LAUREL HOLLOW, NEW YORK – Information warfare is being waged on a mostly unsuspecting public through a massive communications technology infrastructure spawned by the American defense industry known as the Internet, beginning with the relatively modest days of web 1.0, when quirky, self-published sites were little more than curious novelties and AOL (America Online) was spending millions in direct mail campaigns, sending CDs to real mailboxes in order get people to use the digital version.
Since then, so-called web 2.0 or the “social web” has been erected atop that initial scaffold and, together with the proliferation of smartphones, the groundwork was laid for millions of people around the world to have information piped directly into their brains via a constant stream of photos, stories and videos.
Relying on cute memes, sensational headlines and people’s need for attention, virtual social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter grew into the enormous human input aggregators that they are today. Using algorithms and bots to shape parameters of discussion and experiment with the limits of narrative manipulation, the first signs that these technologies were being leveraged to exert a more direct form of control over information came with the Donald Trump presidency – a presidency made for social media from beginning to end.
In 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 ushered in the next phase of these systems of cognitive warfare as a new breed of social media actor burst on the scene. Profiles with MD, PhD and other academic title abbreviations affixed to their handles appeared by the hundreds, and seemingly out of nowhere, to share their ‘professional’ takes on the pandemic and to post scientific papers that proved or disproved whatever claims were being made.
Medical and scientific opinions flooded the information superhighway, in many cases accompanied by links to some apparently official piece of research, which only helped boost the chances of the content going viral as people with no academic literacy decided to share it among their networks, trusting that it was backed by “science”. Terms like “peer reviewed” were thrown around indiscriminately to describe work that was months or years away from attaining such a distinction, as most studies relating to COVID-19 would have to be.
The average time it takes for a scientific or medical research paper to achieve peer review varies. But, in most instances, three to four months is typical, and it can take up to a year from the time the academic work is actually completed until it is actually published in the most respected journals. Even then, the vast majority of these specialized publications are not accessible to the general public without a considerable fee.
There is, however, a stage prior to peer review in the academic research pipeline known as preprint, which allows papers not yet vetted by fellow academics to be disseminated across universities and laboratories for those interested in the latest potential discoveries or developments, as well as a feedback mechanism for the authors. Up until the early 90s’, this was carried out through regular mail as paper manuscripts were shipped to the libraries of institutions all over the world, where other academics could gain access to them.
Long before e-mail became mainstream, American astrophysicist Joanne Cohn had been using the novel technology to exchange manuscripts about string theory with her colleagues during her postdoctoral studies at Princeton University in the late 1980s. A few years later, Paul Ginsparg, then pursuing a BA in physics at Harvard, automated submissions to Cohn’s e-mail list and revolutionized preprint by creating the largest repository of openly accessible, non-peer reviewed academic materials in the world.
Master Race Science
Pronounced “archive”, arXiv was the first of many preprint servers Ginsparg would help create. In 2003, the repository would launch a “quantitative biology” section to host work related to the life sciences, and which would branch out into a separate server altogether called bioRxiv in 2013.
Housed at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), in a village on Long Island, the idea for bioRxiv was not very popular at first among the field’s researchers and scientists, who feared that having their work on a freely-accessible sever could put it at risk of poachers, among other issues. Resistance was in vain as the momentum of the digital age was already in full swing by the time British scientists John R. Inglis and Richard Sever co-founded the research paper database where molecular biology and genomics were born.
Founded in 1890 as a teacher training and research center for the faculty of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, CSHL would soon become the center of the American eugenics movement. In 1904, the Carnegie Institution of Washington took over part of the campus to establish its Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics and led by Charles B. Davenport, one of the most prominent leaders of the racist pseudoscience in the United States.
Davenport had introduced eugenics to the laboratory as early as 1898 and championed the concept of biometrics, which had been pioneered by the “father of eugenics”, Sir Francis Galton, and for a time was the co-editor of Biometrika – a leading journal for biometric anthropology founded by Galton’s close friend and associate, Karl Pearson, with funds provided by Galton, himself. In 1910, Davenport established the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) at Cold Springs Harbor with financial backing from E.H. Harriman’s wife, the railroad tycoon whose son would later set up a bank in New York with the patriarch of the Bush political dynasty, Prescott Bush, to fund the rise of the Nazi party.
