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Consider the Consequences

by Stu Johnson

Posted: December 8, 2017

Lessons from Pandora's Lab—Part 1: Introduction…

Go to Part 2: Case Study – God’s Own Medicine or Part 3: Lessons Learned

This blog is broken into three parts. Links appear at the top and bottom of each page to make it easy to navigate between them.

In an earlier blog, “A Paradigm Collapses” (October 31, 2017),  I reviewed the failure of the “Low-Fat Revolution” over the past three decades, drawing on the book Low Carb, High Fat by Andreas Eenfeldt, MD, a Swedish doctor and researcher.  After reading that book I was browsing the new book section of my local library and found what appeared to be an interesting follow-up; a book by Paul A. Offit titled Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong.  Look for the book at your local library or check Offit’s website

Don’t get me wrong, there have been thousands upon thousands of wonderful inventions, more than a few resulting from accidents and serendipitous circumstances—the subject of a future blog to prove that my sense of skepticism is balanced by a sense of wonder and admiration for the human imagination. But here, I return to the idea that some seemingly good ideas have produced terrible, unintended consequences. In his book,  Paul Offit offers the seven finalists in his list of the world’s worst inventions.

The title of Offit’s book alludes to the story of Pandora’s box, from Greek mythology. According to this account, Pandora was the first woman on earth. Pandora was given a box which was not to be opened. Tempted (like Eve with the forbidden fruit), she opened it and seven evils flew out, leaving only “Hope” inside once she had closed it again. Today the phrase “to open Pandora’s box” means to perform an action that may seem small or innocent, but that turns out to have severely detrimental and far-reaching negative consequences. (Adapted from an article on Wikipedia. Also see “The Meaning of Pandora’s Box” on ThoughtCo)


Here is a summary of each, with material in quotes drawn from the Introduction to Offit’s book.

God’s Own Medicine

“Six thousand years ago, the Sumerians discovered a plant called hul gil, “the plant of joy,” which gave birth to a drug that now kills 20,000 Americans every year. More young adults die from this drug than from motor vehicle accidents.” 

This chapter deals with the tragic history of the progression from opium (ancient) to morphine (1803) to heroin (1898) to the current opioid crisis. For more than two centuries, one researcher after another tried to isolate ever more potent painkillers from the opium poppy while attempting to remove its addictive effect. The search for a miracle cure has suffered enormously tragic consequences.  Part 2 presents a detailed case study tracing this history.

The Great Margarine Mistake

“In 1901, a German scientist performed an experiment that revolutionized the food industry. A hundred years later, an editorial in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine stated, ‘On a per calorie basis, [this product] appears to increase the risk of heart disease more than any other macronutrient.’ The Harvard School of Public Health estimated that eliminating it from the American diet would prevent 250.000 heart-related deaths every year.”  

This chapter relates most closely to the previous blog on the Low-Fat Revolution, providing additional details on the work of Ancel Keys and the process that led to the “fear of fat” described by Dr. Eenfeldt.

Blood from Air

“In 1909, another German scientist invented a chemical reaction that won the Nobel Prize, allowed us to feed more than seven billion people across the globe, and unless we do something about it, will probably end life on this planet.”

In the late 19th century there were dire predictions that world population growth would outstrip the food supply. Germany became the largest importer of sodium nitrate from Bolivia, which could be used as a fertilizer. As World War I loomed, so did fears of attacks on ships transporting the vital substance.  Fritz Haber, a German chemist pursued a way to extract nitrogen from the air to make the fertilizer needed to multiply agricultural yields. While his work brought the green revolution that would remove the immediate threat, it had a dark side, producing serious environmental damage. 

During World War I, Haber’s loyalty to country led him to turn from using his expertise to produce more food to the development of munitions and then chemical weapons (including mustard gas, the most deadly).  Before World War I, he was also involved in the development of Zyklon as an agent for pest control, though Adolph Hitler used it to exterminate six million Jews in World War II.

