Academics who dare to question the scientific establishment’s consensus on Darwinism or global warming increasingly find themselves ostracised and demonised
Three months ago 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. Even to raise such questions was just not permissible. One had been fired as editor of a major scientific journal because he dared publish a paper sceptical of Darwin’s theory. Another, the leading expert on his subject, had only come lately to his dissenting view and had not yet worked out how to admit this to his fellow academics for fear that he too might lose his post.
So embedded in our culture is the assumption that Darwin was right that few realise that it was Darwin himself who first raised some of the most basic objections to his own theory. If each form of life gradually evolved through tiny variations, as he asked in The Origin of Species, why does every fossil we find so identifiably belong to a discrete species? Where are all the ‘intermediate forms’ between one species and another? How could his gradualist theory 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 those startling ‘evolutionary leaps’, when all sorts of changes emerged together in an improbably short time, such as those needed to transform land mammals into whales in barely two million years?
As Darwin himself raised each of these objections, it is almost comical to see how he could not give any coherent answer. The fossil record, he argued, was incomplete; one day we would find those ‘missing forms’. And however sophisticated our latter-day neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins imagine themselves to be, they have no more been able to prove their theory as fact than Darwin himself. They are simply ‘believers’ taking a leap of faith, just like those Biblical ‘Creationists’ they love to despise. And nothing better reveals the hole at the heart of their belief system than the fanaticism with which they turn on anyone who dares question the assumption on which it rests, who must be anathematised with all the venom once turned on heretics by the churches.
Some years back, a number of expert scientists came together in America to share their conviction that, in light of the astonishing intricacies of construction revealed by molecular biology, Darwin’s gradualism could not possibly account for them. So organisationally complex, for instance, are the structures of DNA and cell reproduction that they could not conceivably have evolved just through minute, random variations. Some other unknown factor must have been responsible for the appearance of these ‘irreducibly complex’ micro-mechanisms, to which they gave the name ‘intelligent design’.
But the response of the Darwinians has not been to engage in debating these very serious questions but simply to scorn them, caricaturing anyone who raises them as a ‘neo-Creationist’, no different to those zealots who take Genesis as literally true.
To some of us taking part in that seminar in the south of France, including a world-renowned atmospheric physicist, another instance of this pattern of intolerance was equally familiar. 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.
Right from the start, one of the more conspicuous features of the global warming cause has been the way its adherents felt the need to elevate their belief system into a rigid orthodoxy, a ‘consensus’ not to be challenged. They deal with challenges not through scientific debate, but by denouncing the dissenters as being beyond the pale.
The ‘sceptics’ are demonised as Flat Earthers, equivalent to Holocaust deniers, who could only hold the views they do because they have been paid to do so by ‘Big Oil’. The only debate which can be allowed, as we saw confirmed by those Climategate emails, is that between the believers themselves, while anyone outside the faith, however knowledgeable, must be vilified as a dangerous heretic, excluded from scientific journals, forbidden to examine the often highly suspect data and condemned as being ‘anti-science’.
Such fanatical intolerance, in defence of pseudo-scientific causes which reflect the prejudices of the age, has become only too common. A notorious example was the ruthless attempt to suppress the most rigorous study ever carried out into the effects of passive smoking. When this mammoth 40-year project by two non-smokers found the health risks of environmental tobacco smoke to be negligible, its sponsors, the American Cancer Society, withdrew their funding. Not a single US scientific journal would publish their work. They were subjected to sustained vilification even by their own universities. Their findings only saw light of day when the editor of the British Medical Journal decided, in the name of scientific principle, that such scrupulous research should no longer be suppressed.
Our host in France, a thoughtful and youngish billionaire, prefaced our seminar by questioning how science in our time has become hijacked by the politics of correct-thinking orthodoxies, turning any dissent into a ‘thought crime’. Inevitably we think of parallels from the past, ranging from the Church’s suppression of Galileo to Stalin ruling that the dotty doctrine of Lysenko should become unchallengeable Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. We look back on such perversions with lofty contempt. But the truth is that our own age has fallen prey to the same corrupting of the authority of science — and on an unprecedented scale.
Christopher Booker is a columnist on the Sunday Telegraph and author of The Real Global Warming Disaster.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 18, 2010