Junk Science or the Real Thing? ‘Inference’ Publishes Both.

Last summer, I noticed a peculiar email in my inbox. It was from someone I didn’t know, addressing me as “Professor Becker” (a misnomer), and asking me to write for an online publication called “Inference: International Review of Science.” Like hundreds of other emails, this one had languished in my inbox for months while I was busy promoting my first book — an in-depth look at the persistent mysteries of quantum physics. Now I was trying to catch up, which involved deleting a lot of spam. As I read through Inference’s email, I nearly deleted it too.

The Science Press Under the Microscope.

But Inference, which bills itself as a “quarterly review of the sciences,” was offering me a chance to write about a topic of my own choosing (subject to their approval). They also promised to pay me “appropriately” for my work, and the timing would have been great for book promotion. So I replied. While I waited for an answer, I went to Inference’s website. It looked like a real science publication — featuring the original writing of scientists and other thinkers I respect, including MIT’s Noam Chomsky and George Ellis at the University of Cape Town. There were 13 issues ranging back to 2014, covering a mix of subjects including physics, biology, and linguistics. But as I clicked around, I began to think that Inference wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Several articles on the site argued against the theory of evolution, for example, and at least one dismissed the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming. Later, through tax documents and interviews, I would learn that all of Inference’s funding came from a surprising source: Peter Thiel. Since Inference’s start, Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, has donated at least $1.7 million to the outlet.

Thiel has shown an interest in the media before: After a years-long vendetta against the online news site Gawker, he funded the lawsuit that ultimately bankrupted their parent company. According to reports, Thiel has been exploring the launch of a conservative news outlet. And while he does fund legitimate scientific endeavors — largely through grants to science startups, including some that depend heavily on evolutionary biology — he has also given money to companies engaging in alarming scientific practices, such as unregulated offshore human clinical trials for a herpes vaccine.

As of this writing, Inference hasn’t publicly acknowledged Thiel’s involvement, and there is no indication that he is directly involved in Inference’s editorial process. Still, Thiel himself has expressed doubts about the settled science of evolution and climate change — and similar doubts are reflected in some material published at Inference.

Not all of Inference’s articles are junk science. About 90 percent of the articles in the publication appear to be accurate, written by genuine scientists and science writers — at least several of whom weren’t aware of the publication’s record on evolution or climate change, or the source of its funding.

But whatever Inference’s actual intentions, one thing is clear: The inclusion of demonstrably pseudoscientific writing alongside the work of highly regarded researchers puts the two on equal footing — a false equivalence that gives creationism and climate denial an air of legitimacy that is not only unwarranted, but misleading to readers. Add in the fact that the enterprise is apparently funded by a billionaire with close ties to President Donald J. Trump — whose administration has a clear history of attacking and undermining science — and there seems ample reason to question just what it is that Inference and its backer are hoping to accomplish.

I tried to find out, but questions remain.

When Inference first approached me, the offer was appealing: up to $4,000 for a 4,000- to 6,000-word essay. According to their website, the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow was on the editorial staff, which — as a physicist myself and a fan of Glashow’s work — was almost enough for me to accept on the spot. But a declaration in italics on their masthead gave me pause: “We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.” This struck me as unusual over-emphasis, so I did a little digging and came across a 2014 blog post by the computer scientist Jeffrey Shallit, where he muses on the first issue of this new “science” publication, adding: “the weirdness is strong — very strong — with this one.”

At the time, Inference’s editorial staff was anonymous, but in Shallit’s blog post, he guessed, correctly, that one of the people behind Inference was David Berlinski, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biology. Berlinski is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes the creationist belief of intelligent design. He has claimed, for example, that evolution is both scientifically inaccurate and logically flawed. He’s even blamed evolutionary biology for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Specifically, Berlinski, a child of Jewish refugees who fled Europe to escape the Nazis, has said that evolution was one of the key ideas fueling Nazi racial ideology — ignoring millennia of organized genocide that predate Darwin’s ideas. “Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism,” Berlinski said in the anti-evolution documentary “Expelled,” “but I think it’s certainly a necessary one.”

