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Did Robert Maxwell start the censorship of science?

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PUBLICATION of research results, theoretical propositions and scholarly essays is not a free-for-all. As shown by the dogmatism around climate change and Covid-19, sceptics struggle to get papers in print. The gatekeeper is the peer review system, which people take for granted as a screening process to ensure rigour in scientific literature.

It has not always been that way. Until at least the 1950s, the decision to publish was made by the editors of academic journals, who were typically eminent professors in their field. Peer review, by contrast, entails the editor sending an anonymised manuscript to independent reviewers who indicate whether the submission should be accepted, revised or rejected, although the editor makes a final decision. This may seem fair and objective, but in reality peer review has become a means of knowledge control – and as we argue here, perhaps that was always the purpose.

You may be surprised to know that the instigator of peer review was media tycoon Robert Maxwell. In 1951, at the age of 28, the Czech emigré purchased three-quarters of Butterworth Press for about half a million pounds at current value. He renamed it Pergamon Press, with its core business in science, technology and medicine (STM) journals, all of which installed the peer review system. According to Myer Kutz (2019), ‘Maxwell, justifiably, was one of the key figures — if not the key figure — in the rise of the commercial STM journal publishing business in the years after World War II.’

Maxwell’s company stole a march on other publishers and its influence was huge. By 1959 Pergamon was publishing 40 journals, surging to 150 by 1965. By 1996, one million peer reviewed articles had been published. Yet despite the increase in outlets, opportunities for writers with analyses or arguments contrary to the prevailing narrative are limited. Maxwell was instrumental to peer review becoming a regime to reinforce prevailing doctrines and power. Seven years after launching Pergamon Press, Maxwell moved into Headington Hill Hall, a 53-room mansion in Oxford, which he leased from Oxford City Council.

But how was he able to acquire Butterworth Press initially? In 1940, Maxwell was a penniless 16-year-old of Jewish background, having left Czechoslovakia for refuge in Britain. His linguistic talents attracted the British intelligence services. On an assignment in Paris in 1944 he met his Huguenot wife Elisabeth. After the war ended in 1945 he spent two years in occupied Germany with the Foreign Office as head of the press section. Four years later, with no lucrative activity to his name, this young man found the money to buy an established British publishing house. According to Craig Whitney (New York Times, 1991), Maxwell made Pergamon a thriving business with ‘a bank loan and money borrowed from his wife’s family and from relatives in America’.

Another clue is given by a BBC video clip (2022) on Maxwell’s links to intelligence networks. While operating as a KGB agent in Berlin, he presented himself to MI6 as having ‘established connections with leading scientists all over the world’. According to investigative journalist Tom Bower, ‘unbelievably what he really wanted was for MI6 to finance him to start a publishing company’. This point is corroborated by Desmond Bristow, former MI6 officer, who states that Maxwell asked the secret security service to finance his venture. If it was the intelligence services (British and/or Russian) that bankrolled Pergamon Press, their motive could have been to ensure control of knowledge following the tremendous advances of the Second World War (such as nuclear physics and weapons of mass destruction).

Maxwell’s choice of name for the publisher is interesting. The ancient site of Pergamon was allegedly the locus of Satan’s throne (Revelation, 2:12), and a cynic might suggest that Maxwell’s peer review system would turn science from Enlightenment to a new Dark Age.

A ploy of Maxwell was to label his journals as global: instead of the parochial ‘British Journal of . . .’ it was always ‘International Journal of . . .’  In 1991 Maxwell sold his academic publishing empire to the Dutch publisher Elsevier for £440million. By then he had achieved his – and perhaps his secret sponsors’ – goal of a globally controlled academic press. 

If a censorial conspiracy seems far-fetched, consider the case of the critical thinking journal Medical Hypotheses. Founded by British scholar David Horrobin in 1975, this journal published novel, radical ideas about health likely to be rejected by conventional journals. A single editor decided what to publish, with no review panel. In the 2003 British Medical Journal obituary, Horrobin was described as ‘one of the most original scientific minds of his generation’.

In 2009 Medical Hypotheses became a cause célèbre. Bruce Charlton, who succeeded Horrobin as editor-in-chief, accepted a highly controversial article by Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who contested the HIV basis of AIDS and argued that the South African government was right not to administer antiretroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers because the HIV–AIDS link remained unproven. Publication caused furore in the scientific world. Scientists associated with the US National Institutes of Health threatened to remove all subscriptions to Elsevier titles from the National Library of Medicine. Their demand was not only that Elsevier withdrew the article, but also to institute peer review at the journal.

Elsevier agreed and dismissed Charlton. Mehar Manku, who replaced him, assured that the journal would now ‘be careful not to get into controversial subjects’, the reverse of what Horrobin intended. Charlton later remarked: ‘The journal which currently styles itself Medical Hypotheses is a dishonest fake and a travesty of the vision bequeathed by the founder Professor David Horrobin; and as such it ought to be closed down—and on present trends it surely will be.’

Consider the case of British scientist Rupert Sheldrake, whose research on morphic resonance challenged core tenets of normal science. Sheldrake was subjected to intense hostility from John Maddox, chief editor of Nature, the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. In an infamous editorial in 1981, Maddox denounced Sheldrake’s first book A New Science of Life as an ‘infuriating tract’ and ‘the best candidate for burning there has been for many years’. In 1999 Maddox reviewed Sheldrake’s book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, which presented compelling evidence of psychic powers in birds and animals, and pronounced: ‘Rupert Sheldrake is steadfastly incorrigible in the particular sense that he persists in error. That is the chief import of his eighth and latest book. Its main message is that animals, especially dogs, use telepathy in routine communications. The interest of this case is that the author was a regular scientist with a Cambridge PhD in biochemistry until he chose pursuits that stand in relation to science as does alternative medicine to medicine proper.’

As the discerning reader will notice, Maddox plays the man rather than the ball, refusing in his ad hominem attack to engage with Sheldrake’s evidence. This is not a scientific approach, but ideological censorship, with the personal vengeance of ‘cancel culture’. Such oppressive group-think is facilitated by the peer review system, and is not only applied to ‘far out’ theorists like Sheldrake.   

As explained in Green in Tooth and Claw (Niall McCrae, 2024), the most significant use of academic journals for propaganda is with the ecological agenda. The supposedly overwhelming consensus for anthropogenic climate change is a myth, as the oft-cited figure of 97 per cent of scientists was derived from four studies, all of which were flawed.  Science is not an opinion poll, and an appropriate rewording of the statement would be that 97 per cent of scientists believe in whatever gets them funding. Peer review has been exploited by the pharmaceutical industry. Antidepressant drugs have been consistently endorsed in medical journals since Prozac was introduced in the 1980s, despite dubious safety and effectiveness. Academic marketing of Big Pharma products reached its zenith with Covid-19 vaccines.

For the sake of humanity, we need to revert to an open and objective scientific enterprise. Like many purportedly progressive developments in society, peer review has brought more problems than it solves. That it was initiated by the rogue figure of Robert Maxwell, with secretive funding, suggests ulterior design.  

This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on May 17, 2024, and is republished by kind permission.

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