‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological) by Henry H. Bauer

The term pathological science was first coined by chemist and Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir during a speech in 1953 when he described scientific investigations done on the premise of “wishful thinking”.

From a transcript of Langmuir’s almost-lost talk:

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

Langmuir’s criteria, or ‘symptons‘, for pathological science are:

1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
2. The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
3. Claims of great accuracy.
4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
6. Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

This is important to the field of condensed matter nuclear science (CMNS) as cold fusion has been labeled “pathological science” and pushed outside of mainstream research. The result has been a lack of funding, the absence of a coordinated research plan, a decreased intellectual pool working to solve the problem, and the continued use of hydrocarbons and dirty nuclear power with its associated horrors.

Author Jed Rothwell wrote on Wikipedia in 2006 dispatching each of Langmuir’s criteria in regards to cold fusion science by providing a case-by-case rebuttal. Wikipedia has campaigned hard to remove positive information on the topic, and that article is now deleted, but you can read it here archived on Ludwik Kowalski‘s page.

Virginia Tech Professor of Chemistry Henry H. Bauer looked at the criteria itself.

In his essay ‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological) published in HYLE–International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, he writes that “they do not provide useful criteria for distinguishing bad science from good science (Bauer 1984, pp. 145-46; Physics Today, 1990 a,b)” and that they “are no more valid than the many other suggestions as to how to distinguish good science from pseudo-science (Bauer 1984, chapter 8; Laudan 1983)” noting that “many praised pieces of research satisfy one or more of Langmuir’s criteria for pathology.”

For the case of cold fusion, Bauer writes:

The most recent major outcry over ‘pathological science’ was occasioned by ‘cold fusion’. A number of books about this episode have appeared, all of them quite strongly pro- or con-. This author, who himself worked in electrochemistry from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, has discussed the merits and defects of these books in several reviews (Bauer 1991; 1992b, c; 1995).

In 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced at a press conference at the University of Utah that they had brought about nuclear fusion at room temperature in an electrochemical cell: they had measured heat production too great to explain by other than nuclear processes.

Many physicists dismissed the claims as impossible from the outset, yet confirmations were being announced from all over the world. Within months, however, many of these were withdrawn; other laboratories reported failures to replicate the effect; and a committee empaneled by the US Department of Energy concluded that there was nothing worth pursuing in these claims. Within a year or two, those working on cold fusion had become separated from mainstream scientific communities, holding separate conferences and often publishing in other than mainstream publications. However, at the present time, a dozen years after the initial announcement, a considerable number of properly qualified people continue to believe the chief claim, that nuclear reactions can be achieved at ambient temperatures under electrochemical conditions (Beaudette 2000).

What have Fleischmann and Pons been accused of that was ‘pathological’?

They had announced their discovery at a news conference and not in peer-reviewed publication. They had failed to reveal all details of their procedures. The heat effect remained elusive: no one could set up the experiment and guarantee that excess heat would be observed, sometimes it was and sometimes not. They had performed incompetent measurements of nuclear products and then fudged the results. They had failed to understand that nuclear reactions would inevitably release radiation, and that the level of radiation corresponding to the heat claimed to have been generated would have been lethal. Nuclear theory in any case showed that fusion could not occur under such mild conditions, it required higher temperatures and pressures to many orders of magnitudes, as in the interior of stars.

But of all those criticisms, only the one about fudging nuclear measurements can be sustained, and that does not bear on the issue of whether or not cold fusion is a real phenomenon.

Announcing results first at news conferences has become standard practice in hot fields, for example molecular biology and genetic engineering. It was routine during the initial years of excitement about high-temperature superconductors. Also in that field, some workers quite deliberately put misleading information into their publications, correcting them at the last moment only, in order to preserve secrecy (Felt & Nowotny 1992; Roy 1989).

Lack of replicability does not mean that a phenomenon is necessarily spurious. Semiconductors did not become transistors and microchips in the 1930s because the presence of then-unsuspected, then-undetectably-small amounts of impurities made the phenomena irreproducible, elusive. Certain effects of electromagnetic fields on living systems remained difficult to reproduce for a century or more (Bauer 2001a, pp. 125, 132-33). Perhaps only electrochemists would recognize how vast is the number of experimental variables that might affect reproducibility in cold-fusion systems: almost innumerable variations in the physical characteristics of the electrodes and in the electrical regimen as well as all sorts of possible contaminants, conceivably active at levels that might be virtually impossible to detect by other means than their interference with the looked-for effect.

As to theoretical possibility, “Although cold fusion was, in terms of ‘ordinary’ physics, absurd, it was not obviously so; it contravened no fundamental laws of nature” (Lindley 1990, p. 376). Physics Nobelist Julian Schwinger was among those who proposed explanations for how cold fusion might occur. It may be well to recall in this connection that lasers and masers were also regarded as impossible before their discovery, and indeed by some eminent people even after they had been demonstrated (Townes 1999).

