View Full Version : Skepticism in All Things

04-18-2008, 07:12 AM
The Paranoid Style in American Science
Contrary imaginations.
By Daniel Engber

Until Richard von Sternberg took over as the editor of the tiny, peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, no argument for intelligent design had ever appeared in a respectable scientific journal. In the summer of 2004, Sternberg published just such an attack on the theory of evolution, and—in the midst of a controversy over whether he was fired as a result—became a cause célèbre for the religious right. Now the Sternberg affair has become the centerpiece of a documentary feature film to be released in theaters around the country this Friday.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed takes the form of Michael Moore agitprop, with Ben Stein playing the rumpled and outraged interlocutor. As Stein presents it, the dangerous notion of a created universe has been suppressed by the overlords of mainstream science. He intersperses snippets of dialogue with evolutionary biologists with public-domain footage of goose-stepping fascists. In the movie version of reality, the mild-mannered Sternberg dared to challenge the power structure of American academia and soon "found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation." The same fate befalls others who question the Darwinian dogma: According to the Expelled blog, "Big Science's elite brands them as heretics and their careers are systematically destroyed." That is to say, they've been subjected to "the unseen silent hand of repression." (Click here for more information on the Sternberg affair and other exaggerated claims from the film.)

With the world out to get them, the film's producers have been more than a little cautious in how they've marketed the film. When I attended a screening for religious college students in February, we were all asked to sign nondisclosure agreements; guards stationed at the theater door double-checked compliance. (The producers later backtracked from these demands.) At a screening in Minneapolis a month later, the Expelled security team kicked out science blogger P.Z. Myers, who appears in the film and is thanked in the credits, and threatened him with arrest. This paranoid style gibes with the content of the film, which is less an attack on evolution than a conspiracy theory about the evolutionists who control our government. Go watch the trailer: "The media's in on it, the courts, the educational system. …"

Needless to say, Ben Stein doesn't provide much evidence of this conspiracy. (Perhaps, as a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, he knows 'em when he sees 'em.) Nor does he dwell on specific arguments for why the theory of evolution might be wrong. Thus far, the strategy of the creationists has been one of radical skepticism: They look for signs of uncertainty, gaps in the fossil record. Like the tobacco companies, the drug manufacturers, and the environmentalists, they need only the shadow of a doubt to make their case: If evolution might be wrong, then God might be right. And if God might be right, then why tempt His wrath with unbelief?

Expelled extends this contrarian approach with one more question: If God might be right, then why are scientists trying so hard to deny His existence? The suppression of faith starts to look like a concerted effort, and so doubt gives way to paranoid science. A skeptic cites bad evidence and sloppy data; the paranoid finds the books have been cooked. A skeptic frets over thoughtless conformism; the paranoid grows frantic about conspiracy.

The proponents of intelligent design are far from the only critics of mainstream science whose skepticism has taken on the trappings of conspiracy theory. In a 2005 article for Salon and Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reported on a top-secret meeting in rural Georgia where high-level government officials and pharmaceutical executives worked to cover up the link between children's vaccines and autism. (No such link has been found.) The public utilities are still accused, as they have been for more than 50 years, of conspiring against America's youth by fluoridating the water supply. And skeptics of the obesity epidemic point out that the media collude with pharmaceutical companies to feed a booming weight-loss industry. Paranoid science reveals nonmedical conspiracies, too—impenetrable ballistics data form the basis for a theory of the assassination of JFK, and the calculations of structural engineering cast doubt on the official story of 9/11.

Or consider another line of conspiratorial thinking in science, which made it into Harper's in March of 2006. Celia Farber's essay, "Out of Control: AIDS and the corruption of medical science," displays all the classic signs of paranoia: Over the course of 12,000 words, she argues that the syndrome we call AIDS has not been linked definitively to the HIV virus—and that our commitment to treating it with anti-retroviral drugs reflects a deadly and deliberate misconstruction of the facts.

Like the producers of Expelled, Farber portrays mainstream, government-funded science as a repressive regime intolerant of dissent. The victimized academic in this scenario is University of California-Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who wonders why AIDS sometimes appears without any sign of HIV infection, and why no one has yet demonstrated the mechanism by which the virus kills off our immune system's helper T-cells. (He proposes instead that AIDS is a "chemical syndrome," resulting from heavy drug use; for ample evidence to the contrary, click here.)

