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Thursday, 23 January 2014

Are scientists really mad?

There are most definitely mad inventors: imagine how
the operator of this machine is going to dismount!
I am in New Zealand at the moment, playing with the grandchildren, revising a couple of manuscripts and gathering some data. The result is that I am a bit busy, so here is something from the Odd Bits Basket.  I dug it out because, as a grandfather, I want my grandkids to have a world to live in.

It was written in 2009, and published once before in a defunct blog. I have pulled it out and polished it up a bit, because regrettably, most of it still holds true, except that now the mad pollies who formerly foamed in the background have now taken charge.

If I asserted that the world was flat, and a politician heard me, would he (these idiots are almost always male) then demand that scientists explain why it wasn't flat before they spent lots of taxpayer money to launch a satellite?

An idiot who shall remain nameless has just burst onto the airwaves with his news that a conference he attended was told that solar flares account better for global warming, so before we do anything, the scientists have some explaining to do.

Yeah, right, Nero, and we'll keep the fire brigade in reserve, will we, until we know that Rome's really burning? What's that? You want them to come along to your violin performance? OK . . .

Sorry, we return now to our transmission. But you know, don't you, that this sort of rubbish rhetoric is the stock-in-trade of a certain style of politician. It's enough to make any scientist mad as hell.

Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, had some strong things to say in 2009 about the global warming "sceptics" in Ockham's Razor, and you can read them at, but I have to wonder why uninformed twits like the unnamed polly feel that they have a democratic right to deny the science, simply because a half-baked idiot at a conference with curiously shady funding denied the science.

As Luis Alvarez, no mean scientist himself, commented once: "There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." Mind you, Alvarez was talking about physics among physicists. I hate to think what he would have to say about the polly wanting to derail everything just because he's been conned by snake oil merchants.

I think the polly feels free to thump his tub and posture in public because so many of the uninformed, the unwashed and the unwary (i.e., people like him) subscribe to the view that all scientists are mad scientists. If you can dismiss scientists as mad, then you may feel free to call into question the careful, but often hard-to-understand views of the scientists. The world is flat, you muppet, anybody can see that, and if you don't, you must be mad!

So: are there mad scientists?  Or mad people with scientific tendencies?

If you are a forensic psychiatrist in a secure unit, you are bound to seek an outlet for your creativity. Around you, psychotic patients are pursuing the patenting of their inventions for inflatable moon buggies and the like, and it occurred to David James and Paul Gilluley that the British Patent Office might be a repository of psychotic ideas, so they went on a trawl.

Oddly, they were unable to find evidence of mad inventors, but they nonetheless described their experiences. The abstract is at -- if you go there, you can download the PDF of James, David V. and Paul L. Gilluley, Psychotic patients and patent applications: The mad scientist revisited?, Psychiatric Bulletin (1997) 21: 764-768.

The authors surveyed unusual patents and authors with unusual track records, but found nothing as odd as what their patients wished to patent. Unabashed, they wallowed in nutty inventions, and later, shared the tastes, sights and sounds. Their conclusion: "the only creative 'mad scientists' are those who were creative scientists before they became mentally ill". I was glad to read that.

Definitely recommended for a few light moments, and even a bit of serious introspection.

I wonder why there have been no studies of mad politicians. It certainly isn't for lack of material! 


A couple of hours after posting this, I found this account of shonky doings behind the climate change deniers, here in New Zealand.  Read it, and get mad!

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