Corrupted Science: the history, cause, effect and state of bad science

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, Author's website


  1. While the subject does seem enticing, I wouldn’t exactly call the books’s cover “handsome”. But that’s just my opinion, mind you…

  2. Just when I was patting myself on the shoulder for not having spent 1/4 of my paycheck on books (until a month ago, I lived 2 blocks from a Borders: Dangerous).

    This looks like the perfect time to fall off the wagon…

    I am intrigued that, although Cory describes it as ‘little’, the book seems to cover impressive ground according to the synopsis. I will definitely look for it.

  3. I think you mean “geocentrism” not heliocentrism. Heliocentrism is the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. Geocentrism is the sun revolving around the earth.

    However, even then the comment isn’t fair. Geocentrism was not bad science. It was a very useful model for most of its history. And without a good understanding of inertia it made a lot more sense than The problem was not geocentrism; the problem was resistance to better models when they came along.

  4. 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.

    Pasteur? more like Francesco Redi.(1626-1697)

  5. #3: Technically, heliocentrism was the idea that the sun was the centre of the universe, as opposed to the earth. It was certainly a step forward from geocentrism, but I suspect it took a while for them to progress to the modern view.

    (I would guess that would be the origin point of the observed universal expansion, but I also suspect that relativity would come into play – would our centre be the same as the one observed at this point in time on the opposite side of the universe?)

    Anyway, I’m sure there were scientists who, for political reasons, clung to the idea of the sun being the centre of the universe, at least until the existence of other galaxies and the structure of our own were elucidated.

  6. Thomas Kuhn philosophised quite extensively about this.

    Because science, by necessity, incorporates scepticism, major paradigm shifts tend to require a substantial body of evidence (otherwise every idiot claiming he’d made some great advance, e.g. cold fusion, would have the rest of his community chasing phantoms).

    It can be a very tricky area, though – the scepticism can also be driven by political aims, such as the Catholic Church vs Galileo, or the Bush administration vs the majority of the climate science community. (Or Thabo Mbeki vs the majority of the medical community on HIV/AIDS.)

    Neither geocentrism nor heliocentrism were really “bad science”, but in the end, as the evidence was mounting for a shift to the new view, there would certainly have been scientists clinging to the old view for personal or political reasons, and not out of scientific rigour.

    I would guess that would be “bad science” as much as the hoaxing crackpots, and that the whole idea is so subtle that it needs a book (or more) to explore fully.

  7. Lysenkoism, an ideologically correct biology that led [to] famines that killed millions

    Lysenko did many bad things, but causing famines was a bit beyond him. The famines in the USSR were caused by a combination of natural droughts, (forced) collectivisation, mismanagement of grain reserves and failure to mitigate (or even acknowledge the problem).

    About the extent of Lysenko’s connection with the famines was that he made dubious, wildly optimistic claims about having a solution; but then dubious, wildly optimistic claims were his stock in trade, applied to everything in sight.

    What deaths Lysenko caused were mostly among scientific rivals.

  8. And, in the second to the last paragraph, we get to the meat of this post, and this book.

    Lo, and the George W. Bush be as foul and loathsome and evil as Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin!

    Look, we have a book that we printed that says it. Everyone knows that all research (we do, not right leaning research) is absolutely true and not biased at all, and we aren’t fudging or faking anything.


    Cough, cough, Catastrophic Man-made Global cooling, cough cough cough…

  9. Yeah cuz Bush is so like Hitler and Stalin… the book sounded awesome until the last morally relative salvo.

    Are there any chapters on the overselling of Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian wet dream of overpopulation, Carl Sagan’s nuclear winters (or is it nucular winters?) and the quasi religious evangelism of anthropogenic global warming or “climate change”? What about the overselling of embryonic stem cells when huge breakthroughs are being made through adult stem cells? I assume it’s a bi-partisan attack on the politicization of science because that’s the real issue and not who gets elected in 6 weeks? There are a lot of legitimate targets out there. Bush is hardly the only one currently much less the most egregious example.

  10. All too often, books like these focus on governmental and populist repression and fraud without mentioning the economics. Many of the fraudulent government programs existed because it was profitable to do so.

    Industrial sponsorship of research, either directly through contractual obligations, or indirectly through the sponsorship of endowed chairs and research centers produces similarly doubtful results in fields such as pharmaceutical testing, nutrition and other aspects of the health sciences among others.

    One only has to visit the history of the American Tobacco Institute to find how egregious this kind of scientific fraud and intentional disinformation can become, and how profitable it was for the sponsors.

  11. I dont know that i would call what Paul Ehrlich does/did as science. His dire predictions were just alarmist bullshit, not really science, IMO.

  12. #10, #11: I don’t think the book is saying that at all, and neither is Cory. Cory is saying that members of the Bush administration are “of a lineage” with commisars of the USSR (and hence underlings of Stalin), but he isn’t drawing a direct comparison. Nowhere there does Cory draw a comparison of any sort with Hitler. Put the strawman away, please.

    Honestly, though, the Bush administration has not been friendly towards science, and that’s concerning, given how much of the world’s science happens in the United States. I think a very strong case can be made that they are indeed the most egregious example of the control and curtailment of scientific research in the world right now. They’re not the only example, by far, but they’ve done the most damage.

    The fact that a large proportion of the public in the United States still believes that anthropogenic climate change is a myth, and that balls of 20 cells should have rights, just goes to illustrate that.

  13. This book is actually a sequel of sorts to the book Discarded Science. In that book the author focuses more on the theories that ended up being misguided. This book (which has been waiting on my shelf for me to actually read) is a good comparison of dumb (the first book) vs evil (this book)

  14. Painful though it may be to grasp, Piaget long ago discovered that (as Wikipedia puts it) “Some two-thirds of people do not develop [abstract] reasoning fully enough that it becomes their normal mode for cognition, and so they remain, even as adults, concrete operational thinkers.”

    Understanding of science, therefore, cannot be established in the general populace (short of new educational practices). And, consequently, it constantly needs to protect itself from misunderstanding … including people who are nominally termed professionals.

  15. Bad science is not only conscious fraud; those who do not follow two minimum rules cannot accurately call what they do “science”.

    The two rules are: all evidence must be sharable, and all participants must agree: “But I might be wrong”. The best explanation that explains all the evidence is the “truth” until a better explanation comes along (or the evidence changes). One can stubbornly refuse to accept or reject any particular explanation, but none are absolute and beyond challenge.

  16. #17 As of now, that comment is appended with “citation needed”, which is appropriate for such a bold claim. Cheers.

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