CPSP218g
11-13-06
Mad scientists in Media and History
Science done badly and bad science

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. He recognizes three varieties:

I would add a fourth catagory:

  • The type specimen of voodoo science - Franz Mezmer, the inventor of hypnotism, sums it up:

    "Forget for a while all of your knowledge of physics...Remove from your mind all objections that may occur...Never reason for six weeks... Be very credulous; very persevering; reject all past experience, and do not listen to reason...Never magnetize before inquisitive persons."

    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?

    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 phenominon, just like Michael Corleone was based on real gangsters.

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

    The Golem: Story has its origins in Kabalah. The definitive version emerges in 16th century in which a wise man (usually a rabbi) creates a creature out of clay and gives it the semblance of life. The creature or Golem (Hebrew for "unformed matter") serves the rabbi and his community in various ways in different stories, but although it is values and admired, becomes more and more powerful, so that it eventually becomes threatening and has to be destroyed.

    Dr. Faustus: Scholar makes pact with the devil trading his soul for the ability to do good on Earth. Made famous in plays by Marlowe and Goethe.

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

  • Frankenstein: Mary Shelly single-handedly invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein or the Modern Promethius, in which she recast the Golem story while exploring the implications of the recent discovery that the life force that moves muscles and energizes nerves is nothing more than ordinary electricity. In her book, she sets the tone for later sci-fi, making Victor Frankenstein an irresponsible egotist who doesn't care about the well-being of his creation, who in turn harms innocent people.

  • Contemporary examples are legion.

    To recap, suspicion of science is:

    This could have tragic consequences. Consider the future of genetic research. Wouldn't it be ashamed 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 scientists playing in God's domain caused us to abandon genetically altered crops?

    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 real-life "scientific" bad guys.

    Pseudoscience hits the big-time: 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 lamarkinaism.

    • 1927: Publication of "vernalization" the idea that plant development is a function of environment at different life stages.

    • Appeal is in parallels between biological and political evolution.

    • "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. Wa negative toward the use of mathematics in science.

    • 1937 Lysenko becomes president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

    • Lysenkoism held official sway in USSR until 1955.
    His legacy is a long-standing deficiency in Soviet - 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. Remember the Hollow Earth Space Nazis? Physical anthropology was one of the areas in which pseudoscience got its biggest foothold in the intellectual life of the Third Reich.
    • 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.)

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