In view of today’s predominantly climate-damaging energy production, it is interesting to look at the recent history of science for solutions – and false promises – on this subject. And it is easy to find what you are looking for. Almost exactly 20 years ago, chemists Pons and Fleischmann reported the success of cold fusion. This supposed result promised unlimited clean energy; all energy problems would be solved! Unfortunately, they were swindlers. But this was not the case for all those institutes which, in the days that followed, announced the successful repetition of the results. The world of physics went into a hysterical frenzy, which was not to subside until a year later.
I took a closer look at this group because it was particularly interesting for an error researcher like me. It consisted of a large number of scientists, almost all of them international elites, who were initially able to positively confirm the experiments and results of cold fusion. They were not frauds (like Pons and Fleischmann), but demonstrably acted in good faith. The case of these mass errors is excellently documented (see bibliography at the end of the article) and shows a large number of people in many different laboratories who independently showed the same behaviour and errors.
Questions remain, even 20 years later: Why were hundreds of scientists from all over the world able to “reproduce” the experiments accurately at first, but not after criticism arose? Why did they overlook errors that became apparent weeks later? Why did many leading scientists forget the simplest control experiments and perform their experiments so sloppily that, as one physicist put it, undergraduates would have got an F for it?
A few examples?
None of these labs included control experiments – which would have been very easy to do with ordinary water, for example, and which a Nobel laureate had suggested. Statistical validation was not an issue either. It was only when the criticism grew louder that one of them, Martin, finally ordered controls:
“We did the control experiments after the press conference. This was the kind of basic stuff you try to teach freshmen. And, oh yes, everything produced excess heat”.
(Martin in Taubes 1993, p. 197)
Even more remarkable was the sloppiness of these top laboratories. The probes were not shielded, and measurement inaccuracies were used as evidence of cold fusion. The accuracy of some deflections was given by one of the researchers (Appleby) to three decimal places, which was impossible in this case. Equally absurd was the justification: his assistants just had good eyes!
Certain patterns of thought are evident here, such as the falsification of expectations and, above all, a lack of effort to falsify. These faulty thinking patterns fit seamlessly with those I have already discussed in Thinking Effects and Errors in Science.
For example, the way negative or contradictory results are handled is particularly revealing. One researcher said to an assistant about negative results:
“Professor Bockris did not want to know about them, because he was only interested in positive results”.
(Velev in Gratzer 2000, p. 129)
But there were; Velev had drawers full of them!
“If his cells seemed to produce less heat than they should, they were considered errors and put away in a drawer. When the cells seemed to produce too much heat, it was taken as evidence of fusion.”
(Taubes 1993, p. 322)
I interpret the lack of checks, the sloppiness and the handling of refutations as the effects of certain dominant patterns of thinking, which can be described as confirmatory tendencies, insistence on beliefs, falsifying expectations and ignoring contradictory evidence.
How can these findings be explained?
Unfortunately, there are no elaborate historical or sociological explanations of the reasons, let alone the mechanisms. Paradigmatic explanations are ruled out a priori because there is no field of cold fusion research.
In my opinion, a convincing explanation for such gross errors and negligence is provided by an evolutionary interpretation. Once a certain hypothesis (any hypothesis, as long as it is attractive enough) has been put forward and an expectation has been created, it is defended and immunised. There may be many immediate reasons for this, but ultimately there is a biological purpose behind it (e.g. the hypothesis that red plants are poisonous). Such protective mechanisms make sense because they serve their purpose in very specific environmental contexts, if and because they preserve the ability to act despite falsification. In science, however, they lead to the problems and errors described above.
Gratzer, W. (2000): The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception, and Human Frailty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Huizenga, J. R. (1994): Kalte Kernfusion: Das Wunder, das nie stattfand. Braunschweig: Vieweg.
Taubes, G. (1993): Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion. New York: Random House.