|The Undergrowth of Science|
|publisher||Oxford University Press|
|summary||how science can go outrageously awry|
A scientist once wrote that all truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and eventually, accepted as self-evident. Charles Kettering, the legendary former head of General Motors, once lamented: 'First they tell you you're wrong and they can prove it; then they tell you you're right but it isn't important; then they tell you it's important but they knew it all along.'
Both of these notions are quoted in Walter Gratzer's excellent new book, "The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty." Gratzer writes exceptionally well. He teaches at the Randall Institute, King's College London. His books include the "Longman Literary Companion to Science" and "The Bedside Nature."
Gratzer examines the underbelly of scientific theory, namely how some of the most delusional and outrageous scientific theories -- Russian water that could congeal oceans, Monkey testis implants that restore declining sexual powers, "truths" about genetics and the discovery of matter -- occur and are widely accepted in the scientific community. This book is equal parts science and history, a collection of gripping tales that remind us to take even the most high-minded and supposedly scientific discoveries with some caution.
Science makes much of its rules and legendary peer review procedures, but personal vanity, contemporary politics, greed, stupidity, and incompetence all pop up in these shocking episodes. Gratzer details how intelligence and reason don't necessarily exclude irrationality. One chapter takes us to eighteenth-century France, where Franz-Anton Messmer persuaded a gullible public of the existence of animal magnetism and harnessed it to cure diseases. (Messmer didn't actually invent the theory of animal magnetism, he learned it from a notorious Austrian priest known as Father Hell.)
One powerful chapter details the tragedy of Soviet genetics, the history of Russian biology in the period between the Revolution and the death of Stalin in l953, a time the author calls "a woeful chronicle of wanton destruction of both a scholarly discipline and the lives of many of its most respected practioners." Gratzer also explores the misuse of science in the Third Reich, and the rise and fall of Eugenics.
This isn't just ancient history, though. Misguided scientific theory is all too contemporary.
"Most remarkable," writes Gatzer, "is the way that false theories and imagined phenomena sometimes spread through the scientific community. A kind of mass hysteria, which parallels in the world at large, such as UFO sightings alien abductions, 'recovered memory' and probably chronic fatigue syndrome, takes possession of a hitherto rational population, like a virus of the intellect. On such occasions scientists in some area of research throw aside, to the amazement of their colleagues, the intellectual constraints that had until then guided their working lives. They become selectively uncritical and intolerant of any unsought evidence. Sometimes such a perversion of the scientific method results from external, especially political, pressures, but at other times it is a spontaneous eruption."
In the media age, these scientific stumbles are particularly dangerous, as they become powerful memes that are rapidly and virally transmitted to the general population by information technologies like TV and the Net.
In this era, science and technology are central to contemporary political, social, economic and cultural lives. How science can sometimes go awry is thus an important story. Despite the fact that Gatzer tells it entertainingly and with enormous authority, this is a disturbing book. Science in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.
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