Definition ofpathological sciencePathological science is a slightly abstract term. Theterm first came about in 1953 when it was used by Irving Langmuir at the KnollsResearch Laboratory. He coined the phrase as “the science of things that aren’tso”. Using a more fundamental definition, pathological science is carrying outscientific work based on wishful thinking rather than experimental evidence.There is a personal attachment to the work being carried out, which restrictsand undermines critical thinking.Adverse effects ofparticipating in pathological scienceParticipation in the polywater project was therebyparticipation in pathological science.
Those scientists who participated weresubjected to many setbacks in their scientific careers. Any association between a scientist and theproject was undermined their professional reputationThese setbacks were outlined in a publication byArthur M. Diamond, Jr. in his entry to the American Journal of Economics andSociology in April 2009.
The title ofthis entry was: “The Career Consequences of a Mistaken Research Project: TheCase of Polywater”. The entry considered how choosing a mistaken researchproject would affect the career of the scientist involved. The entry consideredthe case of polywater.The three main points of the entry were: Citations received by scientists involved in thepolywater project, the effects of their involvement on the reception their post– polywater publications received.The effects involvement in the polywater project hadon the income of the scientists involved.The separation in university employment of scientistsinvolved in the polywater project relative to scientists who were not involvedin the project.
CitationsThe entry was written in 2009, so it considered the periodof 1966 – 2009, as the polywater project began in 1966 and reached a dead endin 1973. Therefore, this period considered the situation before the project,during its lifetime and after it ended. The author considered scientists whowere pro – polywater, con – polywater or neutral to polywater. “My simple model of the citation processassumes the scientific community is capable of instantly judging whether aresearch project is a success or a mistake; hence, successes produce citationsimmediately and mistakes never do”.
(2 p398) On examination of the table below, it was clear that this statement wastrue. If the polywater project had been successful, then the number ofcitations received after the period 1966 – 1973 would have been greater thanthe number of citations received during and before this period. The table showed that citations received by those werepro – polywater decreased from a mean of 44.1 in 1974 when the project had justended to 40.
4 in 1981 when it had been widely established that the project wasa complete failure. Scientists that were con – polywater received a mean of18.4 citations in 1974 and 25.5 in 1981. This was an increase in citations.
Theincrease occurred because con – polywater scientists could be consideredsuccessful in that they had believed all along that the project would be afailure and made attempts to disprove its existence.If the project had been successful then citationswould have been produced, whereas the table above proved that “mistakes neverdo”. (2)IncomeThe income of the scientists involved in the polywaterproject was the other focus of this entry. The author argued that involvementwith the polywater project resulted in a loss of income over the followingyears, up to 2009. Based on the author’scalculations “the present value of theincome stream lost because of the polywater mistake may be roughly $15,000 for somescientist 40 years old.” (2 p407) This meant that as of April 2009 the total value ofincome lost from 1973 when the project ended to 2009 was $15,000. Separation inuniversity employmentThe author found that the polywater project hadminimal effects on the employment of those scientists who worked inuniversities.
The table below examined the changes in career type of allscientists involved in the project between two periods:1969 – 1971, when the polywater project was highlyactive.1981 – 1983, when thepolywater project had been a dead end for several years.The table did not analyse all those involved in the project, the columnon the far right indicates the number of polywater scientists who were”missing”. These were the scientists who had been named as being involved inthe project, but the author was unable to obtain their career details in thesetwo periods. The rest of the columns indicate whether the scientists remained inacademia between the two periods, progressed to academia between the twoperiods or were removed from academia between the two periods. As the authorstated “Little “downward” movement” was observed in the sample.
In other words,the polywater project did not cause the scientists to be demoted to lowerroles. Summary of career effects The data in this journal entry by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr.
showed that the number of citations receivedby polywater scientists dropped considerably after the project ended. Theincome stream lost by the scientists was considerably large also. However, theproject did not have detrimental effects on their careers.
While theirreputation was damaged by the project, the majority of polywater scientists eitherremained in their academic or non – academic roles. The last result was surprising as the polywater project was renowned assuch a failure. However, the reduced severity of involvement with the polywaterproject compared to other scientific failure of a similar magnitude came downto the number of publications by scientists in this case.
