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One of the most disturbing trends in modern politics (at least in America - I can't comment on other countries) is public distrust of science and scientists. There is by now an overwhelming scientific consensus behind the reality of anthropogenic climate change and biological evolution, but many non-scientists remain skeptical of these ideas - 30% of Americans in the case of anthropogenic climate change (according to a 2012 study by Yale/George Mason) and 33% of Americans in the case of evolution (according to a 2013 Pew survey). In both cases the skepticism is probably based in part on the belief espoused by journalists (and "journalists") that scientists' judgements are corrupted by money, compromised by personal bias, and co-opted by activist groups.

I believe that while isolated cases of corruption or bias - even by influential scientists - are not as rare as one might hope, typically the broader scientific community identifies and purges the scientific malpractice before it has the chance to grow into a consensus. My question is: are there any historical counter-examples to this statement?

To be clear, I want to exclude the following:

  • Cases in which a single scientist or small group of scientists illegitimately manipulated results but were rebuked before the results were widely accepted.
  • Cases in which scientific consensus coalesced for legitimate reasons around an idea that was later proved to be false. For instance, there was a broad scientific consensus behind Newton's theory of gravity even though it ultimately proved to be inaccurate on large scales.
  • Cases in which "elder statesmen" in a particular field were slow to react to a breakthrough. For instance, many prominent physicists were slow to accept quantum mechanics in the early 20th century for philosophical reasons, but I wouldn't count this as systematic corruption.

I've thought of a few possible examples, but I just don't know the history well enough to properly evaluate them.

  • Geocentrism (corruption by the Catholic church?)
  • Eugenics (corruption by racial activist groups?)
  • Health effects of smoking (corruption by tobacco companies?)
  • Health effects of dietary fat (corruption by farming lobbies?)

With these examples I don't really know how much of a consensus there was or the extent to which the consensus took hold among scientists. Of course, I would be interested in any other examples.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you're the liberal type, you can always read The Republican War on Science. But that's not really going to give you a good answer. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 6 '14 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ I liked that......i am going to follow this...... $\endgroup$ – Amit Tyagi Nov 6 '14 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ What about use of Renewable sources of energy, especially Solar energy for generating Power? How about Day light saving time changes(changing clocks twice a year, is it scientific) ? $\endgroup$ – Amit Tyagi Nov 6 '14 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Indeed, I do not want to use this question to wade into contemporary controversies; rather, I want to test my assumption that the scientific community is overall effective at resisting economic and political pressure. $\endgroup$ – Paul Siegel Nov 6 '14 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ Lysenko comes to mind. I'm not competent enough to write an answer. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 9 '14 at 8:32
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To the cases you mention, I can add a wide spread belief in astrology, which spread in the Hellenistic world almost at the same time when a true scientific revolution happened there. Later, there was a large public demand for astrology and none for the real science, so existing astronomers and mathematicians had to do astrology to make their living. The last great astronomer who did this was Kepler, and it does not matter for this discussion, whether believed he in it or not. This was a normal occupation of a mathematician at that time, giving him money, because the "general public" believed it. Actually it exists to this day, and many journals and newspapers publish horoscopes.

Situation with creationism is similar. For most ordinary people, religion is more important than science, and wherever they see any contradiction between the two they tend to side with religion. But this was always so.

Heliocentrism is a different kind of controversy on my opinion. I do not think that general pubic cared much about astronomical theories. Here the controversy was triggered by Galileo (who started to popularize science by writing his Dialogues in Italian, for the general public, instead of using the language of science that is Latin) and by the Church establishment on the other side. The Church did not interfere by the way, while the discussion was limited to professional astronomers. It found necessary to interfere when all this was brought to the general public, in fear that its authority may be undermined.

Similar controversies happened more recently in Soviet Union when the government condemned genetics and other things for ideological reasons, with very bad consequences for science and agriculture. And in South Africa, where the government denied that AIDS is caused by an HIV virus, with disastrous consequences. This type of controversy has nothing to do with the degree of education of general public. (It was actually quite high in Soviet Union, and of course most people did not care whether the acquired features are inherited or not:-)

Your final two examples are controversial in a different sense. Current widespread propaganda definitely exaggerates the effects of smoking (especially of the so-called "secondary smoking"). The reasons of this campaign are definitely outside of the scope of this list which is dedicated to history of science. This is more a kind of current politics, rather than history of science.

But in general, all this should not be surprising. After all, scientists are payed either by the public (in a democracy) or by the rulers. So they must please somehow those who pay:-)

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    $\begingroup$ "Exaggerates the effects of smoking"? Perhaps you're being paid to please the tobacco companies. . . :-) $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 6 '14 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ No, it is the other way around: I am robbed with taxes when I pay for my cigarettes, discriminated in my health insurance, and chased away on my campus:-( $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Nov 7 '14 at 0:36
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I cannot think of any major international scientific consensus around the some ideas stemming from corruption or bias in the recent history (> 1950).

STEEN, RG. Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing?. Journal Of Medical Ethics. England, 37, 4, 249-253, Apr. 2011. ISSN: 1473-4257. analyzes PubMed database between 2000 and 2010 and points out that:

It may be noteworthy that, among 742 retracted articles, only one retraction notice described biased viewpoint as the reason for retraction (“authors have confounded the elegant analysis with a political viewpoint representing only one side”).

The same article relates some complains regarding some industry-funded research:

There is a fear that clinical trial results may be interpreted in a distorted manner by certain authorsdperhaps authors in the pay of a pharmaceutical companydand one study concluded that 40% of randomised clinical trials show evidence of ‘spin’ in the published text.15 These findings feed a fear that medical journals have become an extension of the marketing department of pharmaceutical companies. Yet bias is in the eye of the beholder, and the paper entirely free of bias has not yet been written. We note that one study concluded that only 4% of retractions for misconduct had declared pharmaceutical sponsorship, while another study reported that pharmaceutical sponsorship of obesity-related randomised clinical trials was actually associated with higher quality reporting of results.

In medicine there are some cases of misconducts that may have resulted in some temporary consensus among physicians, example:

Vioxx is perhaps one of the better examples of what can happen when a drug is manufactured and sold under false pretenses. It killed more than 60,000 people in just a few years time, before it was removed from the market. In the case of Vioxx, there are lingering questions about the soundness of the research backing the drug in the first place. Back in 2008, Dr. Joseph S. Ross of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine came across ghostwritten research studies for Vioxx while reviewing documents related to lawsuits filed against Merck.

According to an April 16, 2008 article on MedHeadlinesiii:

"In about 96 journal publications, Ross and his colleagues discovered internal Merck documents and e-mail messages pertaining to clinical study reports and review articles, some of which were developed by the company's marketing department, not its scientific department. In others, there is little evidence that the authors recruited for the report made substantial contribution to the research itself. ... Some of the authors listed in the Merck study reports of concern... question the true nature of ghostwriting. One neurologist originally listed as "External author?" and then listed as Dr. Leon J. Thal, of the University of California, San Diego in the final draft, died a year ago in an airplane crash."

An editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)iv that year by Drs. Psaty and Kronmal also questioned whether Merck might have deliberately manipulated dozens of academic documents published in the medical literature, in order to promote Vioxx under false pretenses.

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