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,

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