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Lies about famous scientists

Via The Panda's Thumb: Behavior scientist and author BF Skinner's daughter writes a rebuke and correction to the much-repeated canard that her father used her as a test subject.

His careless descriptions of the aircrib might have contributed to the public's common misconception as well. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist - especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure. He used the word "apparatus" to describe the aircrib, the same word he used to refer to his experimental "Skinner" boxes for rats and pigeons.

The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn't have a cold until I was six. I've enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I'm surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.

My father's opponents must have been gratified to hear - and maybe keen to pass on - the tales about his child-rearing contraption and crazy daughter. Friends who heard an abridged chapter of Slater's book on Radio 4, or read the reviews, have been phoning to ask if I had really sued my father or had a psychotic episode. I wonder how many friends or colleagues have been afraid to ask, and how many now think about me in a different light.

In his Observer review, Tim Adams at least suspected something was amiss with Slater's research. He realised she could have contacted me to confirm or verify what she suspected, but plainly hadn't. His conclusion? I had gone into hiding. Well, here I am, telling it like it is. I'm not crazy or dead, but I'm very angry.

Misrepresentations of science and scientists, including the 'mad scientist' meme, are harmful to our understanding of what scientists actually do, and to our understanding of the world. I'm glad Deborah Skinner Buzan has chosen to strike back.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I have recently added snopes.com, which also debunked this story, to my blogroll.

Comments (2)

Professor von Buttumsup:

Sir, I couldn't agree more! Your debunking of the "mad scientist" myth is both apropriate and long overdue.

I feel moved to offer you a honorary membership on the Victor Frankenstein Comitee for Support of Wrongly Victimised Scientists. We meet every Friday at midnight at a morgue near you for peer support and social activities.

Professor von Buttumsup

I am glad to enjoy the support of such an eminently sane, if somewhat over-libidinous scientist in this matter.
How was your retreat on Xanaviaga II?


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