Inference advertises itself as a quarterly review of the sciences. MIT’s Noam Chomsky sits on its board of editors, and the publication counts Nobel laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow among its contributors.
It also, according to a Adam Becker, writing for Undark (a non-profit publication covering the sciences), has published several pieces with scientifically questionable premises ranging from challenges to the validity of evolution to essays pondering whether humans are really causing climate change. One article about a biomolecular research laboratory was written by a tennis instructor.
The publication has put out 14 issues since 2014. It’s not a peer-reviewed journal, but rather seeks to publish “critical essays that reflect the true diversity of thought across the fields that comprise the journal’s remit, from Anthropology to Zoology,” according to its self-description. “We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.”
Publications pop up on the internet all the time, but this one has at least one pretty unusual attribute: it appears to be funded entirely by Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal founder and former Silicon Valley denizen who now lives in Los Angeles after slamming his former home as a “one-party state” for its liberal views. Undark reports Thiel is the sole director for the Auzen Corporation, the sourcing of funding for the 501(c)3 nonprofit supporting Inference.
There’s nothing necessarily nefarious about a publication dedicated to an unconventional review of science. One of the founders of Inference, David Berlinski, said his intention was to start a conversation with the global scientific community through “more sophisticated articles” than might appear in outlets as such as Aeon, n+1, or Quanta. But skepticism is warranted—among other potential concerns, Berlinski has stated that he rejects scientific consensus on evolution.
There have been efforts to create false or misleading “journals” in order to promote questionable research or even conspiracy theories in the past, says Ivan Oransky, a medical doctor and co-founder of RetractionWatch, which tracks retractions in scientific journals. For example, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, linked to the politically conservative non-profit Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, has in the past printed articles claiming HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, stating that climate change doesn’t exist, and linking autism and vaccine. But, Oransky said, Inference doesn’t fit neatly into the same category as the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Inference doesn’t claim to be peer-reviewed, and purports to be non-ideological. Rather, its editors grant writer plenty of leeway to publish their views—it doesn’t matter if they may be contradicted by the vast majority of scientists
For Thiel, this lack of filter may be by design. An increasingly vocal cohort in Silicon Valley’s libertarian circles sees mainstream discourse as hostile to unorthodox ideas, especially those from the right of the ideological spectrum. By pushing back against the conformity of today’s acceptable thought, Thiel and others have claimed they are promoting freedom of speech and Enlightenment ideals.
Thiel has been one of the most vocal proponents of this view over the last decade. The investor is well known for backing Donald Trump’s anti-establishment presidential candidacy in 2016. But he has agitated for a libertarian, capitalist alternative to today’s liberal American democracy (see: Seasteading) for more than a decade, as well as railed against “the far-to-the-left, weirdly uniform, weird sort of groupthink” of Silicon Valley.
His beef with higher education and academia goes far back as well. Thiel, who graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in 1989 and completed Stanford Law School in 1992, said “the downsides of too much education is that you get the most brainwashed.” In 2011, the Thiel Fellowship began paying college students $100,000 to drop out and start companies. He was also the likely instructor of a 2016 seminar called “Heterodox Science” at the Berkeley Institute, a private institution in California, to examine “fields of study that dissent from mainstream science.”
For Thiel, publications like Inference can move such ideas into the mainstream culture (war). Inference is not alone. A number of small, vocal, and ideologically-aligned publications are staking out similar ground. The Journal of Controversial Ideas, for example, is due to come out in 2019. Quillette, founded in 2015 by Claire Lehmann, prides itself as being a forum for “free-thought” and publishes provocative essays (Politico labeled the publication the “voice of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web“). Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker told Politico he continues to be “impressed that Quillette publishes heterodox but intellectually serious and non-inflammatory pieces [about] ideas that have become near-taboo in academic and intellectual discourse, including ones connected to heritability, sex and sex differences, race, culture, Islam, free speech, and violence.”
Publications like Inference, with its mix of legitimate scientists and controversial characters, are ideally suited to shift what is sometimes called the “Overton Window:” the range of publicly acceptable discourse. Once an obscure concept proposed by Joe Overton of the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the mid-1990s, the idea is now the battleplan for many of today’s culture warriors. The theory suggests radical political change only happens after the window of “acceptable” ideas and concepts shifts in one direction or another. Major political changes, whether beneficial or harmful, must be preceded by an expansion of “mainstream” attitudes and assumptions about what is politically possible. Among the first to pick this up were alt-right and neo-Nazi chatrooms trying to inject far-right propaganda into American discourse. But it is now a Twitter rallying cry any time public figures seek to expand the limits of public debate from Trump’s promise to build a “wall” on the Mexican border to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70% marginal tax rate on the rich.
Inference and other publications explicitly say they want to avoid such ideological swamps. They purport to be the opposite: objective, apolitical forums for thinkers to raise controversial and unpopular views. But they are ideally suited to move the Overton Window for ideas that are now far out of today’s mainstream. Lehmann explicitly made it one Quillette’s missions to “broaden the Overton window” for unconventional or unpopular ideas.
For Thiel, Inference’s tiny budget of a few million dollars isn’t even a rounding error on his estimated $2.5 billion fortune. Yet widening the field of ideas he sees sidelined by the academy and mainstream may be a priceless way to advance his agenda, even if a few cranks and crackpots get in as well. But then perhaps casting doubt on the entire establishment is the whole point.