5) The Scientific Process

Ludwik Kowalski, <kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu>
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, N.J.

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What follows was copied from J. Huizenga's book "Cold Fusion; The Scientific Fiasco of the Century," Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993. It is a section (pages 234-236) about violations of the normal rules and procedures of the scientific process in the cold fusion controversy.

"The whole cold fusion fiasco serves to illustrate how the scientific process works. However, seldom do far-out claims receive the amount of national and international attention given to cold fusion. Scientists are real people and errors and mistakes do occur in science. These are usually detected either in early discussions of ones research with colleagues or in the peer review process. If mistakes escape notice prior to publication, the published work will come under close scrutiny by other scientists, especially if it disagrees with an established body of data. The greater the implication of a result, the sooner it will be reexamined. Scientific results, if valid, must be reproducible. When errors are discovered, acknowledged and corrected, the scientific process moves quickly back on track, usually without either notice or comment in the public press.

The scientific process is self-corrective. This unique attribute sets science apart from most other activities. The scientific process may on some occasions move slowly, sometimes even along a circuitous path. The significant characteristic of the scientific method, however, is that in the end it can be relied upon to sort out the valid experimental results from background noise and error. This has been so firmly demonstrated again in the present case by showing that there is no evidence to support the claim of measurable amounts of heat energy coming from room temperature nuclear fusion. True progress must withstand the test of time.

When the news of cold fusion broke, the scientific establishment moved quickly to investigate the validity of the far-out claims which many thought were nonsense. The scientific establishment was not too arrogant to examine room-temperature fusion when it came along, even though it contradicted well-established experimental and theoretical results in nuclear physics. There are occasionally surprises in science and one must be prepared for them. Within the first few weeks after the University of Utah press conference, several multidisciplinary research teams could not replicate any of Fleischmann and Pons' reported claims. Such teams were necessary to investigate quickly the cold fusion claims. Had Fleischmann and Pons formed an interdisciplinary team in their early experiments, cold fusion might have had a very short lifetime.

On the first week of May, cold fusion was the cover story of Time, Newsweek and Business Week, an unprecedented occurrence for a science story. Why did cold fusion generate so much national and intemational excitement? Following the many media stories about the erosion of our environment by the greenhouse effect, acid rain, chemical and radioactive wastes, and the Valdez and Chemobyl disasters, the announcement on March 23, 1989, of the sudden possibility of an abundant, cheap and pollution-free energy source captured everyone's imagination. It was a dream come true, giving us new confidence of our technological competitiveness. Few were concerned or even aware that the University of Utah's publication-by-press-conference released the cold fusion story directly to the public, bypassing all the normal checks and controls of the scientific process. There was no manuscript available for evaluation, there had been no peer review of the science; in fact, the University administrators had not even consulted the nuclear physicists on their own campus. There was only an announcement that watts of excess energy had been produced by a nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature in a small electrolytic cell. The press conference did mention the observation of fusion products to reinforce the claim of nuclear fusion. There was no mention, however, that the fusion product yield was more than eight orders of magnitude less than the claimed excess heat. Later it was shown by others that Fleischmann and Pons made their claim of nuclear fusion before having any solid evidence of having observed any fusion products.

The University of Utah's handling of cold fusion is a striking illustration of what happens when scientists circumvent the normal peer-review process, when scientists use the press as a conduit to disseminate information about a claimed discovery in an unrealistic and overly optimistic tone, when scientists require too many miracles to account for their results, when research is done in isolation by scientists who are outside their field of expertise, when data are published by private communication rather than by those responsible, when administrators use potential royalties to force premature publication and when university administrators lobby for large federal funds before the science is confirmed. Cold fusion is an example of bad science where the normal rules and procedures of the scientific process were violated. One can only be amazed by the number of scientists who reported confirmation of cold fusion by press conference, only to follow later with a retraction or at least a confession of irreproducibility. Reproducibility is the essence of science. It has taken upwards of some fifty to one hundred million dollars of research time and resources to show that there is no convincing evidence for room-temperature fusion. Much of this effort would not have been necessary had normal scientific procedures been followed. The idea of producing energy from room-temperature fusion is destined to join N rays and polywater as another example of a scientific aberration.

The purpose for exposing the cold fusion episode is to show that serious mistakes do occur in science. It is important that we learn from these mistakes. I hope examples discussed in this book will give others new insights into the way science should be done. The general scientific enterprise is vibrant and healthy and has weathered the cold fusion flurry with only minor bruises and scratches. The cold fusion fiasco illustrates once again, as N rays and polywater did earlier, that the scientific process works by exposing and correcting its own errors."

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