Book Reviews - 2002/2

FEBRUARY 01, 2002

Voodoo Science

by Robert Park

Oxford University Press — 2000 — 230 pages — $25.00

Reviewed by Patrick J. Michaels

I really wanted to like Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud a lot more than I did. It’s a pretty good book about how bad science manages to prosper and replicate, despite failure after failure, and for that much I recommend a purchase. But it simply does not go far enough and ultimately reveals a naïveté that I found shocking from a Washington insider like Park, who is the American Physical Society’s chief lobbyist in D.C. (“He also directs the Washington office of the American Physical Society,” the liner says. That’s close enough for me.) I am heavily mired in the morass of global-warming science, where there’s plenty of voodoo, and I was hoping that, as a physicist, Park would go there.

But he didn’t. Instead, his first shots are easy and obvious ones against perpetual motion machines and high-output “cold fusion” à la Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. He holds these as archetypes of “pathological science,” which is when, according to Park, scientists fool themselves. It doesn’t help, he notes, that the media aren’t up to making critical distinctions and that sensational stories get more viewers than mundane ones.

Then there’s “junk science,” in which the motif of science is used to deceive; “pseudoscience,” in which the rhetoric of science is used illogically and deceptively (as in Deepak Chopra’s purposeful conflation of quantum theory and aging); and outright fraud. All of these Park collects under the notion of “voodoo science.”

There are plenty of targets out there, and Park takes full advantage of that. Homeopathy. Alternative medicine. ESP, parapsychology. But why? Everyone with a worthwhile college education (an increasingly small fraction of the population) knows these are bunkum. Why not go after the big Kahuna: the phenomenal exaggeration of the magnitude and implications of global warming, consciously promoted by a large scientific community. Now that would be a good subject for a book about weird science!

Instead, Park seems to think everything is okay in a global-warming world, and that the science is just going to sort itself out. As an example, he doesn’t well represent the out-and-out problem between global satellite data and global-warming models. Someone without special knowledge of this field would conclude, from reading Park, that an error was found in the satellite data that invalidated their assault on the gloom-and-doom paradigm, when in fact the error has been corrected and the annual average satellite data still show no statistically significant warming in its 23-year history.

This gigantic omission is because Park really didn’t want to rock the global-warming boat. In Washington scientific relevance is defined by the amount of money doled out–be it to members of the American Physical Society or to the American Meteorological Society–and this induces profound distortions in the normal scientific process. I was desperately hoping that Park would discuss that point at length, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose a long-winded (and somewhat inaccurate) assault on anti-ballistic missile defense and Edward Teller. This included the whopper that the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev was a total failure.

What happened at Reykjavik is that both parties had agreed to some considerable reductions in nuclear forces. As the meeting broke up, Gorbachev added one condition: we would agree to stop working on an anti-nuclear defense. Reagan walked away. Gorbachev returned to Moscow and informed the Central Committee that they had to compete technologically with the Americans. The Soviet Union fell apart, and soon after they were forced to “tear down that wall.” If Park thinks this is a “total failure,” I can’t imagine how he would define “success.”

Basically, Park is saying that the secrecy surrounding ABM and related defenses is inimical to the normal process of science, and that those under the shroud have financial incentives to be less than candid in order to continue receiving taxpayer largesse.

So which distorts more–money or secrecy? That would have been a good question. Which causes more voodoo, oodles of politicized dollars or security clearances?

Face it, neither is very healthy. Instead of going to this core, which is the fountainhead of much scientific voodoo, especially the global-climate hysteria, Park took the easy shots. Too bad, because I think he knows a lot about the way science gets politically carved up in Washington that he, too, is keeping secret.

At any rate, Park’s book is a good read for the easy targets. But for the more interesting objectives, like the creation of voodoo science by the Public Choice process, well, I’m working on it.

Patrick Michaels is professor of environmental sciences at University of Virginia, a senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute, and author of The Satanic Gases.

