According to a nonscientific survey of professionals by Paul A. Offit, the worst historic ideas and/or inventions are (extracted from NG, June 2017):
- 4,000 BC: the Sumerians discovered “the plant of joy,” which gave birth to a class of drugs that kills over 20,000 Americans every year. More young adults die from Opioids than from auto accidents.
- 1901 AD: a German scientist performed an experiment that revolutionized the food industry. Today one estimate says that eliminating Trans Fats would prevent 250,000 heart-related death a year in the United States.
- 1909: another German scientist invented Ammonia Nitrate Fertilizer. It won the Nobel Prize, helped feed over 7 billion people–and could end life on this planet.:
- 1916: a scientific treatise led to strict immigration laws, enabled the forced sterilization of citizens, and provided a scientific rationale for Adolf Hitler to murder 6M Jews. Echoes of Eugenics can still be heard today.
- 1935: a Portuguese neurologist invented a surgical cure of psychiatric disorders. Today, Lobotomies are a subject of horror films. Remnants of the thinking behind them can be found in a promised cure for autism.
- 1962: a naturalist’s book led to the ban of the pesticide DDT–a move hailed by environmentalists but feared by health officials. Their fears were well founded: As a result of the ban, 10s of millions of children died needlessly.
- 1966: an American chemist elevated the word Antioxidants into the pantheon of marketing terms. But those who have taken supplemental vitamins have increased their risks of cancer and heart disease.
All of these inventions were well intentioned, but all had unintended consequences and resulted in some level of tragedy.