15 Most Controversial Academics of All Time

While we tend to think of academics as a stuffy bunch, more comfortable in a college library than the public forum, many have stirred the pot of controversy, both today and in times past. Some have been controversial for their ideas, others for their personal or political beliefs, but all have raised the ire of passionate (and sometimes misguided) people around the world. While we had to exclude some names to whittle this list down to just 15 scholars, we think these controversial scientists, philosophers and theorists represent some of the most controversial academics in history both for good and bad reasons.

  1. Galileo Galilei: While today Galileo is hailed as the "father of modern science," during his own lifetime his belief that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe (a view first expressed by Copernicus) got him into some very hot water. Denounced to the Roman Inquisition in 1615, Galileo was warned to drop this belief or pay the consequences for his heresy. Of course, he couldn’t just forget about his belief in something he knew to be true, and after publishing his work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he defended the heliocentric solar system, he was tried, found guilty of heresy, forced to recant and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. Galileo may have gotten off easy, however. Giordano Bruno, a contemporary espousing many of the same views, was executed for refusing to recant his beliefs.
  2. Charles Darwin: Darwin first published his book The Origin of Species back in 1859, over 150 years ago, and yet the text and the theories on evolution it contained are still a matter of controversy today. During Darwin’s lifetime, much of the controversy surrounding his ideas stemmed from competing versions of evolution, with other scientists, such as Lamarck, believing that methods other than natural selection were at the heart of the evolutionary process. Today, however, Darwin’s name ignites a fury in many people because his theory of evolution runs contrary to the idea of creation as described in the Bible. Despite mountains of proof that evolution does occur, many today refuse to believe that this is the case, even battling to get evolution banned from being taught in schools.
  3. Peter Duesberg: Professor of molecular and cell biology at U of C, Berkeley, Peter Duesberg has contributed to some of the most amazing breakthroughs in cancer research in history. He has also become an incredibly polarizing, and some would say dangerous, figure in the field of AIDS research. Duesberg believes that AIDS is caused by long-term consumption of recreational drugs and that the HIV virus is simply a harmless passenger in the body. His views haven’t been harmless, however, and were a major influence on a South African policy that refused antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients in the country, leading to hundreds, if not thousands, of preventable deaths. Duesberg’s colleagues may respect him for his cancer research, but his AIDS beliefs have been widely disproved and dismissed by the rest of the scientific community.
  4. Martin Heidegger: This German philosopher wrote many books examining the question of being, some of which are hailed as among the most important works in philosophy created in the 20th century. Yet Heidegger’s own philosophies brought him into controversy. He was a member of the Nazi party throughout WWII, severed ties with his former Jewish mentor, and referred to the Nazi movement as one filled with "truth and greatness." Perhaps one of his most controversial statements, and one that led to his general ostracization by colleagues, was, "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs." He remains a controversial figure today, both for his political views and his academic ones.
  5. Peter Singer: Singer has a long and storied career as being a controversial academic. As a young philosophy professor, his work Animal Liberation, discussing the rights that animals should have intrinsically was revolutionary when it was released in the 1970s, and still angers many who don’t share his beliefs on what constitutes animal cruelty. While this early work was to set the stage for his role as a boundary-pushing academic, it is his later work that stands out as much more controversial. His support of abortion and euthanasia has angered many opponents, but his most controversial work has to do with zoophilia, a behavior which Singer believes doesn’t have to be abusive – and with his assertion that it’s morally acceptable to kill handicapped newborns.
  6. James D. Watson: Watson today is best remembered for his landmark work on DNA done in collaboration with Francis Crick, yet he hasn’t always been a darling of the scientific community, and many of his statements have generated a fair amount of controversy – even causing him to have to resign in one instance. Among his questionable beliefs are that stupidity is a genetic disease and one that should be screened for and cured, women should be able to abort children they believe carry a homosexual gene, fat people are unhirable, people with darker skin have a higher sex drive, and Africans are inherently less intelligent than people of other races. In addition to these prejudices, Watson also got into hot water over his refusal to acknowledge the contributions the work of Rosalind Franklin to his and Crick’s discovery of the double helix, even going so far as to insinuate in his memoirs that she was too stupid to interpret her own data.
  7. Francis Galton: Sir Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, dipped into a wide range of fields during his lifetime, from anthropology to meteorology. Yet he is best known for one coining the term and the practice of the most destructive perversions of evolutionary theory in history, eugenics. While Galton’s own research in eugenics was largely benign (he focused on the inheritability of genius and other abilities), his ideas would go on to influence many others, including the Nazis, who sought to improve the genetic composition of their population by eliminating any elements they felt were undesirable. Galton’s own work may not have been controversial, but his name is forever so due to his connections with this morally abhorrent application of his ideas.
  8. Friederich Nietzche: Nineteenth century philosopher Nietzche wrote many of the 20th century’s classic works on philosophy, touching on topics like religion, morality, culture and science. Yet like any philosopher worth his salt, his ideas brought up a lot of commentary, discussion and a little controversy, even today. The central reason for this is Nietzche’s writings on Christianity, which often take on the church in an offensive and blasphemous way, alienating him from his peers at the time and still angering Christians today. His most famous statement on Christianity being, "God is dead" which many have twisted and misrepresented without understanding Nietzche’s true meaning. Nonetheless, Nietzche’s nonconformist attitude and revolutionary philosophies have made him a polarizing figure today, more than 100 years after his death.
