Junk Science

How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us

Dan Agin, Ph.D.

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One 
Science, Junk Science, and Dogma
 
Rome has spoken; the case is concluded.
—St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
 
There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any error.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967)
 
What happens when dogma rules? We need the past as a guide, since only through the lens of history are the realities of the behavior of whole societies completely visible. To ignore our past, to avoid learning from it, is a mindless attitude that only increases the likelihood of personal and social calamity. What a tragedy it is that history is hardly ever taught to children as a cautionary tale. Instead, history is taught as an exercise in tribal self-glorification, a pedagogical scheme that may be useful to politicians in their manipulations of the public, but a scheme that in the long run produces social dangers and the catastrophes of war.
 
Galileo and the Moons of Jupiter
 
So we begin with Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), a man whose very name has come to signify the perpetual battle between dogma and science, a battle won by dogma, a defeat now recognized as a disaster for human society.
 
The story of the Church against Galileo has been repeated (and often distorted) over and over again in history and literature. But what was the crux of it? Some say that the officials of the Church of that time were aware of the truth of Galileo’s assertions that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but were incapable of publicly admitting this because of fear of demolishing the philosophical structure upon which the Church rested—the theological position, originating with the ancient Greeks, that a mechanistic interpretation of nature could never be more than a model, an intellectual artifact, since between theory and reality there would always be a gap that could not be bridged by human reason. The Church had received from the ancients a fundamental view of the cosmos that the Church had preached since the beginning of Christianity, and that view could not be denied without demolishing the foundations of the religion itself. At least, according to this interpretation of the crux of the conflict, that was the view of Church officials of the seventeenth century. Of course, eventually, after two hundred years, the Church did accept the Galilean/Copernican view of the solar system, and without destruction of its theological foundations. (Some may argue that if anything the foundations were strengthened.)
 
The other view of the crux of the matter is simpler and focuses on the elemental battle between dogma and reality, the refusal of the dogmatists to acknowledge reality, the stubborn efforts of the dogmatists to contrive and deny even when one is handed a telescope and told to look at the moons of Jupiter and see whether or not they are real. So goes the story of the Church and Jupiter’s moons, although if officials of the Church refused to look, many academics, the so-called philosophers of Pisa, also refused to look.
 
Why not look? Because to look and see what Galileo (and others) said could be seen would demolish the foundations of one’s reality. The dogma was that the Earth did not move. And even of those who accepted the Copernican idea that the planets (other than Earth) revolved around the Sun, many would not accept the idea that the Earth itself revolved around the sun—because they believed the Earth would then lose its moon. Thus, to see the moons of Jupiter was to understand that a planet could revolve around the sun without losing its moons, and that the Earth could do this also.
 
Here are Galileo’s own words about the import of Jupiter’s moons:
 
Here [in the Jovian moons] we have a powerful and elegant argument to quiet the doubts of those who, while accepting without difficulty that the planets revolve around the Sun in the Copernican system, are so disturbed to have the Moon alone revolve around the Earth while accompanying it in an annual revolution about the Sun, that they believe that this structure of the Universe should be rejected as impossible. But now we have not just one planet revolving around another while both make a large circle around the Sun, but our eyes show us four stars that wander around Jupiter, as does the Moon around the Earth, and these stars together with Jupiter describe a large circle around the Sun in a period of twelve years.
 
But the hard evidence that there were indeed people who refused to look at Jupiter’s moons is scanty, most of the evidence in comments by Galileo himself. The best surmise is that there were indeed people, academics, philosophers, Church officials, who refused to look, even when others did look and were looking all over Europe as soon as the announcement of the Jovian moons was made. And if they looked, did they believe the moons were there? In this context, the important point is not who looked and who refused to look—no, the important fact is that there were probably enough people of substance, even of eminence, people of the established order who refused to look, assuming that Galileo did not concoct the idea of refusals, as some have suggested.
 
Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in the year 1610. On June 22, 1633, he received the final sentence of the Church, with the following words read out to him:
 
You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.
 
Never mind Galileo’s subsequent recantation, the question of who looked or who did not look, the question of how many Church officials quietly accepted the reality of Jupiter’s moons, the crux of the matter, the essence of dogma, the fundamental and unresolvable confrontation between dogma and science is clear in the above paragraph, in the accusation read to scientist Galileo Galilei as on Wednesday, the 22nd of June in the year 1633, he knelt on the floor in a room adjoining the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His crime was to refute a doctrine with a telescope, counter a dogma that suddenly, with the invention of the telescope, became a dogma based on junk science.
 
