Why Did Western Drs. Promote Tobacco While the Nazis Fought Cancer? | Health & Medicine | DISCOVER Magazine
Pop quizzes are frequent for students in Robert Proctor’s history of science classes. “How old is the earth?” “How many millions in a billion?” “Are you convinced that humans share a common ancestry with apes?” Proctor’s passion is figuring out not only what his students know, but also what they don’t know. His drive is to explore aspects of science that most don’t see.
A professor of the history of science at Stanford University, Proctor has taught courses as varied as “The Changing Concept of Race,” “Tobacco and Health in World History,” and “Human Origins: Evidence, Ideology, and Controversy.” His ever-roving eye tends to focus on bad science made during good times, good science made in bad times, and the mass of ignorance lodged in our collective minds as a result of both.
Proctor is living what he calls “the ultimate dabbler’s fantasy,” taking on subjects that appeal to his questioning spirit. But the motivation behind that dabbling is often principled outrage and a drive to right wrongs. Some of those wrongs are big ones—he has been the scourge of the tobacco industry, testifying against it in many cases and writing books and articles about what those in the industry knew, when they knew it, and how they campaigned to hide certain facts. Other wrongs are seemingly small: Proctor notes that the agates he collects and polishes, although unique and rare, are considered cheap, while diamonds, plentiful and homogeneous, somehow have great value.
His field is called "agnotology," the study of ignorance.