Arthur Robinson is one of those classic American loons — someone with enough real knowledge to be dangerous, who then fritters away his expertise in grandiose plans that somehow never quite pan out, like his plan to build a universal medical diagnosis machine.
Here at what Robinson calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the family has been assembling an archive of human urine. Eventually they hope to gather 50,000 samples, drawn from 5,000 volunteers across a five-year span. The pee is kept in cryogenic vials and stored in dozens of military-grade, minus-80 freezers on the property. Robinson and his kids have already started placing tiny urine samples, each not much bigger than a raindrop, into the family spectrometer, so they can record its chemical fingerprint — the set of peaks and valleys corresponding to its thousands of component parts. Once their catalog of prints has gotten big enough, they’ll start sifting through for hidden patterns in the data, anything that might provide a hint about our health. According to Robinson, these records could contain the telltale marks of, say, early-stage breast cancer or an approaching heart attack, or they might allow him to track the effects of treating those conditions in real time. Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus [their personal hulking spectrometer] — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.
That’s bad science. Collecting vast amounts of noisy data with no specific hypothesis and then sifting through it looking for patterns is a recipe for apophenia. Another sign that this is a waste of time is that he’s been puttering away at his urine project for over 40 years, with no results. The breakthrough is always one step ahead of him.
I shouldn’t say no results — he has accomplished something. By following the PR moves of his mentor, Linus Pauling, while also preachifying radical Libertarian nonsense about climate change, he has cultivated a little cloud of exceedingly rich conservatives who throw lots of money at him in hopes of wish fulfillment. The Heartland Institute, that hive of lies and corruption, loves him, and filthy rich hedge fund managers (it’s always hedge fund managers — that occupation seems to breed foulness and evil) have been promoting him in the halls of power.
One could view his setup with idle curiosity: the science maverick on his ranch, with a seven-figure budget for his indie urinalysis. But the movement in which Robinson belongs (as a member, if not a shepherd) has nudged a few steps closer, in recent months, to the center of our national politics. Alternative theories of climate change — that is to say, those at odds with mainstream science — are now ascendant at the highest level of government, along with deep suspicion of environmental regulations. And other alt-science points of view — on vaccination, nuclear power, intelligent design — have been showing signs of purchase in the Trump administration. Even Robinson himself may soon be making tracks for Pennsylvania Avenue. Chief among his financial backers are the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon. In March, reports emerged that Rebekah Mercer had made the case for Robinson to be the nation’s new national science adviser. “It would be an honor to do it,” he told me.
He’s probably best known to conservatives for his petition to deny climate change and reject the Kyoto protocols, which got 31,000 signatures, mostly from people totally unqualified to assess the evidence. I guess that was another of his successes, since the US failed to ratify it.
“I think [the petition] was tremendously important,” another signer, the Princeton physicist and noted climate-change contrarian William Happer, told me recently. “It showed there are lots of highly credentialed scientists who really know a lot about the details of the science and don’t agree with the alarmists.” (In the past few months, Happer, like Robinson, has been short-listed for the job of science adviser to President Trump.)
(The article is from 2017. Neither got the job. Happer did bag the job of director of the National Security Council office for emerging technologies, which is a bogus appointment. Trump has appointed a weatherman, Kelvin Droegemeier as his science advisor, who has turned out to be a weasely coward.)
He has also garnered conservative approval for his stance on nuclear power. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that — I’m not dead set against nuclear power, but I have reservations. Robinson, though, goes a bit further. He thinks nuclear radiation is beneficial, so we ought to be getting zapped more.
If we could use it to enhance our own drinking water here in Oregon, where background radiation is low, it would hormetically enhance our resistance to degenerative diseases. Alas, this would be against the law.
He also thinks we could dispose of nuclear waste by incorporating it into building materials for homes, so we could all bathe in its sweet glow all the time. He’s an anti-vaxxer who thinks AIDS was simply a physiological reaction to gayness.
And this is what the wealthy Trumpkins think is a fabulous scientist.