Greed, Hubris and Downright Nasty @#$%

So this morning, like every other morning I got up and scrolled through my twitter and facebook pages to see what’s going on the world.  As you can well imagine the internet is full of some pretty interesting stuff, some if it uplifting, most of it fairly innocuous but today one thing jumped off the screen at me as downright nasty. 

That was the story that author and marketing guru Seth Godin published today on the birthday of Thomas Midgeley.  You can read Seth’s take on the man here – but here are the cliff notes. 

Thomas Midgeley was the chemist who discovered that if you add lead to gasoline it makes your car engine run quieter.  Psychologically if a car engine is quiet people assume that it is efficient.  Midgeley knew that wasn’t really the case, he also knew that even brief exposure to lead vapor could lead to lead poisoning and he knew that to really get the results people wanted the best way would be to add grain alcohol to gasoline instead. 

Midgeley’s bosses knew that grain alcohol is expensive and lead is cheap.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

If that was the end of the story we could forgive Midgeley for his role in what, to this day has amounted to countless deaths and billions of dollars in environmental damage.  We could put him in the same category as hundreds of other scientists who made discoveries that seemed like a good idea at the time but ended up having unfortunate and unintended consequences.  We could call him a brilliant man who’s genius was exploited by greedy business men.  But unfortunately, for history and the legacy of an undoubtedly brilliant scientist the story doesn’t end there. 

You see Midgeley not only allowed his discovery to be used by deceptive and greedy business men, he actively participated in it.  At a press conference designed to show the safety of the stuff he sniffed and washed his hands in leaded gasoline, even though he knew the risks and as a result ended up contracting lead poisoning himself.  Shortly after that press conference he had to take six months off of work to recover! 

Greed can make people do stupid things!  Blinded by greed people tend to; deny the truth, distort the facts, take unnecessary risks and force unsafe products and practices on people who don’t know any better, even if they won’t use the product themselves.  It reminds me of the story I posted here last fall about Canada’s export of Asbestos to developing countries, all the while having banned the product for domestic use over 30 years ago.     

Thomas Midgeley was just one in a long line of scientists and lobbyists who became blinded by greed and are thus complacent in the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of the planet.  It’s time to wake up and stop letting greed overrule good science. 

Remember, if four out of five dentists agree that brushing with fluoride twice a day helps to reduce tooth decay, the fifth one doesn’t know a secret he’s just crazy!  Think about that the next time someone tries to deny global warming or the health risks of smoking cigarettes.


    In the comment thread in the post after this you bemoan that people jumped to the defence of atheism, but no one jumped in on this. Well, there are reasons I didn’t (however I did read the post). First, I wasn’t offended; I know people do horrific things in the pursuit of money and fame and I know someone actively decided to put lead in petrol. Second, you were historically accurate and I agreed with the evaluation you made of it. Third, thanks to the wonderful TV series called QI (British TV, available on YouTube) I already knew. Link available above.

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