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A towering genius can be a babe in the woods. A high-functioning scientist can be a useful idiot.
Let me explain.
Schwinger: a ‘babe in the woods’
The smartest man I ever knew tried to teach me relativistic quantum field theory when I was a 20-year-old Harvard undergrad.
By the time he was that age, Julian Schwinger had already collaborated as an equal with J Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. Before he was 30, he (in parallel with Richard Feynman and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga) had invented the field of relativistic quantum theory.
It would take the Nobel Committee an additional 18 years to recognize that Schwinger was the rightful successor of Paul Dirac — two men who could write the most abstruse mathematics from the tops of their heads.
Schwinger’s intelligence was not of a kind that could be gauged by a numerical IQ.
He had a long and distinguished career, contributing both to practical and fundamental advances in physics.
Every article he ever wrote was eagerly welcomed by the world’s most prestigious physics journal, Physical Review D.
Throughout his life, he had no experience with the politics of scientific publishing because he worked at a level so far above his colleagues. He had great integrity, and he never abused the wide discretion afforded him by a grateful community of physicists.
Schwinger was semi-retired in California when he heard of the most surprising experimental finding of his lifetime.
Hydrogen had been known to fuse into helium at the center of the sun, or at comparable temperatures inside a thermonuclear bomb. But in 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had observed fusion at room temperature in an apparatus that was little more than a glorified battery.
Some months later, Schwinger thought he had an idea of how this unexpected effect could be explained, and he submitted his theory to Physical Review D without a thought about politics.
Imagine his surprise when the journal sent his manuscript back to him. The editors refused to review it because their policy dictated that they not publish anything to do with cold fusion. Mr. Science had decided that Pons and Fleischmann must have been mistaken because surely fusion could not occur at room temperature. When experiment disagrees with theory, throw out the experiment.
We can’t know what Mr. Science was thinking. He certainly had grounds to think that the reports of Pons and Fleischmann did not fit well with conventional understandings of nuclear physics.
He may also have realized that cold fusion was an energy source with potential to bankrupt a trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry. MIT seems to have been at the center of the public relations campaign about the failure to reproduce cold fusion, and MIT was the recipient of hundreds of millions annually in tokamak, or hot fusion, research grants.
When it came to politics, Schwinger was — by the time he submitted his manuscript on hot fusion — a 72-year-old babe in the woods. He was discovering what lesser minds than his had had to learn from experience at an early age: The scientific establishment can be quite political. Some ideas are third rail. Cold fusion was too hot to handle.
Schwinger was beside himself. This unreasoned, unconsidered rejection was outside anything he had ever experienced. He publicly resigned from the American Physical Society (publisher of Physical Review D) with a letter that charged, “The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science.”
Henceforth, he would submit his manuscripts to an obscure Japanese journal, and thus the light of his brilliance was swallowed in a black hole. A generous soul, a mind beyond brilliant, a character of impeccable integrity, Schwinger died a disillusioned and embittered man in 1994.
Thorp: a ‘useful idiot’
Holden Thorp, Ph.D., is a natural scientist, a competent but unexceptional chemist. He was still a young man when he moved from research to science administration.
By the time he was 43, Thorp was chancellor of the University of North Carolina and later provost of Washington University in St. Louis. A decade later, he became editor-in-chief of Science — a meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the science bureaucracy.
As head of the most prestigious family of journals in the world, he has enormous authority — but how much real power does he really wield? He can keep his position so long as his writing and his policies comport with the interests that fund science and keep science in its place.
Fortunately, it is not in Thorp’s nature to rock boats — if it were, he would never have risen to the exalted status that he now enjoys.
Thorp is a useful idiot with a 130 IQ.
Last week, Thorp published a lead editorial in his own journal. It was a hit piece, targeting a man who is undoubtedly Thorp’s better — both in terms of scientific understanding and conscientious integrity.
And yet, I have little doubt that Thorp thought he was doing the right and noble thing. He has full faith in the scientific establishment. Why shouldn’t he? It is the same establishment that has recognized Thorp’s worth and elevated him to his present status.
The editorial was published under the title, “Remember, do no harm?,” which we may read as a meme percolating from Thorp’s unconscious.
