Corrupted Science: the history, cause, effect and state of bad science
POSTED BY CORY DOCTOROW, SEPTEMBER 22, 2008 7:05 AM
John Grant's handsome little hardcover book "Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science," is an eye-popping tour through the history
of bad (very, very bad) science, from eugenics to geocentrism to Lysenkoism. Grant -- whose stern historical tone is liberally relieved with bravura dry sarcasm -- approaches his topic from the general to the specific.
The book begins with a fine, brief history of fraudulent scientists, categorizing their frauds into self-deception, hoaxing, "cooking" (fudging research), and forging (a taxonomy from Charles Babbage's "Reflections on the Decline of Science in England"), and then ranges back and forth through history,
revealing the minor and major frauds of respected figures like Newton, Galileo and Marco Polo to outright scoundrels like Ruth B Drown, who sold fake radio-based cancer cures to desperate, dying people for decades.
After this delightful and enervating overview, Grant moves on to different social causes of fraud: ideological scientists who fooled themselves (for example, the discoverers of "menstrual rays" and other improbable phenomena); then military fraud (CIA psi experiments, military waste on secret flying military bases that didn't, and, of course, Star Wars, junk Patriot Missiles and the Missile Defense Shield); religious fraud (bans on teaching evolution, intelligent design, und so weiter); then ideological attacks on science (the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the American Eugenics movement; anti-masturbation campaigns, young earth and New Age crackpots); and then finally onto the book's third act, a chilling exploration of the political curtailment of science.
Here, Grant begins with Nazi science, and not just the gruesome death-camp experiments we're all familiar with, but also the bizarre attacks on "Jewish" mathematics and physics and the effort to create "German" equivalents that adhered to the ideological tenets laid out by Hitler's regime. Of course, there's plenty here about junk genetics, weird theories about the origins of disease ("earth rays") (!), and then, finally, a stomach-turning look at the human subjects experiments undertaken in the death camps.
Next up is Stalinist Russia, and of course, that means Lysenkoism, an ideologically correct biology that led famines that killed millions. The social factors that brought Lysenko (and his contemporaries, including Lepeshinskaya, who advocated the idea of "spontaneous generation of life," despite this notion having gone out with Pasteur. Grant does a great job bringing these personalities to life, and giving a flavor of the reasons that some scientists were forced to toe the line while others (physicists -- vital to the nuclear arms race) were able to conduct their affairs with relatively little meddling. I was also fascinated by his description of the junk psychology that doomed political dissidents to a lifetime in mental institutions and the notion that some psychiatrists may have turned in their diagnoses in order to spare their patients the worse fate that awaited them in the Gulag.
Finally, Grant closes with the systematic attacks on science under the presidency of George W Bush, and makes a compelling case that the failure of countries that tried to constrain science in order to make it comply with ideology is a real possibility for the USA today. Grant's relentless account of the Bush administration's attacks on health science, environmental science, geoscience, evolutionary science, climate science and other critical disciplines is deeply chilling. The political hacks who censor NASA and EPA reports are clearly of a lineage with the commisars who doomed the Soviet Union by purging the bioscience that undermined their political philosophy.
Exhaustively researched and footnoted, Corrupted Science is excellent reading for anyone who believes that science is worth fighting for.
Corrupted Science: Fraud, ideology and politics in science
A short, squat book from the UK's Facts, Figures and Fun imprint, and printed on unnervingly good paper, this looked to me like one of those bargain throwaways you see at Barnes and Noble -- until you remember how much fun Grant's 2006 Discarded Science was and scoop it up in search of chewy anecdotal goodness. The tone this time is considerably darker, though, as Grant ascribes to malice what cannot be adequately explained by stupidity. His comparison of the current administration's assault on scientific truth and inquiry goes even further than Christopher Mooney's 2005 The Republican War on Science -- but then again the administration's had two more years to run amuck.
". . . an absolute gem of a book that exposes much fraud, ideology and politics corrupting science. This is a critically important book that everyone needs to read. . . . Non-scientists need to read it so that they can see exemplars of what is being said and how attempts are being made to fool them. Scientists need to read it for purposes of professional integrity and to be aware of what is being said in the name of their profession. Indeed I would strongly recommend that every science school teacher, every college and university lecturer should get a copy and check it for examples of how their particular specialism is being misrepresented and then include these in their class/lecture notes. It goes without saying that this is fundamental reading for anyone on science communication courses. Corrupted Science is far more important a book than its title suggests. It pains me to say this (as my own climate change book is just out) but if you only get one non-fiction book this year then make it this one."
