Who are history's most incompetent scientists?
October 24, 2016 8:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious if there are scientists who, while not evil (so I'm not thinking here about the measure of The Worst Scientist meaning the one with the highest body count as a result of their work or most unethical practices), have achieved some historic notoriety for their general incompetence or stubborn wrongness in the face of all available evidence.

I realize this is all a little fuzzy, but I'm interested in stories of people who find themselves failing upward, beyond their own capabilities and also of spectacular frauds or failures. It's an area that I'm not exactly sure where to begin looking for this kind of story because of the nature of the field.

So, while various theories and concepts are obviously disproven or upended over time, I'm wondering if there were any figures preeminent enough to not simply be dismissed as cranks while also being deeply wrong or unaccomplished both in the eyes of their peers and in hindsight.

Or even what might be considered a famous public failure, along the lines of Biosphere 2.
posted by StopMakingSense to Science & Nature (39 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.
posted by dilaudid at 8:09 PM on October 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Thomas Midgley Jr. is pretty much the classic example of this.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:14 PM on October 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Lysenko did a good job setting Soviet biology back.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:16 PM on October 24, 2016 [13 favorites]

#1, above all others, has to be Lysenko.
Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.
Krebs and the vitamin C thing
Oddly enough: 1) Newton, whose dogged opposition to Hooke's work on elasticity and strength of materials set back engineering by decades; 2) Kelvin, who used fission rates in stars to prove his religious belief in a young Earth (since nuclear fusion wasn't yet understood.)
posted by scruss at 8:20 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: Thomas Jefferson Jackson See. Being wrong is fine. Being wrong and incredibly self-aggrandizing is another matter.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:22 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I immediately thought of Linus Pauling's vitamin C quackery; turns out there's quite a few other sufferers of Nobel disease.
posted by animalrainbow at 8:27 PM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

James Pickard, his patent on the crank made machine design a bigger PITA than it needed to be.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:28 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: Immanuel Velikovsky
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:33 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pons and Fleischmann and their 1989 "cold fusion" fiasco.

I would not call Holmes a 'scientist,' even one with scare quotes around the term. She's a college drop out con artist who had family ties.
posted by porpoise at 8:57 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Came in to say Thomas Midgley...the wikipedia article fails to mention that he could be considered the biggest (albeit unintentional) mass murderer in history, solely due to the uptick in skin cancer rates and other health problems due to his lasting impact on the atmosphere.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:00 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: Nobody said Andrew Wakefield?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:25 PM on October 24, 2016 [22 favorites]

Best answer: Roger Shawyer and Guido Fetta
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:28 PM on October 24, 2016

Nobody said Andrew Wakefield?

(I'm quite sure I quoted that incorrectly,and my apologies...) Yes, yes, a million times yes. I have lurked here forever, and while I agree strongly with the case for Lysenko and a few others, Andrew freakin' Wakefield is what finally made me register. The effects of what he did...well. I teach microbiology to freshman and sophomore college students, and while they can't tell me who Andrew Wakefield is, they (some of them) sure can tell me why vaccines are the devil. So sad.
posted by TheFantasticNumberFour at 9:52 PM on October 24, 2016 [15 favorites]

Thomas Midgley for sure, he's the only one who did it twice.
posted by tillsbury at 10:14 PM on October 24, 2016

Heimlich took his move and tried to apply to all sorts of situations, like diving injuries.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:34 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: Thor Heyerdahl was wrong about pretty much everything he ever claimed. Romantically wrong, but still wrong.
posted by Rumple at 10:37 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was an FPP some time in the last few years which I can't find after considerable effort, but maybe someone will recognize this: it was about a 19th century (American?) biologist or zoologist who was extremely sloppy in his announcements of discovering new species, ones which didn't really exist or were incorrectly categorized, which subsequent work by other scientists was then based upon thereby compounding the errors, and a colleague of his wrote an obituary for him which said something like "it will take generations to undo the damage he wrought."
posted by XMLicious at 1:23 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The South African cancer researcher who falsified his research & caused the US to spend something like $1billion on cancer treatments that didn’t work in the 80s/90s probably rates fairly high up the scale. Full story in The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
posted by pharm at 3:17 AM on October 25, 2016

(But he didn’t achieve much in the way of notoriety, so maybe doesn’t fit the bill?)
posted by pharm at 3:19 AM on October 25, 2016

Fred Hoyle refused to believe the Big Bang for his entire career as an astronomer.