Once again, as with N-rays and polywater, it turns out that nothing occurred that could rightly be called pathological. The leading cold-fusion researchers went at their work just as they had at the other research that had established their good reputation, in Fleischmann’s case sufficiently distinguished as to warrant a Fellowship of the Royal Society. Fleischmann had always been known as an adventurous thinker, the sort of person – like the astrophysicist Thomas Gold (1999) – whose suggestions are always worth attending to even when they do not work out. His competence was beyond question, and it was not at all uncharacteristic for him to follow apparently far-out hunches. Sometimes they had paid off for him. Moreover, he had ample grounds from earlier work to look for unusual phenomena when electrolyzing heavy water at palladium electrodes, and he had quite rational grounds for speculating that nuclear reactions might proceed in the solid state under quite different conditions than in plasmas (Beaudette 2000, chap. 3).

The single criticism that is not to be gainsaid concerns how Fleischmann and Pons altered the reported results from initial attempts to measure radiation from their cells. But there is more to be noted here about such apparent instances of scientific misconduct. Fleischmann and Pons were tempted into these actions because they had tried to make measurements without properly learning all the ins and outs of the technique: they thought they could measure radiation by just taking a radiation meter and placing it near their cell. In point of fact, a great deal needs to be known about circumstances that can affect the functioning of such instruments (temperature, for example) and about how to eliminate background signals, as well as about how to interpret the measurements. In this, Fleischmann and Pons were falling into the same trap as many of their critics who, without experience of electrochemistry, thought they could connect together some cells and batteries and palladium electrodes and test within days or weeks what the experienced electrochemists had struggled for several years to bring about.

The transfer of expertise across disciplinary boundaries affords great challenges, and this instance illustrates that a superficial view might label as misconduct what is basically a natural result of failing to recognize how intricately specialized are the approaches of every sort of research. Much of the fuss about cold fusion is understandable as an argument between electrochemists and physicists as to whether empirical data from electrochemical experiments is to be more believed or less believed than apparently opposing nuclear theory (Beaudette 2000). To electrochemists it may seem perverse, possibly even scientific misconduct, to rule out of the realm of possibility competently obtained results because some theory in physics pronounces them impossible. To nuclear physicists, it may seem incompetence verging on scientific misconduct for electrochemists to invoke nuclear explanations just because they cannot understand where the heat in their experiments comes from.

As in the case of N-rays, one can plausibly level charges of scientific misconduct against those who denounced the cold-fusion studies. A journalist baselessly charged a graduate student with falsifying evidence of the production of tritium and this charge was published in Nature. The legitimacy of work by a distinguished Professor at Texas A & M University was questioned in two separate, long-drawn-out investigations that ultimately found him innocent of any wrongdoing. One participant in the cold-fusion controversy suggested that critics were guilty of “pathological skepticism” (Accountability in Research 2000).” —Henry H. Bauer ‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological)

Read The Pseudoscientists of the APS by Eugene Mallove and Jed Rothwell and decide for yourself if the shoe fits the “pathological skeptics”.

Conventionally-minded men like John R. Huizenga, the co-chair of the Energy Research Advisory Board who “investigated” the phenomenon in 1989 but failed to include the positive results made by Navy scientists in the final report, and American Physical Society spokesman Robert Park who lobbied vociferously against any mention of the research in mainstream scientific and political circles, both routinely used the vocabulary “pathological science” among other words, to describe the very real and active research. Applying the term to cold fusion was an early effort to discredit experimental data that could not be explained within the prevalent theoretical models.

“But the mainstream is always antagonistic to highly novel discoveries or suggestions, even when they become acceptable later: any suggestion that paradigms need to be changed is routinely resisted (Barber 1961), sometimes by effectively ignoring the claims (Stent 1972)”, writes Bauer.

From Henry H. Bauer Ethics in Science
From Henry H. Bauer Ethics in Science
“The most striking potential discoveries bring about revolutionary paradigm shifts.”

“The accepted rules and procedures for doing normal science are not adequate to bring about potentially revolutionary science: as is well known, hard cases make bad laws.”

Bauer does not endorse the work of Drs. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. He does make the case that cold fusion is not deserving of the moniker “pathological science” and that the Langmuir’s criteria are themselves suspect. Based on the historical record of discovery, he reminds us that is normal for conventional minds to resist change.

The only difference now is that we are at the end-run of a several thousand-year-old expansion; over 7 billion people cover the planet, all needing water, food, and energy. Ecological systems are strained, economic relationships are broken, and energy resources are becoming difficult to access, expensive to process, and dangerous and to use. We have a solution for a clean energy world waiting to be developed; to wait for history to swing around is no longer an option.

“Pathological science” is a distraction we can tolerate no more.

Cold Fusion Now!

Related Links

Ethics in Science by Professor Henry H. Bauer

5 Replies to “‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological) by Henry H. Bauer”

    1. Thank you GW. I can’t say I agree with all of Professor Bauer’s viewpoints, but he makes a good argument here about the usefulness – or not – of the label “pathological science”.

      Those who use this term are self-reinforcing, and it applies only to themselves.

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