While stories of deliberate fraud in the scientific enterprise are often entertaining, says the author of this fascinating book, of much more interest are the tales of collective delusion and human folly which appear in our world from time to time. Some of these apparently stem from virtuous scientific principles, some from a desire for fame or fortune, some from self-righteousness and some, living in infamy evermore, from political convictions. Walter Gratzer has written about many of these, including N-Rays, mitogenic radiation, polywater, parapsychology, cold fusion, eugenics, and, in two horrifying chapters, Soviet and Nazi "science" in captivity to deviant political thought.
The author, who writes book reviews in NATURE on a regular basis, is at the Randall Institute, King's College, London. This appears to be his first book, although he has served as editor to two other publications, A BEDSIDE NATURE (1996) and THE LONGMAN LITERARY COMPANION TO SCIENCE (1989).
This is a good book, on a topic of substantial importance to many of us, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to my ASA colleagues. Gratzer's writing is precise, sometimes encyclopedic, easy to digest, for he is "telling stories," stories in which the scientific enterprise does not always appear as the hero, and in which the self-correcting nature of science is slower to take effect than we might like. Editorializing, while inevitably present, is kept to a minimum; Gratzer is content to tell the stories and let the reader draw his own moral and ethical conclusions.
The bibliography is particularly valuable; the author includes comments on each source, urging the reader to dig deeper. I recognized many of the references; Gould's book, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, does a better job on eugenics than this one does, but this one is, after all, an overview. Likewise, Gratzer urges interested readers to look up Irving Langmuir's classic 1953 lecture transcript, 'Pathological Science,' in PHYSICS TODAY, 42, 36(1989).
Gratzer's conclusion (page 309) is as follows:
"...scientists, for all their vaunted training in observation and skepticism, are as much a prey to human frailty as anyone else. ..." It is when that warning is ignored, or worse, denied, that bad things are about to happen.
Buy the book. Read the book. Make its stories part of your own worldview. It is a keeper.
Submitted to PERSPECTIVES, May 2001