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Burning Reputations in Science July 16, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Imagine for a second with Beachcombing that you are world famous scientist. You don’t have a Nobel Prize yet, but a telephone call from Stockholm is a distinct possibility, particularly if you don’t say anything unwise about the developing world or human rights. In the meantime, you have fawning doctoral students, colleagues sending you sixty emails a day, groupees with floral bow ties and short skirts at the annual congress and a wife and kids who no longer love you (too much time in the lab). Beach’s question to you is: how quickly can you destroy your reputation?

We have recently come across a number of scientists who revved up at the wrong moment and with the wrong subject and were judged imbecilic in the court of scholarly opinion. A case that Beach finds particularly fascinating is John Edward Mack (obit 2004) a Pulitzer-prize winning professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. JEM pioneered a study of those suffering from abduction ‘fatigue’ and interviewed over two hundred men and women who believed that they had been  kidnapped by aliens. Thus far Harvard had nothing to worry about: all that was needed was a nice long monograph comparing abduction to fairy changeling myth with some waffle about this or that pathology and the H imprimatur would have been justified. But JEM, in his Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (2004) went further and actually took the abduction hypothesis seriously, suggesting that something  ‘external’ was going on. Harvard set up a committee to investigate JEM and even his tenure was called into question.

Beach doesn’t much care for aliens but he can’t help but admire JEM’s cojones.

Of course, there are other examples. In Victorian Britain, Dr John Elliotson (obit 1864) was an up and coming medical (master)mind who flirted, in the late 1830s, first with mesmerism then with phrenology. Vast audiences came to see him work his magic on the ill and, what seem to a modern reader, to have been his parlour tricks, though there can be no question that his instincts were scientific and that he was honest even his harshest critics never doubted. JE had been head of University College Hospital, but he was effectively driven out in 1838 as the governors became increasingly anxious at the unconventional steps he took with his patients. JE went on to found the Zoist (a magazine dedicated to mesmerism) and even opened a mesmeric hospital: oh to have taken a ‘pass’ down those long shining corridors! JE retained the respect and even the love of many important Britons, including Dickens and Thackeray. He was also able to cure many difficult cases: placebo, authority, insight…?  But his scientific reputation had vanished like smoke up the chimney. This was, in one sense a shame, as when spiritualism arrived in the UK, JE offered some of the most authoritative arguments against that new and vapid movement.

JEM and JE stand as powerful examples of spontaneously combusting reputations: whether they deserved this fate or not is another question. Any other scientists who lost their professional reputation so quickly and so definitively: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beach needs to know.

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17 July 2012: LTM writes ‘Wilhelm Reich is the first to come to mind, but not quite as fast as Mack. Harvard is full of quacks; I was a student in the late 60s/early 70s and knew several professors who could easily have been certified and institutionalised for the protection of the public.’ KMH nominates Timothy Leary, ‘although never considered for a Nobel prize’  Tacitus from Detritus writes: William Shockley because it is just so hard to find politically correct ways to frame eugenics. Linus Pauling also got a little goofy about Vitamin C and Pacifism, but both are actually good for you in reasonable doses. Ashley over at Sedition has her own take on this. Thanks Ashley, KMH, LTM and Tacitus!