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84) From Physics Teachers on Phys-L
Ludwik Kowalski (July 30, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043
Let me share two URLs, and messages they generated in the Hidden side of science thread. Authors are physics professors at three universities, two from the US and one from Australia. All three belong to Phys-L, an Internet discussion list for science teachers. The list has about 700 subscribers, mostly physics teachers from 35 countries. I think that what Teacher 2 wrote about cold fusion is typical among educated observers.
Teacher #1 (JULY 24, 2003):
A Phys-L teacher, XXX, who occasionally comments on my cold fusion items (in private) shared interesting Internet resources about the often-ignored aspect of science.
1) The abstract from the first essay, by Brian Martin, is shown below.
The entire piece is at:
ABSTRACT: Those who challenge conventional view or vested interests in science are likely to encounter difficulties. A scientific dissenter should first realize that science is a system of power as well as of knowledge, in which interest groups play a key role and insiders have an extra advantage. Dissenters are likely to be ignored or dismissed. If dissenters gain some recognition or outside support, they may be attacked. In the face of such obstacles, several strategies are available, which include mimicking science, aiming at lower status outlets, enlisting patrons, seeking a different audience, exposing suppression of dissent, and building a social movement.
2) The second essay, by Daniel Drasin is entitled
"Zen and the Art of Debunkery." It can be fetched from:
Both are worth reading and thinking about. That is why I am sharing these URLs with the list. Any comments?
I would say that anyone who is advising someone proposing an unpopular theory to scientists to "mimic science" is not coming at the problem from a scientific perspective.
And to argue that science has an "entrenched power structure," is only looking at half the situation, and then from a very jaundiced perspective. Science is conservative, as well it should be. New, revolutionary ideas need to be well established before they take over. If scientists ran after every chimera that came down the pike, they would seldom get anything done. But when something looks promising, even if it isn't likely, then lots of people will get active in "checking it out." That happened in the case of cold fusion, and what happened then is entirely characteristic of what happens in these cases. It happened in the case of the fifth force flap as well. That is, many labs try to reproduce the experiment, or design their own to test the idea, and at first many get corroborating results, but a few don't. Gradually the experiments are more and more carefully done and as that happens the number of corroborating results starts to decrease until only a few holdouts remain.
In the case of high T superconductivity, just the opposite happened, as time passed more and more of the verifying experiments were successful, as people learned the techniques better, and before long, the phenomenon entered mainstream science.
On the other hand, cold fusion has shown several of the characteristics of Langmuir's "pathological science." In addition to decreasing numbers of corroborating experiments, and a lack of alternative experiments (neutron flux measurements, etc.), there were lots of ad hoc explanations from the originators as to why this or that other experiment didn't work. The originators became more and more secretive and withdrawn. They refused to make their raw data available for examination, or to conduct their experiments in the presence of others, and everyone who got different results "weren't doing it right." It seems there was only one right way to do the experiment--change the slightest thing and it won't work, and they were not very forthcoming on the ways to fix the experiments.
It is seldom the case that some phenomenon can be detected by only one type of experiment and the circumstances have to be "just right" for it to work. It's not unheard of, but when it happens it puts and extra burden on the discoverers to be as open as possible in helping others to make their experiments work.
It is also crucially important for the discoverers to make every effort to find ways they could be wrong. Feynman's dictum applied here--first, don't fool yourself. If you aren't fooling yourself, you will not likely fool others. I don't think Pons and Fleischmann carried out this part of the "new science" regimen very well.
Of course, the "established" scientists are going to be reluctant to give up their pet theories, but, for the most part, not "unto the death." When something new is shown to work, scientists accept it quickly. Only a small rear guard might hang back or resist to the end. Something as revolutionary as cold fusion, with its incredible potential, is not going to be suppressed for long, if it is real. There is too much at stake. I doubt the folks in the high-energy fusion game will be too happy to see it come, but they are a relatively small part of the physics community, and if it worked, others would have flocked to the fold and we would be getting energy into our homes from that source by now, and the fusion research program at Princeton would have been shut down by now.
The argument that "establishment science" will do its damnedest to suppress any new ideas in order to protect its own "turf" is just nonsense put forth by the voodoo practitioners who are on the outside looking in. They are outside because they refuse to practice science as it should be done, instead insisting that they are a "little guy" being kept from success by "big science" and their monied backers.
Given the economic potential of this phenomenon if it exists, the "monied backers" would have flocked to the cause of cold fusion if there was any hope that it was real. In fact, I understand the Sony did provide some funding for Pons & Fleischmann at their lab in France for a few years, until they finally tired of ever seeing a return on their investment.
