Saturday, November 27, 2004

Scientific mafias ...

There has been a lot of discussion about utilizing the creativity of academic researchers through the Bayh-Dole Act. Under this law, which goes back to 1980, universities may, subject to certain conditions, take ownership interest in patents obtained through the use of federal funding. In 1980, there was talk of harnessing the innovation of academics to improve a US economy under attack from the outside, and, in the years since, many patents have gone to universities. But is there really a wellspring of innovation to visit?

In an article focussed on cold fusion, there is a quote about mainstream academic science being composed of "mafias," who, far from being innovative, are clanlike in their adherence to orthodoxy and resistance to change.

As a microcosm of this issue, many years ago, there was a certain topical Gordon Conference which, year after year, invited the same people to attend. These same people talked about fundamentally the same research year after year, and this Gordon Conference became like a summer vacation retreat in New Hampshire. No one talked about new ideas, and new people were generally excluded. There were complaints, and this particular group was put on probation. But not that much changed. Orthodoxy and the same-old, same-old were the order of the day.

Separately, posts on a different board complain about the publishing of "me-too" articles on nanotech in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Each one is a little different, but none really represent any significant advance. One thinks back to the thousands of publications on fullerenes in the 1990's, along with the hundreds of patents, with no real commercial innovation to show for any of the activity. Most of the work was highly derivative in nature, with very little innovation going on. Similarly, the relish with which academic scientists embraced the fraudulent work of Jan-Hendrik Schon is a different indicator of problems in the research community. Rather than step back and think about the issues, there was a lemming-like rush to derivatize Schon's work.

The feeding frenzy over Schon does remind one of the days of cold fusion. However, unlike with the Schon research, resistance to the experiments of Pons and Fleischmann developed rather quickly, and the "cold fusion" work was discredited by the mainstream scientific community. In an article on November 21, Sharon Weinberger presents the flip side to this. Through years of mainstream criticism, certain scientists hung on in "cold fusion" and received in August 2004 a hearing from the Department of Energy. There is only one question before the DOE: Is the work surrounding cold fusion legitimate science? The DOE is expected to give its answer by the end of 2004.

In her article, Weinberger highlights Peter Hagelstein of MIT, who believes the mainstream community has been unreasonably dismissive of cold fusion. Apart from the particulars of what one might believe about cold fusion, there are general themes about rejection of outsiders and maintenance of orthodoxy (recall H. pylori?).

from an article by Sharon Weinberger in the Nov. 21, 2004 issue of the Washington Post, on cold fusion:

-->on scientific mafias

[Peter] Hagelstein describes the
mainstream scientific community as "mafias" that
promote and publish their friends' work, unwilling to
accept new ideas. "From time to time there will be
wild claims that will be wrong," he says. "Let's
accept that, instead of destroying the careers of the
folks who either say such things or work on such
things. This is a normal part of the process, too."


Just days after the infamous Utah announcement,
Hagelstein presented possible theories for cold
fusion, and MIT applied for patents on his behalf.
Some scientists openly ridiculed his theories. And
cold fusion, despite his support, was attacked the
next month at a Jasons meeting he attended. Hagelstein
remembers Happer, then chairman of the Jasons, telling
him to choose between cold fusion and his membership
in the group. Hagelstein resigned.

--> of the secrecy of the August 2004 DOE meeting on cold fusion

The Department of Energy went to great lengths to
cloak the meeting from public view. No announcement,
no reporters. None of the names of the people
attending that day was disclosed. The DOE made sure to
inform the panel's members that they were to provide
their conclusions individually rather than as a group,
which under a loophole in federal law allowed the
agency to close the meeting to the public.

At 9:30 a.m., six presenters were invited in and
instructed to sit in a row of chairs along the wall.
The group included a prominent MIT physicist, a Navy
researcher and four other scientists from Russia,
Italy and the United States. They had waited a long
time for this opportunity and, one by one, stood up to
speak about a scientific idea they had been pursuing
for more than a decade.

All the secrecy likely had little to do with national
security and more to do with avoiding possible
embarrassment to the agency. To some, the meeting
would seem no less outrageous than if the DOE honchos
had convened for a seance to raise the dead -- and in
a way, they had: Fifteen years ago, the DOE held a
very similar review of the very same idea.

--> McKubre of SRI and Hagelstein of MIT

McKubre and Hagelstein met in 1990 at the first
international cold fusion conference and quickly hit
it off. While hundreds of scientists still plow away
at cold fusion worldwide, the two of them have emerged
as perhaps the most prominent, particularly in the
United States. Hagelstein, an applied physicist at
MIT, works on theory, while McKubre is a practiced

McKubre's staff is well below its all-time high of 12
people -- today, it's just he and a part-time
assistant -- but the lab is still well equipped. For
years the experiments took place behind bulletproof
glass, the result of a 1992 accident that killed one
of his colleagues. McKubre still has bits of glass
embedded in his side from the cold fusion experiment
that exploded that day in his lab (the blast had
nothing to do with fusion; hydrogen mixed with oxygen,
creating the equivalent of rocket fuel).

--> on publications

Since 1989, hundreds of scientists working in dozens
of labs around the world have claimed similar results.
Supporters point to the written literature -- more
than 3,000 papers -- as proof of the effect. But the
most credible cold fusion advocates concede that the
vast majority of those papers are of poor quality; one
supporter called the collection "mixed toxic waste."

