Evolving Madness

Why does a crazy set of beliefs in one field seem to migrate into unrelated subjects?

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 21st September 2010

I’ve often been struck by the way in which people who subscribe to one set of baseless beliefs are susceptible to others, in fields that are not obviously related. The internet is awash with sites that explain how the US government destroyed the twin towers – and how alien landings have been covered up by the authorities. Many of those who insist that Barack Obama is a Muslim also believe that sex education raises the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.

A rich collection of unfounded beliefs is a common characteristic of those who deny – despite the overwhelming scientific evidence – that manmade global warming is taking place. I’ve listed a few examples before, but I’ll jog your memories.

Lord Monckton, whose lecture asserting that manmade climate change is nonsense has been watched by 4 million people, also maintains that he has invented a cure for HIV, multiple sclerosis, influenza and other incurable diseases.

Nils-Axel Morner, whose claims that sea levels are falling are widely cited in the Telegraph and elsewhere, also insists that he possesses paranormal abilities to find water and metal using a dowsing rod, and that he has discovered “the Hong Kong of the [ancient] Greeks” in Sweden.

Peter Taylor, the Daily Express’s favourite climate change denier, has claimed that a Masonic conspiracy has sent a “kook, a ninja freak, some throwback from past lives” to kill him, and insisted that plutonium may “possess healing powers, borne of Plutonic dimension, a preparation for rebirth, an awakener to higher consciousness”.

Now our old friend Christopher Booker reminds us of his membership of this select club, with a remarkable article for the Spectator’s website.

“I spent a fascinating few days in a villa opposite Cap Ferrat, taking part in a seminar with a dozen very bright scientists, some world authorities in their field. Although most had never met before, they had two things in common. Each had come to question one of the most universally accepted scientific orthodoxies of our age: the Darwinian belief that life on earth evolved simply through the changes brought about by an infinite series of minute variations. The other was that, on arriving at these conclusions, they had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment.”

He goes on to list the tiredest old creationist canards, each of which has been answered a thousand times by evolutionary biologists. How can distinct species exist if evolution proceeds by gradualism? Where are the intermediate forms? How could natural selection “account for all those complex organs, such as the eye, which require so many interdependent changes to take place simultaneously?” How could it account for changes across “an improbably short time, such as those needed to transform land mammals into whales in barely two million years?”. DNA and cellular reproduction are “so organisationally complex” that “they could not conceivably have evolved just through minute, random variations.”

He appears to be unaware that these objections have been repeatedly debunked. He also appears to be unaware of any developments in the science of evolution since the Origin of Species was published. He maintains that these objections expose evolutionary scientists as “simply ‘believers’ taking a leap of faith”, who treat any dissent as a “thought crime”. He compares them to the Inquisition and to Trofim Lysenko: the Soviet agronomist whose hypotheses were imposed by Stalin as the official orthodoxy.

His view of evolutionary science, in other words, is identical to his view of climate science. Indeed, he makes the link explicit.

“We have seen a remarkably similar response from the scientific establishment to anyone dissenting from that other dominating theory of our time, that rising CO2 levels caused by human activity are leading to runaway global warming.”

What he’s saying is that it is no longer acceptable to tell people that they are wrong. If you knock down the claims of people who can marshall no sound science to support them, you place yourself in the same category as the Inquisition or Stalin’s thought police.

Sadly he doesn’t tell us who the “world authorities” who have destroyed the theory of natural selection are. In fact he cites no scientist, no paper, no publication of any kind, except Darwin and the Origin of Species. We must simply take his word for it that the entire canon of evolutionary biology, just like the entire canon of climate science, is not just wrong but a fiendish conspiracy against the public, that those who reject it are true scientific heroes, and those who defend it are witch-finders and despots.

Needless to say, some of Booker’s fans have swallowed all this and reproduced his article on their own sites. Piers Corbyn, also a well-known manmade climate change denier, added this comment to the Spectator thread:

“Superb stuff Christopher. We seem to be having to fight attempts to impose a new age of religiosity where belief in the ‘Official’ view reigns supreme.”

So here’s a poser. Are people who entertain a range of strong beliefs for which there is no evidence naturally gullible? Or does the rejection of one scientific discipline make you more inclined to reject others?

To dismiss an entire canon of science on the basis of either no evidence or evidence that has already been debunked is to evince an astonishing level of self-belief. It suggests that, by instinct or by birth, you know more about this subject (even if you show no sign of ever having studied it) than the thousands of intelligent people who have spent their lives working on it. Once you have have taken that leap of self-belief, once you have arrogated to yourself the authority otherwise vested in science, any faith is then possible. Your own views (and those of the small coterie who share them) become your sole reference points, and are therefore unchallengeable and immutable. You must believe yourself capable of anything. And, in a sense, you probably are.