According to Farber, this challenge to the conventional wisdom cost Duesberg his government funding, his lab facilities, and his graduate students. He was also denied pay raises, disinvited from scientific meetings, and barred from publishing in certain scientific journals. Who's behind all this? Some combination of the FDA, the NIH, the pharmaceutical companies, and even the AIDS nonprofits. In short, Duesberg ran afoul of "a global, multibillion-dollar juggernaut of diagnostics, drugs, and activist organizations."

Harper's has shown a peculiar affinity, over the years, for contrarian science: In addition to the Farber piece, the magazine has run repeated attacks on the theory of evolution from former Washington editor Tom Bethell, not to mention last month's excerpt from David Berlinski. But it's also the place where Richard Hofstadter laid out his seminal thesis on "the paranoid style in American politics"—an analysis of the conspiracy-minded, radical right that might just as well describe today's radical skeptics of science. The essay first appeared in November of 1964, the same year as the first surgeon general's report on the dangers of smoking, and not long before the tobacco companies geared up the machines of manufactured uncertainty.

The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, "is nothing if not scholarly in its technique." In his mainstream enemies, the conspiratorial thinker sees "a projection of the self"—he's just like them but more discerning and more rational. Indeed, for the paranoid skeptics, it's not that science is wrong but that the scientists aren't scientific enough. So, Farber complains that AIDS researchers have abandoned the most basic principles of skeptical inquiry; excepting herself and Peter Duesberg, "moral zeal rather than skepticism defines the field." Meanwhile, the doubt-mongers defer to the credentials of academic science even as they question its authority. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists rally around a physics professor at a major university; when David Berlinski turns up in Expelled, attention is lavished on his Ivy League bona fides.

The scholarly paranoid, says Hofstadter, is also an apocalyptic thinker, "always manning the barricades of civilization." At least one-third of Expelled is given over to the idea that evolutionary theory caused the Holocaust, via government-sponsored social Darwinism. (In pondering this terrible legacy, Ben Stein weeps at Dachau.) If the paranoid style in politics worried over the end of democracy, the paranoid style in science sees evolution as the end of values, antidepressants as the end of emotion, and genetically modified crops as the end of biodiversity.

These catastrophic fantasies may be an inevitable result of skepticism run amok. If nothing can withstand our critical scrutiny, then everything seems equally probable. (You can't prove a conspiracy … but you can't prove anything, can you?) Thus manufactured uncertainty has devalued the real thing: The less sure we are of the world, the more precision we crave. Skepticism sells itself, and the scientific consensus—no matter how considered or probable—starts to seem a little cheap.

Exactitude may sound like good science—atomic clocks, sub-micron optical tweezers, and all that good stuff we use to keep satellites in orbit and Web sites streaming. But an obsessive fear of uncertainty is the opposite of science. In Part 2 of this series, I cited the Royal Society's motto from 1663 and called it the inspiration for the radical skeptics: Nullius in verba, "on no man's word." But as historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have shown, the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt. The contemplation of nature, wrote a society historian in 1667, "gives us room to differ, without animosity; and permits us to raise contrary imaginations upon it, without any danger of a Civil War."

Expelled may not bring the nation to the brink of war, but the rise of the paranoid style forecasts something worse for science than mere animosity. In February, a measles outbreak turned up among California schoolchildren whose parents had rejected the MMR vaccine. Until 2006, the South African government was using beets and lemons to treat AIDS patients. And the United States has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for reducing carbon emissions. In the face of this uncertainty, it's worth taking a moment to do just as the doubt-mongers suggest, and turn skepticism back on itself. Good science requires moderation in all things. Immoderate doubt is paranoia.

04-18-2008, 07:13 AM
No one denies it is difficult to get a new scientific idea accepted, but that isn’t the same as claiming that the doors of science are slammed shut to those who challenge the status quo. When scientists question facets of existing theories or propose new ones, they present the best evidence available and make the strongest arguments they can to their colleagues. Colleagues in turn challenge that evidence and reasoning. The rigor of this process is what makes science such a powerful tool. Because scientists have to fight hard to get their ideas accepted, good ideas win out – when they are proven to be sound. Intelligent design advocates, in contrast, have no research and no evidence, and have repeatedly shown themselves unwilling to formulate testable hypotheses; yet they complain about an imagined exclusion, even after having flunked the basics.