The Great American Tax Dodge

by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

Little, Brown and Company — 2000 — 292 pages — $28.95 cloth; $22.95 paperback

Reviewed by E. Frank Stephenson

It is difficult not to be attracted to a book that predicts the demise of the U.S. income tax before its 100th birthday (2013). Yet The Great American Tax Dodge is immensely unattractive. That authors Donald Barlett and James Steele treat their prediction as a rallying cry for preserving the current tax monstrosity rather than a cause for optimism is enough to explain the awfulness awaiting the reader.

Of the several factors Barlett and Steele blame for eroding the income tax, two top their list. First are the offshore tax havens, now more readily accessible via the Internet, referred to as “treasure islands.” Barlett and Steele give us a rambling travelogue of such places as the British Virgin Islands and Costa Rica, while completely overlooking the useful competition that such places provide to restrain our domestic tax system from being even more draconian. Moreover, Barlett and Steele fail to recognize that the costs people will incur to use such tax havens reflect the massive inefficiencies introduced by our tax code. (This is a mistake they repeat later when reporting that the estate tax affected “a mere 1.4 percent of the adults who died” in 1995; obviously they have never heard of estate planning.)

Barlett and Steele’s other primary culprit in undermining the sacred income tax is–please read this sitting down–the Congress, which “slashed” the IRS’s funding. According to our authors, the same rapacious Congress that could hardly bear to cut taxes by $1.25 trillion even when surpluses of $5.6 trillion were projected, systematically and stealthily seeks to end the income tax by leaving the IRS in a “weakened state.” This outrageous assertion hardly merits discussion–wouldn’t it stand to reason that if Congress really wanted to undermine the income tax that it would do so openly so it could reap the political benefits of repealing an unpopular tax?

If the logic supporting the claim that Congress seeks to erode its cash cow is underwhelming, the evidence is even weaker. No fewer than 13 different times do Barlett and Steele claim that Congress has “withheld funding,” “made sure the IRS no longer has the resources to catch tax cheats,” or “[w]ith each passing year [since 1991] . . . continued to slash the service’s auditing capabilities.” Not once, however, do they actually provide budget figures to support these statements. As the suspicious reader might guess, there is a reason for this statistical dodge: The IRS budget did not decline over the 1990s. The IRS was appropriated $7.088 billion (measured in 1997 dollars) in 1991, received $7.205 billion in 1997, and spent more than that in every intervening year. Instead of looking directly at resource availability, Barlett and Steele cite declining audit rates and IRS employment. Declining audit rates, however, are consistent with interpretations other than congressional miserliness. According to IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, the audit rate “substantially understate[s] the IRS’s capability to find errors in returns” and, because of increasing computer scrutiny of returns, “there is no need to return to the levels of individual audit coverage that existed even five years ago.”

The misrepresentation of the IRS budget is hardly the only sleight of hand foisted on the reader. For example, an assertion that “tax dodging has become a way of life for one-third to one-half of all Americans” is illustrated, in a chapter called “The Tax Cheat Next Door,” by the Wildenstein family, which has homes on three continents and spends more per year ($60,000) on its dogs than most families earn. If tax cheating is so ubiquitous, couldn’t Barlett and Steele have found a more representative (albeit less sensational) example?

Or try this one: Barlett and Steele report that of the estimated 6.5 million nonfilers in 1991 “[i]ncredibly, 74,000 had incomes of more than $100,000.” Presumably, the reader is supposed to infer that there are a lot of high-income tax cheats. What Barlett and Steele do not say, however, is that people earning over $100,000 constitute a little more than 1 percent of nonfilers but about 4 percent of those who do file. Although inconvenient for the statism and class envy permeating the book, the authors unwittingly report that high income people are actually significantly less likely to be nonfilers than are people overall.

One more example: Barlett and Steele claim that four-fifths of the population only make enough to live on and are unable to buy stock. Since some 50 percent of households actually own stock, is the reader supposed to believe that the “stock fairy” has visited some 30 percent of the households?

