When Experts Fail

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Over the centuries experts have made some colossal errors. Here are just a few that stand out.

Great Chinese Famine: Trofim Lysenko was a Russian agriculture researcher who worked as the Director of the USSR Institute of Genetics during the Stalin era. In the 1950s Chinese agricultural policy makers followed Lysenko’s dogma regarding food production. Based upon Lysenko’s theories, China adopted new farming policies which banned private farming and changed farming processes. At the same time, China experienced draught conditions in much of the country. Food production dropped dramatically. As a result, between 1958 and 1962 as many as 36 million Chinese citizens starved to death. Trofim Lysenko was considered an expert in genetics and food production yet he was responsible for the starvation of tens of millions on multiple continents.

Bhopal: Warren Andersen was the CEO of Union Carbide on December 2, 1984 when one of the company’s chemical facilities in the highly populated city of Bhopal experienced a disastrous pesticide leak. 32 tons of toxin leaked into the atmosphere. Over 550,000 people were exposed to the chemicals and 4,000 or more, deaths occurred. Anderson was charged with manslaughter by Indian authorities, declined to appear in Indian court hearings, and was declared a fugitive from justice. Until his death in 2014, Anderson denies any personal wrongdoing, but his life and leadership are permanently affixed to the Bhopal disaster.

WMDs: Khidir Hamza was an Iraqi born scientist who worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a young man he was educated in the US. He claims to have led Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs. Following the first gulf war, Hamza defected to the US. In 2002 he testified before the US Senate that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, more than ten tons of uranium, and that they could build nuclear weapons within three years. These statements were used by the US government as part of their justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately Hamza’s testimony was false. He misled the United States and contributed to the ill advised decision to initiate the second gulf war.

Gettysburg: General James Longstreet knew that the Battle of Gettysburg would end poorly for his Confederate Army. He told his commanding officer, General Robert E. Lee, that their forces would fail to over power the Union forces. “No fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take [the Union] position,” he told Lee. Nevertheless, General Lee commanded the attack across a mile of open terrain. In just three days, half of Longstreet’s forces would be dead or wounded.

Bloodletting: Removing blood from patients as treatment for nearly any malady was embraced for nearly 3,000 years. The precise origin of the practice are not certain, but one doctor significantly influenced its prevalence. Galen of Pergamum lived in 200 AD and was the most renowned physician of his time. His prolific writings embraced and reinforced the practice of bloodletting. His works were translated and studied throughout the middle ages. It was not until the 19th century that the practice was finally rejected at scale.

Apollo 1: In 1963 Joseph Shea was assigned to managed the design and construction of the Apollo space craft. Three years later the crew of Apollo 1 expressed concern about the amount of flammable material inside the oxygen rich cabin. In response, Shea ordered the removal of the materials from the craft but five months later the material remained. On January 27, 1967, during a launch simulation, the materials caught fire. Due to faulty design, the crew was unable to open the cabin’s door, resulting in the death of all three crew members.

Fidenae Stadium: The wooden amphitheater of Fidenae, in ancient Greece, was constructed in 27 AD by the entrepreneur Atilius. After a temmporary ban on gladiator games was lifted, tens of thousands of spectators flocked to the stadium to witness the earliest events. Filled beyond capacity, the stadium collapsed killing or injuring more than 20,000 people. The Roman Senate responded to the disaster with new building codes and inspecions. Atilius was banished.

Chernobyl: Anatoly Stepanovich Dyatlov was the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant for 13 years before the fateful day of April 26, 1986. Contrary to the advice of at least two subordinates, he ordered the continuation of the ill fated nuclear experiment which melted down reactor #4 and caused the death of thousands of people, the forced relocation of 350,000, and the contamination of living quarters of 5,000,000. As the primary cause of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, a Soviet court sentenced Dyatlov to 10 years in prison. (more info)

Halifax: Aimé Le Médec was the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc cargo vessel. On Dec 6, 1917 the ship was fully loaded with explosives in route to France. While entering the Halifax harbor, the ship collided with the outgoing vessel, SS Imo. As a result of the collision the Mont-Blanc caught fire which ignited the explosive cargo on board. The resulting blast was the largest man-made explosion to that date in history. A 1,100 pound section of the ship’s anchor was thrown 2.5 miles inland. 2,000 people were killed and nearly 10,000 injured. The ship’s captain was assigned blame for not taking actions that could have averted the catastrophe.

Countrywide: Angelo Mozilo has become the poster child of the greed and scandal that rocked the financial industry in the subprime mortgage crisis. As co-founder of Countrywide, he engaged in aggresive lending practices and derivative selling. The company grew to become the largest mortgage lender in America. Mozilo obtained backing and favor in Washington D.C. through zero interest ‘loans’ to political officials. He is one of few financial industry executives who faced criminal charges in connection with the financial crisis. In 2010 he agreed to pay settlement and industry bans rather than go to trial.