I first heard of Art Robinson as the founder of the Robinson curriculum — a collection of out-of-copyright classics that his children used to teach themselves, more or less — but Dr. Robinson was a notable chemist before that:
In the mid 1970′s, after a few years at U.C. San Diego, Robinson teamed up with Linus Pauling to form the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Menlo Park, California. Robinson, president and research director, revered Pauling both as a teacher and a chemist, while Pauling had referred to him as “my principal and most valued collaborator.” Pauling had won two Nobel Prizes, for Chemistry (1954), and Peace (1962), and by the mid 1970′S had widely publicized the claim that Vitamin C could cure the common cold. In addition, he said, “75 percent of all cancer can be prevented or cured by Vitamin C alone.”
At the new institute, on Sandhill Road, Robinson devised some mouse experiments to test this amazing theory. By the summer of 1978, he was getting “highly embarrassing” results. At the mouse-equivalent of 10 grams of Vitamin C a day — Pauling’s recommended dose for humans-the mice were getting more cancer, not less. Pauling responded to the unwelcome news by entering Robinson’s office one day and announcing that he had in his breast pocket some damaging personal information. He would overlook it, however, if Robinson were to resign all his positions and turn over his research. When Robinson refused, Pauling locked him out and kept the filing cabinets and computer tapes containing nine years’ worth of research. They were never recovered. Pauling also told lab assistants to kill the 400 mice used for the experiments. Pauling’s later sworn testimony showed that the story about the damaging information was invented, while experiments by the Mayo Clinic conclusively proved that the theory about cancer and Vitamin C was wrong.
A sharp divergence of political opinion between the two men also became apparent. A few years after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Pauling also won the Lenin Peace Prize. He told Robinson that he was more proud of the Soviet than the Norwegian award. For his part, in the spring of 1978 Robinson had given a speech at the Cato Institute, then in San Francisco, deploring the government funding of science as harmful to the independence that is essential to scientific inquiry.
Pauling died in 1994, at the age of 93, but his peace-prize activities continue to resonate among scientists, and the subject still absorbs Robinson. In 1958, Pauling had engaged in a series of televised debates with the developer of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller. The subject was “nuclear fallout,” or the residual radiation after an atomic explosion. Pauling won, Robinson says, with the help of an argument that was unsupported by evidence at the time. Since then, however, it has been shown to be wrong. The argument involved a “linear extrapolation to zero,” in Robinson’s scientific lingo. High levels of radiation will certainly kill you, and lower levels will harm you. Pauling calculated the damage at minuscule levels by extending that graph back in a straight line to zero. Zero radiation, obviously, causes no harm. At low levels, by his calculations, not many would be harmed. But multiplying that harm-rate by the population of the world, as Pauling did, allowed him to claim that continued nuclear testing would kill “millions of children.” So it should be stopped. Pauling and his wife Ava Helen organized a petition against testing in the atmosphere, signed by 11,000 scientists and presented to the United Nations. For that he won the Nobel Prize, and the Lenin Prize a few years later.
Now we have the “hormesis” data, gathered in the last 20 years, and that’s what interests Robinson. The graph does not go straight back to zero. It goes down to about 700 millirems a day, then heads back up again, like a hook. Low background levels of radiation seem to be good for you. The evidence that the “linear extrapolation to zero” is wrong, accumulated by Bernard L. Cohen, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, comes from many sources. Bad for you in large doses, radiation does some good in small doses. It seems to keep the DNA repair mechanisms in good working order. The same principle is observed with alcohol, and a number of other poisons. Very heavy drinking will kill you, but a glass of wine a day is a tonic.
With radiation, nonetheless, the operative principle has been “zero tolerance,” permitting environmentalists not just to stop nuclear tests, but to demonize nuclear power and to stymie the disposal of nuclear waste as well — with little discussion of the evidence. As the recent energy problems on the West Coast suggest, we are going to have to start building nuclear power plants again. Meanwhile, Art ruefully points out, the hormesis data show that Oregon is not a particularly good place to live. Its background radiation levels are below the national average, and its cancer rates are above average. There’s less cancer risk in Denver, where the background radiation levels are much higher. That inverse relationship holds all over the country.
When he found himself locked out of his own office, Robinson sued Pauling for breach of contract, slander, and fraud. After many twists and turns, and a lengthy account in Barron’s by the perennial Wall Street bear, James Grant, now the publisher of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, the case was settled out of court with Pauling paying Robinson $575,000. Art and his wife Laurelee, and Zachary and Noah, moved to Oregon in 1980. Concerned about the decline of public education, she had already begun to accumulate filing cabinets full of her own instructional material and was home-schooling all the children.
By 1988, the six Robinson children ranged in age from 12 to one and a half. One day in November all the children had stomach flu. Laurelee felt ill too, with a bad stomach ache. Art asked if she wanted to go to the emergency room but she said no. She slept in the living room to be closer to the electric heaters. The next morning Arynne and Bethany, aged 8 and 6, came running into his room. “We can’t wake mommy up.” He ran in. “She wasn’t dead yet, but her heart had almost stopped.” She died before reaching the hospital. It was a rare disease called acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis. Enzymes released by the pancreas, instead of going down the proper duct to the digestive system, had latched onto an artery and eaten a hole in it. “All her blood was in her peritoneal cavity.” Even if she had been in the hospital, it is not likely that she could have been saved. “The sutures would never have held,” a doctor told Art. It had all taken less than 24 hours. Laurelee was 43.
Now Art had to find a way to keep going on his own. “For most of my life,” Robinson says, “I had found education to be a boring subject. I enjoyed teaching chemistry because I enjoyed chemistry—not education. When Laurelee died I continued our home school, but I let the children teach themselves.”
Since then, with many intervening adventures, Art Robinson has mostly been home alone with the kids. His formula — “let the children teach themselves” — sounds as though it came from the progressive play-book. There are four keys to learning, he believes — “study environment, study habits, course of study, and high-quality books” — but he may not realize the extent to which his own discipline, determination and watchfulness have made the first two a given in his own household. He permits no television, which “promotes passive, vicarious brain development rather than active thought.” Sweets aren’t allowed either — “sugar diminishes mental function and increases irritability.”
As for the guns, they are not entirely for show. Out there in the woods are cougars and black bears, and earlier this year Joshua shot a cougar that appeared in a tree just above him. Cap guns, war toys and violent video games were never permitted in the Robinson household. Real guns were also unthinkable, until Art felt the children were old enough. Two years ago, agreeing with the title of his close friend Jeff Cooper’s book, To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, firearms training was added to their home school.
Their training was conducted under Cooper himself at the NRA Competition Center at Raton, New Mexico, and under Clint Smith, Cooper’s associate in Texas. Matthew was considered to be too young, but he went along on the trips. He proved to be such a favorite with the instructors that they sought Art’s permission to teach him, too. In this, the family has reverted to earlier times in America when children were taught self-reliance, good judgment and practical skills — including the use of firearms — at an early age.
He sounds like a Heinlein hero — except that he’s quite Christian.