Villain scientists

Dr. Evil: A Science Villain

All scientists have heroes. Some of our heroes are internationally renowned, like Galileo, Darwin, or Curie. Other heroes are personal, whether they be an inspiring high school teacher, an always-helpful senior colleague, or a wise, generous professor or boss. But what about villains? Do scientists have villains too?

Probably we each have our own personal slew of folks who have wronged us or mistreated us in our careers. Say for example that PI who refused to write a recommendation letter, or the colleague who crazily claimed that you definitely *didn’t* do enough to be a middle author, or maybe even the hot-shot assistant prof. from the other department rumored to be faking data… Those types are undoubtedly the subject of water cooler grousing at work and complaints to the spouse over dinner.

But what about international-scale villains of science? Are there any?  Who in science’s history are infamous and nefarious enough to serve as foils to the heroics of Galileo et al.? The fraudsters, plagiarists, and cheaters are easy targets. Too easy, let’s say, so they don’t count (ditto for Nazis). And for reasons of civility and decorum, let’s avoid anyone who is still or was recently living. So with those two rules in mind, here’s a short list of my own International Science Villains of History.

  1. Robert Kehoe. Robert Kehoe corrupted his career as a physiologist when he became a shill for the leaded gasoline industry in the 1920s. His job was to conduct misleading experiments, overgeneralize findings, and convince people that a lead-laden environment was safe and natural. He performed this job admirably for several decades — staying well-funded and cranking out “studies”. In reality, of course, lead toxicity has been observed even in populations with blood plasma Pb levels as low as 5 μg/dL. He also is responsible for the only thing I have ever heard of which is dumber than the precautionary principle: the “Kehoe priniciple”, which posits that absence of evidence of risk is the same as evidence of absence of risk. I first heard Kehoe’s story during an episode of FOX’s series Cosmos, and there’s a lot more interesting details on his villainy here.
  2. Ancel Keys. Nina Teicholz tells Keys’s story pretty well in her book Big Fat Surprise. In the 1950s, he began to focus his flourishing career on an interesting hypothesis: was the rising epidemic of coronary heart disease caused by excess consumption of saturated fat? The simple answer turned out to be “no”, as we are now beginning to understand, but rather than design conclusive experiments to test the hypothesis, he spent “the rest of his career wallowing in the confirmation bias“. But because he was charismatic, unrelenting, and more interested in public persuasion than in acknowledging uncertainty or designing good experiments, American nutritional policy has been derailed for more than 50 years.
  3. Charles Davenport. Eugenicist extraordinaire, Charles Davenport sought to build on his early career successes in applying quantitative statistics to biology by researching miscegenation, and that is where he went astray. His famous, poorly-designed study from 1929 called “Race Crossing in Jamaica” was much discussed in Science at the time (see e.g. a not-very-convincing rejoinder of Davenport’s), but Davenport was committed to battling what he saw as the scourge of “miscegenation” for decades. An earlier 1917 paper titled “The Effects of Race Intermingling” is a sad example. Take for example this representative thought: “one often sees in mulattoes an ambition and push combined with intellectual inadequacy which makes the unhappy hybrid dissatisfied with his lot and a nuisance to others.” It’s laughable and horrible at the same time. Blending unsupported assertions and non-representative anecdotes was Davenport’s recipe for what essentially was just racist confirmation bias masquerading as science.

Already with these three villains we see some of evils which often lead scientists astray: confirmation bias, financial conflicts of interest, and the temptation to put fame and authority above acknowledgement of uncertainty. But I suspect my list is incomplete. Other venalities can certainly corrupt science, and there are probably villanous scientists of yore to embody them. So who else do you think deserves a spot on this list?

Update: Chemjobber reminds me via twitter that Fritz Haber is certainly worthy of inclusion. (My dim sense that he was a Nazi was very incorrect!).


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