There was that Taiwanese researcher who turned out to have faked the results of his lab’s research into genetic clones.

The very successful scientist who latches on to some belief in the face of all evidence in their later career and refuses to ever give it up is something of a trope frankly. Nobel disease is definitely a thing.
posted by pharm at 3:23 AM on October 25, 2016

oops; said Krebs, meant Pauling.
posted by scruss at 5:43 AM on October 25, 2016

I was about to mention Sir Fred Hoyle, in the category of 'scientists who are genuinely brilliant in one area and then go completely off the rails'. Hoyle was central in answering the fundamental question of 'how do stars burn?' and in doing so made one of the great examples of a theoretical prediction subsequently vindicated by experiment (carbon resonance in the triple-alpha process). Unfortunately he then went on through merely dissenting from emerging orthodoxy by adhering to the Steady State theory into outright fringe science such as propounding an extraterrestrial origin for diseases and alleging that fossils inconvenient to his own beliefs, such as Archaeopteryx, were fakes.

Although not quite in the same class as T J J See, as mentioned above, Hoyle was by all accounts not easy to work with. He wrote quite a lot of science fiction (much of it still very readable) and the typical main character is a brilliant, egotistical and arrogantly rude male scientist who views his colleagues with disdain and non-scientists with contempt.
posted by Major Clanger at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2016

Wilhelm Reich and the Orgone Box.

Dora Kunz and everyone else connected to Therapeutic Touch.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:51 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

In the field of planetary astronomy (and perhaps I am being massively unfair here): Peter van de Kamp.

If you want to see incompetence, academic fraud, and plagiarism unfolding in real time (or as close to it as academia gets), there's always Retraction Watch. Here's a list of the contemporary scientists who have had the most articles retracted in recent years.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:52 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Haruko Obokata's fraudulent claim about generating pluripotent cells was a very big deal a couple years ago.
posted by phoenix_rising at 5:56 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, van de Kamp was a case of the rather sad situation of being right in principle, but wrong about all your reasons for your belief. Double pathos points if you die not long before evidence emerges that vindicates you.

Another example would be Alfred Wegener, who was absolutely right about continental drift, but had no answer for his critics (i.e. almost every other geologist on the planet) who pointed out, also correctly, that his proposed mechanisms were implausible and his asserted rates of drift far too high. Wegener died in 1930, but by 1950s evidence of sea-floor spreading was emerging and by the late 1960s he was proven right.
posted by Major Clanger at 6:04 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Walter Freeman helped refine and popularize the practice of lobotomies in America. (Lobotomies were actually invited by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who won the noble prize for his work in 1949).

Freeman invited the transorbital lobotomy: an efficient, non-surgical lobotomy where the brain is accessed through the eye socket, rather than the skull. This development allowed Freeman to perform many more lobotomies, even outside operating rooms.

Lobotomies became a cure all solution for various mental and emotional conditions in the mid-20th century, sometimes with drastic life consequences. Freeman assisted with the lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy, who became incapacitated by the procedure, and required full-time care for the remainder of her life. Freeman's youngest patient was Howard Dully, a withdrawn 11-year old boy who had difficulty adjusting to life with his new stepmother.

Lobotomies eventually fell out of practice during Freeman's career. He spent his final years attempting to redeem the practice, by travelling across American to interview his former patients.
posted by kiki_s at 6:16 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wei-Hock Soon, well-paid climate change denier.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:12 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Peter Duesberg has had a very respectable career as a geneticist, but went off the rails with AIDS-denialism (perhaps this is who pharm was referring to upthread?).