Of course, Barlett and Steele do not confine their jujitsu to statistics. They proclaim “that in a democracy all citizens should be treated the same,” but they argue for a tax code with “a dozen or more rates that rise as income goes up.” Evidently the meaning of “same” depends on one’s income. Not that this is surprising in a book that invokes the tired cliché of the robber baron and frets about “an unbridgeable chasm, between the have-mores and the have-lesses.”

This book is long on fanciful anecdotes, short on solid evidence, and utterly void of any respect for individual liberty or property rights. As a result, reading Barlett and Steele is even more painful than filling out a tax form.

Frank Stephenson is an assistant professor of economics at Berry College.

Reclaiming Education

by James Tooley

Cassell — 2000 — 250 pages — $74.95

Reviewed by Antony Flew

It is from the state that James Tooley wants education to be reclaimed. Although as a British author, his most immediate concern is to do this in the United Kingdom, many of his arguments, and much of the evidence he deploys in their support, constitute valuable, fresh ammunition for those fighting for the same cause elsewhere.

Thus Tooley notes that “Equity–or one of its popular synonyms, equality of opportunity or just plain equality–is the principal reason why government intervention in education is justified.” The author appears to have been the first person to dispose of that crucial statist contention by referring readers to facts provided in the 1995 Report of the UK Central Statistical Office. The report revealed that “in Britain 40 percent of 21 year olds admit to difficulties with writing and spelling, nearly 30 percent to difficulties with numeracy, and 20 percent to difficulties with reading and writing” (emphasis in original). Tooley then goes on to cite comparable figures from the United States as well as–to my surprise–Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

So if this is all the equality that state monopoly systems provide, egalitarians would surely better serve their own ideals by seeking alternative and more efficient ways of providing educational services. Tooley finds them in the market. His investigations in the Third World have revealed that there are many private companies competing to supply paying customers with educational services in poorer countries.

Several such ventures are obviously satisfying their customers and achieving commercial success. They spend heavily to promote their brand names. “Any visitor to South Africa cannot fail to be struck by the ubiquity of advertisements for courses offered by Damelin and other Educor subsidiaries,” Tooley writes of a company that offers a full range of academic courses from kindergarten to university level.

To the statist objection that private providers cannot meet the needs of parents too poor to pay for the education of their children, Tooley’s first response is to remind readers that the late Professor Edwin West’s studies have shown that even in 1861, before the beginnings of the state system, over 95 percent of all children were schooled for up to six years. The education of most of those children was paid for by their parents, while “even in the minority of schools in receipt of some state funding, two-thirds of funding came from non-state sources, including parents’ contributions to fees, and church and philanthropic funds.”

Tooley next provides evidence that state schools cost more and at best provide no better service than private. He then goes on to make the salutary and challenging suggestion that, in the U.K. and U.S.A., “if the norms of society promoted it, then the great majority of families could find educational opportunities, even without the further incentives that a lower tax regime (given no state schooling) would bring.”

J. S. Mill issued this famous warning in On Liberty: “A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.” We now have urgent occasion to quote Mill’s words with particular reference to the state-maintained school system in the U.K., for all the proposals on Education for Citizenship that Tooley discusses have, in the few months since the book appeared, been adopted by the Blair administration.

It is impossible to do justice to these measures briefly. Suffice it to say that they are simply not intended to provide for impartial instruction. Instead, the manifest object is to encourage certain interests and to instill certain values in the pupils whom the present administration has in its power. The nature of those values and interests can perhaps best be indicated here by saying that most of them are shared both by those described in the United States as “left liberals” and in the U.K. by members of the editorial staff of The Guardian newspaper.

Finally, Tooley was recently commissioned to survey the research produced by British professors of education. He reported that the quality was poor, but by far his most important finding was that those professors produced virtually nothing that was in any way relevant to the practical business of education. A main part of the promise of privatization is that competing firms have as such an interest in sponsoring research to reveal ways to increase efficiency. As Tooley says, “the Model T was produced in an industry where improvement was essential to survival.”

Anthony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Reading, England.

