things.

And as for #1, I don't think people have problems challenging each other, I've seen enough heated conversations at conferences to disagree with that. But I think a lot of discussion goes on before publication, and only dissent that has empirical support will be published, so perhaps dissent doesn't make it to Tom Bethell's eyes because he's not involved in the discussions.

Dissent: They call it the enemy of science, we call it life.

Glad to hear about the debate, I'll be sure to tune in.

Do you know if there's an e-mail address for comments too? For those of us listening on line in coffee shops...

Dunno about that....i'd say check the science friday site

Hey Chris,

I really enjoyed An Inconvenient Truth. I also had a few quibbles with some details, but I think that Gore does an excellent job with the "big picture" issues. I liked his tools for dramatizing the "scales" and the "rates" of global change. I think that these points are key to understanding the true nature of the global climate change problem, in the context of continually rising human populations, etc.

We still have major obstacles to getting a sensible energy policy in this country and I hope that Gore's voice remains an important part of that national/ global debate.

Best of luck on SciFri.

- James

By James Bradbury (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

"A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong."

True enough, but given 100 scientists and 100 politicians, who would YOU believe on a scientific subject:

99 of the scientists who had come to consensus?

OR all 100 politicians plus the one dissenting scientist?

(Hint: "balance" is overrrated)

By Laurence Jewett (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

On consensus,

It's inevitable when you have learned the truth.

"Viewing the double helix with its self-complementary nature brought joy not only to those of us who had won the race, but to virtually all others, like Sidney Brenner,... The question of how a gene could be replicated was gloriously revealed by mere inspection of the double helix. No longer should there be any further serious debate as to what the gene is. DNA just could not have a self-complementary structure and not be the gene. Any structure that simple had to be right, and almost without exception those rare individuals who later failed to be swayed by its beauty had nowhere to go scientifically. With time they became known only for their iconoclastic views, of interest solely to those journalists who relished controversy more than scientific truth."

Feel free to slay him with that one.

#1: Anyone who has ever been to a science conference or colloqium, read a referee's report, or read the back-and-forth of published "response to" articles, knows this is not true. They disagree all the time. Except for Linzden, though, they don't disagree for the heck of it. They disagree because the evidence is confusing or contradictory. In the case of climate change, they agree---again, not for politeness---but because of the evidence.

#2: It sounds like Bethell, like many right-wingers, took just enough econ in high school to learn that "Under capitalism, economic problems solve themselves via market forces". The underfunding of basic research is a well-known failure of capitalism, just like the construction of lighthouses, national defense, and other "public goods" Society-wide, basic research pays for itself when it produces new medicines, better diagnoses, etc. But no corporation will pay for it unless it profits *that* corporation; Merck has no incentive to invest $10B in research if it will result in $8B income each for Merck, Ciba, Bayer, and Genzyme. (The classic econ 101 example is lighthouses: why would any investor build a lighthouse? It may cost $1M and save $10M worth of shipping losses, but there's no way to make the beneficiaries re-pay the investor, nor to withhold the lighthouse's services from non-payers. Concocting bizarre capitalist solutions to this problem is a sort of libertarian party game.) There is, of course, proprietary research, which does benefit only the company that pays for it, but it's not the same thing: four companies, each spending $4M on secret, internal research, will produce much, much less science than $12M of shared research. Open research means less repetition of mistakes, and faster followup on sucesses. So, in a nutshell, either Bethell has never heard of the "public goods" problem, or he knows about it and ignored this knowledge for the purpose of blowing smoke around the issue.

3: If Bethell wants to turn climate change into a philosophical what-is-the-nature-of-knowledge question, he's got a long uphill climb. Yes, yes, sometimes new evidence comes along and makes scientists---even majorities of scientists---change their minds. So Bethell is basically *betting*---since he doesn't have any new information---that such evidence will eventually come along. He treats it like a sporting event where sometimes it's fun to bet on the underdog.

Or, perhaps, it's like he's playing a game of Let's Make a Deal. There are three doors; the contestant must pick one, usually randomly, in hopes of finding a big prize. On Tom Bethell's version, there's a non-random source of advice: "We've spent thirty years adding more and more detail to our understanding of the three doors---in fact, we've managed to *open* them. You can clearly see the big prize behind Door Number One, and disaster and suffering behind the other two. You don't have to guess, just look!" Tom Bethell closes his eyes and picks at random, because, hey, everyone's heard of those cases where you eyes can trick you 99% of the time ...

