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The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty

Oxford University Press: 2000. 338 pp. £18.99, $27.50

It came as a shock to many when Richard Feynman reviewed a subject that was backed by two opposing theories, each with strong experimental support, and concluded that the only answer was that one of the experiments must be wrong. He was right, as usual, but for those educated in the Rutherford tradition of believing that experiments are the true basis of science, this was almost a heresy. We are accustomed to theories being wild hypotheses, but not physical experiments! Once one accepts this possibility, however, false results can be found to occur fairly frequently and we should take them into account.

The first person to study what happens when a scientist declares a wrong result, and others follow him, was Irving Langmuir, who, in a famous lecture, gave it the name 'pathological science'. He described cases such as N-rays, 'discovered' by a respected physicist, René Blondlot. N-rays collapsed after a single dramatic episode when the physicist Robert W. Wood visited Blondlot and was present when, with incredible accuracy, he measured the dispersion of the rays by a prism. When, in the darkened room, Wood removed the prism, Blondlot's measurements were unaffected. Wood published and effectively killed N-rays. Thanks to Langmuir, if one wants to hint that a series of results may be wrong despite confirmatory publications, a mention of N-rays gives the connecting clue.

When Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons published evidence for cold fusion and their findings were then supported by independent scientists, we talked of Langmuir and pathological science. But this time there was no Robert Wood to strike the killer blow. If only Dick Feynman had lived longer and been able to use his wit on cold fusion.

Walter Gratzer has written a book describing many examples of pathological science. He is a good writer and holds the reader's attention well. The first part of the book takes the major case studies given in Langmuir's lecture, and expands on them using hindsight. He adds several other examples, including the more recent case of cold fusion. But his strongest criticisms are of the medical profession, which he knows best. It seems incredible that a doctor or group of doctors could believe in a treatment and carry it out for many years without people remarking that it was not acting as a cure but was instead killing many patients.

One example is ptosis, which means 'dropped organs'. Operations on the kidney began around 1883 and the death rate from removing a dropped kidney was about 50%. Later operations sewed the kidney to the abdominal wall. Many thousands of these useless operations were performed over some 50 years, to correct a condition that caused no deaths. Removing the colon was recommended at one time despite the 18% death rate of the operation. Gratzer also describes and attacks homeopathy, although this is still popular, particularly in France.

The second half of the book extends these essentially scientific case studies to the influence of politics and racial prejudice on science. The deadful story of how Trofim Lysenko destroyed genetics in the Soviet Union is well known but worth re-reading. Gratzer also describes how the same procedure of having well-organized meetings at which possible opponents of the establishment are denounced and then removed, was prepared for a group of physicists. Just before the first such meeting, in 1949, Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet atom bomb, saved them by declaring to Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, that quantum mechanics and relativity theories were essential for developing an atom bomb. According to Gratzer, Beria consulted Stalin, who, speaking of the physicists, declared: “Leave them in peace; we can always shoot them all later.”

The important lesson is that science is universal, and when it is viewed as Soviet science or Aryan science, disaster can often be the outcome. The science of eugenics, literally 'good birth', assumed that all human characteristics, intellectual and moral as well as physical, were inherited, and hence people of 'inferior' races or those with hereditary diseases should be controlled.

The concept of Aryan science started long before Hitler came to power and was based on the principle that the Aryans were a superior race. The Nazi government first applied these ideas to its own people, and some 300,000 people considered physically or mentally inferior were sterilized between 1933 and 1939. After 1936, killings by doctors in hospitals and asylums began. In 1939 euthanasia was legalized to replace sterilization, and finally, no fewer than 70,000 patients in institutions were secretly killed. Later, this belief in racial superiority led to the killing of millions of Jews, Poles, gypsies and others in concentration camps.

Eugenics started in Britain in 1869 and quickly spread to the United States, where eugenic measures such as marriage laws preventing unsuitable unions were introduced. Compulsory sterilization followed in many states, starting with Indiana in 1907 and lasting well into the sixties. Other countries followed suit. In Sweden, compulsory sterilization became legal in 1934, and over the next 30 years about 1% of the population — 63,000 Swedes — were sterilized for reasons of race or social undesirability. Eugenics is now almost dead, but racial discrimination is alive, although usually bearing other names, such as 'ethnic cleansing'. The fight against eugenics continues.

Gratzer writes as a historian, and so his book lacks the charm of personal involvement found in Langmuir's contributions — Langmuir played the part of Robert Wood by demonstrating to experimental physicists Bergen Davis and Arthur Barnes that they were counting imaginary scintillations. Gratzer could have discussed cold fusion in more depth, as this controversy continues today. In fact, the true believers held a meeting in Italy last May which was sponsored by the three main Italian official research organizations.

For a wrong result to be believed and for the idea to spread, the reputation of the people involved is very important. Bob Park, the author of a somewhat similar book, Voodoo Science, says that, no matter how crazy the claim, it is always possible to find a physicist with a PhD to support it. Reading Gratzer's book, one is tempted to say that there is a 50% chance that a Nobel laureate will support the claim.

Interestingly, Gratzer shows that scientists who make bad errors tend to be treated kindly by their colleagues. This is probably because the profession believes in self-regulation, and possibly also because there is a feeling of 'there but for the grace of God, go I'.

What will be the next example of pathological science, for there are surely many more still to come? Possibly it will be something we all desire — a new energy source, life on Mars. I would recommend Gratzer's book as a tool to help us recognize it sooner and fight it effectively.

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