Fraud, ideology and politics in science
by John Grant
I tremendously enjoyed John Grant’s latest book on scientific deviance - a rip-roaring adventure through the dark underbelly of science. If you are still under the belief that science is an impartial, noble pursuit of knowledge untainted by ego or undue influence then prepare to be shocked as Grant illustrates that throughout history, dark forces have undermined the scientific process time and time again - invariably to the detriment of both science and the public.
Grant starts with the small fish, such as the routine practice of senior academics publishing, in their own name, work performed almost entirely by their junior assistants, and ends with the political subjugation of science on a national and international level. We learn that far from defending against fraud, academic institutions are set up in a way as to positively encourage it - demanding ever-increasing levels of productivity (measured by papers published per year), and willing to ignore the trend for “co-authors” to sign off on studies that they have not even read, let alone performed. So too do we learn that far from the maxim “nullius in verba”, academia often treats its most senior scientists as beyond reproach, so that their work becomes sacrosanct and the mistakes within go unchallenged, sometimes for decades.
The middle of the book details the various run-ins science had endured through the years. From the pseudoscientists of the early 20th century, obsessively trying to prove the existence of ether and N-rays, to the implausible substances thrown up by the paranoia of the Cold War (such as Red Mercury, for which a considerable market of buyers and sellers exists, despite the fact that it is a completely fictional substance). We also tour the clashes between the Church and science, from the Inquisition of Galileo to the prosecution of Snopes.
One of the joys of Grant’s book is his willingness to name names when it comes to the villains (and occasional heroes) of science - this is not a mild-mannered or impartial report. Grant exposes those responsible for the subversion of science through the ages - not only its major players such as Lysenko and Hwang Woo-Suk, but even those small-time tricksters whose malfeasance hardly registered outside of scientific circles. If there is any doubt in your mind as to Grant’s unforgiving approach, simply read the titles of the last chapter, “The Political Corruption of Science”: Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany and Bush’s America. Ouch.
John Grant's CORRUPTED SCIENCE is an important book. It's entertaining and informative, a must for anyone interested in the history of science. Until I read it, I had no idea that test results had been faked by the revered likes of Ptolemy, Galileo, and Sir Isaac Newton.
This is fascinating stuff, but more significantly, CORRUPTED SCIENCE exposes the hypocrisy and sham science perpetrated today for questionable purposes, principally in the United States.
Grant divides his book into six chapters, and further subdivides them in user-friendly fashion to
make his case. "Fraudulent Scientists," "Seeing What They Wanted to See," "Military Madness," "The One True Book," "Ideology Trumps Science," and "The Political Corruption of Science" delve into the myriad ways that the quest for truth has been subverted, sometimes innocently but more often by design.
The concluding chapter's three sections---"Hitler's Germany," Stalin's Russia," and "Bush's America"---examine the most egregious cases of willful scientific subornment by powerful national governments for ideological and religious purposes. Grant details efforts by the Bush administration to hide the facts of global warming, a fraud perpetrated to safeguard the enormous profits of the energy industry, and to discredit the theory of evolution for ideological purposes.
Grant argues convincingly that the harm done by the Bush Administration will take generations to repair. This is a disturbing, but inescapable conclusion, and Grant's copious research drives home the reality that ideologues have been in charge of American scientific institutions since 2001 as a result of Bush's dubious electoral victory.
It's disturbing stuff, but written in a compelling and persuasive style. The book is an attractive hardcover, and it's offered at a very modest price. It should be read by everyone who's serious
about the future of science and, indeed, of the Earth itself.
As I had mentioned previously, I have recently altered my thinking regarding a number of sciency-type topics. The most notable being my thoughts on Evolution and Intelligent Design and Global Warming. The beginning of my mind-changing journey began by reading a book that I saw sitting in
the corner of my local over crowded, sprawl-mart sized retail book seller (whose name rhymes with Carnes and Mobil….).
Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science, by John Grant is an awkwardly
sized book whose content strives to educate and entertain the reader via tales of science gone bad. Contained within its 336 pages is a collection of examples, group by theme, detailing different ways in which the scientific method has been bent, broken, perverted or simply ignored.