His target is Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, M.D., Ph.D. If you are not yet unacquainted with Lapado, an inspiring life story awaits you. His biography almost convinces you that the American dream is alive and well.
Ladapo: an ‘American dream’
As a child, Ladapo came to the U.S. from Nigeria with a family struggling to adjust. He excelled as a Wake Forest University undergraduate and won a place in the 2000 entering class of Harvard Medical School.
With an M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard, he went on to a career combining patient care with medical research and health policy at some of America’s top medical schools. He is yet a young man, who has authored 81 peer-reviewed publications.
When the COVID-19 pandemic was invented, Ladapo saw exactly what was happening, and he was courageous enough to write about it.
He threw down the gauntlet with a series of guest editorials in the Wall Street Journal, beginning in April 2020, with the truth bomb that “Lockdowns Won’t Stop the Spread.”
It was natural that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would invite Ladapo to move to Florida to implement a sensible COVID-19 policy that includes the most effective early treatments and balances public health measures with personal liberties.
As a solid scientist with impeccable credentials, as a truthteller with a background that American progressives want to admire, as a credible voice with a subversive message, Ladapo is dangerous to the COVID-19 narrative and to the medical establishment.
Thorp did not have to be told that protecting the establishment from such upstarts is central to his job description.
Thorp’s editorial begins with guilt by an association that many of The Defender’s readers would join me in saying should be a source of admiration.
“When the advocacy group America’s Frontline Doctors appeared on the steps of the United States Supreme Court in 2020, falsely stating that hydroxychloroquine was a cure for COVID-19, their pronouncement was virally shared by right-wing media and soundly debunked by medical academicians.”
How many errors are squeezed into this one opening salvo?
No one used the word “cure” in that July 27, 2020, White Coat Summit press conference. Experienced clinicians shared their successes using a protocol that had been promoted months earlier by Dr. Zev Zelenko.
Why doesn’t Thorp cite any evidence that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work? Why is there no footnote to tell us just how the claims of America’s Frontline Doctors were “debunked?”
And how dangerous is it to all of us who depend on research to guide our medical decisions when a person with Thorp’s reach and influence decides peremptorily that scientific debate must be squelched?
Thorp goes on to tender the outrageous presumption that “Ladapo’s faculty appointment was the result of political pressure by the university’s administration.”
Here, he steps right over the obvious facts that the University of Florida was a step down from Ladapo’s prestigious appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, and that a man of his credentials and background would be highly prized by any faculty in the country.
Thorp sidesteps the science and goes straight to name-calling and guilt by association. Clearly, Thorp is unfamiliar with the research — otherwise, he would have known that hydroxychloroquine, in combination with zinc, is an effective early treatment that has kept millions of COVID-19 patients out of the hospital.
You can read about it here and here and here and here. This website summarizes the results from 367 studies.
If he had been motivated to read, Thorp would have known that the most egregious scandal in the history of The Lancet unfolded in the spring of 2020, when a study purporting to show that hydroxychloroquine was harmful to COVID-19 patients — a paper they had featured prominently — was revealed to be a fabrication.
Thorp slings the epithet “anti-vaxxer” as obvious grounds for dismissing the thoughtful and nuanced judgment of a man who knows much more about vaccines than he does.
Readers of The Defender are accustomed to the fact that “anti-vaxxer” has been used to defame anyone who has the audacity to ask why different rules should be applied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in evaluating vaccines compared to every other medication.
Thorp knows none of this. But as Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Thorp is doing his job, defending the medical establishment against people who have disruptive ideas, ideas that threaten “consensus,” threaten careers or threaten profits.
Men like Thorp are useful because they don’t question the narrative, they have no time to do their own research, and they are just smart enough to make conventional “science” sound credible to those who don’t know any better.
Maybe Schwinger was right: Censorship will be the death of science. But I don’t think so.
Established institutions backed by government contracts and corporate interests may look like unassailable fortresses in the moment — but scientific truth always triumphs in the end.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Children's Health Defense.
Josh Mitteldorf, Ph.D., has a background in theoretical physics. Since the 1990s, he is best known for his contributions to the biology of aging, including many articles and two books.
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When useful idiots rise to positions of authority the freedom to think and act becomes an attack on those who wield power.