Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bad Science

I'm back from vacation. It's amazing what lying on a beach watching the waves can do for your mental health. Not to mention the restorative effects of good food and libations. I have colleagues who firmly believe that if you wish to be successful you cannot afford to take vacations. I counter with if you wish to stay sane and productive, how can you afford not to take vacations?

While enjoying the beach I managed to finish reading Gary Taubes' Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion which was published way back in 1993. Remember the whole cold fusion debacle? In 1989 Stan Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah announced via a press conference that they had observed nuclear fusion at room temperature in what amounted to little more than a sophisticated test tube. Taubes, a science journalist who publishes in places like Science, wrote this book about the whole affair including the work of many groups who tried to replicate the cold fusion experiment. It's a fascinating read. I was absolutely astounded by the shear volume of bad science that resulted from the Pons and Fleischmann announcement. A surprisingly large number of scientists who should have known better claimed to have observed cold fusion in some form or another without having performed any controls. And furthermore, no one was able to reproduce the effect consistently. In many cases they couldn't reproduce their results at all... Cold fusion clearly was complete nonsense and perhaps even constituted fraud on the part of some of its proponents. I would recommend people read this book, especially science students. It is a wonderful description of how science should not be done.

At one point in his book Taubes ponders why scientists tend to react so violently to bad/fraudulent science. The answer is quite simple really. We all need to trust the results of other scientists. Science is built upon science. We have neither the time nor resources to replicate all the experiments that our own work is built upon. Sure, experiments that appear to point to amazing breakthroughs or are counter to current dogma will be replicated (or at least people will attempt to do so). But the vast majority of the data published by scientists is assumed to be good data. So we get really, really pissed off when it's not.

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the cold fusion field is still alive...


Anonymous said...

Just wait till you read Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories" WOW!

here's a random blog mentioning it:


read GCBC and I'll look forward to your blog on it :)

Cheers, DH

JollyRgr said...

I'm with you there Bro!

Bad science isn't really science at all......it's either laziness or plain fraud.

Goose said...

Terry got caught up in the whole cold fusion game... Got a lot of money to work on it.

He and his PhD student found nothing. Lots and lots of nothing... The funniest thing was when, after a long time with absolutely no cold fusion production, he came in to find a spike on the read-out! As was Terry's custom, he went straight to morning tea and told all of his fellow faculty members about the momentous discovery... When he returned to the lab, the PhD student told him that there had been an electrical fault that produced the spike...

Odyssey said...

I remember when the whole cold fusion things came out in the press. The chemistry and physics departments had a joint meeting to decide what, if anything, to do. The two departments had opposing views. The entire physics faculty were (correctly) adamant that cold fusion was complete crap. Many of the chemistry faculty took the view that it was worth looking into. I vaguely recall Terry being one of the more vocal supporters.

And I remember the PhD student who worked on that with Terry. Todd. Poor bugger.