Incidentally, when Andrew Lyne admitted in front of his peers that he had made a fundamental mistake, he got a standing ovation. I missed that particular part of the conference, but when I heard, I was never prouder to be a scientist.

And furthermore, the teams who went on to find extrasolar planets around sunlike stars got ferociously attacked by scientists, as well they should. The methods used stood up to scrutiny, and when one planet was seen transiting a star, the methodology was clinched. It worked, and now hundreds of such planets are known.

Bethell simply doesn't understand anything about how science works.

I just have to say thank you, everyone, for helping Chris out. He is doing a phenomenal and very entertaining job debating on Science Friday right now. So, Bravo.

By David Sahlin (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

Blithering idiot. Good job calling him on his crap, Chris. He kept trying to change the subject and not actually answer anything, and between you and Ira he came off as obviously obfuscative. Downright idiotic, too, but at least the evasiveness should have been obvious even to conservatives who agree with him.

Well, I certainly would have liked to have had Mr. Mooney allowed to do other than just respond to Mr. Bethell. Is this the new NPR's "fair and balanced" attitude? Perhaps Mr. Flatow will give Mr. Mooney a return engagement and allow him to actually develop a few more points.

By A listener (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

I hate to say it, because Ive always despised the religious right, conservatives, etc... but I think I agreed with Bethell more. He came off as more open-minded and not as hostile as you did. And it was two on one too which I guess created some sympathy for Bethell, but it had a little bit of the feeling of an interrogation.

I disagreed with Bethell on evolution (I dont think theres anything to ID), but even there he wasnt for teaching it in schools, just that it's worth debating - I dont have a problem with that. At the end I think you were talking past each other about the religious right, you probably actually agree.

I think you come off too political, too willing to give a pass to the left when they can be almost as bad as the right about science imo. Bethell I think (contrary to the stuff on the cover of his book) would be more likely to criticise both, and I think thats the correct stance to take on the issue. At least thats the impression I got from the debate.

Thanks to you all. Does anyone agree with Jonesy? I didn't mean to come off as sounding hostile.

I agree that the first part of the debate was rather shocking as Bethel contradicted his own book and publisher, and after a while he let loose still a couple more howlers. For example, when he was talking about methodological naturalism, he pretty clearly stated that he thinks human action is a supernatural intervention. But that's just it, we can study human actions, they are natural, and to say that science cannot conclude that humans has occurred is grossly false. Its the same thing that Nancy Pearcey recently stated in Davis, and that Paul Nelson also talks about.

And so long as intelligent design doesn't produce any research, it's hardly worth debating in a scientific context.
Chris, I think you came off pretty well, you sounded a lot better on the radio than he did - I liked it when you called him on his book, and that government and private cooperation in research is good. Also, pointing out that he consistently rejects the positions of experts and consensus where convenient was a slam dunk. That was funny about him arguing against modern physics. It's like when I read stuff about people that claim that magnets disobey the laws of thermodynamics.

You did great, Chris. The litany of Bethell's contrarian positions was deadly - nobody's going to accept that he's such a genius across all those scientific fields, and might make people less casual about rejecting the scientific consensus in any particular field. I'd make that front and center of any future debates.

Chris - I didn't think you sounded hostile, only frustrated that you never had the time to adequately make a point. The format of the entire segment was Ira: question; Bethell: long, boring, circuitious non-answer; Chris: butt in to get a word in edgewise, cut off for commercial/station id; repeat.

Great job on NPR today. I had never heard of you before today, though I'd read some of your work on Seed it seems. Mr. Bethell was trying very hard to redirect arguments, moving away from the topics at hand. You didn't come across as any more frustrated or annoyed than anyone else could have done... Bethell was making rather odd arguments.

Unfortunately I missed the program, but I am amused by some of the comments, particularly the one about being "hostile".

As far as I am concerned anyone who has made the outlandish claim that "People are not dying of AIDS" in Africa ("INVENTING AN EPIDEMIC The traditional diseases of Africa are called AIDS", By Tom Bethell) deserves to be taken to the cleaners -- and have his mouth washed out with soap.