In 2014, Berlinski and several like-minded associates created Inference. “When we started out, we thought we had a great idea,” he told me. The goal was to address the global scientific community through “more sophisticated articles than you would see in Aeon or n+1 or even Quanta,” he added. “But not the peer-reviewed scientific journals like Nature or Science.”

The first issue of Inference didn’t seem to exactly meet this standard, with two long feature articles attacking evolution and climate science, as well as other strange content, including an essay about a biomolecular research laboratory written by a tennis instructor. More recent issues continue the trend of real articles mixed with pseudoscience. And in some cases, Inference has run seemingly innocuous pieces written by authors with a history of making racist or otherwise problematic remarks. For example, the classicist Victor Davis Hanson, who once wrote that he had lectured his son on the dangers of being approached by young black men on the street, contributed a book review. And the physicist Frank Tipler co-wrote an article on the Copernican revolution in astronomy. Tipler is also well known for an unusual claim: The laws of physics prove that just before the universe ends, God will resurrect the dead and bring them to heaven.

Yet Inference also has contributions from well-known intellectuals and scientists. The outlet published an essay by Chomsky and he is also listed on their current board of editors. (Chomsky did not reply to an interview request.) Several experts have written essays on mathematics, biology, and particle physics. There are even essays on genuine evolutionary theory, written by ecologists and evolutionary biologists.

At least some of these writers weren’t aware of Inference’s history of science denial. In May, Robert Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State University, wrote a book review for the publication. When I asked Dunn if he knew about Inference’s record on evolution, he said no, calling the revelation a “rather horrifying surprise.” Monica Green, a historian of medicine at Arizona State University who wrote for Inference, was similarly unaware of both the outlet’s publication history and funding. “I had not heard that Inference is a journal with a history of publishing articles” arguing against evolution, she said.

“I did not know that Thiel had any connection with Inference,” Green added.

Joel McGlothlin, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at Virginia Tech who was invited to write a book review for Inference — he declined, he says, because he was too busy — described several of the outlet’s articles as “obvious junk.”

“They seem to be intelligent-design propaganda,” he added, “masquerading as science.”

That echoed the view of Lindsay Waldrop, an assistant professor of biology at New Mexico Tech, who described an article from the first issue as “well-written crackpot nonsense about evolution.”

But the biggest concern, said Waldrop — who has never been asked to write for Inference, but who reviewed some of the publication’s work at my request — is the juxtaposition of pseudoscience and science under a single title. “It lends a lot of credibility [to junk science],” she said, “in a really disingenuous and false way.”

When Inference approached me about an essay, the managing editor, Hortense Marcelin, assured me that the outlet was “properly funded.” Yet Inference’s website has no ads and doesn’t reveal a parent company, so at first, I couldn’t tell where the money came from. But as it turns out, Inference is incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which means their tax returns are public.

Those tax returns reveal that Inference’s entire operating budget came from $1.7 million in donations during its first three years (through August 2017, the latest reports available). These donations came from a single donor: Auzen LLC. Looking at corporate tax reports and other registration documents, it’s unclear whether Auzen LLC and another entity, Auzen Corporation, are involved in activities other than funding Inference. But those documents make it clear that Auzen LLC and Auzen Corporation are run by the same people — and they also state that the sole director of Auzen Corporation is Peter Thiel.

Thiel, whose net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, is among the best-known venture capitalists in the world. In addition to co-founding Paypal, he was an early investor in big tech companies including Lyft, AirBnB, LinkedIn, and Facebook, where he is also a board member. Thiel is also the chairman and co-founder of Palantir, a CIA-backed data science company that analyzes surveillance from many U.S. government intelligence services.

Jeremiah Hall, a spokesman for Thiel, declined a request for comment. Jory Shoell, who was CFO of Thiel Capital until May of last year and is listed in tax filings as the treasurer of Auzen Corporation from 2014 through 2018, also declined to comment, saying only: “I don’t actually work for Thiel Capital anymore and I can’t talk about Thiel Capital.” And Berlinski only said this about Inference’s finances: “I have nothing to say about identifying the sources of our funding.”

