Respond to this Article October 2004

Research and Destroy

How the religious right promotes its own "experts" to combat mainstream science.

By Chris Mooney

Ever since he was a kid, Joel Brind found himself drawn to science. In 1961, when he was 10, Brind got his hands on a Life magazine story about the electron microscope and the fresh window it had opened onto the cell and its curiously shaped organelles. "Then and there I decided to become a biochemist," Brind recalled in a 2000 essay in Physician magazine, a publication of Focus on the Family, a leading religious right group. You see, Brind may have received his biochemistry Ph.D. from New York University in 1981, but he passed a far more important personal milestone four years later when he found Jesus. Soon Brind recognized the "noble task" God had chosen for him. He would prove the biological connection between having an abortion and contracting breast cancer later in life, thereby dissuading countless women from killing their unborn children. "With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose," Brind wrote.

Brind, now a professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, had an uphill battle ahead of him. Studies dating back to 1957 had found varying results on whether abortion raises the risk of breast cancer, but scientists frequently cited methodological flaws in the positive studies. Then in 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine published a massive study of 1.5 million women in Denmark that found no connection, more or less closing the door on the so-called "ABC link." "The scientific community felt this was by far the best study that had been done to date, and really settled the issue," says Lynn Rosenberg, an epidemiologist at Boston University who has participated in the ABC debate.

But that didn't stop Brind, who continued to insist that the ABC link was alive and well. Though he does not appear to have published any original research on the question, Brind--who did not return calls for this article--became a prolific writer of letters to academic journals and of articles in pro-life newsletters. In 1999, he even co-founded a think tank, the innocuously named Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, to promote his theory. Even as mainstream scientists were discarding the earlier pro-ABC studies, Brind's PR initiative started to drive policy. Pushed by pro-lifers, several states--including Texas, Kansas, and Minnesota--now require health-care providers to inform women about breast cancer risks before performing an abortion. In Washington, conservative politicians also embraced Brind's "science." His biggest coup came in 2002 when, following a letter from Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and other pro-life members of Congress, the National Cancer Institute altered an online fact sheet that had discounted abortion breast cancer risks, updating it to suggest that studies were inconclusive.

Brind's story provides a case study in how religious conservatives have shifted gears in their battles over science and policy. Instead of simply lecturing about the moral evils of abortion, they've increasingly depicted the procedure as damaging to women's health. And on a range of other issues, Christian conservatives have similarly adopted the veneer of scientific and technical expertise instead of merely asserting their heartfelt beliefs. Their claims--that abortion causes mental problems in women, that condoms aren't very effective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, that adult stem cells have more research promise than embryonic ones, and so on--now frequently comprise the right's chief arguments on these issues. Granted, the Christian right's new "science" generally remains on the fringe of the scientific community. But since conservative funders have managed to underwrite a variety of think tanks and advocacy groups that push these arguments, it has nevertheless influenced policy at the state and federal level.

Developing an arsenal of scientific arguments may represent a strategic innovation for the religious right. But Brind's attempts to prove a link between abortion and breast cancer also show how this new tactic can backfire. When NCI changed its breast cancer fact sheet in response to conservative advocacy, the institute met with howls of outrage from breast cancer advocates. Under public pressure, NCI then assembled a workshop of over 100 experts to reinvestigate the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer. Brind was the sole dissenter. Soon afterward, the group reaffirmed that abortion "is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk."

So while Brind may carry on his crusade through non-scientific channels, he's clearly lost the scientific debate. Moreover, the NCI incident has contributed to an unprecedented mobilization among scientists eager to flex some policy clout. Already, scores of Nobel laureates have endorsed John Kerry for president, and the politicization of science, especially with regard to embryonic stem-cell research, may turn out to be among the more potent issues Democrats use against George W. Bush. Pursuing analogies to mainstream science was supposed to lend newfound legitimacy and strength to religious conservatism. But in the long run, it might just doom those who invoke such techniques to defeat.

The id of ID

To understand how the religious right got science, it helps to examine the long-running battle over evolution. Though evolutionary theory has been controversial ever since the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, what we now call creationism--America's religiously inspired anti-evolution movement--had its origins in the early decades of the 20th century, when Protestant fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan thumped their Bibles and denounced the spread of evolutionism. Following the famed Scopes Trial of 1925, evolution largely vanished from American science textbooks until the late 1950s, when a post-Sputnik emphasis on science education brought it back with a vengeance. As the political climate changed, creationists also experienced a string of court defeats, notably the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 ruling in Epperson v. Arkansas, which declared unconstitutional outright bans on the teaching of evolution.

