Contrary Imaginations

This is the final installment of a three-part series on radical skepticism and the rise of conspiratorial thinking about science.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed features Ben Stein

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.