The Undergrowth of Science

Walter Gratzer. The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self Deception and Human Frailty. Oxford University Press, 2001.

In this study of pathological science, Professor Gratzer looks at some of the old favorites: N-rays, Lysenko, eugenics, Nazi race science, Aryan Physics, canibalistic worms and cold fusion, as well as a small number of less well known examples such as mitogenic radiation. The pathologies seem to come in a variety of forms. Some such as cold fusion and N-rays came essentially from small groups of researchers, who set others off on a form of social contagion. Others, such as the perversions of science in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were clearly imported in from the wider culture.

The Lysenko affair is a classical example of the disortions of science being caused by adherence to a religious world view, for in Stalin's Russia, communism had become a veritable religion, where truth was not to be sought by studying the empiricle world, but by examination of the revelations of the holy prophets Marx and Engels, as revealed in their sacred writings. The parallels with other forms of religious fundamentalism are obvious.

Though Stalinism and Hitlerism are usually seen as being at opposite ends of a political spectrum, the 'science' of Lysenko in the Soviet Union and that of. say, Lenart and Stark in Germany, had many similarities: a rejection of cosmopiltan intellectuals in favour of folk wisdom, elevating intuition, and feeling above reason. It is rather alarming to see this kind of folkish populism still present in much of the New Age alternative medicine and holistic literature. Today the local peasants are rather passé as sources of this wisdom, so now it is the wisdom of 'first peoples', viewed of course in a quasi-racist, patronising way as ahistorical, and never as quite rounded human beings. There are also the rumblings of Islamic science and Hindu Science.

There is perhaps an element here of contrasting our rational science with that of the mad and bad Commies and Nazis, or the comical French. OK, cold fusion and eugenics were represented here, but only the latter had any staying power. This view is perhaps helped by the fact that the chapter on parapsychology is by far the worst in the book. Gratzer regards it as such total nonsense that he cannot be bothered to take any serious look at its history. Today it is indeed very much on the fringes, yet only a generation ago it was suprisingly close to the intellectual mainstream, and in many ways it represented the free world's ideologically driven science. It was seen for many years as a bulkwark against the total erosion of religion and of Western bourgois values against materialism and godless atheistical communism or herd morality. All sorts of figures supported it and it was so establishment that favorable articles on it appeared in such sources as The Encyclopedia Britannica.

The fall of parapsychology was less to do with actual evidence (which remains as vague and ambiguous as ever) than with cultural changes, such as the youth revolution and the rise of the counter-culture. This led parapsychology to be seen as less of protector of bourgoise values than as threat to them. To groups such as CSICOP, the tide of occultism became a metaphor for a variety of distubing social and cultural changes.

There are in fact quite some overlaps between parapsychology and some of the other topics discussed in Grazer's book. Oliver Lodge shared Lenart and Stark's (and Lysenko's) hostility to relativity. The subject has had a attraction for a number of quasi-eugenisists such as Cyril Burt and Hans Eysenck and the Nazi physicist Pascual Jordan re-emerged after the war as a paraphysicist, etc. There is clearly a huge topic to be explored here.

Of course there is the question as to which, if any, of our contemporary mainstream beliefs might go the way of parapsychology and eugenics in a generations time. Anyone care to lay any bets? -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published on-line March 2002.

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