The various themes of the book include:
- scientists who just made shit up
- scientists who just reported the good stuff and ignored the not so good stuff
- ways in which the military uses tax money to ignore good science
- ways in which Religion is used to ignore good science
- how the Bush administration (along with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia) killed the scientific method (as well as things like ethics, human rights etc…) as well as suppressing good old fashioned valid scientific data (i.e.: deleting things from EPA and NASA reports to prevent eroding a popular view or policy)
I cannot take the time to go into great detail about the many fascinating (and hard to believe) tales,
but I highly recommend this book to anyone who like me is a “narrow scientist”, that is, one who is so focused on their particular field that they forgot that there were other fields out there. This book certainly reminded me that 1) there is a lot of science that exists outside of organic chemistry and that 2) scientists are human, and hence all the traditional human flaws: ego, greed, need for peer recognition etc… In the end, Mr. Grant does a fine job in illustrating what happens when the scientific method gets in the way of our less desirable human traits.
I also found a wonderful publication from the National Academy of Scientists that was written to combat the rising tide of Creationism. Science, Evolution and Creationism (free PDF) goes to great lengths to describe the science of evolution, what it is, what the major findings are that support its hypothesis. To be frank, I knew about evolution but did not really know the science. After reading this publication, I now have a better understanding of what evolution is. I never really doubted it, but now I have a clearer idea of why it is an accepted theory. Much like the theory of the atom or the heliocentric model of the solar system, there is enough evidence supporting the hypothesis that we can safely assume that it is generally correct. Heck, Woodward made some incredible advances in organic chemistry using his knowledge of atomic theory, without ever directly observing an atom. He did not need to directly see a carbonyl to know about its chemistry. The same can be said of evolution, while we have yet to witness one species evolving into another, we have enough facts to say with a high degree of certainty that evolution is how nature does things.
As a quick aside, I am flattered that Mr. Grant has left a comment or two here. I consider those
digital autographs… and no, there is nothing brown on my nose…
I don't remember if I said something or Megan told her brother and his family that "Books about science are always good." But this year I received a few books that are science related. One of
these is a book entitled Corrupted Science by John Grant (2007 Facts Figures and Fun. The link will take you to the Sterling Publishing page for the book. They are the North American distributors.) The book is a follow-up to one entitled Discarded Science that was published in 2006. The focus of this book is how science has been misused and abused through out the years for a variety of purposes. There are basically three major sections to the book, corruption by scientists themselves, corruption for ideological reasons and corruption for political reasons. The last chapter is divided into three sub-chapters on specific political regimes that Grant views as having twisted science to their own ends. These are Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union and George W. Bush's America. While the first two of these would certainly be on any list of governments misusing science to promote a political agenda, the inclusion of the Bush Administration might be seen as a bit ham-handed considering they are still in office.
That said, I found the book to be engaging an informative. Grant provides a thorough investigation of many interesting cases in fraud, out right or by scientists "seeing what they want to see". While I was familiar with the "usual suspects" in these chapters I was surprised at some of the stories. It's obvious that in each of the areas treated Grant tends to focus on a particular branch of science and often on one area of study. Showing in each of these sections how fraud in one study might seep into other work in the subject area. In the ideology chapters he looks at military interference with certain areas of research. He also devotes one chapter to the battle between science and the literal interpretation of the bible.
That discussion has led me to want to learn a little more about the Creationist/Intelligent Design movement. In fact I'm now reading History of Modern Creationism by Henry Morris. More on that in a later post.
Finally the closing chapter on political influences is worth reading for anyone who wants to understand how science can be brought to
serve a particular political ideology. I was of course interested in the Bush discussion, but I was also interested in the Nazi discussion since the Science Museum will play host to the exhibit Deadly Medicine from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. The Stalin sub-chapter was disturbing if only because of some of the absurdity that passed for science during the period.
I've seen the book for sale in Barnes & Noble and it should be available from Amazon.com. It's worth the read if you
have an interest in this area.
As a writer and a reviewer, I sometimes come across a book that hasn’t gotten enough attention but seems to deserve that attention not just for its quality, but for its relevance. Corrupted Science by John Grant is one of these books.
It provides unique, entertaining, sometimes horrifying testimony to fraud and deception in science–from Medieval times to today. In light of the attack on rationality not just from private sources (see the current controversy over Ben Stein’s propaganda film Expelled) but also our own government, a book that not only catalogues what is happening today but also puts it in a wider context is not only relevant but necessary. Even, perhaps vital, in that battles over evolution have to do with whether or not we perceive ourselves as rational beings whereas battles over global warming may decide our survival as a civilization. (Perhaps even more eye-opening is a chapter in the book
on the money spent on crackpot super-weapons.)