Obviously, many things that are presently thought to be not possible will be found to be possible in the future. I am not an expert on cold fusion and I cannot say with total confidence that it will never be proven to exist, but if it does, at some point someone will come up with the repeatable experiment that P&F apparently didn't have, will demonstrate it so others can repeat and redesign the setups and it will be shown to be real, and soon thereafter will enter mainstream science and within a short time after that will become a viable part of the world power grid.
But it's been, what, fifteen years since P&F burst on the scene? In that time they have gone from front page news to a scientific backwater. If they, or others have something, let them show it, with papers in the archival journals of record, and not backwater publications that might be more interested in publicity than scientific integrity.
That's my $0.02 worth. I have better things to do with my time than to read the ranting of an outsider, who, if your quoting of him is characteristic, has little if any understanding or appreciation of how science works. Its shades of Joe Newman all over again.
Teacher 1 quoted:
>> In the face of such obstacles, several strategies are available,
>> which include mimicking science, aiming at lower status outlets,
>> enlisting patrons, seeking a different audience, exposing
>> suppression of dissent, and building a social movement.
Teacher 2 wrote:
> I would say that anyone who is advising someone proposing an
> unpopular theory to scientists to "mimic science" is not coming at
> the problem from a scientific perspective.
It is a pity that before writing your scathing reply you didn't take some time out to peruse Martin's paper (it probably would have taken less time than formulating your reply). Let's look at what Martin is getting at when he advises "mimicking or thodox science": Since mainstream scientists expect contributions to be in a certain standard format, then writing articles in this format may increase chances of success. Since submissions from institutional addresses are usually treated more seriously than those from home addresses, it may be useful to set up an institute even if it contains only one person! Alternatively, it might be possible to obtain an honorary position at an established institution, such as a university. There are a few open-minded departments that may be willing to provide a haven for dissenters." Whether or not that is "a scientific perspective", it's pretty good advice.
> And to argue that science has an "entrenched power structure," is
> only looking at half the situation, and then from a very jaundiced
> perspective. Science is conservative, as well it should be.
You write "entrenched power structure"; Martin wrote "science is a system of power" which is not quite the same thing. Let's look at a little of what Martin wrote here. "Some types of interests are corporate, government, bureaucratic, professional, career, and psychological. In each case they can exert strong pressures on the direction of research and shape the response to challengers. Note that interests influence science without the necessity of conscious bias, since interests shape people 89s world views."
Certainly true, almost a motherhood statement. There's much more of interest as he develops this theme, with plenty of references given, but I won't overload this e-mail. For most of rest of your reply you go on about cold fusion: the points you make are certainly of interest but they are not relevant to your dismissal of Martin's paper, since he nowhere mentions cold fusion in that paper. So I'll snip a lot of your reply and preserve your final paragraph, which really got up my nose.
> That's my $0.02 worth. I have better things to do with my time than
> to read the ranting of an outsider, who, if your quoting of him is
> characteristic, has little if any understanding or appreciation of
> how science works. Its shades of Joe Newman all over again.
Now, Hugh, Martin is a physicist; he is not an outsider. His paper is not a rant; it presents a well-argued and well-sourced argument. One may or may not agree with what he writes but he deserves to be read and not dismissed so cavalierly and with such scorn. I admit to a personal interest in this matter. Brain Martin did some teaching for me almost 30 years ago when he was a post-graduate student. That teaching was unconventional and successful. Since than he had spent many years understanding and appreciating how science works. Would that more of us had done the same.
I plead guilty to not looking at the article. But the phrase "mimicking science" so turned me off that I couldn't resist the cheap shot. My perhaps misdirected arrows at Martin's article aside, I still think that my assessment of the cold fusion scenario is accurate. That had nothing to do with Martin's article. I see CF as classic pathological science, as described by Langmuir (reprinted in Physics Today, October 1939, p. 36). I cannot say for certain that CF isn't real. I suspect nobody can. But I would guess, based on the number of the characteristics of pathological science it has exhibited, the odds against it are pretty long, and that was the main thrust of my rant. The quotation from Martin's article that Ludwik posted seemed cut directly from that mold. Yes, I probably should have looked at the article, but I was using a few spare minutes I had while waiting for a long printing job to complete, and didn't feel like taking on a major research operation, just in venting some spleen. If I have spattered some unjustified blood on Martin, I apologize.
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