Ridicule is a serious and endemic problem in modern science.


Nasty comedians who go for cheap laughs at the expense of an audience member...

Kids tussling out their place in the pecking order at high school...

Politicians scoring easy points off another’s misfortune...

These are the things that come to mind when you think of ridicule. It is the verbal bully’s chief weapon for dealing with opposition, safeguarding the status quo, and reducing the people they dislike to rubble.

Rarely do we think of scientists resorting to such measures.

The fact is that science is beleaguered by the use of ridicule. This is in no small part related to the fight for limited resources and fact that it can be employed as an effective technique to make it to the top of the slippery ladder in this difficult and competitive field. It is also related to the fact that some scientists hold strong attachments to particular theories (sometimes their own) being absolutely and immutably right. Ridicule has proven itself to be a very effective way to crush opposition... and apparently winning the hearts, minds and bodies of the people of the world.

There is a story from the history books that illustrates just how effective ridicule can be... and how devastating and widespread its effects are. This is the tale of John Yudkin and Ancel Keys. Long ignored, it has recently become the pin-up for the low sugar movement and an exemplar of how misleading health science can be.

It goes like this: John Yudkin, a respected English nutritionist, had conducted years of research, observational and experimental, on the effect of sugar on human physiology. After years of observation he published the seminal work “Pure, White and Deadly” in 1972 (no longer in print). This book left no shadow of doubt that sugar has a devastating effect on the human body and has a major contributory role in the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Ancel Keys was an American nutritionist, and the man who developed the “K” ration for the US armed services: sugar-rich parcels of food designed to last long periods of time and able to keep soldiers going in difficult circumstances. Keys was a staunch advocate for low fat eating. That Keys had strong political connections and was closely tied to key players in the corn industry was not exposed until many years later.

Yudkin’s research and his book (written simply and for the general public) threatened Key’s stance in favour of the “good” carbohydrate and sugar-rich diet. It also threatened Key’s position as a chief stakeholder in the government and in the industries that were responsible for the production of massive volumes of sugar.

Key’s reaction was to write a scientific paper that not only disagreed with Yudkin’s findings, it was a calculated work of ridicule and vilification directed against the man personally, designed to annihilate him and his career. It worked. Ancel Keys, motivated by malice, and in service to substantial political and industrial agendas, ended the professional life of John Yudkin.

In retrospect, it is incredible that no one had the courage to stand up to Keys. Cowed in the face of this sort of aggression, leading scientific institutes jumped on Key’s bandwagon. They rejected Yudkin on the basis of Key’s hatchet job. He was ‘uninvited’ from conferences, and he and members of his research department were never invited to participate in the committees that translate research findings into practical policy.

So in spite of his solid reputation and history of excellence in research, an important voice in health science was silenced. His credibility, built on real results, was torn to shreds.

The story does not end there.

  • The sugar-rich, low fat diet “won” the day. Key’s found himself riding a wave of success. The corn industry went from strength to strength
  • The rest of us unquestioningly ate the low fat, high sugar diet , believing it to be scientifically proven to be “good” for us
  • In the proceeding years, obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates rose to unprecedented levels, world-wide
  • Eventually Keys was found to have falsified his research, conveniently ignoring the many results that did not suit his agenda
  • Yudkin’s work, years later, came back to the light of day
  • And slowly we are learning to change our dietary habits, but not before decades of harm to the health of many people had been caused.

Perhaps we imagine we have moved so far beyond the time of Inquisition when science was brutally controlled, and that there are no lessons we can possibly learn from this primitive Dark Age. That would be a substantial error on our part. At that long past time scientists were tortured and put to death for disagreeing with the only acceptable prevailing system of belief. The Yudkin and Keys episode begs the question, what has really changed? Yudkin was not put through physical suffering nor was he killed. He was however put through psychological torment, his career was devastated and his revolutionary understanding of nutrition, if not killed, was beaten into a coma that lasted for 30 years – to the detriment of all of us. It set back the health of the people of this world more than 30 years, in no small part because we gave away our authority to a version of science so corrupt that it served itself and not once considered the impact on all people in its calculations. The devastating effects of this single episode are far from over today.

So much harm done to so very many millions of people, from the malicious ridicule of one man who abused scientific process because he did not like or agree with the findings of another.

That he was driven by personal gain and comfort, placing profit ahead of the respect, decency and the wellbeing of people, has not been openly discussed by the broader community. Keys was not the first to act in this execrable way. He will not be the last. The fact that not one scientist or institution had the courage to stand up to Keys’ intellectual bullying and domination is something to be carefully noted.

There is another point for us to astutely observe –this behaviour is nothing more than a cowardly threat to all, so completely clear in intent that it does not need to be directly stated in words. It is a directive to all others who stand on the brink of what the power brokers deem acceptable – a command to not challenge the status quo, or you too will end up ruined. Most bow to it, to avoid being broken. No matter what position a scientist is in, when they see another person pilloried for bringing unpalatable truth, and subject to intellectual bullying, it is a very clear message to keep our head down, and cast our eyes aside… and do not dare stand up against the prevailing paradigm.

It is a clear message: “We do not need to kill you as in the old days, but through ridiculing and abusing you, we can kill your voice. Once you are labelled a fool, whatever you say – even the greatest of gold – will be muffled by the fact you have been made ridiculous...”

How can this be science? How does this bullying behaviour have any place in this most beautiful of endeavours that allows us to explore every aspect of life and thus understand how we are to live it? It is rendered especially absurd and arrogant when you consider how little we actually do know in the face of the infinite beauty of the Universe of which we are such a very small part...

How is it that this situation of bullying and control has gone on for so long, unquestioned: by all of us too, not just the scientists themselves?

If this tale reveals anything to us, it is that science is not the open minded, open-hearted, independent process of exploration that we might wish it to be.

It is as riddled with dogma and attachment to beliefs about how things should be as any area of human endeavour. And it is as subject to human vulnerability, hurt, defensiveness, and the bad behaviour that ensues.

The courageous scientist who expresses an approach or understanding that is contra to the prevailing paradigm is rarely greeted with applause and bunches of roses. Their work will always be challenged. Let us challenge, by all means, but first let us drop the abuse and denigration of ridicule. Make it a process that is conducted with respectful, considered debate; with a genuine willingness to explore and the most crucial tools any scientist can possess… openness, humbleness and a willingness to place truth ahead of investment in outcomes.

If we are not willing to bring this level of open enquiry to life, if the greatest, proclaimed scientific minds cannot muster even a modicum of decency in the way they treat each other, then the sort of science that is running the show is running amok. It has made itself ridiculous to the detriment of us all.

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