The Paranoid Style in American Science

A Crank's Progress
The state of the universe.
April 15 2008 2:14 PM

The Paranoid Style in American Science

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

David Berlinski. Click image to expand.
David Berlinski
Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has a name for all those books that aim to refute his popular treatise on atheism: With a nod to Yeats, he calls them "fleas." The latest flea at which he deigns to flick his tail is The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, published (in earnest) on April 1. But this one may have more legs than its Bible-press kin. Billed as "the definitive response to the New Atheists," it's the first such book to come from a mainstream publisher, the Crown Forum division of Random House. An extended excerpt has already earned a prominent spot in the April issue of Harper's. And its author—the erudite and infuriating David Berlinski—isn't anything like a Christian doctrinaire.

Berlinski is a critic, a contrarian, and—by his own admission—a crank. But he is not a religious man. He's a zealous skeptic, more concerned with false gods than real ones. According to The Devil's Delusion, the emergence of the New Atheists—i.e., Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the others who have lately ridiculed the belief in God—marks the consolidation of science as its own religion, a hateful "militant church" that demands strict adherence to the First Commandment. The scientists speak of incontrovertible fact, but Berlinski wants to show otherwise; he subjects scientific belief to his own rigorous investigation and finds it riddled with uncertainty. Like the theorists of intelligent design, he sees little in the fossil record that would account for sudden leaps in biological complexity. He considers the evidence for the Big Bang and learns nothing about the origins of the universe. In short, he assesses the evidence for the death of God and reports back with reasonable doubt. This is his book-jacket promise: to "turn the scientific community's cherished skepticism back on itself."

Forgive me if I don't pause here to defend the conventional wisdom on evolution and cosmology. (Click here or here for a more expert appraisal.) That would be beside the point. Berlinski's radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy—he's more concerned with what we don't know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence thatisn't there and seeks out the things that can't be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia—a state of permanent suspicion and outrage. But Berlinski is hardly a victim of the style. He's merely its most methodical practitioner.

A secular Jew born in New York City, the 66-year-old began his career in academia. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton, he spent time teaching at Stanford, working as a management consultant, and completing postdoctoral work in mathematics and biology. Nothing took—as he describes it, he "got fired from almost every job [he] ever had." And then, at some point in the last few decades, he decided to remake himself as a maverick intellectual operating out of a flat in Paris. He's built a reputation writing contentious magazine articles, a series of somewhat less contentious detective novels, and, most notably, an extended run of whimsical and well-reviewed books on mathematics and the history of science. (His children Mischa and Claire are esteemed novelists in their own right.)

The work on math and science is characterized by a peculiar, mischievous style: Berlinski mixes long, discursive explanations with strange asides, historical re-enactments, and ironic fables; every page is caked over with elaborate metaphors. Some reviewers—including this one—are dazzled, if not exactly charmed, by his excess. (Click here for some examples from The Devil's Delusion.) Others, like Slate's Jordan Ellenberg, are not so moved.

In any case, Berlinski's flamboyance helps to distinguish him from fellow Darwin skeptics. So does his professed disinterest in religious dogma: Unlike his colleagues at the Discovery Institute—a religious think tank that sponsors his work and promotes intelligent design—Berlinski refuses to theorize about the origin of life. He describes his attitude towards ID as "warm but distant. It's the same attitude that I display in public toward my ex-wives." He calls himself an agnostic and claims to live life only by the stricture "to have a good time all the time." And while he has attacked evolutionary theory over and over again, by his own pen and through his tutelage of Ann Coulter, he's always quick to point out that he has no particular agenda beyond skepticism.

This peculiar stance—or pose—has kept him at the blue heart of the endless flame war between scientists and evangelists. The creationists see him as a powerful ally who bolsters their case by mounting a putatively irreligious critique of natural selection. The atheists, meanwhile, can't stand him: According to Daniel Dennett, Berlinski exudes a "rich comic patina of smug miseducation"; Richard Dawkins implies that he may be wicked to the core; and blogger-ringleader P.Z. Myers has called him a "pompous pimple" and a "supercilious snot." (Berlinski, for his part, makes no effort whatsoever to remain above the fray; he delivers some colorful rejoinders in the course of this interview he conducted with himself for an intelligent design blog.)

Berlinski loves to point out that he has no stake in the big questions. It's this quality in particular that most infuriates scientists, for whom curiosity is a moral—or at least professional—imperative. His 1996 essay in Commentary, "The Deniable Darwin," cast doubt on the theory of natural selection, and produced 35 pages of angry letters demanding to know what alternative explanation he might provide for the history of life. Berlinski responded by saying that "the thing is a mystery, and if there is never to be a naturalistic explanation, I shall forever be content to keep on calling it a mystery." At the beginning of Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck, he confesses, "I have never been particularly eager to know how it is that the universe was formed, or how a magnet works, or why, for that matter, water flows downhill. … There it is—a certain implacable lack of physical curiosity."

This pure commitment to skepticism, seemingly unadulterated by curiosity, religion, or indeed any other convictions, has seduced some freethinking Americans. Slate contributor (and defender of traditional values) Ron Rosenbaum wrote adoringly of Berlinski for the Observer in 1998, marveling at his youthful looks and "rather debonair figure." He is, says Rosenbaum, "that rara avis, a True Skeptic, one of the most provocative—and courageous—of contemporary writers and thinkers. To me, Mr. Berlinski is a genuine intellectual hero."

Indeed, Berlinski's unwavering critique of the conventional wisdom does share at least some family resemblance with the core style of this magazine. But let's chalk that up to convergent evolution. His iconoclasm may be entertaining, but it's not heroic: Whether he likes it or not, Berlinski the skeptic has become a war machine in the struggle over the limits of scientific knowledge. As a freewheeling critic, he speaks for everyone who bristles at the scientific consensus—creationists, oil executives, and organic farmers alike. He spews doubt into the atmosphere and feeds a cloud of uncertainty that grows more stifling every day. When even the most venerated theories are called into question, what are we to make of anything?

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