Soon creationists adopted a new strategy, arguing on secular and scientific grounds for the incorporation of creationism alongside evolution in school curricula. "What they had to do was pretend that it was a science and that it should be given equal time," explains Stephen Brush, a science historian at the University of Maryland. The core tenet of "creation science" emerged from the mind of George McCready Price, a Seventh-day Adventist who had little scientific training but felt God had instructed him to enter what he called the "unworked field" of evolutionary geology. Price acknowledged the existence of an extensive fossil record, but argued that all fossils had been created during a catastrophic worldwide deluge--that is, the Biblical flood from which Noah escaped in his ark.

This claim was, to put it mildly, highly dubious. But it nonetheless allowed creationists to position themselves as believers in an alternative scientific theory rather than mere religious dogma. As leading creationist Henry Morris argued in his 1974 book, Scientific Creationism, creationism could be taught "without reference to the book of Genesis or to other religious literature or religious doctrines." (Morris managed to cover his bases, publishing two versions of his book--a secular edition for public schools and a religious one that cited Scripture.) In the 1960s and 1970s, organizations and think tanks such as the Creation Research Society and later the Institute for Creation Research sprang up to support creation science, while researchers affiliated with these groups published books for popular audiences and pushed their theories to the press without the pressures of peer review or academic rigor.

But though creation science found a few willing dupes in Washington--including Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 declared evolution "a scientific theory only"--it didn't sway the courts. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creation science alongside evolution violated the First Amendment's establishment clause by promoting religion. Instrumental in the case was a statement from the real scientists: 72 Nobel laureates signed an amicus brief favoring the overturn of Louisiana's "equal time" law, and arguing that "teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to scientific education."

But anti-evolutionists didn't abandon their strategy. Instead, they stripped their ideas still further of any religious content while jacking up the scientific rhetoric. Key to their efforts was the repackaging of a concept with a respectable philosophical lineage, once called "natural theology" but now known as "intelligent design" (ID). In a cosmological sense, intelligent design proponents hold that the universe itself shows proof of God's handiwork, a claim naturalistic science can neither confirm nor refute. But in the hands of religious conservatives, intelligent design eclipsed creation science as the main challenge to evolutionary theory, with proponents arguing that they can detect scientific proof of "design" in living creatures and that evolutionists themselves are "religiously" addicted to an atheistic worldview.

ID has moved into the public debate via one well-funded think-tank, Seattle's Discovery Institute, founded in 1990 by a former Reagan administration official and generously funded by financial backers of other religious right causes. As with creation science, ID's most credentialed practitioners appear motivated by theology rather than research. Leading proponent Jonathan Wells, for instance, is a member of the Unification Church and has written that the words of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon helped convince him to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism"--the reason, according to Wells, that he attended the University of California at Berkeley to obtain a second Ph.D. in biology (his first was in theology). After receiving his second doctorate, Wells quickly began "writing articles critical of Darwinism," according to an article he published on a Unificationist Web site, although he doesn't seem too interested in peer-reviewed research. In a 2001 interview shortly after publishing his book Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?, Wells said "I am not now doing laboratory research. I have begun several … experimental projects, but they are on hold until the current controversy is resolved." True scientists, of course, tend to think that research is how you resolve such controversies.

Although the arguments for intelligent design have enjoyed some influence among religiously-inclined mathematicians and philosophers, they have failed to convince its core scientific audience: working biologists. As Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, himself a practicing Catholic, has put it, "The scientific community has not embraced the explanation of design because it is quite clear, on the basis of the evidence, that it is wrong." Nevertheless, ID proponents have deployed across the nation arguing that we should "teach the controversy" over evolution by allowing ID-style "scientific" critiques into classrooms. Given its clear religious motivations, ID ultimately seems destined to suffer the same legal fate as creationism. But in the meantime, it has sparked controversy and school board battles in states ranging from Ohio to Montana.

Steered science

Intelligent design proponents aren't the only religious conservatives who have adopted the trappings of science. Take David Reardon, an Illinois-based researcher who during the 1980s set out to prove that abortion causes mental illness, chemical dependency, and a range of other poor health outcomes in women. It's true that women sometimes feel temporarily depressed or guilty after an abortion. But the notion that abortion regularly causes severe or clinical mental problems has been rejected by, among others, a group of experts convened by the American Psychological Association and Ronald Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop. (See sidebar.)

Reardon first emerged on the intellectual scene in 1987 with a book titled Aborted Women, Silent No More, a review of the "evidence" on abortion's after-effects that included testimonies from women who had undergone post-abortion religious conversions. The next year, Reardon founded his own quasi-academic think tank, the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research. At the time, Reardon had a background in electronic engineering; he's since acquired a Ph.D. in biomedical ethics from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited correspondence school offering no classroom instruction.