The scientific enterprise is open to new ideas, however much they initially may be challenged. Here are some examples of people who have challenged the scientific status quo and, far from being “expelled” from science, were lauded as visionaries – once they had successfully proven their ideas.

Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock’s research on maize in the 1940s and 1950s showed that sequences of DNA called transposons can change positions within a chromosome, and in doing so, can regulate the expression of other genes. This discovery went against the accepted view that DNA was merely a static set of instructions, and the initial response to her research was so skeptical that, after several years of developing her ideas, she stopped publishing about them out of concern that she would alienate the scientific mainstream.

Unlike intelligent design proponents, however, she did not claim discrimination and attempt to circumvent the peer review process. Rather, she continued to research the evolution and genetics of maize. As new technology developed, other scientists verified her discoveries. McClintock was the recipient of many awards, including the National Medal of Science, the first MacArthur Foundation grant, and the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis wrote a paper, “The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells,” which argued that eukaryotic cells – those with a true nucleus – arose when cells with no nucleus symbiotically incorporated other such cells to make new cells that could perform more functions. The paper was rejected by many journals, and when eventually published by The Journal of Theoretical Biology it was highly criticized. Margulis spent decades defending her work, but scientists now accept her suggested mechanism through which organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts evolved. Her suggestions about other organelles have not stood up to experimental tests, and are not as widely accepted.

Margulis strongly opposes the idea, widely held within the scientific community, that the driving force in evolution is competition between species, and thinks cooperative and symbiotic relationships are underemphasized by many evolutionary scientists. Despite holding views different from many in the scientific community, because of her research, she is well respected, and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and awarded the National Medal of Science.

Barry Marshall

Prior to Barry Marshall’s discovery that peptic ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, the accepted explanation was that they were the result of stress, diet, and an excess of acid in the stomach. When Marshall presented his research, it was greeted with skepticism, and it took many years for his theories to become widely accepted. Although Marshall suggested that a conspiracy prevented acceptance of his work (in his case, pharmaceutical companies which stood to lose money on ulcer treatments), he did not respond by withdrawing from the scientific process, but by continuing to run experiments that would allow others to replicate his findings. Because he did so, scientists were able to evaluate his work and conduct their own experiments to test his proposals. Whether or not there was a pharmaceutical company conspiracy, scientists were willing to pursue Marshall’s idea and to publish results that supported it. In time, the community of science came to accept his results.. Marshall received many awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

As Marshall himself observed, “Although people were skeptical, and they all went home with the aim of trying to prove me wrong, that’s how science moves forward. Someone has a hypothesis and you say, ‘Okay, if I can prove it wrong, I can publish a paper saying he’s wrong.’ Gradually, over the next few years, one by one, these people trying to prove me wrong fell by the wayside and actually converted over to my side.”

In contrast, scientists who have responded to the claims of intelligent design proponents have all found that evidence for ID claims was lacking and that ID advocates’ hypotheses – in the rare situations where they offered them – did not stand up to scrutiny.

Stanley Prusiner

In 1982, Stanley Prusiner published an article on his research into scrapie – a disease in sheep related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – which argued that the infectious agent was not a virus but a protein, which Prusiner called a “prion”. Because no one had heard of a protein replicating without a nucleic acid like DNA or RNA, many virologists and scrapie researchers reacted to the article with incredulity. When the media picked up the story, “the personal attacks of the naysayers at times became very vicious,” according to Prusiner. However, his critics failed to find the nucleic acid they were sure existed, and less than two years later, Prusiner’s lab had isolated the protein. Subsequent research provided even more support for prions, and in 1997 Prusiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Nobel Prize Committee explained:

The hypothesis that prions are able to replicate without a genome and to cause disease violated all conventional conceptions and during the 1980s was severely criticised. For more than 10 years, Stanley Prusiner fought an uneven battle against overwhelming opposition. Research during the 1990s has, however, rendered strong support for the correctness of Prusiner’s prion hypothesis. The mystery behind scrapie, kuru, and mad cow disease has finally been unravelled. Additionally, the discovery of prions has opened up new avenues to better understand the pathogenesis of other more common dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Motoo Kimura