As Offit states, “Fritz Haber was unrepentant, declaring that his science belonged to humanity during peacetime but to the fatherland during war.”

America’s Master Race

“In 1916, a New York City conservationist wrote a scientific treatise that caused Congress to pass a series of draconian immigration laws, enabled the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of American citizens, and provided a scientific rationale for Adolf Hitler to murder six million Jews. Echoes of this treatise can be heard today when politicians like Donald Trump denounce Mexican immigrants, calling them ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers.’”

While Offit begins and ends this chapter with a critique of President Donald Trump’s statements on immigrants, what I found striking about this story was how widespread was the support for eugenics in the first half of the 20th century among progressives, intellectuals, government agencies, corporations, and institutions. It all started with an 1866 scientific paper by Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, on the subject of peas and questions about genetics. 

Among the familiar names of those supporting eugenics, according to Offit, were Alfred Binet (of the Standford-Binet intelligence test), Alexander Graham Bell, H. G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, John Harvey Kellogg, George Bernard Shaw; even Theodore Roosevelt weighed in on the need for the right type of citizen. Financial support for the movement was offered by the Carnegie Foundation, Rockefeller Institute, E. H. Harriman (rail), George Eastman (photography), the State Department, the Army, and the Departments of Agriculture and Labor.

The eugenics movement was derailed by the fiery vision of Adolph Hitler to create a master race and the unfathomable “research” conducted on concentration camp prisoners by Josef Mengele.

Turning the Mind Inside Out

“In 1935, a Portuguese neurologist invented a surgical cure for psychiatric disorders that won a Nobel Prize, took only five minutes to perform, caused President John F. Kennedy’s sister to be permanently disabled, and is now a subject of horror films. Remnants of this dangerous quick-fix procedure can be found today in promised cures for one of the most common psychiatric disorders of childhood: autism.”

Egas Moniz, the Portuguese neurologist, heard two Yale physiologists describe research with chimps that led to the removal of the frontal lobe from the brain of one chimp. This area of the brain seemed responsible for recent memories, but the procedure also appeared to remove anxiety. Moniz was impressed and determined to extend the experiments on chimps to people.

The procedure, which Moniz initially called a bilateral lobectomy—cutting off the frontal lobes from the rest of the brain. When the procedure reached the United States, it was called a lobotomy.  Moniz pursued the procedure and claimed “the intervention is harmless” where, in fact, success was not guaranteed and there were significant side effects. Almeida Lima, a neurosurgeon at the University of Lisbon was willing to work with Moniz to perform the procedure, but would later call it “pure cerebral mythology.” Nevertheless, in 1949 Moniz was awarded a Nobel
Prize “for his invention of a surgical treatment of mental illness.”

Within four decades, 40,000 lobotomies were performed throughout the world. In America, Walter Jackson Freeman took up the torch for Moniz’ work and developed a technique using an ice pick inserted through the eye socket that could be done in seven minutes, not the four hours required for the surgical procedure. By the force of personality, Freeman became a folk hero, despite often tragic results from the procedure.

As Offit points out, today we consider lobotomies as “cruel, freakish, and comical.” But the situation in the late 1920s through the 1970s allowed acceptance of the practice: the desperation to do something about mental illness; state mental hospitals bursting at the seams; the hideous conditions of the hospitals; and the still-primitive state of psychiatric care at the time.

By the early 2000s, lobotomies were no longer seen as a tool for institutional control. Nothing hastened their demise more, according to Offit, than psychoactive drugs. Instead of mind-destroying surgery, where side effects were irreversible, with drugs the dosage can be adjusted to manage side effects.

The Mosquito Liberation Front

In 1962, a popular naturalist—the mother of the modern environmental movement—wrote a book that led to the ban of one particular pesticide. The prohibition was hailed by environmental activists but feared by public health officials. Their fears were well founded; as a consequence of the ban, tens of millions of children died needlessly.”

