The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
This is a book by Tom Bethell, Oxford graduate. Mr. Bethell is a journalist, not a professional scientist, and so some people may be tempted to write him off as a know-nothing. That would only be a sad indication of the over-specialization we see so much around us. For example, someone in analytic number theory would be completely unable even to begin discussing anything with someone in algebraic number theory.
Mr. Bethell has made some incredibly insightful remarks here. One of his central theses is that science has become over-politicized. Mr. Bethell us undoubtedly a right-winger. How does he avoid the charge he is leveling at the left-wingers? By being honest about his bias. The title says it all. I really think that we modern people have forgotten that real people do science, not infallible gods in pretty white lab coats. There's no such thing as no bias. So the only honest thing to do is come right out and say what your bias is.
Here are the topics Mr. Bethell addresses: global warming, nuclear power, the virtues of radiation, the virtues of modern chemicals, DDT, endangered species, African AIDS, cloning, stem cell research, genomes, cancer, supposed "warfare" between science and religion, intelligent design, and evolution.
"Science at its raucous best," as N. David Mermin would say, is when you realize that 10,000 Frenchmen can still be wrong.
I would like to elaborate on one chapter in particular, chapter 4, on modern chemicals. The idea of this chapter is that "hormesis" is an effective antidote to many highly politicized scare tactics. For example, many people realized that dioxin, an herbicide, is toxic. This is true; however, it matters a very great deal what quantity of dosage you encounter. Many people have assumed a linear relationship between dosage and risk: the more you are exposed, the greater the risk, and the less you are exposed, the less the risk. That second statement should read thus: no matter how small the dosage, there is always a risk. But the evidence simply does not support this. In one experiment with rats, the risk factor actually declined once the dosage had gone below a certain level. So Dioxin was beneficial in lower doses.
Now all of this is not to say there aren't some chemicals that are toxic, even lethal, no matter how small the dose. There might be some of those. But Mr. Bethell claims there are precious few such chemicals. Here is a quote:
Perhaps without even realizing it, we acknowledge that toxic chemicals can be beneficial in small doses when we take multi-vitamin pills. Their ingredients are printed on the bottle. One such product lists the following: iodine, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, zinc, copper, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, potassium, nickel, boron, and vanadium. All of these are toxic substances - at high doses.
As an example perhaps more of you can identify, let us examine Vitamin A. It is a fat-soluble vitamin, as opposed to a water-soluble vitamin. As most people know, it is a very bad idea to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins (though, granted, the acceptable use may be much large than USRDA would have you believe). This is in contrast with water-soluble vitamins, which one can take at much higher doses before any damage occurs. However, even though fat-soluble vitamins are toxic at high doses, it is beneficial at low doses. Our Vitamin A has good effects at low doses.
Without even being able to vocalize it, this one fact has been the reason I do not subscribe to the organic food idea. In order to pronounce any particular chemical toxic in low doses, the scientist would have to perform experiments in which he administered such low doses. But scientists know that low doses increase the number of variables liable for causing whatever effects they see, on account of the other variables increasing in strength relative to the investigated variable. I can easily imagine a scientist setting up an experiment this way: control group with no chemical plus one group with an enormous dose of the chemical. Without the additional group with a low dose, he could very well miss the hormetic effect.
I simply cannot get all that worked up about all the supposed "bad chemicals" all around us. The health "experts" have changed their mind so frequently that one doesn't know what to believe anymore. You know the kind of thing I mean: butter is good, butter is bad, butter is good (continue this pattern as long as you like, and even longer if you're blond)... I have a strong suspicion that all that much worrying is hazardous to your health. For the same reason, I do not subscribe to the extreme forms of conspiracy theories floating around. I personally think some of those theories leave no room for God's providence. It is true that man is depraved, but let us fear God, not men.
Mr. Bethell's book is copiously documented, a fact, which, while not conclusive, is certainly a requirement for credibility in this sort of writing.