Top 10 Controversial Real Life Science Experiments

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Top 10 Controversial Real Life Science Experiments

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
Say hello to the dark side of science. For this list, we'll be looking at experiments that generated debate as a result of their methodologies, results, or the risks involved to participants. In other words, they must have provoked actual argument, rather than just universal condemnation. Our countdown includes Large Hadron Collider Experiments, Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" Experiment, Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and more!
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Top 10 Controversial Science Experiments


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Controversial Science Experiments.

For this list, we’ll be looking at experiments that generated debate as a result of their methodologies, results, or the risks involved to participants. In other words, they must have provoked actual argument, rather than just universal condemnation. We’ll be excluding reviews of other studies that didn’t involve new experiments.

What’s the craziest scientific experiment you’ve ever heard of? Tell us in the comments below!

#10: Little Albert

Conducted by famed behaviourist John B. Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner, this experiment is controversial due to its methodology and ethical shortcomings. Watson wanted to use classical conditioning to give an eleventh-month old child a phobia of rats and other furry objects. They let the child, referred to as “Albert”, play with a rat, then whacked a metal bar with a hammer behind him. The loud noise reportedly instilled in the child a fear of furry objects in general. It was a landmark experiment in behaviourism, a school of thought that dominated psychology for decades. However, looking back, reviewers have criticized the experiment for using only a single subject, and its dubious ethical standards. Heck, they made the kid afraid of bunny rabbits and Santa Claus!

#9: Large Hadron Collider Experiments

There’s scaring a child and then there’s ripping a hole in the fabric of space-time. Fortunately, the Large Hadron Collider, completed in 2008, hasn’t actually done the latter; but there were fears it would, making its construction controversial indeed - especially among the public. Located near Geneva, Switzerland, this gigantic particle collider smashes atoms together to plumb the secrets of the universe. However, before it was activated, many worried that it could create stable microscopic black holes. Similar concerns had surrounded New York’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider before its activation in the year 2000. Fortunately, safety reviews have concluded that any such black holes would evaporate or fly off into space. They also noted that high-energy collisions occur naturally without catastrophic consequences. Uh, well, so far, so good!

#8: The Daryl Bem Precognition Study

In 2011, respected psychologist Daryl Bem announced some rather bold findings in the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He reported that people could recall certain words better when they were given time to repeat them. The twist? He claimed this worked even when they were only allowed to practice the words after testing. This amounted to a scientific argument for precognition, or extra-sensory perception. The results could be seen as challenging how the human brain perceives time. Needless to say, the study created an uproar. Similar experiments were unable to replicate Bem’s results. It also sparked debate in the scientific community over the peer view process, accepted methodologies in experimental psychology, and difficulties in publishing replications and non-significant results.


#7: Loftus’ “Lost in The Mall” Study

Memory is a fickle thing. Over time, our recollection of specific events can change or just fade altogether. But have you ever had a memory that wasn’t actually your own? You’ll probably answer no … at least not that you KNOW of! In the mid-90s, a team led by American cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus set out to prove just how easy it is to implant a childhood memory in someone of an event that they never experienced. The false memory they chose was being lost in a mall. The findings were considered groundbreaking, casting an unprecedented level of doubt on the human memory. Adding to the controversy, it was also used to discredit recovered memories repressed in survivors of abuse and other traumatic experiences.

#6: Libet’s Challenge to Free Will (LIBB-itt)

The concept of “free will” is one that’s been debated as long as anyone can remember. In the 1980s, however, it seemed as if neuroscientist Benjamin Libet had finally delivered a definitive answer. Libet’s landmark experiment studied the human brain and found that it registered activity before test subjects made a conscious choice. From this, it was suggested that our choices are unconscious and thus, not truly our own. This would be a controversial conclusion even with ironclad methodology. Since then however, Libet’s experiment has had both supporters and detractors, with critics arguing over how to interpret the brain activity that preceded action.

#5: The “Elderly-related Words Provoke Slow Walking” Experiment

The idea of social priming seems to make intuitive sense. Cue someone to think about something, for example a professor, and it could affect their behaviour, such as their performance on a general knowledge test. However, what John Bargh (barge/barjjj) and colleagues claimed to have discovered in 1996 was nonetheless startling. When subjects were primed with the stereotype of an elderly person, they reportedly walked more slowly afterwards - as if they themselves had become old. This became hugely controversial in 2012, when researchers failed to replicate Bargh’s finding, and suggested that experimenters had unconsciously biased the results. Bargh reacted with a scathing personal attack, and the whole field of “social priming” has since been described as a “train wreck”.

#4: Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" Experiment

The day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, schoolteacher Jane Elliot decided to try an experiment to teach her all-white third-graders about discrimination. The children were divided into a brown-eyed and a blue-eyed group, with the former deemed superior and given certain privileges. Subsequently, the brown-eyed children began talking down to their blue-eyed peers, who became shy and performed poorly on tests. After several days, their positions were reversed. The experiment received considerable backlash, with one letter-writer deeming it “cruel to white children”. However, it also gave Elliot a national platform as a diversity educator. Today, it’s largely remembered positively. But it’s efficacy in fostering lasting racial sensitivity has been questioned, as has the decision to try it out on children.

#3: David Reimer’s Involuntary Gender Reassignment

This experiment became even more controversial over time. David Reimer was born biologically male in 1965. After a botched circumcision, his parents raised him as female under the guidance of psychologist John Money. Money believed that gender identity was learned, strongly favoring “nurture” over “nature”. Since Reimer had a twin brother, it was seen as an ideal case study. For decades, Money’s claims influenced doctors performing child sexual reassignments. However, by his early teens, Reimer was actually severely depressed, and underwent surgery to reverse his reassignment. When he spoke out decades later, it sparked a huge debate about Money’s extreme methods and nature versus nurture. Sadly, Reimer and his brother later took their own lives. The experiment has been roundly criticzed by both Money’s colleagues and intersex activists.

#2: Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority Shock Experiments

History is rife with seemingly ordinary people participating in horrific acts because they were “just following orders”. In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram put together a study in which an authority figure instructed volunteers to deliver increasing intense electrical shocks to a stranger. The electricity wasn’t real, but the test subjects with their fingers on the button didn’t know that. And wouldn’t you know it… most of them followed orders, even delivering potentially lethal levels of electricity. They were, however, extremely distressed by the ruse, raising ethical concerns. People continue to argue over his methodology and interpretation of the results today.

#1: Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment

Is power inherently corrupting? In the early 1970s, that’s what Dr. Philip Zimbardo set out to answer— specifically as it applies to the correctional system. Student volunteers were divided into the roles of guards and prisoners, and were then instructed to play out those roles in a simulated prison. The experiment also aimed to address questions of group identity, power structures, and the effects of being dehumanized. It was intended to last seven to fourteen days, but the plug was pulled after just six, with abuse rampant and multiple “prisoners” backing out. Seems like a pretty clear answer to the core question, no? Well, there have been claims that the guards were “coached” to behave a certain way, and that the experiment was biased by implied demands.
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