Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews

By Donald R. Prothero. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, August 1, 2013.

Reviewed by A. David Wunsch


“Global warming is the second largest hoax ever played on the American people.” Thus spoke the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works — his elevation to the top made possible by the Republican Party victory in the 2014 U.S. general election. The biggest hoax, in case you are interested, is the American belief that the Constitution decrees the separation of church and state. Inhofe asserts there is no separation: America is a Christian nation.

To educate us, the chair has authored the treatise The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, which explains how a cabal of lefties, government hacks, and self-serving scientists has conspired to raise taxes, reduce freedom and extend the reach of government under the cover of phony claims about global warming. Inhofe’s scientific credentials are a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting a belief in man-made (anthropogenic) climate change is just one bête noir for Prothero, a retired professor of geology. He recalls for us those politicians of the Bush–Reagan era, chemical energy executives and electric power moguls, who worked to deny that the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, and DDT, were anything to worry about. In the fullness of time, science had its way, as will most likely be the case with climate change. The open question is when this will occur – will it be soon enough to prevent disaster. At present, about 80% of the American public believes that climate change is real — an impression you would not gain from American right-wing radio.

When Prothero casts his eye on science denial in medicine, he applies an apt phrase, “health care by anecdote,” using it for parents who refuse to allow their children to be inoculated against such diseases as mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) because of the mistaken belief that such vaccinations can lead to the child’s developing autism. This canard started when a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper in a medical journal proclaiming a causal link between MMR vaccinations and autism. His results failed to be confirmed by his peers and it was soon discovered that he had a financial interest in undermining the existing vaccine. Although his professional reputation is now nil, his thinking has followers in the United States where adherents not only place their own children at risk but also jeopardize newborns and children too young to be vaccinated who are exposed to the offspring of the so called “anti-Vaxxers.”

Surveying quack medical beliefs, Prothero quickly dispatches homeopathy but he moves on to the appalling case of the denial of the link between AIDS infection and the HIV virus. The Prime Minister of South Africa in the period 1999 to 2008, Thabo Mbeki, claimed that poverty, not HIV was the cause of AIDS. That Mbeki was so successful in preventing the spread of safe sex practices, as well as application of the drugs used to treat AIDS, originates in part from his ruling a country that was mistrustful of western medical practices. Gradually, western medicine penetrated and helped bring down Mbeki.

The strangest aspect to the South African story is that Mbeki received support from a respected professor of biology. This was Peter Duesberg of U.C. Berkeley who had published papers asserting that the HIV virus is harmless and that AIDS had other causes like recreational drug use. Subsequently, this was discredited by his scientific peers and Berkeley even considered investigating him on charges of scientific misconduct. The evidence now in favor of the HIV–AIDS link and the treatment based on this nexus are now so established that one seldom hears of Duesberg, but the support he gave to a policy that resulted in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths should weigh on his conscience.

Science deniers frequently cite “experts” in promoting their causes. Prothero dwells at some length on these people who, although they may be well regarded in their scientific specialty, have no particular expertise in the controversy they have entered. A case in point is Freeman Dyson who entered the global warming controversy not long ago. A distinguished physicist, he is not an atmospheric scientist, and he caused great resentment in the earth sciences community. Dyson does not appear in Prothero’s book but there are other such “experts” who do. Often their motivation is financial. Physicist Frederick Seitz, one time head of the National Academy of Sciences, became a well-paid shill for tobacco companies by denying the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. He was neither doctor nor biologist. For those wanting to know about his despicable career, a good source is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

I wish that Prothero had considered more those scientific experts who side with the “science deniers” not for financial gain but out of an apparent narcissism. Besides Duesberg, there is Prof. Richard Lindzen of M.I.T. who would, but for his climate change denial, be well known only to the community of scholars in his field of meteorology. Now he is the “go to” person for climate change deniers, and he gives talks magnifying small inconsistencies of the climate science literature where he conflates uncertainty with ignorance. One sees these people as Galileo wannabes. The Italian, now revered, was ridiculed in his day. Lindzen, part of the 3% of climate scientists denying global warming, might entertain similar fantasies.

One of the weaknesses of Prothero’s book is that it mixes those parts of science denial having serious consequences with those that are relatively harmless. The author is a paleo-biologist — he knows fossils and evolution. Not surprisingly, he finds a fat target in the anti-evolution community — both the Christian fundamentalists who take the biblical account of creation as a given, and their more complicated bedfellows who subscribe to “intelligent design” as a means of explaining how humans came into being; they argue humans are so complicated that they could not have evolved by natural selection but only through the intervention of some master bioengineer.