In 1935, Rachel Carson dropped out of John Hopkins to work as a field aide for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing pamphlets and press releases. This opened the door to becoming a published environmental author. As Offit notes, “Although she didn’t have a Ph.D. or an institutional affiliation, by the early 1960s…Rachel Carson was American’s most famous science writer. The public loved her, the media trusted her, and the government turned to her. . . . In 1962, Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring,’ an angry, raging, no-holds-barred polemic against pesticides—especially one called DDT.”

The book attracted national attention and Carson became an environmental guru. Carson’s work was instrumental in kicking off what President Richard Nixon called the “environmental decade” when he signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law on January 1, 1970. Establishment of the EPA, OSHA, the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and legislation dealing with insect, fungus, rodent and pest control quickly followed. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970.

Rachel Carson was a hero.  But, as Offit describes it, there was criticism. Not surprisingly, the chemical industry took Carson to task on many fronts. What opened Pandora’s box was surgeon general Luther Terry’s worry that by “making DDT synonymous with poison, the world was about to lose a powerful weapon in the fight against some of its biggest killers.”  Offit then describes the long and generally successful history of the use of DDT, pitted against opposition from the environmental lobby and the subsequent interaction with government that strikingly parallels the beginning of the Low-Fat Revolution described in my previous blog.

As Offit says, “Silent Spring” was successful because it was lyrical, compelling, dramatic, and biblical, “appealing to our notion that we had sinned against our creator.” But, Offit argues that the ban on DDT was another example of Pandora’s Lab. “In truth, Rachel Carson’s Eden never existed. And nature has never been in balance. It’s been in constant flux, arguably in chaos. Because the simple truth that Mother Nature isn’t much of a mother: She can kill us, and unless we fight back, she will.” In 2006, the World Health Organization changed its position on DDT, but for more than 30 years, countries where malaria epidemics were common put the lives of nearly one million children a year—most of them in Africa—at risk. .

Nobel Prize Disease

“In 1966, with the power of two Nobel Prizes behind him, an American chemist elevated the word ‘antioxidant’ into the pantheon of can’t-miss marketing terms. Unfortunately, those who have followed his advice have only increased their risks of cancer and heart disease. Worse, he gave birth to an industry whose harm can be found today in the sudden need for liver transplants in Hawaii or in the strange onset of masculinizing symptoms in women in the Northeast.”

Linus Pauling became a Nobel Prize winning scientist in 1954 through brilliant work in chemistry, then became the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes when his efforts as a peace activist led to the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize.
Then, as Offit describes it, “in the mid-1960s, Linus Pauling fell off an intellectual cliff.” His work began to show a lack of rigor. Biochemist Irwin Stone suggested to Pauling that his desire to live another 25 years to complete certain work could be met with massive doses of vitamin C. Pauling’s resulting advocacy rose to the point that he suggested that megavitamins and dietary supplements could treat nearly every human ailment, including cancer. His work helped spawn today’s huge vitamin supplement industry, but it is an unregulated area for which there is little evidence of efficacy.

Offit concludes, “Linus Pauling’s legacy is mixed. He was the first to marry quantum physics with chemistry, the first to link the fields of molecular and evolutionary biology, and one of the few who stood up to McCarthyism and nuclear proliferation. But later is his life Linus Pauling was indistinguishable from the country fair huckster and snake-oil salesman of a century before—the father of a $32-billion-a-year vitamin and supplement industry.”  Concluded historian Algis Valiunus, “One cannot but think what a marvelous legacy would have been his if he had just known when to quit.”  Offit goes on to describe several other scientists who also succumbed to hubris—with similar disastrous results.  

CONTINUE to Part 2: Case Study – God’s Own Medicine or SKIP to Part 3: Lessons Learned

Stu Johnson is owner of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois focused on "making information make sense."

E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*)

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Posted: December 8, 2017   Accessed 867 times

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