And the junk science endured. When Harvard University was founded in the year 1636, the assembled university scholars did not accept Galileo’s work and they remained firmly committed to the Ptolemaic theory of the universe. Were they too busy to look at Jupiter’s moons?
 
Galileo’s major work on the solar system, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was not removed from the Roman Catholic index of prohibited books until 1835, two hundred years after the Church forced his recantation.
 
Dogma is not easily melted.
 
Phrenology and Inherited Traits
 
The junk science foisted on human society by the Church during the two centuries following the invention of the telescope concerned man’s view of the world. At about the same time the Church finally accepted the reality of the Galilean world, a new junk science arose concerning man’s view of himself, his view of his mind and brain, and this new junk science came to be a precursor of twentieth-century catastrophe.
 
Both science and junk science have a powerful impact on the public when concerned with mind and brain, the workings of intellect and emotions, and the differences in individual character.
 
In the eighteenth century, knowledge of human physiology—and of the workings of the brain and nervous system—was primitive, sometimes fanciful, and often overshadowed by centuries-old myths and religious doctrine. There was still uncertainty about whether the brain was the organ of mind, uncertainty about the function of nerves. Muscle action was a mystery, the connections between nerves and muscles not known until the 1870s, and electricity was for the most part a parlor trick used to entertain the aristocracy in their salons. But no matter what Aristotle or the Church or Descartes decreed, many physicians understood, on the basis of repeated clinical observations of traumatic injuries, that the brain had a great deal to do with mental faculties, both ordinary and peculiar. And if mental faculties could be rationally categorized, the faculties given this or that name and differentiated one from the other by observation, was it not possible that the brain itself was organized in a similar fashion?
 
The idea that the anatomical organization of the brain is related to its various functions is more than two hundred years old and is today called “localization of brain function.” The existence of considerable localization of function is indisputable: There are brain regions involved with specific primary inputs such as vision, audition, taste, etc.; brain regions for specific primary outputs to various muscle systems; and brain regions for speech and the understanding of language. The still unclear aspects concern anatomical localization of other so-called higher faculties, e.g., learning, memory, perceptual analysis, motivations, and various other cognitive abilities. But the general idea of localization of brain function is not new; it arrived in Europe two centuries ago—and rapidly degenerated into junk science.
 
At the end of the eighteenth century, the neurologist Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) proposed a view of the brain and mental function that quickly swept both sides of the Atlantic, flowered in public lecture halls and magazines, and drew the approval of people in upper-class drawing rooms because of the tenet that mental faculties were fixed from birth by inheritance and incapable of modification by education. European and American aristocracies adored (and still adore) the fiction of genetic inferiority and ineducability of the lower classes, since it excuses their privilege as a natural consequence of good breeding (and helps to justify the treatment of the servant class as half-wit children). Without the support of the upper classes, it’s doubtful that Gall’s modest neurologic research would have exploded into the almost frenzied popular fad of the early nineteenth century.
 
Gall’s idea, that the brain was organized into twenty-seven “organs” (regions of specific function), and that these structures corresponded to particular protuberances on the external cranial surface, was simple in conception but revolutionary in practice, since it meant that with a proper “map” in hand, the contours of anyone’s skull could be examined and then statements made about that person’s mental faculties. These faculties were presumed to be innate and incapable of modification.
 
Gall’s pupil, Johann Casper Spurzheim (1776–1832), lectured extensively in the United States, promoting an American phrenology craze as intense as that in Europe. The popular rage was to have one’s head “read” by a phrenology specialist—unless one happened to have bumps in the skull around the ears, since those bumps were associated with combativeness, destructiveness, secretiveness, acquisitiveness, and a devotion to food. The junk-science frenzy eventually reached a point where some criminologists claimed to be able to detect a murderer by the shape of his or her head.
 
Thus, a sensible and valuable idea, that of the localization of brain function, coupled with fallacious ideas concerning inherited mental faculties and the significance of conformations of the skull, became mangled into a junk science that in the nineteenth century deceived several generations of Europeans and Americans. All for the love of the idea of inherited mental faculties, an insidious dogma that continued into the twentieth century and set the stage for catastrophe.
 
As for phrenology itself, its principles were demolished in 1870 when experiments produced the first functional maps of the cerebral cortex, maps totally unrelated to any contours of the skull. Of course, to some people experimental science was irrelevant, and phrenology demonstrations continued as a drawing room entertainment well into the Edwardian era at the turn of the century.
 
Eugenics in America
 
Recent major advances in molecular genetics and genetics biotechnology have produced in some quarters a “genetics euphoria,” with books in the marketplace called Your Genetic Destiny, with many researchers rushing to establish the “genetic basis” of various human “behavior traits,” the latter term encompassing, by implication, both “good” and “bad” behavior traits, and of course reminiscent of the phrenology craze in the nineteenth century. Can we expect a future proposed genetics program to eliminate what proponents might call genetically based “bad behavior traits”?
 