Curious, I asked Glashow, the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and, as of early 2018, editor-at-large at Inference, what he made of the junk science and Berlinski. He agreed that Berlinski “has had a history of questioning evolution, yes,” but “that is no longer a policy of the journal, as you can see from recent issues.

“I looked at the last three issues, and I saw nothing offensive whatever,” Glashow added, “nor do I detect anything indicating such an editorial policy from my discussions with David and with the sponsor of the magazine.”

Glashow later said he “believed” that the sponsor was Thiel — and added that he was “busily searching for an alternative or supplementary sponsor.”

Another new member of Inference’s editorial board, Richard Roberts, was initially surprised to hear about Inference’s history of publishing articles arguing against evolution. But when I sent him the relevant articles, he was dismissive. “The problem I have with most of these articles is that they [are] repetitive of earlier arguments against Darwinian evolution. In my mind this would have been reason to reject them,” Roberts wrote by email. “However, with Shelly Glashow taking a leading role I am not expecting a lot of articles to be published that are clearly at odds with state-of-the-art science.”

But at the time Glashow and Roberts made these statements, the latest issue of Inference included another article attacking natural selection. This article appeared prominently on the front page of Inference in September, alongside an article on particle physics written by Glashow, who served as editor-at-large for that issue. The author, J. Scott Turner, is a physiologist with a history of making flawed arguments against evolution. In his piece for Inference he wrote: “evolution is driven not by natural selection,” rather concluding that “life wants to evolve in a particular way.”

According to McGlothlin, Turner’s article is “insidious” and a “word salad” that tries to undermine the idea of evolution. It’s “not particularly convincing or interesting,” he added. (In the latest issue, Inference published replies to Turner’s article. McGlothlin characterized some of those replies as being “even more bizarre” than the original piece.)

Whether or not Glashow will have a moderating influence on the publication, the fact that Thiel’s involvement hasn’t been publicly acknowledged is troubling. “If you’re not willing to be honest about who’s funding your stuff, that’s super shady,” says Waldrop. “It’s using money to subvert a natural process of scholarship and exchange.”

Shortly after my conversations with Berlinski, Glashow, and Roberts in mid-September, Inference published its new board of editors — an impressive list largely composed of eminent scientists as well as two prominent critics of mainstream climate science, David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale, and Richard Lindzen, a meteorologist and emeritus professor at MIT.

Just last year, Gelernter told the Yale Daily News: “For human beings to change the climate of the planet is a monstrously enormous undertaking. I haven’t seen convincing evidence of it.” And Lindzen’s long history of skepticism includes a 2017 open letter to Donald Trump encouraging the U.S. to withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 international treaty to curb greenhouse gases.

Then, on October 19, Inference published a review of my book by Glashow, who said the book displays my ignorance of quantum physics and “it is a matter of regret” that I do not understand quantum theory despite my Ph.D. in physics. It’s odd that Inference would want me to write for them shortly after my book was published, then decide to pan it a few months later, after they knew I was investigating them. Even odder: A couple of weeks later, they asked me to write a response — again for a fine fee — to Glashow’s review. I declined.

While Inference’s backstory doesn’t look good, it’s hard to know for sure the intentions of its funders or editorial team. McGlothlin was among those who had theories: “If your agenda is to delegitimize science, one way to do it would be to set up your own journal and publish garbage and make the garbage look like not-garbage,” he told me. “You put it up against the work of scientists that are legitimate scientists. Then creationists can argue that ‘yeah, we publish in legitimate journals! Look at this, we published in Inference, alongside the work of people like Noam Chomsky and Rob Dunn.’”

Waldrop agreed.

“You want to stand by these words?” she added. “Put your name and say it’s funded by Peter Thiel.”

Adam Becker is a science writer and the author of “What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics.” His work has also appeared in NPR, the BBC, Scientific American, New Scientist, and PBS’s NOVA Next, among other publications.