About two years ago, I had the pleasure of happening across and reading John Grant’s book Corrupted Science. Corrupted Science deals with the systematic weakening, ignoring, and suppression of scientific reality for political purposes; examples include the disastrous Lysenkoism of Stalin’s Russia and the potentially catastrophic ignoring of evidence for man-made climate change. Corrupted Science (CS) was Grant’s second book, following Discarded Science, which describes those scientific ideas that in the end turned out not to be true.
The other day, wandering through the exact same Barnes & Noble where I found CS two years ago, I found that Grant has a new book out exploring similar themes to his previous two, Bogus Science; or, Some People Really Believe These Things:
Where DS dealt with wrong science in the scientific community and CS dealt with wrong science in the political theater, BS focuses down and takes a look at individual kooks, crackpots, and frauds and their perversion of established science (and reality).
The book is very good; as a first statement I can highly recommend it. There were also a few aspects of it, however, that made me like it a little less than his previous book.
The book is really a broadside against all sorts of insane crazy ideas: Atlantis, Bigfoot, perpetual motion, antigravity, pyramidology, flat-earthism, geocentrism. Grant gives excellent detailed histories of each of these obsessions, and fleshes out the curious characters who championed them or carried them onward.
One thing I found immediately disappointing about the book is that it doesn’t cover some of the most dangerous and prolific topics of modern crackpottery, such as Creationism and anti-vaccination cultism. This was an intentional omission, as Grant explains:
One thing I realized was that… the pseudosciences have today become — in part but only in part because of the internet — so prolific, ubiquitous and many-aspected that I didn’t have a hope of succeeding in any kind of quasi-comprehensive approach… I decided that for the sake of my own sanity and quite possibly my readers’ it was better to concentrate on relatively few areas in some detail than to try to touch every possible base with what would necessarily be infuriating briefness… Likewise, I’ve largely stayed clear of bogus medicine and the self-help racket, whether psychically or otherwise based. That, too, is a book in itself.
I was disappointed by the omission mainly because Grant is a bad-assed enough writer that I really want to see him shred the more offensive crazies. Of course, there is only so much that one can do in a single book, and I might guess that Grant needed a topic of some lighter fare after wading into the sludge of politicized science in CS.
As may be seen in the quote above, the book is filled with wonderful wry and biting humor. For example, Grant quotes a 1921 newspaper article about a religious flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva,
“Every sinner is going to be punished with an overdose of his own sin,” Voliva declared. “A tobacco smoker will be locked up in a den full of tobacco smoke. A chewer of the filthy weed will be immersed to his neck in a vat of tobacco juice. A drinker will pass his term of purification in a natatorium filled with beer, wine and whisky.”
To this, Grant adds,
Perhaps wisely, Voliva did not outline the “overdose” punishment awaiting the fornicator.
The book is exhaustively researched, and contains many stories and anecdotes that even a long-time observer of woo such as myself has not heard of. For instance, I had never heard that Alfred Russell Wallace had been harassed by a flat-earther for years after having the temerity to prove him wrong: obviously, the conflict between scientists and crazies is not a recent phenomenon. I also had never heard that there are people out there who believe that the Dark Ages in fact never happened, and that the entire (admittedly sketchy) history of that era is fabricated.
I have one other (mild) criticism of the book, and that is that the text of the book does not seem to be directly related to its introductory thesis, and in some sense seems to contradict it at times. In the introduction, Grant writes,
The counterintuitive subtext here is that mere knowledge of scientific facts does not much affect the ability to reason logically. Or maybe it’s not so counterintuitive after all: as a few voices in the wilderness have been saying for decades now, a major flaw in almost all modern education systems is that they assume the ability to think is somehow inherited or is a natural property of the human brain, rather than something that needs to be learned — and taught.
This argument is somewhat similar to the one I was driving at in a recent post, and one I agree with wholeheartedly. Grant intends the anecdotes in his book to be an illustration of the importance of an educational system that teaches people to think rationally. Again, I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion, but the anecdotes really seemed to teach a different lesson: some people are just crazy, and will think about problems irrationally no matter how well they’ve been trained in rational thought.
For instance, the idea of a lost continent of Lemuria was originally proposed as a reasonable scientific explanation as to how species of lemurs arrived at their modern geographic distributions. From there, however, Ernst Haeckel — a very eminent biologist of his time — decided without a shred of evidence that Lemuria must have been the original point of origin of the Aryan race! Others elaborated upon this story and created a lost civilization on Lemuria, again without any evidence whatsoever. To me, this isn’t a failure of reasoning as much as it is pure delusion, which it is hard to imagine can be “educated away”. Once you start believing the voices in your head, outside voices seem quite insignificant.
So many of these often centuries-old myths started without any evidence to back them up, and were perpetuated and elaborated even in the face of conflicting evidence. Often, the most credulous people were scientists themselves (such as Haeckel) or people who knew enough to get a scientific second opinion and blithely ignored it. One Clara Moore, supporter of perpetual-motion fraudster John Keely, brought a scientist in to evaluate the device — and promptly got another opinion when the first one was negative. Even when all scientists agreed that Keely was a fraud, she could only bring herself to cut his weekly allowance to $7000, in today’s dollars.
In the end, the lesson I take away from this book is one of eternal vigilance — no matter how well you teach people science and reason, there will always be those who will believe insane things, and find others to support their craziness. The only real cure, to me, seems to be vigilance — these examples of pseudoscience must be fought vigorously whenever they appear. Again, this isn’t to say that education in science and reason isn’t important — it is supremely important — but better examples of its importance are modern topics like intelligent design and anti-vaxxers, where otherwise reasonable people are being duped on a massive scale.
This is a minor quibble about the book, however, and really more a reflection of my tastes. Grant’s Bogus Science is a wonderfully entertaining and informative book about the insane beliefs of fringes groups.
Hmm… he started with DS, then wrote CS, and now has written BS. Following the pattern, his next book should be abbreviated “AS”. “Asshole Science”? That would be a perfect title for a book about the IDers and anti-vaxxers!