I wish Prothero could have, by means of a time machine, seen the review his book received in the web newspaper of The Discovery Institute — an institution devoted to damning Darwinian thinking. The piece illustrates almost everything that Prothero ascribes to science deniers. The reader should check this web site The reviewer, Casey Luskin, is a lawyer by profession although he does have a master’s degree in earth science, a field where, unlike Prothero, he has little standing. A well-publicized statement from The Discovery Institute asserts:

“The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western Civilization was built.”

Given their agenda, can we respect any criticism they direct at an evolutionary biologist?

Luskin’s dwells on an inaccurate drawing used in Prothero’s book, taking it as proof that the whole natural selection model is undermined. We see this in other attacks by science deniers: identifying a small error or inconsistency and using it as a wedge to attack (or maybe just ignore) the whole corpus of peer reviewed literature to which the denier is objecting. Climate change skeptics use this repeatedly.

What, after all, is so bad about having people denying Darwinian evolution? Compared to climate science deniers they are a relatively benign bunch. A high school girl in a bible-belt American state must, if she wants to go to medical school, accept evolution. The most insidious effect of education denying evolution is that it can make young people skeptical of science generally; Prothero has the statistics to show that in countries and states where there is major doubt about evolution there is also significant skepticism about science, but his assertion that “Creationism is a direct threat to our health and well-being” is not proved. The American deficiencies in public health compared to other industrialized countries are more directly tied to the U.S. failure to have a single payer health care system like that in most of Europe, where longevity is greater and infant mortality rarer.

The biggest hoax, says Inhofe, is the American belief that the U.S. Constitutution decrees separation of church and state.

James Inhofe might stand as a proxy for all that Prothero loathes: a Republican Christian fundamentalist from a bible belt state, beholden to the financial interests of the oil and gas interests who form the backbone of his financial contributors. Prothero speculates that science denial on the part of fundamentalists and evangelicals derives from an innate “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, fear of death, fear of change, less openness to new experiences, less nuanced thinking…” At this point, his own thinking becomes speculative and, yes, unscientific. Would a devout Christian conservative fear death more than an agnostic or a non-believer?

And why does Prothero characterize science-denying conservatives as believers in “individualism,” while describing science-accepting liberals as “communitarians.” The former are described as “people who value the individual over society … believe we are responsible for our own lot…” while, he says, the latter emphasize “common good over individual welfare.”

Yet one is struck by the sense of community in such conservative faiths as the Mormons or the Amish. Almost everyone has some sense of community, be it a church, book group, pool hall, or scientific society.

However, I am indebted to Prothero for pointing to a new (for me) web site which would appear to give voice to his enemy: the Conservapedia. A google search brings it up in a trice. Finding their page on global warming creates the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. For example:

“The global warming theory is the liberal hoax [2] that the world is becoming dangerously warmer due to the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Liberals have used the theory of man-made global warming to seek rationing by government of life-saving energy production and consumption.

The most accurate data—from satellites—confirms that there has been virtually no global warming since 1998”[3].

There are historical issues that Prothero fails to address. In much of the 20th century, a significant portion of the scientific community was wrong. From 1900–1940 the eugenics movement was popular both among scientists, the general public, and the U.S. Congress. There were successful major efforts to sterilize the feeble minded. Distinguished scientists funded from such august places as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution advanced the cause of eugenics and racial purity; potential immigrants from what were seen as substandard populations in Europe (southern Europeans, Jews, Italians, Poles, and Irish) were blocked by Congress from entering the United States in the 1920s. Scientifically trained people including Alexander Graham Bell and Luther Burbank lent their names to these causes — a sorry chapter in the history of the United States. There is a role for science skeptics.

There are areas at the intersection of science/technology and public policy that Prothero sweeps under the rug. Prothero states quite wrongly that only “a tiny subset” of progressives are opposed to nuclear power and fracking. These are contentious issues with credible scientific evidence on both sides.

Prothero has written 32 books and there are signs of hasty work in the present one, e.g., Thomas Kuhn, who gained fame with his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions 50 years ago, did not invent the term “scientific revolution.” Prothero’s simplistic observation that “the longest life expectancies in the United States are in New York City because their laws make smoking very rare and discourage many other unhealthy habits” is not supported by his source. Finally there is his remark that “…liberals tend to dominate universities (except, perhaps in some departments such as engineering or business where the thinking is highly structured and the field is relatively unchanging).” As someone who has been around electrical engineering departments for over half a century I can say with complete confidence that a graduate of 1960 wouldn’t recognize the program in her old school now. English departments still teach their Shakespeare and Milton.


A. David Wunsch is Book Review Editor of this magazine. He is Professor Emeritus in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept., University of Massachusetts Lowell. His email address is