John Maddox, skeptic, 1925-2009

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 16, 2009

Sir John Maddox, the legendary editor of the science journal Nature, died this week at age 83. The obituaries were laudatory, as might be expected given his role, over a 22-year career, in elevating Nature to one of the world’s great journals.

But few obituaries referred to Maddox’s reputation as a skeptic of doomsaying environmentalism and a skewerer of politically correct science.

In his most famous skewering, Maddox in 1988 first published a paper by French scientist, Jacques Benveniste, that supported theories of homeopathy. The paper described experiments in which substances, diluted in water to such an extent that no molecules of the original material remained, retain their biological activity.

Maddox then went to Paris, two experts in tow, to observe Benveniste’s experiments first-hand. One expert, Walter Stewart, was a scientific fraud investigator; the other, James Randi (stage name The Amazing Randi), was a renowned magician. The trio then convincingly debunked the homeopathy claim in an article entitled “High-dilution” experiments a delusion.

Maddox’s fame as a skeptic began in 1972 with the publication of The Doomsday Syndrome, a book that attacked predictions of environmental calamity. “Population growth, pollution, overconsumption of resources, genetic engineering, economic growth all, say the doomsayers, spell danger to the human race…. Although these prophecies are founded in science, they are at best pseudoscience. Their most common error is to suppose that the worst will always happen. And to the extent that they are based on assumptions as to how people will behave, they ignore the ways in which social institutions and humane aspirations can conspire to solve the most daunting problems.”

And Maddox’s finale as a sceptic occurred in 2005, following a London meeting of climate change sceptics. As reported in an article in the Guardian:

“Bob May, the president of the Royal Society, said the sceptics were a ‘denial lobby’ similar to those who refused to accept that smoking caused cancer.

“But John Maddox, a former editor of the journal Nature, who attended yesterday’s meeting, said the sceptics might have a point.

“He did not dispute that carbon dioxide emissions could drive global warming, but said: ‘The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is monolithic and complacent, and it is conceivable that they are exaggerating the speed of change.'”

By 2005, John Maddox had been retired from Nature for 10 years, and Nature was no longer the truth-seeking journal that was its hallmark under Maddox. On climate change, Nature has become, in fact, monolithic and complacent, just like the IPCC positions it supports. Not surprisingly, Nature’s reporting of its illustrious editor’s death made no mention of his history of scepticism.


Lawrence Solomon
is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute. lawrencesolomon@nextcity.com

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One Response to John Maddox, skeptic, 1925-2009

  1. Pingback: Week 2, Day 3: Collapse | Development and the Environment

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