Cutting Green Tape: Toxic Pollutants, Environmental Regulation and the Law

edited by Richard L. Stroup and Roger E. Meiners

Transaction Publishers — 2000 — 278 pages — $39.95

Reviewed by Sandy Liddy Bourne

The past 30 years have seen an explosion in federal and state regulation under the auspices of protecting the environment and public health. As we look around our newly found politically correct, lean, green, clean society, one wonders if our freedom has been swept under the rug along with our common sense. More important, did we achieve what we set out to achieve? Did we learn to maintain a healthy environment through government regulation–or have we proven that excessive regulation is damaging to our natural resources?

Cutting Green Tape is a cry for a sound, reasonable approach to environmental policy with measurable results. Economists Richard Stroup and Roger Meiners investigate the impact of regulation on toxic waste sites with an eye toward human and environmental health benefits. They amply document the use of poor science and phantom risk and the expenditure of billions of dollars with little effect on the actual cleanup of existing hazardous waste sites. In fact, they argue, the regulatory requirements and litigation costs are so burdensome that they are barriers to effectively addressing toxic threats to the environment.

Economics professor Bruce Benson’s chapter “Toxic Torts by Government” illustrates a trend of government failures in protecting human health through its own immunity from tort liability as a major producer of toxic waste. How often do newspaper headlines scream about private sector companies under prosecution for alleged violations of the law, when those companies are under government contract or legislative mandates to produce toxic substances such as Agent Orange? As was the case in the Soviet Union, government is often the worst polluter of all.

In a subsequent chapter, “Rent Seeking on the Legal Frontier,” Benson examines the impact of regulatory uncertainty over the past 30 years brought about by the changing definition of liability. The move away from traditional tort standards has muddied the waters of secure property rights and liability rules. A wave of judicial activism has raised bankruptcy to a new level of legal defense for firms whose money would be better spent developing technological advances to enhance sustainable practices in environmental stewardship.

Several essays in the book examine the common law as an alternative to governmental regulation. Roger Meiners and lawyer Jo-Christy Brown provide an overview of the history and operation of the rules of nuisance, trespass, and strict liability. Under the common law, liability could follow only from proof of harm, but the authors observe that Superfund and other environmental statutes fail to require any such evidence. In another chapter, law professors David Haddock and Daniel Polsby argue that negligence rules often are superior to strict liability in deterring pollution.

The book also includes a chapter by the late Aaron Wildavsky on the regulation of carcinogens in which he argued we have sufficient data and evidence of human toxicity for only a few pollutants. Hence, activist judicial decisions based on evidence with little scientific merit are driving up the cost of premiums for product liability insurance and hence the average cost of living.

Economist David T. Fractor provides a practical look into groundwater protection from toxic pollutants. He outlines the physical characteristics of groundwater resources and lists several examples of innovative site- and situation-specific technologies to prevent groundwater and aquifer pollution. He advocates the establishment of property rights for water quality to facilitate a market approach to groundwater policy. While this approach is not foreign to free-market environmentalists, it is a concept that has not yet prevailed.

Another important contribution comes from legal policy expert Peter Huber, bioengineering professor Kenneth Foster, and law professor David Bernstein, who collaborated on a chapter devoted to scientific testimony in courts. They discuss the problems of dubious medical diagnoses, erroneous or slanted reviews of scientific data, and the impact of legally irrelevant testimony designed to mislead juries.

This book is an excellent primer for free-market environmentalists who seek to promote flexible, innovative solutions to complicated problems of polluted resources. It is a wakeup call for any law student with visions of mass environmental tort litigation dancing in his head. More important, it tunnels through the bureaucracy with a scenario for the sustainable use of natural resources and a measurable reduction in toxic waste.

Sandy Liddy Bourne is the director of the Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

A University for the 21st Century

by James J. Duderstadt

University of Michigan Press — 2000 — 358 pages — $47.50

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Picking up this book, I toyed with a wildly improbable idea. What if the author, former president of a major state university, had experienced an epiphany after leaving office and had written a book challenging the shibboleths of the higher education establishment?

