While I was in a bookstore over the holidays, I stumbled across a relatively new publication by author John Grant, Corrupted Science: Fraud, ideology and politics in science. I snapped it off the bookshelf without a second thought (well, one second thought, which I’ll mention below), because I’m fascinated by frauds, crackpots and crazies in the sciences. I just finished the book last night, and my highly unscientific verdict… amazing!
If you care to hear a few more details than that, look below the fold…
Corrupted Science is a follow-up to Grant’s earlier work, Discarded Science: Ideas that sounded good at the time, which I haven’t read. Grant himself is a Hugo-award winning fantasy author, as well as a non-fiction author of books on fantasy, film and animation. Discarded Science was a look at silly mistakes and misconceptions made by sincere scientists, but Corrupted Science looks at the darker subject of deliberate deception and perversion of science.
Other books have touched on this subject. For instance, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by the amazing Martin Gardner, is an old book (1957) that deals with the crazies and cranks of the time. Much more recently, Voodoo Science by the very amusing Robert Park talks about the evolution of innocent mistakes into deliberate fraud. I used to have a copy of this book… sigh. (Anyone out there feeling guilty yet!!?? You know who you are!) People irritated with creationism will find Monkey Girl, about the 2004 Dover Intelligent Design trial, necessary reading. Much more depressing reading (which is why I haven’t read it) is The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney, about Bush’s systematic corruption and destruction of formerly enlightened government science programs.
In a book of amazing breadth, Grant covers all these topics, and more. Chapters of the book are:
- Fraudulent Scientists
- Seeing What They Wanted to See
- Military Madness
- The One True Book
- Ideology Trumps Science
- The Political Corruption of Science
The last chapter is what made me snatch the book off the shelf. The subsections of chapter 6 are, in order: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Bush’s America. Call me partisan, but anyone who has the moxy to draw those connections deserves my money.
I’ve never heard of John Grant before this book, but I’m extremely impressed. The writing is clear and witty, and the content seems (to the best of my knowledge) spot on. The few places that I found myself in minor disagreement with Grant’s comments, he followed them up and proved me depressingly wrong. For instance, he seemed particularly critical of the peer review and assessment practices of modern science, which I objected to, but then he followed his criticism with a depressingly long list of scientific frauds and fakers, with many modern examples. (Still a very small percentage of all scientists, but more than one ever wants to see.)
There are many highlights and surprises in the book. The chapter ‘Military Madness’ talks about the crazy ventures and wasteful spending of the military-industrial complex, with much attention paid to Edward Teller’s more absurd ideas and the rise-and-fall-and-rise of SDI programs. The chapter ‘The One True Book’ is a very funny and savage denunciation of creationism and its lipstick-on-a-pig sister, intelligent design. It serves as a wonderful summary of the entire history and dishonesty of the movement.
Partisan schadenfreude aside, the linking of the scientific policies of Hitler, Stalin and Bush has a powerful impact. Both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia sought to bring their science more ‘in line’ with the party ideology, inevitably with disastrous results. In Germany, this led to the experimentation on and extermination of the Jews, while in Russia this led to mass starvation in following Lysenko’s quack agricultural practices. The infamous Bush administration quote, “When we act, we create our own reality,” seems moronic and ominous following those tragic histories. This isn’t a partisan issue; as the author himself says, “This should not be read as reflective of any political attitude the author might have for or against other activities of the Bush Administration; the deliberate governmental corruption of a nation’s science is of such parlous importance that it transcends all political allegiances or antipathies.”
To conclude, Corrupted Science is an excellent and highly readable book about fraud and ideological fallacy in science, and serves both as an introduction and a reference for those interested in learning more about the tenuous thread by which hangs rationality.