We have already traveled that miserable road. One of the most disastrous examples of the ignoble application of science is that of the so-called science of “eugenics” in the first half of the twentieth century, a junk science that directly spawned genocide.
 
One might think that the United States, the so-called melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and religions would be difficult ground for the cultivation of the idea that some groups are better than others, more “fit,” and that the least fit ought to be outbred (or even sterilized) as quickly as possible to prevent contamination of the national gene pool. But the facts are otherwise, since the eugenics movement had considerable strength in the United States well past the middle of the twentieth century, supported by a number of prominent intellectuals and scientists, and of course supported by many others who saw themselves as members of the “fittest.”
 
The term “eugenics” was apparently coined in 1883 by the British statistician Francis Galton (1822–1911), a first cousin of Charles Darwin (1809–1882). To Galton, the term meant “well-born” and referred to an effort to encourage the “best” people in society to have more children (positive eugenics) and to discourage or prevent the “worst” elements of society from having many, if any, children (negative eugenics). Eugenics became solidified into a movement in various countries throughout the world in the first three decades of the twentieth century, but nowhere more solidly than in the United States and Germany.
 
During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, eugenicists attempted to analyze the inheritance of various diseases and behavioral traits in studies of correlations between relatives and studies of family pedigree charts. The basic assumption was that if a trait recurred in families over several generations it must be genetic. The American eugenicist Charles B. Davenport, director of the Station for Experimental Evolution and the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, constructed elaborate pedigrees for Huntington’s chorea, albinism, epilepsy, feeblemindedness, and thalassophilia or “love of the sea” (which eugenicist Davenport proposed to be a Mendelian sex-linked recessive trait especially prominent in the families of naval officers). Harry H. Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (a federal agency), studied the inheritance of criminality, feeblemindedness, and many other deleterious traits in different ethnic and racial groups. Eugenicist Laughlin concluded that Eastern Europeans, Mediterraneans, and Russian Jews, among others, harbored a large number of defective genes in their populations. Such studies, sprinkled with anecdotes, formed the backbone of eugenics “science,” a junk science that deceived the American public with the tacit approval of many American scientists.
 
American eugenicists also worked to establish eugenics-based legislation in the United States. Eugenicist Laughlin was appointed “Expert Eugenics Witness” to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in 1921. His prison and hospital data were critical in convincing the committee that America’s germplasm was being weakened by mixing with the lower quality genes coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia. This led to passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which restricted immigration from these regions. Laughlin and others also lobbied at the state level for the passage of eugenic sterilization laws, which would allow individuals in state institutions to be forcibly sterilized if they were judged to be genetically defective. More than thirty-five states passed and used such laws, and by the 1960s, when most of these laws were beginning to be repealed, more than 60,000 people in the United States had been sterilized for eugenic purposes. In Germany, the National Socialists (Nazis) used Laughlin’s model as one of the bases of their sweeping sterilization law of 1933, which ultimately led to the sterilization of over 400,000 people.
 
Clearly, anyone interested in an accurate history of twentieth-century Nazi Germany needs to be aware that the Nazis clipped their eugenics sterilization laws directly out of the American agenda.
 
The American eugenics movement did not wither away easily. As late as the 1960s, noted biologist and endocrinologist Dwight J. Ingle (1907–1978), member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and chairman of the Department of Physiology at the University of Chicago, founder and long-time editor of the influential journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, continued, in widely read published articles, to call for the mass eugenic sterilization of American blacks to prevent “weakening” of the U.S. Caucasian gene pool.
 
A similar public call for mass eugenic sterilization of blacks was made during that time and later by the noted physicist and engineer and Nobel laureate William B. Shockley (1910–1989), also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Memoirs concerning Shockley in current science publications rarely mention his sociopolitical activities in the 1960s and later.
 
All of which brings to mind a statement by the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, published in of all places the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1973): “Outside his own ever-narrowing field of specialization, a scientist is a layman. What members of an academy of science have in common is a certain form of semiparasitic living.”
 
I second Chargaff’s view. I worked in the same academic department as Dwight Ingle for more than a decade. I knew him as a soft-spoken, congenial, charming fellow, a crack endocrinologist in his time, but a total novice in the fields of psychology, statistics, and genetics, the fields that supplied (or ought to have supplied) the fundamentals for his socially destructive, crazy, and oft-repeated junk-science warnings that America should sterilize its blacks in order to protect the American “gene pool.”
 