The author found thatmany scientists involved wrote only one article on polywater as the project wasso short – lived. This reduced the amount each scientist had their nameassociated with the project and hence reduced the severity of the effect theproject had on their careers. A common trend The polywater project was an unusual case.
The most unusual aspect wasthe dramatic potential that the world of science believed the substancepossessed, and the boring real – life explanation of the substance’sproperties. The idea that it was analogous to Vonnegut’s “ice – nine” and thatit could destroy the world’s water supply. In reality, the most dangerouscapability it possessed was producing a bad smell. While it was an unusualcase, it was not unique.
Its course followed a similar pattern to a host ofother infamous scientific failures.Two such failures were the cold fusion episode that began in 1989 andthe neutrino anomaly which occurred in 2011. Cold fusion In 1989,an experiment was carried out which was believed to successfully achieve afusion reaction at room temperature.
At the time, it was common belief thatsuch a reaction would only be possible at extremely high temperatures.Temperatures of 100 million kelvin, six times hotter than the core of the sun.As expected, two scientists achieving this same reaction at a temperature of300K in Salt Lake City caused quite the controversy.
The two scientists wereStanley Pons who studied in University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann whoworked in the University of Southampton. They claimed that they hadsuccessfully fused the nuclei of deuterium, also known as heavy water (nothingto do with polywater, of course). The result of this fusion was supposed to bea helium nucleus with two protons and two neutrons. They also claimed that theexperiment produced “100 percent more energy than was required to run it”.
These bold claims suggested that they had discovered a revolutionary method ofharvesting pure, clean energy in endless quantities. Analogousto the polywater experiment, the cold fusion episode was a result ofpathological science. Fleischmann and Pons, along with several other groups ofscientists who supported their claims, concentrated more on wishful thinkingthan the experimental evidence. The truth was that the two scientists had beenout of their depth and did not possess the required knowledge to discover theerrors in their experiment. Like polywater, cold fusion eventually reached adead end and the media hype died down. The University of Utah who spearheadedthe cold fusion project discontinued its research in 1991.
Polywater lastedseven years too long, the cold fusion episode lasted two years too long. (3) Neutrino anomaly Another infamousscientific mishap occurred in September 2011. A group of European scientiststhat worked with the OPERA particle detector (located at CERN) claimed to haverecorded neutrinos that travelled “0.002% faster than light”. Such a claimdisputed Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Analogous to both polywaterand the cold fusion episode, this was another bold claim made by scientiststhat they had defied the laws of physics. The groupof scientists were quick to announce their findings, rather than attempt todisprove the discovery they had made. News of the data travelled the globe andthe media began to build hype.
On June 8, 2012, a group of scientists in Japanannounced they had disproved the findings of the CERN scientists working withOPERA. They were the fifth group who had independently reached the conclusionthat neutrinos do travel at the speed of light, as Einstein predicted. Theproject reached a dead end at this stage.
The OPERAgroup discovered after their initial findings that a loose fibre optic cablewithin their particle detector caused an error to occur in their timing system.The particle detector then recorded the neutrinos as travelling 60 nanosecondsfaster than the speed of light. Does this sound familiar? Once again, wishfulthinking outweighed logic.
The scientists preferred to leak their findings tothe media rather than carry out close examinations on their own equipment. Inthe polywater case, the reputations of the scientists were damaged. They werecited less after the episode and their income was reduced in many cases. Forthe case of the neutrino anomaly, the OPERA team believed the project had alsodamaged the reputations of all involved. The group cast a vote of no confidencein two of their elected leaders.
The two leaders resigned from the group. Pathological Science and Time The threecases I have mentioned above spanned a period of almost fifty years. The neutrinoanomaly occurred in 2011 while polywater began in 1966. While science itselfhas evolved over time, pathological science itself has not changed. Scienceevolves through mistakes like the ones mentioned above, disproving certainhypotheses allows other scientists to prove new ones. For pathological science,it remains the same to this day due to human nature. Pathological science didnot begin with polywater in 1966 either, it has occurred repeatedly throughouthistory and will continue to occur. These three globally renowned are examplesthat outline the fact that human nature can prevent critical thinking.
Wishful thinkinghas taken over many scientists’ careers and will continue to do so. While the polywaterproject is well and truly dead, pathological science lives on.