Alas, no. This is about as far as one could possibly get from a “conversion” book. Duderstadt’s mission here is not to give us penetrating scrutiny of American higher education, but to erect defenses around even its most costly and inane practices. His defenses, however, are as strong as tissue paper.

Higher education in America has been a phenomenal growth sector ever since the end of World War II, thanks in large measure to the success of university lobbyists in persuading government to throw ever-greater subsidies into the system. Relying on the argument that education is a “public good” requiring huge injections of taxpayer money to provide the knowledge and research that propel the economy and technological progress, university presidents and their allies managed to engineer a prodigious increase in spending on higher education. Before World War II fewer than one American high-school graduate in ten enrolled in a college or university; now the number is approximately two out of three. To Duderstadt, as with all dutiful members of the education establishment, that growth is a pure public benefit.

He attributes our prosperity in large measure to the nation’s “investment” in higher education and contends that as we move into a “new economy” based on information, higher education will become even more important. The trouble with this favorite argument is that it implicitly assumes that the market process cannot bring about the optimal allocation of resources-we need government to ensure that more students attend ever-expanding colleges and universities. To educationists, that is the way of raising the level of knowledge in society. It never occurs to them that individuals in a free society will make the optimal investments, educational and otherwise, without government intrusion.

Higher-education apologists like Duderstadt would have us believe that we are prosperous because so many Americans have taken advantage of student-aid programs and attended heavily subsidized universities. I think the reverse of that proposition is nearer the truth. We can afford to have so many young people dozing through so many esoteric and even laughable college courses because we are prosperous. The vital knowledge that made that prosperity possible-the calculus and the biochemistry and so on-would have been learned without the massive government spending on higher education. It’s worth noting that the U.S. economy grew at a more rapid pace in the nineteenth century, when government involvement in education was minimal, than it has since the onset of the education era.

Another of Duderstadt’s main concerns is to build a redoubt for the education establishment’s preoccupation with “diversity.” That having a “diverse” university (by which educationists mean that the student body, faculty, administration, and even governing board must be chosen to include members of all recognized social groups, and that the curriculum must be designed to appeal to all those groups) is a social good has become an article of faith among those at the pinnacle of our university system. The author tries hard to justify it, but it’s all a waste of ink. One of his arguments, for example, is that because the world is becoming more “globalized,” Americans would be ill-served by their colleges and universities if they didn’t equip them with a multicultural knowledge base. Duderstadt writes, “[U]nderstanding cultures other than our own has become necessary, not only for personal enrichment and good citizenship, but for our very survival as a nation.”

What a stupendous non sequitur! Americans who deal with individuals from other cultures (for all the talk of globalization, still a very small percentage of us) learn what they need to learn in order to effect whatever dealings they desire. American businessmen who want to trade with businessmen from, say, Bolivia, might find it advantageous to learn something about Bolivian customs. If so, they will learn. The notion that people can’t trade or even get along unless everyone takes a raft of college courses about other cultures is silly.

Universities have their place, but the only way to find out what that place is is to have them face the test of the market. Instead of receiving government subsidies, they should compete for resources as other for-profit and non-profit institutions do. Duderstadt’s model 21st-century universities would soak up a great deal of wealth that they didn’t voluntarily earn. I think that the better model is the university of the ancient Arabic world, where students paid professors to impart their knowledge to them. But those universities didn’t need presidents, lobbyists, or elaborate justifications.

George Leef is book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.

The Academic Achievement Challenge

by Jeanne S. Chall

Guilford Press — 2000 — 210 pages — $26.00

Reviewed by Michael B. Poliakoff

Jeanne Chall’s The Academic Achievement Challenge, published after her death in 1999, is a brilliant analysis of what research tells us about effective and ineffective teaching. It is also a mournful reflection on why we have so much of the latter.