And even the best research is plagued by cold fusion's
most nagging problem: a long history of failing to
reproduce experimental results. McKubre is one of the
more respected people in the field, and in more than
50,000 hours of experiments, he says, he has recorded
50 times when the setup "unmistakably" produced excess
heat. That is a far cry from the scientific standard
for reproducibility. Erratic results such as those,
coupled with the theoretical unlikelihood of the whole
idea, long ago drove most mainstream scientists to
dismiss cold fusion; they say that any indication of
heat or nuclear byproducts is the result of an error
in the experiment. Now few of them take the trouble to
review the new results or attend the annual cold
fusion conferences.

[Note: the last time I looked, there were over 7,000 scientific publications on buckminsterfullerene and fullerenes.]

--> on patents

Research money has dried up. The U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office has refused to grant a patent on any
invention claiming cold fusion. According to Esther
Kepplinger, the deputy commissioner of patents, this
is for the same reason it wouldn't give one for a
perpetual motion machine: It doesn't work.

These problems, Hagelstein and McKubre argue, are all
tied to the 1989 DOE review. While the report's
language was measured, pointing out the lack of
experimental evidence, "it was absolutely the
intention of most of the framers of that document to
kill cold fusion," McKubre says.

[Don't forget the patent issued to BlackLight concerning the hydrino]

--> Other workers

Edmund Storms, a former scientist at the renowned Los Alamos
National Laboratory, has set up a cold fusion lab next
to his home in Santa Fe, N.M. John Dash, a physicist
at Portland State University in Oregon, conducts cold
fusion research, but among his academic colleagues, he
says, "I'm an outcast, a pariah."

[There still is an annual meeting of workers in cold fusion.]

--> Early criticism

As Hagelstein explains it, leading physicists came out
swiftly and prematurely against cold fusion. A
prominent physicist at Caltech said Pons and
Fleischmann were "suffering from delusions." William
Happer, a Princeton professor, called them
"incompetent boobs."

[Where were these folks when the papers of Jan-Hendrik Schon were being published?]

***Separately, merely for contemplation, from Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson:

This talk mirrors "Pathological Science", a lecture given by Chemistry Laureate Irving Langmuir (1). Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir. Alfred Wegener's continental drift proposal (2) provides a good example, being simply dismissed by most scientists at the time, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favour. In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. Ref. 3, containing a number of hostile comments by scientists with no detailed familiarity with the research on which they cast scorn, illustrates this very well. In this "denunciation mode", the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones. Irving Langmuir's lecture referred to above is often exploited in this way, his list of criteria for "Pathological Science" being applied blindly to dismiss claims of the existence of specific pheomena without proper examination of the evidence. We find a similar method of subverting logical analysis in a weekly column supported by the American Physical Society (4).

Other popular forms of attack are "if X were true we would have to start over again" (as we of course had to do with Relativity and Quantum Theory, and so the argument proves nothing), and then there is the dictum "Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence", which has the marvellous feature of allowing the requirements for acceptable proof to be stretched indefinitely as more and more support for a contested claim comes in. Its originator, the late Marcello Truzzi, later decided that his comment was 'a non sequitur, meaningless and question-begging', and had planned to write a debunking of his own creation (5). Ref. 6 takes a light-hearted look at a range of strategies used by critics.

"Cold fusion" appears to be the modern equivalent to continental drift, starting with the controversial claim, made by Pons and Fleischmann in 1989, to have generated in an electrochemical cell heat considerably in excess of anything explicable in conventional terms. This provoked hostile reaction: ignoring the possibility that an aggregate of ions in a condensed matter matrix may behave differently to a collection of freely moving ones, it was asserted that nuclear fusion could not be responsible for the claimed excess heat. Then came 'failure to replicate' by a number of groups, equated with the non-existence of the phenomenon, ignoring the fact that if different groups get different results there can be two explanations, one that the people who see some effects are bad experimenters, and the other that they were in fact better at creating the precise conditions needed for an effect to be seen. Usually in such cases time tells which side is right, but here the steadily mounting evidence that there was a real effect was suppressed through the publication policies of the major journals. Consequently, these apparently supportive results are not known to most scientists, who simply take it for granted that the Pons-Fleischmann claims have been disproved.

In an attempt to promote proper discussion of the issue, I tried in 2002 to upload a survey by Storms (7) to, the preprint server, the natural place for facilitating such discussion, but the moderators frustrated this intent by deleting the review, declaring it "inappropriate" (chemists, being a more robust species than physicists, were permitted to see it on their own server A breath of fresh air has been introduced into the situation now, with the recent decision of the US Department of Energy to review the research (8); if the reviewers simply look at some of the research going on they will almost inevitably conclude that fusion can take place at ordinary temperatures, with a yield far in excess of the 'almost undetectable level' referred to in Langmuir's lecture.

The overall situation seems profoundly unsatisfactory. The system built up over the years to promote scientific advance has become one that narrow-minded people can use to block any advance that they deem unacceptable. This demands urgent review: otherwise, just as astronomy became fixated on the reasonably accurate, but wrong, Ptolemaic model, science will become fixated in a respectable, but inaccurate, view of reality.


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