May 27, 2024

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Science It Works

Researchers behaving badly | Books, Et Al.

Sam Kean
Little, Brown
2021
368 pp.
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In 1771, an idealistic British naturalist named Henry Smeathman set sail for Africa on a collecting trip. The 29-year-old’s destination was Sierra Leone, famed as a center of the colonial slave trade. Smeathman hoped not only to amass a treasure trove of insect specimens—his particular area of interest—but also, along the way, to better educate his fellow Englishmen about Black Africans, whom he saw as a “little-known and much misrepresented people.” He would fail on both counts.

Much of Smeathman’s collection was lost to transportation disasters. His ideals, meanwhile, were worn away by financial desperation and by the company he kept with friendly, cash-rich slave traders. By 1773, Smeathman was trafficking enslaved people to support his collections. He was far from the only naturalist to become entangled with slavery and its handy shipping routes, notes Sam Kean in The Icepick Surgeon, but his story provides an excellent example of “how intertwined science and slavery were” and how easily the lucrative practice could undermine the morals of even the best-intentioned scientist.

The question of “what pushes men and women to cross the line and commit crimes and misdeeds in the name of science” is the focus of The Icepick Surgeon, which explores several centuries’ worth of dubious research decisions, from morally compromised collectors of the past to forensic fraudsters of the present. It is an intriguing question, and the book—although sometimes imperfect in its logic—serves as an important reminder that science is ever a human enterprise.

Quoting Carl Jung, Kean notes that “an evil person lurks inside all of us, and only if we recognize that fact can we hope to tame them.” That we often fail at taming these impulses is the premise connecting the separate stories of the book, an approach Kean has used with great charm in previous books. A guided tour through scientific misdeeds such as grave-robbing and torture, however, offers trickier terrain to explore and less opportunity for charm.

Still, Kean’s talent for spinning a delightful tale shines on occasion. A chapter titled “Sabotage: The Bone Wars,” for example, which looks at the way scientists have sometimes sought to sabotage each other’s work, manages to be comically engaging and dismaying at the same time. This tale involves two leading paleontologists of the late 19th century, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who obsessively attempted to outdo one another. They deliberately smeared each other’s reputations, stole fossils, and even salted digs with fraudulent material. In the end, however, Cope and Marsh did more harm to each other than to the profession itself. Their rivalry helped stock museums with valuable specimens, led to discoveries of new dinosaur species, and spurred public interest in these long-vanished creatures.

In other chapters, the stories are uglier, and the logic by which Kean connects them to the bigger scientific picture is sometimes unclear. A chapter on Nazi medical experiments, for example, segues into American infectious disease studies that deceptively used people of color as test subjects but passes over the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century. This is strange, considering that the eugenics movement served as direct inspiration for some of the Nazis’ most destructive “scientific” policies.

Meanwhile, a chapter on science and murder revolves around a gruesome 19th-century incident in which one Harvard University researcher killed another. The crime derived from an unpaid personal debt, however, and did not occur “in the name of science” itself. Here again, Kean rather puzzlingly ignores more relevant instances in which researchers used direct scientific knowledge—such as a familiarity with cyanide or thallium—to commit murder (1, 2).

The terrain over which the book treads is murky, wide-ranging, and complex, and not every troubling story can be told. There is no chapter, for instance, on sexual misconduct, despite burgeoning evidence that it is a pervasive problem in the scientific community. But Kean ultimately succeeds in touching on many issues that have fueled doubts about scientists, including some doubts of his own. Quoting Albert Einstein, he writes: “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.” Kean once dismissed this as a facile line, he writes in his conclusion. But he has come to believe it to be entirely true.

References and Notes:
1. “Pittsburgh researcher convicted of poisoning wife with cyanide,” CBS News, 7 November 2014; www.cbsnews.com/news/jury-pittsburgh-researcher-robert-ferrante-poisoned-his-wife-autumn-klein/.
2. “Bristol-Myers Squibb chemist used thallium to poison husband,” TAPinto Piscataway, 25 April 2018; www.tapinto.net/towns/piscataway/sections/middlesex-county-news/articles/bristol-myers-squibb-chemist-used-thallium-to-poi-3.

About the author

The reviewer is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA, and the publisher of Undark magazine.