Corrupted Science was buried in the holiday rush of books in November of last year here in North America, but the publisher is committed to resurrecting it with a major push in the next month or two. For example, you can read the introductions to both Corrupted Science and Grant’s previous book, Discarded Science, here. There is also a publisher page for the book.
This isn’t just a wonderfully written and relevant book—it’s also a beautiful little hardcover, lovingly put together, and something anyone would be thrilled to have on their bookshelf. Because the book is past its usual sell-by date, it can be ordered through bookstores, but most readers may want to
order through an online source such as Amazon.
“It was very depressing to realize that, when looking around for regimes that have systematically corrupted science within the past century or so, three stood out quite distinctly, head and shoulders above the rest of the herd: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Bush’s America. At times when working on the three relevant chapters, I had to remind myself which chapter was the one in front of me: the parallels between the three regimes, in terms of their vigorous attempts to trample honest science underfoot, are as horrifically close as that.” – John Grant
While I was in a bookstore over the holidays, I stumbled across a relatively new publication by author John Grant, Corrupted Science: Fraud, ideology and politics in science. I snapped it off the bookshelf without a second thought (well, one second thought, which I’ll mention below), because I’m fascinated by frauds, crackpots and crazies in the sciences. I just finished the book last night, and my highly unscientific verdict… amazing!
If you care to hear a few more details than that, look below the fold…
Corrupted Science is a follow-up to Grant’s earlier work, Discarded Science: Ideas that sounded good at the time, which I haven’t read. Grant himself is a Hugo-award winning fantasy author, as well as a non-fiction author of books on fantasy, film and animation. Discarded Science was a look at silly mistakes and misconceptions made by sincere scientists, but Corrupted Science looks at the darker subject of deliberate deception and perversion of science.
Other books have touched on this subject. For instance, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by the amazing Martin Gardner, is an old book (1957) that deals with the crazies and cranks of the time. Much more recently, Voodoo Science by the very amusing Robert Park talks about the evolution of innocent mistakes into deliberate fraud. I used to have a copy of this book… sigh. (Anyone out there feeling guilty yet!!?? You know who you are!) People irritated with creationism will find Monkey Girl, about the 2004 Dover Intelligent Design trial, necessary reading. Much more depressing reading (which is why I haven’t read it) is The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney, about Bush’s systematic corruption and destruction of formerly enlightened government science programs.
In a book of amazing breadth, Grant covers all these topics, and more. Chapters of the book are:
Seeing What They Wanted to See
The One True Book
Ideology Trumps Science
The Political Corruption of Science
The last chapter is what made me snatch the book off the shelf. The subsections of chapter 6 are, in order: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Bush’s America. Call me partisan, but anyone who has the moxy to draw those connections deserves my money.
I’ve never heard of John Grant before this book, but I’m extremely impressed. The writing is clear and witty, and the content seems (to the best of my knowledge) spot on. The few places that I found myself in minor disagreement with Grant’s comments, he followed them up and proved me depressingly wrong. For instance, he seemed particularly critical of the peer review and assessment practices of modern science, which I objected to, but then he followed his criticism with a depressingly long list of scientific frauds and fakers, with many modern examples. (Still a very small percentage of all scientists, but more than one ever wants to see.)
There are many highlights and surprises in the book. The chapter ‘Military Madness’ talks about the crazy ventures and wasteful spending of the military-industrial complex, with much attention paid to Edward Teller’s more absurd ideas and the rise-and-fall-and-rise of SDI programs. The chapter ‘The One True Book’ is a very funny and savage denunciation of creationism and its lipstick-on-a-pig sister, intelligent design. It serves as a wonderful summary of the entire history and dishonesty of the movement.
Partisan schadenfreude aside, the linking of the scientific policies of Hitler, Stalin and Bush has a powerful impact. Both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia sought to bring their science more ‘in line’ with the party ideology, inevitably with disastrous results. In Germany, this led to the experimentation on and extermination of the Jews, while in Russia this led to mass starvation in following Lysenko’s quack agricultural practices. The infamous Bush administration quote, “When we act, we create our own reality,” seems moronic and ominous following those tragic histories. This isn’t a partisan issue; as the author himself says, “This should not be read as reflective of any political attitude the author might have for or against other activities of the Bush Administration; the deliberate governmental corruption of a nation’s science is of such parlous importance that it transcends all political allegiances or antipathies.”
To conclude, Corrupted Science is an excellent and highly readable book about fraud and ideological fallacy in science, and serves both as an introduction and a reference for those interested in learning more about the tenuous thread by which hangs rationality.