Yes, Chargaff is right: Outside their specialty, scientists are laymen—and sometimes a great danger to the very public that floats their eminence.
 
Eugenics in Nazi Germany
 
The eugenics movement in the United States ultimately failed, maybe because the Great Depression of the 1930s had the public focused on daily economic survival rather than on cleansing the American gene pool, or maybe because the man in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), was either too knowledgable or too astute a politician to promote eugenics as government policy. Certainly the American people, usually forward-looking and optimistic, have a natural cultural resistance to any view that holds that their individual destinies are already foretold in their genes. In the United States, eugenics, despite its influential supporters, was eventually devalued by the federal government. In contrast, in Nazi Germany, at the same time, eugenics became a priority government program that quickly transformed into a literal reign of terror.
 
Sixty years after the end of the Nazi regime in Germany (1933–1945), studies of the active collaboration of a number of German scientists with the Nazis continue to be a focus of attention. Maybe part of the reason for the attention is puzzlement: These scientists actively collaborated with a tyrannical regime whose essence was totally opposed to the very spirit of science. Hitler, in fact, is said to have dismissed German physics with a wave of his hand and a statement that Germany could do without physics for a thousand years. What was in the minds of these scientists when they chose to actively support the Nazis? Was it an arrogant belief that their expertise in a science gave them superior insights into the enigmas of political, social, and economic realities? Historians, sociologists, and psychologists will continue to ponder such questions.
 
Meanwhile, the contemporary German science community is struggling to deal with its past, a past that’s a sad story in the history of science. We now know that in Nazi Germany, physicians and medically trained academics, many of whom were proponents of “racial hygiene,” or eugenics, legitimized and helped to implement Nazi policies that aimed to “cleanse” German society of people viewed as biologic threats to the nation’s health. Racial-hygiene measures began with the mass sterilization of the “genetically diseased” and ended with the near-annihilation of European Jews. Anti-Semitism became a scourge in the German scientific community. Physicians and biologists who supported eugenics had to accommodate themselves to Nazism’s rabid anti-Semitism. Many medical and biological scientists accepted the persecution of Jews because they favored the new emphasis on biology and heredity, the increased research funding, and the new career opportunities—including openings created by the purge of Jews and leftists from the medical and public health fields.
 
Ernst Rüdin, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, and Ernst Fischer and Otmar von Verschuer, both of whom headed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in Berlin during the Nazi era, advised the Nazis at the highest levels. All three men had direct contact with the Nazi leadership and served on important government advisory panels. Rüdin sat on an expert committee to the ministry of the interior on population and race policies. There is evidence that Rüdin, whose work to give racial laws a scientific basis was funded directly from Hitler’s office, chaired the committee’s working group on “racial hygiene and racial policies.” This panel set the criteria for the castration of criminals and the forced sterilization of so-called inferior women, particularly those with “psychological” problems.
 
According to a recent report, Rüdin lobbied successfully for ever broader criteria, and on Rüdin’s initiative, the sterilization came to include the “morally ill”—the Nazi term for the mentally handicapped. This category covered 95 percent of the 400,000 sterilizations carried out between 1933 and 1945. At Rüdin’s suggestion, the sterilized included 600 children born of black French soldiers and German women in the state of Rhineland, which the French occupied after World War I. Perhaps the most significant aspect of all of this is that these policies, which now seem the product of deranged minds, were not proposed and implemented by a few mentally unbalanced political leaders, but were indeed proposed and implemented by at least part of the German scientific establishment. Why did this happen? And how can the present scientific community prevent such a thing happening again?
 
The nineteenth-century junk-science myths concerning inherited human qualities were carried into the twentieth century as eugenics and soon became instruments of violent social destruction. Millions died because of fallacious ideas concerning biological determinism.
 
But was this a failure peculiar to the German science community? The evidence suggests otherwise: Had the United States been a dictatorship during the 1920s and 1930s, the programs advocated by American eugenicists might have—indeed, probably would have—been implemented by an American government that had already incorporated many of the ideas of eugenics into government policies. There is not, and never has been, much difference between German scientists and American scientists as scientists.
 
Eugenics, a strong movement in both Germany and the United States, came to different ends in these countries because the two countries had different political histories in the years following World War I—and not because of “national character” differences in the science communities.
 
Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia
 
If German scientists and American scientists were not much different as scientists, the same is true of Soviet scientists between 1917 and the end of the Soviet regime. The impact of politics on science becomes clear when one considers that at the same time (in the 1920s and 1930s) that the American and German science communities were supporting or promoting junk-science eugenics as a movement with a scientific basis, Soviet scientists were supporting or promoting Marxist-Leninist junk science that proposed a view completely opposite to that of biological determinism—the view that hardly anything is biologically determined, that all individual differences are produced by circumstances and environment following birth and early development.
 