Work at the ERO stretched across nearly three decades until an independent review by the Carnegie Institution led to its closure in 1939. During that time, New York’s wealthiest families, such as the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, funded pseudo-scientific eugenics research that would influence immigration law and lead to the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, which legalized the forced sterilization of mentally disabled people in Virginia. ERO co-founder and treasurer, Harry H. Hamilton, testified before Congress on immigration matters and served as an expert witness for the state of Virginia in a Supreme Court challenge to the sterilization law, which was upheld in 1927.
Three years before Hamilton was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg in Nazi Germany for his work in the “science of racial cleansing“, Davenport’s son-in-law organized the first of a series of meetings at Cold Springs Harbor that were intended to be “an experiment in scientific procedure” and sought to merge biology with the basic sciences. The gatherings were dubbed the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium in Quantitative Biology and would be held every summer since. In 1953, molecular biologist James D. Watson would stand before his much more senior colleagues in shorts and a t-shirt at the CHSL symposium to describe the double helix structure of the DNA molecule he and Francis Crick had just proposed, and for which he would receive the Nobel Prize a few years later.
In 2007, the “father of DNA” would be reportedly ostracized from the scientific community when he expressed his opinion that black people were genetically inferior to whites. But, it wasn’t until 2019 that CSHL, where Watson was still serving as Chancellor, decided to issue a public statement rebuking the eminent scientist’s remarks and stripping him of his title and administrative duties. The institution’s reaction came only after a PBS biopic covering his racist comments aired on television. CSHL calledWatson’s statements “reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students”.
However, it is hard to believe the sincerity behind CSHL’s public displays given its sordid history as a bastion of racist science, and if Watson’s bigoted opinions are not “supported by science”, why was he spearheading the Human Genome Project – the project to map human all DNA – at a time when his views were already known?
Gatekeepers of Approved Science
Such questions become even more troubling in the face of the world’s present circumstances surrounding issues of public health and mandated medical procedures. CSHL not only hosts and moderates the bioRxiv servers, it is also the site of one of its more recent branches, medRxiv, which holds preprint academic submissions relating to the medical sciences, specifically, and has become a focal point of the information war that erupted alongside the COVID-19 epidemic.
Launched in 2019 by CSHL, Yale University and BMJ (British Medical Journal), medRxiv uses a “team of volunteer “affiliates” in the medical sciences” to look over submissions, with a rejection rate of around 10 to 20 percent, according to Inside Higher Ed. John Inglis, co-founder of both medRxiv and bioRxiv (as well as the Executive Director of CSHL Press), defended the non-profit’s decision to ban any papers that dealt with research with “in silico”, or computer-generated sequencing technologies.
Inglis felt it “wasn’t enough,” despite the fact that he considered labs doing such work are only “trying to make a useful contribution to the understanding of the pandemic.” This reasoning seems to be at odds with the fact that the controversial PCR tests for COVID-19 are themselves based on in silico sequencing of the virus.
While the arguments in favor of preprint servers like medRxiv revolve around giving researchers the opportunity to obtain valuable feedback from the academic community on the road to peer reviewed publication, many are still reticent about their true value and suggest that the factual inaccuracies and misunderstandings that can arise out of the dissemination of non-peer reviewed material is enough to put a stop to this practice.
In reality, preprint servers have one underlying purpose and that is to function as gatekeepers for establishment science, keeping undesirable research away from the peer reviewed stamp of approval. Prestigious journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association are quickly catching on, encouraging scientists to use the medRxiv as a stepping stone towards full peer review and others, like e-Life, make a posting on the preprint sever a conditional requirement.
Preprint servers work to weed out studies like a paper that appeared early on in the pandemic, which concluded there were similarities between the COVID-19 spike protein and HIV. The study was carried out by two Indian scientists and made the rounds on social media before it was withdrawn from bioRxiv. The Chan Zuckerberg Foundation’s funding of CSHL’s preprint server since 2017, reveals the persistent ties between the Western scientific establishment and Silicon Valley, which is in many ways just a proxy for the national security interests of the United States.
The majority of the moderators who get to decide on what research is accepted, rejected or modified are based in the U.S. and their reach is not limited to the life sciences. In August, moderators at the original preprint server, arXiv, rejected a paper on quantum research by well-regarded Chinese scientists Chao-Yang Lu and Jian-Wei Pan. According to a theoretical physicist at the University of Bologna in Italy who examined the paper independently, it was unclear why the paper was rejected.