  9. Socrates: One of the best-known names from classical Greek philosophy, Socrates was a great teacher and a great thinker. He is perhaps best known for his work in ethics, though the events that lead up to his death were far from ethical. Living in Athens during a time of great political upheaval, Socrates was a man fiercely loyal to his city and willing to push buttons to get political players to act on what he thought was just. His philosophical button-pushing was to be his undoing, however, and made many Athenians feel foolish and quite angry. He was brought to trial, convicted of corrupting the minds of young Athenians and "not believing in the gods of the state," and condemned to death by poisoning. Many believe that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat, dying to prove his principles and to help cure the ailments of Athens.
  10. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A driving force behind the creation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer’s commitment to nuclear technology can still get people riled up today. A brilliant theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project has overshadowed many of his contributions to science in popular culture. The use of nuclear weapons itself raises a great deal of controversy, and many look down on him for participating in the creation of a device that lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Yet Oppenheimer was also controversial during his lifetime for his outspoken views on preventing an arms race with the USSR and nuclear proliferation, which lead to him being stripped of his security clearance and pushed out of the political sphere in 1943. This was not his first run-in with opponents, as there was suspicion for some time that he was a member of the Communist Party, though no proof of this could ever be produced it dogged him throughout the years of the Cold War.
  11. Linus Pauling: Chemist, author and educator Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes during his lifetime, one for his work in chemistry and the other for his commitment to peace. How could such a celebrated academic be controversial? After seeing the horrors of WWII, and helping to develop some of the weapons used in the war, Pauling became a pacifist. In 1946, he joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, led by Albert Einstein, warning the public of the dangers of nuclear weapons. This activism earned him the ire of the US government, who denied him a passport until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954. Pauling’s commitment to ending nuclear testing and limiting the use of nuclear weapons was to lead to him being suspected of being in league with the Soviet Union (though it is a bit unclear how these two relate) and Time Magazine called his Nobel Peace Prize "a weird insult for Norway." Aside from his political controversies, Pauling also came under fire for his belief that high doses of Vitamin C prevent colds and treat cancer– claims which are still contested today.
  12. Karl Marx: With "socialist" still behind hurled around today as a harmful pejorative in the American political arena, it’s no wonder Marx’s classic works are still controversial. In his famous work The Communist Manifesto, Marx lays out the problems of class struggle and capitalism, influencing the development of the socialist and communist ideas in world politics. While Marx’s intentions may have been good, applications of his theoretical ideas to real political systems have been some of the bloodiest and most oppressive in history. While what passes for communism today (and in recent decades) has little to do with Marx, the terms have been forever corrupted. Today, even suggesting that the wealthy share their riches with those less fortunate can be political suicide in the U.S.
  13. Richard Dawkins: Ethnologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has published some groundbreaking work throughout his career, which nearly every student of anthropology and genetics has likely read or encountered in their studies. Yet Dawkins has emerged as a controversial scientific figure for his views on religion and science. Dawkins is a staunch critic of creationism and intelligent design, calling religion a delusion and the existence of a supernatural creator a false belief. As one might expect, this has attracted a lot of criticism and controversy. Aside from his views on religion, Dawkins was also on one side of one of the greatest debates in evolutionary science. On the other was paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Their disagreement has been called the "Darwin Wars" and centered on different ideas in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that are still being discussed years later by those in the field.
  14. Rene Descartes: Sometimes called the "Father of Modern Philosophy," this French thinker contributed a great deal the mathematics and philosophy. He was responsible for developing the Cartesian coordinate system (whereby algebraic equations could be represented as shapes on a graph), a major figure in 17th century Rationalism and the founder of analytic geometry. Despite contributing so much to history, the teaching of Descartes’ ideas was not exactly acceptable at the time. One professor, Henri de Roy, was condemned for teaching Descartes’ physics at the University of Utrecht. It wasn’t just his science that ignited controversy, however, as Descartes’ ideas about the connection between mind, body and well-being as essential to judgment also sparked a great deal of discussion (and sometimes outrage) from figures of the day and still keep philosophers talking about his work today.
  15. Noam Chomsky: Noam Chomsky is perhaps one of the best-known and eminent linguistics experts in the world, developing the theory of generative grammar and playing a major role in changing the way many researchers study the philosophy of language and mind. Despite being a respected figure in his field, Chomsky is an extremely controversial figure in the political sphere. Beginning in 1967 with his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, Chomsky has been an incredibly outspoken critic of American policy, both at home and abroad. Referring to himself as both an anarchist and a libertarian socialist, it’s fair to say that Chomsky has ruffled more than a few feathers with his beliefs.

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