In 1967, Motoo Kimura published a paper showing that the genetic content of the genome must have been influenced substantially by selectively neutral genetic drift. Other authors built on this work to argue that molecular evolution might be dominated by neutral drift, and not by natural selection. As William Provine writes, “The initial reaction to the neutral theory of Kimura, King and Jukes was generally very negative” (”The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, Random Drift and Natural Selection.” In Cain A.J. and Provine W.B. “Genes and ecology in history.” Reprinted in Berry R.J. et al (eds) 1991. Genes in ecology: the 33rd Symposium of the British Ecological Society. Blackwell, Oxford, p. 23-25). Provine adds, “when DNA sequence data began to pour in after the early 1980s, the situation changed dramatically.” The abundance of selectively neutral differences within populations and among species matched the predictions of the neutral theory, and could not be explained by selection alone.

“By 1990,” Provine continues, “molecular evolutionists had largely abandoned the null hypothesis of selection to explain observed molecular differences and accepted the neutral theory…. Even the molecular evolutionists who argue for the importance of selection at the DNA level construct and use models for which the neutral theory is the assumption.” This represented a radical change in the scientific approach to evolution, which had formerly considered natural selection to be paramount. Clearly, evolution at the molecular level operated by different rules. Although the neutralist hypothesis was a break with traditional neodarwinism, its incorporation into evolutionary biology was smooth — once researchers had the ability to gather DNA sequence data and test the predictions of the theory.

So the scientific consensus can be and is challenged regularly. There is no unchallengeable orthodoxy, which is what Expelled would have you believe. The preceding stories are just a few well-known examples of biologists who challenged the scientific consensus, including principles of Mendelian genetics and of Darwinian evolution. These scientists prevailed because they did good science: they backed their challenges with successful predictions and empirical evidence. And, they were right. Scientists are constantly questioning, refining, and expanding theories, including evolution – and natural selection theory. As Michael Shermer writes, “Anyone who thinks that scientists do not question Darwinism has never been to an evolutionary conference.”

There is no reason why intelligent design proponents cannot follow in the footsteps of these distinguished scientists who overcame sometimes considerable opposition, sometimes for a very long time, before their scientific views prevailed. Unlike ID advocates, these researchers didn’t skip past the research phase to try to influence the public before they had scientific support. None of them formed groups to lobby school boards to teach their views in the public schools; they just buckled down and did the work. None of them drafted model legislation or penned op-eds in newspapers and magazines decrying the supposed persecution they suffered at the hands of The Establishment; they just buckled down and did the work. None of them hired former Nixon speechwriters or game-show hosts to compare their opponents to Hitler; they just buckled down and did the work.

The difference between what scientists do and what intelligent design proponents do is that when scientists question aspects of evolution they do it with science, while intelligent design proponents do it with dishonest movies, tired slogans, and slick marketing.


04-18-2008, 07:26 AM
I was about to say that same thing.

Mr. Kotter
04-18-2008, 07:54 AM
It amazes me how some of the same people who place complete and utter faith in scientific theory....yet are willing to accept, or at least entertain, every cock-eyed conspiracy theory that any anti-government or anti-establishment lunatic fringe group comes up with.

Both can be fallible. Complete acceptance or rejection of either is naive.

04-18-2008, 08:08 AM
are they still looking for Darwin's missing links. Sasquatch etc.

04-18-2008, 08:31 AM
It amazes me how some of the same people who place complete and utter faith in scientific theory....yet are willing to accept, or at least entertain, every cock-eyed conspiracy theory that any anti-government or anti-establishment lunatic fringe group comes up with.

Both can be fallible. Complete acceptance or rejection of either is naive.

Who are these "same people" Kotter? And the whole point of the article is that absolutes are not part of science. The hypothesis is always initially entertained. But if the track record doesn't follow from the process cogently and predictably then the hypothesis is rejected. The science is the more robust explanation that provides a platform for understanding a wide set of conditions and pointing to new and novel findings.

Adept Havelock
04-18-2008, 09:26 AM
A fantastic pair of articles. Thank you very much for finding and posting them.

04-18-2008, 10:43 AM
I'll have to read this when I have time. Looks to be pretty good.

04-18-2008, 05:28 PM
I hope they follow up with the theory that gravity is God holding us down from the heavens?