Problems in the World of Science

2006 Mar 9

A faculty member at Purdue University was doing experiments with a form of "cold fusion". His work came under review by the school after a journal questioned its credibility. (Seattle Times story)

Cold fusion became public at a press conference in 1989 put on by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. They claimed to have produced atomic fusion - the process that drives the furnaces of the sun - but inside a beaker on the desktop. It was exciting at first. However, when other researchers couldn't duplicate the advertised results, Pons and Fleischmann were sharply criticized. Their work had been publicized too early, before it was repeatable, and in a sensationalistic manner. The rest of the scientific community became incensed and rejected cold fusion as debunked junk science.

Why did Pons and Fleischmann use a press conference? In part because the established scientific community has become a giant censoring body that only allows promotion of models and theories that are politically correct. Publication in a peer-reviewed journal requires running the gauntlet of other established scientists. This can be a good thing to eliminate papers on pseudo-science. But on the other hand, emerging scientific work doesn't often have everything all together yet, the models aren't generally accepted and the experiments aren't always repeatable. This is the nature of discovery!

Work has continued quietly on cold fusion, often self-funded. Some researchers have been able to develop repeatable energy processes; so something is going on in their beakers. But it is something that we don't yet fully understand.

Why does the scientific community shun work in this way? Science should be willing to accept that we don't understand the world completely, and that our models are imperfect and limited. Science should always maintain an open mind. However, science is run by humans with prejudiced world views, vested interests, that have arrogance and pride. These all are common human failings; but that first one can be particularly detrimental to the ideals of science.

World views are often derived from political, philosophical or religious views. Politics, philosophy and religion are powerful motivators that often stand apart from reason because they deal with matters of belief and intuition. These three are valuable because many things in life cannot be derived from reason. However they are sometimes so powerful that they obscure or even over-ride reason. When that occurs in scientists, the scientific process itself can be corrupted.

  • Eugenics is a philosophy that advocates improving the human gene pool through social intervention. Modern eugenics was started by Galton based on his cousin Charles Darwin's work. It grew into significant political policy and government programs that lasted into the mid 1900s in both America and Germany. At the very edges, eugenics might seem like a wise thing. Scientific arguments can support its policy and scientific techniques can support its application. Both have been applied in practice. However in the end eugenics is coercive and promotes genocide.
  • Atheism is the religious view that there is no god. Until Darwin's work, however, there was no way for an atheist to be intellectually fulfilled because there was no answer for the origin of life and species. The desire to find a solution for this problem was a particular motivation for Darwin's work.

Darwin expected that future work would show abundant connecting links between the species. However, transitional fossils are rare and incomplete. In fact, the Cambrian explosion shows all types of complex life, both invertebrate and vertebrate, appearing at one time. So the evidence shows abrupt appearance, diversity at the start and then stasis in the species. This is not evidence of species evolution.

If Darwin was wrong, then huge amounts of effort and money have been spent chasing after an erroneous theory because it is the only one acceptable to an atheistic world view. Assuming evolution to be false, to where might biology have advanced if so many scientific resources hadn't been spent trying to prop up evolution?

The scientific establishment can become fixated around theories for other reasons.

  • Nuclear fusion has the potential for creating abundant, safe and clean energy. However, only hot fusion technologies have been generally accepted. And unfortunately after years of spending incredible amounts of public money on research, the hot nuclear fusion researchers aren't any closer to a product than the cold fusion researchers are.

So the scientific establishment can become a rigid body that opposes views that are outside of its accepted norms. This kind of thing has happened before...

In the mid 1500s, Copernicus developed a theory that the sun was the center of the solar system. The established Aristotelian wisdom of the time said the earth was the center of the universe. The (Catholic) church had identified itself with the Aristotelian view, so Copernicus was careful to soft-pedal his theory. In particular, since science and philosophy were still considered a common discipline, the church thought that its established doctrines were above these two.

Then Galileo came along with passion and arguments. He championed the Copernican theory in such a way that got worked into a huge conflict with the church. note They eventually coerced him to recant the theory. And although their parochial view has long since been proven wrong, they only exonerated Galileo in 1992!

The problem was that Galileo promoted heliocentrism in a way that was offensive to church leadership. See also. Although it superficially looked like the church was impeding science, that was not the case. This was actually a story of bad political maneuvering.

Pope Urban VIII had asked Galileo to write about idea, and include the pros and cons of the theory. What Galileo produced was a dialog between two characters, one knowledgeable and the other a simpleton. The foolish simpleton clearly appeared to be pope, and Urban did not take the ridicule kindly. Previously he had been a powerful supporter of Galileo, but afterward he and church leadership came down hard on Galileo.

Today the tables have turned so that now the scientific establishment sometimes does what they so despised the church for doing: -suppressing science for non-scientific reasons. A difference is that today, character assassination is used instead of physical torture.

  • Cold fusion is considered junk because of its origins even though some researchers regularly measure more energy coming from the cell than they put into it. Hot fusion is OK even though the only kind that has been produced by humans after 60 years of research is in atom bomb blasts.
  • Intelligent Design is considered junk without considering the theories and the evidence because many of its proponents admittedly also hold a theistic world view. Evolution is considered OK even though ultimately it (also) can't experimentally prove the origins of life and species.

So there are problems in the world of science. However, I have hope because usually when a theory is sufficiently proved in spite of establishment adversity, or disproved in spite of establishment support, the scientific community comes around. It may just take a while.

2006-03-09 updated 2021-09-26   © 2021 Larry Grove