After decades of education research, Chall posed a question that should chill the blood of every policymaker: “Why were the same reforms proposed again and again, under new labels, with little recognition that they were similar to practices or policies that had failed in the past?” The victims of educational malpractice are real and numerous. Behind grim statistics like “70% of inner-city 4th graders read below grade level” are yet grimmer consequences, like a burgeoning prison population made up mostly of men whose mathematical and verbal-literacy skills are of the eighth grade level or below.

Chall is perhaps best known for her definitive studies of reading instruction. This research demonstrated the effectiveness of phonics instruction-teaching the relationship between letters and sounds and the ability to “decode” unfamiliar words into their correct sounds. The “whole language” reading method that Chall criticized attempts to teach sight recognition of whole words and sentences at the earliest stages of reading. Despite the evidence of its failure, whole language has had remarkable longevity. And this is precisely Chall’s point: whole language has been around since the 1920s, but its advocates in the 1980s and 1990s never referred to the decades-old body of evidence that warns against it. Even now, we are not over this infatuation with bad practice. For example, at the State University of New York (which intends to open an Urban Teacher Education Center soon), one still finds catalogs spouting such arrant nonsense as:

The Graduate Reading Program is firmly committed to the philosophy that reading is comprehension and that reading comprehension is a dynamic transactive process of constructing meaning as the reader brings prior knowledge to the text within the context of the reading situation. Reading is now regarded as an active search for meaning rather than a mechanical translation of the written code.

The Academic Achievement Challenge demonstrates that failed education theories such as whole language have deep ideological roots and thus do not go away easily. Phonics, like careful exposition of mathematical problem-solving and practice in basic calculation skills, reflects a “teacher-centered” approach. Such methods put a much greater burden and responsibility on teachers and schools to construct appropriate lesson plans and to set and meet goals. Education schools train new teachers primarily to use a “student centered” or “constructivist” approach, one that encourages children to identify their own interests and to pose and answer questions that are most meaningful to them. The teacher, in constructivist parlance, is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” Chall chronicles the havoc such methods have caused, from the earliest laboratory schools of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell to the “open education” of contemporary public schools and the self-esteem movement. Chall, who assuredly was no ideologue, cites and discusses research that shows the effectiveness of carefully directed student-centered approaches for stronger, more advanced students and concludes that the best education is a continuum that moves students from structured, skills-based instruction to their own, self-motivated discovery. But the teacher remains the central, directing presence in the child’s education, providing the “scaffolding” that will support students as they move to greater independence.

It is remarkable how often reason and research do, in fact, intersect. Students whose teachers assign and grade homework, whose schools enforce attendance, and who take frequent quizzes and tests achieve at higher levels than peers in less structured and disciplined environments. None of those practices is antithetical to creativity and higher-order thinking; not surprisingly, students who have had carefully structured training in basic skills-disparagingly called “drill and kill” in teacher-training circles-ultimately do better on tasks requiring deeper understanding and knowledge. When education fads fail to produce student-learning results, we commonly see the blame placed on “low SES (socioeconomic status),” or in other words, the children themselves. The research cited and discussed in The Academic Achievement Challenge eliminates those shameful excuses and returns accountability to where it belongs: schools, school leadership, and teachers.

One of Dante’s greatest psychological insights is that the lost souls who populate his Inferno share a deep attachment to their sins, even when their lasting consequences are so painfully clear. And so it is with the education establishment and its attachment to disastrous educational “reforms.” Inestimable numbers of people never reached their potential to pursue rewarding careers and understand their community and culture because educators were blind to the research that informs their own profession. It is time to do it right. The greatest tribute that we can pay to Jeanne Chall’s lifetime commitment to schools and children is to follow the clear evidence we have and finally create schools that work.

Michael Poliakoff is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.


February 2002


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October 2014

Heavily-armed police and their supporters will tell you they need all those armored trucks and heavy guns. It's a dangerous job, not least because Americans have so many guns. But the numbers just don't support these claims: Policing is safer than ever--and it's safer than a lot of common jobs by comparison. Daniel Bier has the analysis. Plus, Iain Murray and Wendy McElroy look at how the Feds are recruiting more and more Americans to do their policework for them.
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