Over the years, Reardon has managed to publish a number of abortion-related papers in scientific journals. But at best, he has been able to show correlations between abortion and, say, depression or alcoholism--not causation. In a 2003 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, for instance, Reardon and co-authors reported that women who undergo abortions end up being admitted for psychiatric care more frequently than those who do not. But as numerous critics pointed out, that hardly proved that abortion causes mental problems. In a rebuttal of the study, University of California at Santa Barbara psychologist Brenda Major noted that Reardon's group failed to control for the different life circumstances of women who choose to abort versus those who have a planned pregnancy. (Women who opt for abortion, for example, tend not to be married or in intimate relationships--factors themselves linked to poorer mental health.)

Confronted with such criticisms, Reardon avers that "proving causation is always very difficult." Yet "in well-designed studies that control for variables Reardon fails to take into account, legal abortion is not found to be associated with degradation in mental health," notes Nancy Felipe Russo, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Reardon doesn't just read the data differently; he appears to see what he wants to see. In a recent essay in the conservative journal Ethics & Medicine, Reardon defended what he called the "Neglected Rhetorical Strategy" of opposing abortion on the grounds that it hurts women, instead of simply because it's morally wrong. "Because abortion is evil, we can expect, and can even know, that it will harm those who participate in it," he wrote. "Nothing good comes from evil." That's theological, not scientific thinking. But it has been influential. Recently, conservative Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to provide $ 15 million in federal funding for research on "post-abortion depression."

Condom condemnation

Embryonic stem-cell research is another issue where conservatives have latched onto fringe science in order to advance moral arguments. A key protagonist of the stem-cell debate has been David Prentice, until recently a biologist at Indiana State University and now a senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, a prominent conservative religious organization in Washington. In recent years, Prentice has made a name for himself by arguing that so-called "adult" stem cells--found in bone marrow and other parts of the body--have "as great, if not greater, potential for biomedical application" than embryonic stem cells (harvested from embryos created but unused by fertility clinics and donated by the patients, who no longer need them for in vitro fertilization).

In an interview, Prentice told me he considers himself a Christian and "definitely conservative," but added, "that's not how I argue these debates--I'm arguing from the science." Yet his scientific track record on adult stem cells is sparse. Prentice says he began collecting scientific references and reviewing the literature in the late 1990s, but confesses that he still hasn't managed to get a scientific publication on the topic into print. Nevertheless, Prentice has served as an "ad hoc" adviser to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading opponent of embryonic stem-cell research. Prentice has also presented a "commissioned paper" on adult stem cells for the President's Council on Bioethics, arguing that these cells "have demonstrated a surprising ability for transformation into other tissue and cell types." For this reason, Prentice argues that scientists need not bother with morally troubling embryonic stem cells at all. In other words, embryonic stem cells could be banned on religious grounds without affecting the progress of research.

Most of his peers disagree including the National Institutes of Health and the respected International Society for Stem Cell Research, whose board of directors argued in a recent letter to President Bush that "research on all types of stem cells warrants increased federal funding." Although it's well established that embryonic stem cells can generate any kind of tissue found in the body--hence their potential usefulness in investigating, and perhaps curing, various degenerative diseases--adult stem cells, by contrast, are thought only to be capable of generating cells within their own tissue type. Some recent research has suggested that adult cells might have more plasticity than originally assumed--research that Prentice has trumpeted as firm evidence that we can do away with embryonic stem-cell research. But the field's leading experts note that the studies on which Prentice relies either suffer from poor design or have not been replicated by other laboratories. "Scientifically, there is no independently verified evidence today that a pure stem cell of one type--adult tissue, say blood forming--can turn into another tissue at all," says Stanford pathologist Irving Weissman.

The closely connected issues of sex education and condom effectiveness pose a similar challenge for religious conservatives, who for moral reasons don't want juveniles having sex but for political reasons wish to bolster their arguments with appeals to social science. Chief among these appeals is the argument that abstinence is the only absolutely effective means of preventing pregnancy and STDs, and that "comprehensive" sex-ed programs--which teach the benefits of both abstinence and contraceptive use--are ineffective, or even dangerous.