By all reasonable accounts (eg, WHO), millions of people have died from AIDS in Africa and for Bethell to deny as much is simply beyond the pale -- the pinnacle of stupidity.

By Laurence Jewett (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

Great job on Science Friday, after you learned that you just needed to start talking otherwise Bethell would just keep going. I wish Ira Flatow had a more disciplined debate.

Bethell really came across as a loon. No AIDS crisis in Africa? I really wish you had challenged his numbers more, where was he getting them? Another hint, if some mentions homeosis (next step: homeopathy) that person is a nut, it's psuedoscience. If small amounts of bad things are good for you, here, take some of this botox or sarin.

I really wish the "debate" could have stuck to one topic, but he didn't even really talk about the subject, which was supposedly how liberals hijack science. All I heard was he was against government funding of science.

By Unstable Isotope (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

I forgot to mention: Bethell's proof that God could do stuff was that he could use his brain to lift his arm? I really didn't understand what he was getting at there. I was wondering if the reason you and Ira let Bethell go on and on without answer is because he was just so awful. Were you all three in the same studio?

By Unstable Isotope (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

I think consensus is a problem for the general public. Most people are familiar with the way you reach consensus in business: the resolution is not the best but more people can buy into it.

Since most people really don't understand the scientific method, they don't understand what you mean about consensus in science.

I think it was Ira that was presenting the most overtly adversarial comments rather than you. You came across as quite collected and rational.

You do a much better job of dealing with the general public than most scientists but I agree with whoever above said you were talking past each other.

Just some passing thoughts from a layman.

I agree with PZ that Flatow should have done a much better job at directing the discussion. It's strange that Bethell is so direct in his book but so fuzzy-headed in an interview. The discussion ended up being like boxing a cloud. And Bethell the Cloud ended up taking 90% of the airtime while Flatow was trying to figure out what to do. Very frustrating.

With the ID stuff, I would rely on Judge Jones' decision and how he parsed the issue. Jones is a conservative (correct?) and his opinion is detailed so he's a useful authority and a voice of reason in an otherwise circus-like situation...

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 17 Jun 2006 #permalink

I just listened to the podcast and I think you did a fantastic job. Your comments were straight forward, coherent and went right to the crux of the issue. Your stem cell research (the thing I care most about in this debate as a Neuroscientist) statements were especially appreciated -- I could almost feel Bethell bluching over the airwaves by what he said after you spoke. It seemed to me that Flatow was letting Bethell dig his own hole deeper and deeper. I cannot recall ever hearing an interview on that program when a guest (Bethell) sounded more ill-informed or just flat out ridiculous. I've always had the impression that Science Friday listeners know their stuff fairly well and Bethell, with yours and Flatow's help, thoroughly exposed himself. Congrats!

By Theodore Price (not verified) on 17 Jun 2006 #permalink

"Tim Lambert comments and says I made a slight error about global warming skeptics bingo"


Chris, if you get nothing else right next time, at least get your GWSB (GWBS?) facts right, will you?

Forget spending hours reading up on the latest science. Just study your Bingo board -- and play a few games to keep the Bingo-fingers nimble.

Quick (without looking), how many times does the word "global" appear on the GWSB board?

By laurence jewett (not verified) on 18 Jun 2006 #permalink

The greatest mistake Bethell made on Friday's show was to attack naturalism in favor of a interactionist dualism, a thoroughly discredited philsophical positon... because the onus is on the dualist to explain how two fundamentally different substances interact (an impossible challenge so far). You could have really pushed him hard on that one.

Otherwise some very clear and concise rebuttals.

I just downloaded the mp3 of your debate with Bethell. As somebody getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience it was depressing to hear Bethell spout nonsense about not being able to trace the origin of motor control back to the cortex. It shows that he does not know any of the relevant literature, going back as far as Wilder Penfield in the 1950s.

This seemed the best place to flag this.

As I type, Al Gore is finishing up an hour [midnight to 1 a.m.] on Charlie Rose discussing his film and GW. My local PBS station rebroadcasts the show at noon the following day, so check your local markets, regular broadcasts, cable, satellite.

By SkookumPlanet (not verified) on 19 Jun 2006 #permalink