Syllabus

Is voodoo science a fitting topic for a university lecture? After all, Antarctic Hollow-Earth Space Nazis seem so obviously bogus. The problem comes when voodoo science is sophisticated enough to slip past us.

The cultural idea of the evil scientist.

First a review of Robert Park's voodoo science, the real evil science. For this presentation add a fourth category to Parks' junk, pathological, and pseudoscience:

So, if the real science is so fundamentally honest and voodoo science dishonest, why does popular culture so frequently regard real science with suspicion and embrace the "bold iconoclasts" and "free thinkers" of pseudoscience?

The Influence of Fiction: Into that gulf of suspicion steps an entire range of folk culture including: We've discussed item two on that list at length. Now consider one and three.

Fiction: Most people actually know that the individual mad scientists of fictional stories are fictional characters, so each new addition to the genre has little effect, but the cumulative effect of constant exposure to the genre is profound, because subconsciously we assume that the specific fictional mad scientists are based on an underlying real phenomenon, just like Michael Corleone of The Godfather was based on real gangsters.

This genre has been with us for many generations. Early examples:

Of course, once modern science got going, artists and entertainers quickly siezed on people's fascination with it, weaving it into previous folklore.


From: DagonBytes.com
Frankenstein: Mary Shelly single-handedly invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein or the Modern Promethius, in which she "reimagined" the Golem and Faustus stories in the context of contemporary science. In her book, she sets the tone for later sci-fi "mad scientist" stereotypes, making Victor Frankenstein an irresponsible egotist who doesn't care about the well-being of his creation, a powerful yet helpless creature which, in turn, harms innocent people.

  • Contemporary examples are legion.

    To recap, suspicion of science is:

    This seems trivial but could have tragic consequences. Consider the future of genetic research. Wouldn't it be a shame if society turned it's back on an opportunity to feed the world or cure terrible diseases because of our culturally engrained suspicion of malevolent "mad scientist"s playing in God's domain caused us to abandon genetically altered crops?

    For modern times, the issue is particularly acute, as climate-change deniers typically regard the overwhelming scientific acceptance of anthropogenic climate change as evidence of self-serving opportunism by climatologists, if not of a vast conspiracy by the scientific establishment.

    This is no joke. In the past, each of the following has been condemned as unnatural or unholy. So, here's the key question: Just how careful does the public have to be about mad scientists? Are they a: To answer this, I've put together a survey of candidates for the title of real-life mad scientist. Their careers can be shocking. We don't flinch from dangerously violent bad guys in movies, but when they actually walk among us, it is very disturbing. Indeed, a basic qualification for consideration as a mad scientist is that somewhere along the way, you rack up a body count. Here goes:

    Pseudoscience kills:

    Not surprisingly, some of the heavy hitters are really pseudoscientists who managed to infiltrate proper scientific institutions. The problem they pose for science is that proper scientists either let them into their midst or didn't prevent politicians or commercial interests from forcing them into scientific establishments.

    Trofim Lysenko:
    • Background, Ongoing political theoretical conflict between mendelian genetics and lamarkianism.

    • 1927: Publication of "vernalization" the idea that plant development is a function of environment at different life stages. Thus, by manipulating the environment, one could channel the "evolution" of crops.

    • Appeal is in parallels between biological and political "evolution."

    • His approach didn't epitomize the scientific method: "In order to obtain a certain result, You must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it .... I need only such people as will obtain the results I need".

    • Lysenko's habit was to report only successes. His results were based on extremely small samples, inaccurate records, and the almost total absence of control groups. Was negative toward the use of mathematics in science.

    • 1937 Lysenko becomes president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. His suppression of his opponents included political denunciations that resulted in some opponents dying in Stalin's Gulag.

    • Lysenkoism held official sway in USSR until 1955.
    His legacy is a long-standing deficiency in Soviet a/o Russian biological sciences.

    Josef Mengele: A promising academic physical anthropologist until his military career intervened. Wounded in action, mustered out, but promoted to SS Captain. Physical anthropology was one of the areas in which pseudoscience got its biggest foothold in the intellectual life of the Third Reich, primarily through Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler's interest in the subject.
    • In the SS, he was allowed to continue his anthropological research at the Auschwitz extermination camp.
    • Three preoccupations:
      • Physical abnormalities
      • Alteration of racial features, especially eye color.
      • Use of identical twins as controls.
    • A handsome spit-and-polish man, but pathologically indifferent to human suffering. His subjects were automatically slated for death (although in some cases, their utility as experimantal subjects postponed the fatal moment until they could be rescued.)
    • Mengele uncomfortably straddles the boundary of real and pseudoscience. On one hand, he had some concept of proper methodology and made real observations, but his ultimate goals (E.G. racial "improvement") were in the realm of the purely subjective.
    • Escaped the fall of the Third Reich and died in hiding in South America during the 1970s.

    Real science done with malicious intent: Very rare, but when it comes to light it REALLY gives science a bad PR problem.

    Think only the nazis did this kind of thing?

    The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

    For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men (mostly impoverished and poorly educated share-croppers) in the late stages of syphilis. The essence was to gather data on the course of the disease when left untreated. Some specifics:

    The program came to an abrupt halt in 1972 when its existance was made public by the Washington Star. It would be easy to dismiss this as a case of simple racism by a public institution, but that would be misleading also. Consider:

    So a closer approximation of the truth is that people (black and white) with power and influence decided that a group of society's weakest individuals were "expendable."

    Alas, news of this outrage became widely known and led to a general suspicion of medical research among the general public. For example, researchers must confront the persistant suspicion that HIV was developed in a research lab somewhere.

    Frederick Seitz: Commercial science double-whammie.

    Governments and political movements are not the only ones who would like to influence the outcome of scientific research. In the past, tobacco companies famously opposed independent medical research suggesting that smoking was hazardous, and funded their own research that sought to cast doubt on its findings. Today, made-to-order research on global climate change is sponsored by industries that stand to be hurt by regulation of CO2 emissions. Remarkably, a distinguished scientist became caught up in both movements:

    Frederick Seitz, a professor of physics, was president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1962 - 1969.

    Two take home lessons:

  • As we've seen before, official secrecy has bad side effects. In the case of the Tuskeegee Experiment, it allowed institutions to get away with something that any reasonable person would view as a crime.

  • Any time scientific research is undertaken with the explicit goal of obtaining a particular result, pseudoscience is the likely outcome.

  • Both evil science and pseudoscience can be weapons in the arsenals of tyrannical governments and unscrupulous businesses. In fact, maybe any government or business that resorts to their use, or suppresses proper science, is tyrannical or unscrupulous by definition.

  • The scientific method is morally neutral.

    Like any other method, people with their own moral compasses must decide to employ it for good or ill. Consider this contemporary moral challenge to scientific practice.

    But the good news - in a democracy with free access to information, the people can decide for themselves how the scientific method should be employed. None of the cases above would have occurred if democracy and freedom of information hadn't been impaired.