One of my favorite "wrong" scientists is Ernst Haeckel, who wrote "Kunstformen der Natur" (Art forms of Nature). His crackpot hypothesis was that the complexity of an animal's symmetry indicated its evolutionary advancement, and he created amazing illustrations in support of this idea. He's interesting not just for the wrongness of his ideas but the beautiful art they inspired him to make.
posted by adamrice at 8:50 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolution. In a nutshell, hanging on to old ideas that are largely disproved is the normal condition for scientists who are invested in those theories. Change happens as scientists who believed in older theories die or retire. It's a really interesting read, I recommend it.

And since at the edges of science everyone is basically (informed) guessing, it's not odd that prominent scientists who came up with great, unexpected, radical theories and were rewarded for them sometimes continue to come up with radical ideas that don't happen to be right. And then hang onto them because see above.
posted by momus_window at 10:03 AM on October 25, 2016

I've got a couple of Nobel laureates for you.

Marie Curie was a one-woman Chernobyl who spread nuclear material all over the place and whose work inspired the craze for carcinogenic Radium-based medicines and radium watch faces (deadly to the poor women who hand-painted them).

Alexander Fleming entirely failed to recognise the value of Penicillin after he accidentally discovered it in the 20s. It was decades later when Australian scientist Howard Florey completed the work of turning it into a wonder drug that would save the lives of millions.
posted by w0mbat at 11:41 AM on October 25, 2016

Our local hero in this respect, Diederik Stapel. More of a power hungry career scientist, but he kept trying to justify his (huge) fraud. NYT long read (2013).
posted by ouke at 1:52 PM on October 25, 2016

The biologist(s) mentioned above were Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, perpetrators of the Bone Wars of paleontology.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:37 PM on October 25, 2016

Or, I mean, if you want to talk about a legendary famous brilliant scientist just being dead-wrong for decades, there's always Albert Einstein vs Quantum Mechanics.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:40 PM on October 25, 2016

Kelvin was pretty wrong about the age of the earth, as his calculations didn't include radioactive decay, which led him to discount evolution.
posted by kjs4 at 6:51 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dr Maryanne Demasi. Has a doctorate in medical research at the University of Adelaide; worked for a decade as a research scientist specialising in rheumatoid arthritis research at the Royal Adelaide Hospital; also worked as an advisor to the South Australian Government's Minister for Science and Information Economy.

As a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's flagship science show, Catalyst, she presented episodes promoting fringe views about wi-fi and cholesterol.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:04 PM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a couple. First is Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues at NASA -- I think this one fits your description particularly well. They held a bizarre press conference to promote a paper in which they made the claim that they'd found a microbe (GFAJ-1, which stands for "Give Felisa A Job") that used arsenic instead of phosphate in its genetic material. This claim, if true, would have revolutionized the study of biochemistry, and it was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals out there, so it got tons of press. But while the work wasn't outright fraudulent, it immediately raised red flags to working molecular and microbiologists: critical controls were missing, and the methods used didn't seem nearly adequate to support such a bold claim. Official concerns were quickly raised. After receiving the strain, microbiologist Rosie Redfield was (I think) the first to show data contradicting the original paper's conclusions on her blog. The original authors nevertheless continued to defend their work and never disavowed the paper, as far as I know, but Redfield's team, and other groups, eventually published definitive refutations. Here's a short video I found about what happened.

Even more recently, there was the tragic STAP cell fiasco (aka "stem cell ceviche": the hypothesis that you could make regular terminally-differentiated cells into stem cells by treating them with stresses like mild acid treatment). It destroyed the careers of two scientists and ended in one suicide. In this case it does seem more likely that there was outright misconduct but the linked article makes it sound like it may have started as misinterpretation, sloppiness, and irrational exuberance.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:45 AM on October 27, 2016

(oops, I see someone also mentioned STAP so that one's a double)
posted by en forme de poire at 2:49 AM on October 27, 2016

Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons and cold fusion.

When checking on F&P, I came across this Wikipedia entry on Pathological Science which has additional examples.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:43 PM on October 27, 2016

« Older Film Filter Question: Naked People and One Man's...   |   Got a new harpoon & a clean red bandana. What... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.