That's where Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney comes in. McIlhaney is director of the Austin-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which he founded in 1992. The institute doesn't do much original research, but instead advocates abstinence-only education and critiques studies about other forms of pregnancy- and STD-prevention, such as condom use. McIlhaney, for instance, decries the "failure" of comprehensive sex-ed programs. Yet if these programs have failed, it's hard to know what constitutes success. Douglas Kirby, a teen sexuality expert at the California-based research organization ETR Associates, points out that that scientists have strong data showing that some comprehensive sex-ed programs work to change behavior by either increasing contraceptive use or delaying sex among teens. McIlhaney knows that, but he counters that "just because you've increased condom use by maybe 5 or 10 or 20 percent for kids in a program, does not mean you're actually going to impact the STD rate for them." But definitively showing that these programs--already proven effective in the short term--impact long term STD or pregnancy rates would require expensive longitudinal studies with huge sample sizes that funders are rarely willing to bankroll.

Likewise, McIlhaney's group publishes a pamphlet asking whether condoms make sex "safe enough," suggesting the answer is "no." Yet according to a 2001 review by the NIH, condoms have only a minimal slippage and breakage rate (roughly 2 to 4 percent), have been shown to block particles the size of the smallest viruses, and have been positively proven effective in the prevention of HIV, gonorrhea, and unwanted pregnancy. For other STDs, data was inadequate, but condom effectiveness can be strongly inferred. "To say condoms don't work is really a misleading statement. To say they don't work perfectly is accurate. But in sexual situations where there's either a known or perhaps unknown high risk of exposure, do condoms lower that risk, the answer is yes," says Ward Cates, a doctor who heads the Institute for Family Health at Family Health International, an international public health organization. When I pressed McIlhaney to tell me whether or not he thought--as nearly every other person in the field does--condoms lower the risk of pregnancy or the transmission of disease, he demurred, chuckling softly. "It's just this simple sort of little latex device, and we're talking about the futures of young people," he said.

In an interview, McIlhaney, a self-identified Christian, strenuously protested being characterized as a scientist motivated by religion. "We're a medical, scientific organization," he insisted. But when it comes to his own pro abstinence positions, McIlhaney's claims are more a matter of faith than science: There is as yet no evidence that abstinence-only education actually prevents kids from having sex. "There are no studies meeting reasonable criteria that show that any program has delayed the initiation of sex," notes Kirby.

Still, the Bush administration has humored McIlhaney and other critics of "comprehensive" sex education. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have abolished an initiative called "Programs that Work," which in 2002 listed five "comprehensive" sex-education programs and no "abstinence only" ones. And both the CDC and the State Department's Agency for International Development have altered informational materials on condoms to downplay evidence of their effectiveness. McIlhaney himself serves on both the advisory committee to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the President's Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.

Duck and cover

All told, Christian conservatives have gone a long way towards creating their own scientific counter-establishment. Indeed, the religious right's "science" represents just the most recent manifestation of the gradual conservative Christian political awakening that has so dramatically shaped our politics over the past several decades. "They're saying that their faith is not just a pietistic private exercise, but that it has implications in the world of education, or politics, or the world of science," notes Michael Cromartie, an expert on the religious right at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And by providing a scientific cover--albeit a thin one--for religiously-inspired policies, this appropriation of science has at least temporary benefits for groups seeking to promote them. After all, the scientific method is inherently open to abuse. Because it encourages open publication, continual challenges to the conventional wisdom, and a presumption of good faith on the part of researchers, those who would deliberately slant their interpretations or cherry-pick their facts find plenty of running room.

But in the long push and pull between science and dogma, science has always been its own best defense. In his seminal 1896 work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Andrew Dickson White, the former president of Cornell University, famously cast the past as a long struggle between scientific truths and religious dogmas. White's thesis doesn't seem to account for the gray area--for "creation science" or "intelligent design" theories, or for religious believers trying to advance their views through science rather than through its suppression or defeat. But perhaps it doesn't need to. By fighting on the battlefield of fact, religious conservatives have essentially defaulted on their centuries-long struggle against science itself; they've already put one knee to the ground. Mainstream researchers won't simply roll over and play dead when religious conservatives trod on their territory. Indeed, they tend to hit back--hard--when pushed.

We can fully expect Joel Brind, David Reardon, David Prentice, and others to carry on their scientific advocacy. We can also expect conservative politicians to draw upon their work, at least so long as they remain in power. Yet if Christian conservatives continue to put out questionable science, they'll only suffer repeated rejection, refutation, and disrepute from our nation's distinguished scientific community. Like phrenology and cold fusion, implausible claims about abortion's risks or adult stem cell miracles will eventually succumb to the scientific method. First scientists, but eventually even politicians, will leave them behind.

Chris Mooney, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and author of the Weblog www.chriscmooney.com, is writing a book about conservatives and science.


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