The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) compiled this list of the worst missapplications of science that have occurred this Century. It's a revealing list, but I would argue that the 20th Century is not over yet, and the jury is still out on several candidates for this list--hysteria over genetically-modified food, and global warming come immediately to mind.
In a century which has seen the greatest leaps forward in scientific progress in history, there have been several ignominious ideas which have held mankind back. From the application of eugenicist theories to the current hysteria over biotechnology, we fell for our fair share of foolish fancies. Here are STATS' awards to the top ten contemptible concepts to blight the century.
Grand Prize Winner: The Evil of Scientific Racism
Probably the most pernicious piece of pseudoscience in history was taken to a new level when Houston Chamberlain published his theories of the superiority of the "Nordic" race in the early years of the century. Having based his work on now discredited social and anthropological theories, Chamberlain became a leading scientific" influence on Adolf Hitler's Nazis.
Because of these theories, science reached one of its lowest ebbs when Dr. Mengele and his cohorts undertook their experiments in concentration camps. Amongst other evils, Mengele experimented on his captives' eyes in an attempt to turn them a more pleasing, Aryan blue. Despite often having some scientific rationale for his other awful experiments, here Mengele subjugated all science to his racism and turned it into cruelty of the purest sort.
First Runner-Up: Stalin's Scientist - The Folly of Lysenkoism
The favored theory of Stalins chief scientist, Trofim Lysenko (1889-1976), rejected orthodox genetics in favor of a belief that plants could be trained to be other plants, e.g. wheat cultivated in the proper environment could produce rye seeds, mainly because the orthodox theory violated the doctrine of dialectical materialism.
Promising quicker, more numerous and cheaper crops than conventional techniques could produce, Lysenkos theories merely dragged Soviet science further behind the west, where Russian biology remains to this day. Lysenko lost control of the Lenin Agricultural Academy under Kruschev, but he and his followers retained their positions, doctorates and titles for many years.
Second Runner-Up: Sex Mad - Kinsey's Theories of Sexual Behavior
Alfred C. Kinseys research for his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male sought out as many case histories as possible to ascertain the character of American sexual behavior. In doing so he ignored the most basic rule of sampling, that it be random and representative.
One of the most famous products of his work is the famous 'statistic' that 1 in 10 men is homosexual. This over-estimates the prevalence, possibly by three times, mainly because Kinsey deliberately sought out homosexuals (stigmatization had led to little being known about their behavior) and also used prison populations as a useful resource. But it is testimony to the fame of Kinseys studies that the number is still widely believed today.
"Silent Spring" and the Demonization of DDT
Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, drew attention to the dangers of the pesticide DDT, including the damage it did to the peregrine falcon population. It was also argued that the pesticide merely produced insects with increased resistance to it. DDT has since been blamed for increasing the risk of breast cancer among women. As a result, use of DDT has been banned or discouraged all over the world.
But it seems that bans on hunting, not DDT, have led to the revival of the peregrine falcon population, and long term studies have shown DDT not to have the carcinogenic properties claimed. Even worse, because the most effective means of killing mosquitoes has been made unacceptable, malaria continues to kill 2.7 million people a year. Ecuador, which decided to increase the use of DDT in 1993, has seen a 60 percent drop in new malaria cases since then. Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, which stopped spraying the same year, have seen an increase in new case of more than 90 percent. DDT was not a panacea, but it saved lives.
The Truth is Out There: UFOs
The American public seems increasingly likely to give credence to the idea that we have been visited by extra-terrestrials. But none of the properly scientific inquiries into the issue has turned up even flimsy evidence in favor of the proposition. The Condon Report of 1969 conclusively rejected "the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis" and said that no further research was necessary. Project Blue Book, the governments own catalog of UFO sightings identified each and every one of the 12,618 incidents it recorded. But, like Fox Mulder, it seems that the American public "wants to believe."
A Nuclear Winter's Tale
That most popular of scientists, Carl Sagan, grabbed the popular imagination but did his scientific reputation no good when he promulgated the idea in the Eighties that a nuclear war would lead to a blanket of dust from fires circling the Earth, cutting off the sun and leading to a vast drop in temperatures. Unfortunately, once the atmospheric scientists took a look at the theory they saw how weak it was.
The theory would only work if exactly the right amount of dust entered the atmosphere; the models took no account of the reality that the smoke layer would not be uniform; the smoke would have to be very high up not to be quickly dissipated away by rainfall; the "greenhouse effect" would mean that the Earth would retain heat; the initial nuclear blasts would create high-level clouds which would cause a Nuclear Summer; and the models ignored the moderating effects of the oceans on any temperature effects.
Unabashed, Sagan and his colleagues claimed that the Kuwaiti oil fires following the Gulf War would prove them right. They did not.
Wilhelm Reich, author of The Function of The Orgasm (1927), allowed himself to be drawn from standard psychoanalysis into pseudoscience when he invented "orgonomy." Believing that there were units of cosmic energy called "orgones" (a word derived from orgasm), which energized the nervous system, he postulated that mental illness was caused by orgone deficiency. To combat this, he developed the orgone box, a cabinet into which the patient was placed. Reich commercialized the system, leasing it out as a cure for all ills, up to and including cancer. Sadly for Reich, this led him into conflict with the law, and he died in prison, long before Woody Allen's film Sleeper featured the "orgasmatron."
Radical Colectomy - Oh My!
Up until the 1930s, surgeons believed that the colon, the last part of the gut, was responsible for blockages and "autointoxication" by ones own putrefying waste, the cause of many diseases. The solution? Take it out, all of it.
As a result, thousands of Americans and Britons underwent a procedure to connect the small intestine directly to the rectum. Some died as a result, but the majority lived a life of great inconvenience. It was only the science of radiology that turned the tide, as x-rays showed that the colon was not blocked solid. Laxatives quickly took the place of the disabling operation.
From 1938 until the invention of tranquilizers, electroshock therapy was a popular means of curing schizophrenia and similar disorders. The procedure caused immediate unconsciousness followed by a convulsive seizure, unsurprisingly causing memory loss. The theory behind the procedure was that epileptic convulsions and schizophrenic symptoms never occurred together. That theory has since, luckily, been disproved.
Piltdown in Flames
From 1912 to 1954, the scientific world believed that an early species of man had originated in England. But "Piltdown Man" caused many problems for researchers into mankind's evolution, obscuring the significance of African hominid findings.
In 1954, careful investigation revealed the remains to be a deliberate and misleading combination of a human cranium, the tooth of a chimpanzee and the jaw of an orangutan. The discovery of the fraud did, however, force modern methods of verification onto the science of archaeology.