The individual known in the West as the prime example of the corruption of science in the Soviet Union is Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976). Born in the Ukraine, Lysenko was an agronomist who became interested in the cultivation of new varieties of plant forms, and before long he began proposing that acquired characteristics of plants could be inherited, a view in sharp contradiction to the findings of geneticists around the world, particularly those in Western Europe and the United States.
 
This view (for both plants and animals) was not at all new, having been proposed more than a hundred years before by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), the first to formulate in detail a theory of evolution, the idea of gradual modification through time. Lamarckianism included the following basic ideas:
 
1. The similarity between many species is accounted for by descent from a common ancestor.
 
2. The origin of variations among members of a species are caused by the environment.
 
3. Particular organs and structures evolve through time because use enhances the development of adaptive variations and disuse eliminates nonadaptive variations.
 
4. The variation between species is due to each species responding to different environmental needs by developing new organs or discarding old ones.
 
Of the above ideas of Lamarckianism, only the first is accepted by modern biology; all the others have been discarded during the past two hundred years of biological research.
 
Lamarckianism is, in effect, “environmentalism,” the idea that environment is the prime factor determining individual and species destinies. This view is in complete agreement with the views of Marx and Engels, who developed the “scientific” aspects of Marxism in the early part of the nineteenth century, during the period when Lamarckianism was a well-known theory in biology. When the Soviets came to power in 1917, and especially after Lenin’s death in 1924, the Marxist view of evolution became Soviet doctrine, and with it the essentials of obsolete Lamarckianism.
 
But obsolete or not obsolete, Lamarck’s ideas were adopted by Lysenko. One reason may have been Lysenko’s ignorance, since apparently he hardly read any scientific literature at all. Despite what some have suggested, Lysenko was not put up to his views by the Soviet government. Instead he formulated his views of inheritance of acquired characteristics in plants first, and he was then “discovered” by the Soviet regime and used for their purposes. Lysenko reported that he could alter the genetic constitution of strains of wheat by appropriate control of the environment, an idea contradicted by an already huge body of research in Western countries. In this case, at least, the Soviets did not manufacture junk biological science, they had the fallacious Marxist approach to evolution as a start, and Lysenko provided them with fabricated evidence to support the Marxist theory.
 
Lysenko’s ideas mainly involved agriculture. The Soviet Union suffered serious wheat shortages during the 1930s, and Lysenko promoted the idea of improving wheat crops by changing wheat genetics through exposure to special environments. Later he claimed that wheat plants raised in appropriate environments could produce seeds of rye, a completely different species of plant. It was all fakery and ballyhoo promoted by the Soviet government and derided by the world’s agronomists.
 
With a proper proletarian background, and views that supported Soviet pseudoscience, Lysenko was touted as a hero by the Soviet press, and he quickly rose to be a dominating figure in Soviet biology. He pronounced the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and as director of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences from 1940 to 1965, Lysenko was ruthless in silencing all scientists who opposed him. Dissenting biologists “disappeared” or were put on trial and sent to gulags.
 
That is Lysenko’s story, but it’s not the story of all of Soviet science, not even of all of Soviet biology. There were some Soviet biologists who understood the intellectual corruption that had been set in motion by the Soviet government. Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), the biologist who elucidated the conditioned reflex, and who at the time was the most famous biologist in the Soviet Union, was not only an anti-Communist, but vociferously so. In 1934, at the age of eighty-five, Pavlov wrote to the USSR Council of People’s Commissars and said: “You disperse not revolution, but fascism, and with great success throughout the world. . . . You are terror and violence.”
 
But the damage was done, and people like Pavlov could not save Soviet biology. Soviet physics and engineering, intrinsically useful to the Soviet regime in military matters and in its effort to industrialize the USSR, thrived under the Soviets—as long as the physicists and engineers avoided murder or banishment by refraining from anti-Soviet commentaries. Soviet biology, in contrast, was completely wrecked by Lysenko and his patron Stalin. Scientists throughout the world considered publications by Soviet biologists untrustworthy, and until the 1990s hardly any scientific paper published by a Soviet biologist was received as serious work in the West. Soviet biologists were found to be too ignorant of the world scientific literature, and in the case of geneticists, too prone to fabricate data in order to be in agreement with Lysenkoism.
 
The social agonies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are now history, but Nazi science and Soviet science will stand for centuries as prime examples of nefarious government corruption of science and the science community.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Dan Agin, Ph.D. All rights reserved.