I happened to come across this piece of garbage blaming a whole bunch of things on science. Turns out that almost everything in their list is due to things other than science. In order :-
Whilst unfortunate, and in fact inevitable – something like space would eventually result in deaths because it is an inherently risky activity – there is nothing about the Challenger disaster that can be blamed on science. The engineering of the O-ring seal wasn’t up to scratch and poor decisions allowed Challenger to be launched in weather conditions that encouraged the O-ring seal failure.
No science in sight. There is a school of thought that anything big and shiny is science, whereas in truth it is big engineering.
Darsee and Slutsky and Fraud, Oh My!, The Debendox Debacle, Nuclear Winter of Our Discontent, Piltdown Chicken
Here we have four separate “sins” of science which boil down to the fact that some scientists have fabricated results. Whilst that is definitely bad, and in the worst cases these “scientists” can cause the deaths of numerous people, science itself isn’t in the wrong here. What is at fault is a tiny handful of scientists. Which just goes to show that scientists are human and just as fallible as your neighbourhood plumber.
If your neighbourhood plumber turns out to be a bit of a crook and in the habit of overcharging for work done, do we blame plumbing ? No we do not.
Statistics for Dummies
Here we have an example of statistics being used incorrectly and incorrect conclusions being made from those statistics. This is hardly the first example of such a mistake in using statistics and statisticians have been growling about such foolish things for probably several centuries.
Notice I haven’t mentioned science in that paragraph. There’s a good reason for that – whilst scientists may well (and hopefully do) use statistics as an analytical tool, statistics itself is not science. It’s not a branch of science; it’s a branch of mathematics.
Blaming science for poor use of statistics is hardly fair!
Skipping over “Very Cold Fusion” section as it concerns yet another couple of so-called scientists rather than science itself, we get to …
So we have a situation where people who do not follow the operating procedure for a nuclear reactor and unintentionally cause a run-away chain reaction. No science here either.
Just your standard poor decision making.
Currents That Don’t Kill
Ah! Here we actually have an example of science! A number of studies into the effects of living close to power lines shows that there is no significant effect from living close by.
So where is the poor science here ? Scientists did exactly what they are supposed to do – when presented with a theory (“power lines generate electrical fields that are dangerous”) they tested that theory and found it false. Whether it was true or not, here we have an example of science doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
Sure it cost quite a bit – mostly because there was an apparent need for multiple studies in different parts of the world. But I cannot see any bad science here except possibly the initial hypothesis.
So NASA had a problem with a probe that one group used metric units on and another group used traditional US units? That’s an unfortunate issue with the engineering management. Science isn’t responsible here – yet again.
Rock Of Life
At last! We’ve found something that is science. Scientists decided that their rock from Mars contained signs of life on Mars, and other scientists eventually decided that it was a false alarm.
So some scientists made a poor study of the rock in question and made a mistake. Just goes to show (yet again) that scientists are human and fallible. And note how the mistake was corrected by other scientists – which is much the way that science is supposed to work. If one scientist produces a result, other scientists try to duplicate that result, and if they fail there’s a problem somewhere.
Yep, this one was definitely a poor decision. Cross-breeding bees to produce a particularly aggressive strain wasn’t the brightest idea. I guess this one does count as a scientific blunder.
Here They Come To Save The Day
So scientists came up with antibiotics and they have been misused by doctors and the public (and industry!) for 50 years or so. As a consequence, drug-resistant ‘bugs’ have evolved and antibiotics have a harder job of killing off these ‘superbugs’.
So what blunder has science made here ? Particularly where it is pointed out that average life expectancy has increased from 47 to 76 in the US thanks to antibiotics. Sure multi-drug resistant ‘superbugs’ are a problem, but how is science to blame for creating those ?
Wrong call. Again.
The Sky Is Falling Again
In this section we learn that an early approximation for the trajectory of an asteroid was not as accurate as it could have been so what was a near miss of 30,000 miles becomes a near miss of 600,000 miles.
It might be nice if the earlier approximation had been a little more accurate, but ‘forewarned is forearmed’ as they say, and it is better to make a mistake along these lines than to miss the asteroid all together.
I wouldn’t say this is a scientific blunder at all.
Evolution? What’s That?
In this section we hear that sections of the US education system are run by mindless drones of extremist christians, who have decided to stop teaching the theory of evolution or to stop testing the knowledge of the theory. Scientists are outraged by this.
How on earth can this qualify as a science blunder ?
A researcher discovers that a combination of two drugs can be used to combat obesity, but later it is discovered that those tow drugs interact poorly and themselves can cause health problems. Ignoring the fact that science was used to confirm the cause of the health problems, we can probably put this one down as a scientific blunder.
Assuming of course that the original researcher who introduced the new wonder treatment for obesity wasn’t distracted by the dollar signs from doing some proper hard science first.
To Be or Not to Be, Thanks to MTBE
Ok, I guess we can put this one down as a scientific blunder.
Earth To Iridium
So a telecommunications company who produced an early satellite phone went bust because nobody wanted the produce.
Did the product work ? Yes, so the engineering and the science behind the engineering was fine. Sounds to me more like an entrepreneurial blunder.
Chest Say No to Silicone Implants
Curiously even the writers of this list of “20 Scientific Blunders” admit that this was not a blunder of science, but a blunder caused by lawyers.
So why does it appear on the list then ?
This is quite possibly the most ridiculous entry on the list. I was there on the eve of Y2K watching everyone else celibate the false millennium. This was (as pointed out) firstly a programming blunder where programmers wrote software using two-digits as a date format ignoring what would happen when 99 become 00 (or 100). And secondly a bonanza for legitimate contractors, and less legitimate doom-mongers and snake-oil salesmen.
No science anywhere near Y2K
Summing It Up
So out of the top 20 Science blunders in that article, we actually have just 2.5 (I’m counting the Fen-Phem as 0.5 as science was used to correct the blunder). That’s an accuracy of 12.5%; a pretty poor showing by journalism!