Pathological science is a slightly abstract term. The
term first came about in 1953 when it was used by Irving Langmuir at the Knolls
Research Laboratory. He coined the phrase as “the science of things that aren’t
so”. Using a more fundamental definition, pathological science is carrying out
scientific work based on wishful thinking rather than experimental evidence.
There is a personal attachment to the work being carried out, which restricts
and undermines critical thinking.
Adverse effects of
participating in pathological science
Participation in the polywater project was thereby
participation in pathological science. Those scientists who participated were
subjected to many setbacks in their scientific careers. Any association between a scientist and the
project was undermined their professional reputation
These setbacks were outlined in a publication by
Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. in his entry to the American Journal of Economics and
Sociology in April 2009. The title of
this entry was: “The Career Consequences of a Mistaken Research Project: The
Case of Polywater”. The entry considered how choosing a mistaken research
project would affect the career of the scientist involved. The entry considered
the case of polywater.
The three main points of the entry were:
Citations received by scientists involved in the
polywater project, the effects of their involvement on the reception their post
– polywater publications received.
The effects involvement in the polywater project had
on the income of the scientists involved.
The separation in university employment of scientists
involved in the polywater project relative to scientists who were not involved
in the project.
The entry was written in 2009, so it considered the period
of 1966 – 2009, as the polywater project began in 1966 and reached a dead end
in 1973. Therefore, this period considered the situation before the project,
during its lifetime and after it ended. The author considered scientists who
were pro – polywater, con – polywater or neutral to polywater.
“My simple model of the citation process
assumes the scientific community is capable of instantly judging whether a
research project is a success or a mistake; hence, successes produce citations
immediately and mistakes never do”. (2 p398)
On examination of the table below, it was clear that this statement was
true. If the polywater project had been successful, then the number of
citations received after the period 1966 – 1973 would have been greater than
the number of citations received during and before this period.
The table showed that citations received by those were
pro – polywater decreased from a mean of 44.1 in 1974 when the project had just
ended to 40.4 in 1981 when it had been widely established that the project was
a complete failure. Scientists that were con – polywater received a mean of
18.4 citations in 1974 and 25.5 in 1981. This was an increase in citations. The
increase occurred because con – polywater scientists could be considered
successful in that they had believed all along that the project would be a
failure and made attempts to disprove its existence.
If the project had been successful then citations
would have been produced, whereas the table above proved that “mistakes never
The income of the scientists involved in the polywater
project was the other focus of this entry. The author argued that involvement
with the polywater project resulted in a loss of income over the following
years, up to 2009. Based on the author’s
“the present value of the
income stream lost because of the polywater mistake may be roughly $15,000 for some
scientist 40 years old.” (2 p407)
This meant that as of April 2009 the total value of
income lost from 1973 when the project ended to 2009 was $15,000.
The author found that the polywater project had
minimal effects on the employment of those scientists who worked in
universities. The table below examined the changes in career type of all
scientists involved in the project between two periods:
1969 – 1971, when the polywater project was highly
1981 – 1983, when the
polywater project had been a dead end for several years.The table did not analyse all those involved in the project, the column
on the far right indicates the number of polywater scientists who were
“missing”. These were the scientists who had been named as being involved in
the project, but the author was unable to obtain their career details in these
The rest of the columns indicate whether the scientists remained in
academia between the two periods, progressed to academia between the two
periods or were removed from academia between the two periods. As the author
stated “Little “downward” movement” was observed in the sample. In other words,
the polywater project did not cause the scientists to be demoted to lower
Summary of career effects
The data in this journal entry by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. showed that the number of citations received
by polywater scientists dropped considerably after the project ended. The
income stream lost by the scientists was considerably large also. However, the
project did not have detrimental effects on their careers. While their
reputation was damaged by the project, the majority of polywater scientists either
remained in their academic or non – academic roles.
The last result was surprising as the polywater project was renowned as
such a failure. However, the reduced severity of involvement with the polywater
project compared to other scientific failure of a similar magnitude came down
to the number of publications by scientists in this case. The author found that
many scientists involved wrote only one article on polywater as the project was
so short – lived. This reduced the amount each scientist had their name
associated with the project and hence reduced the severity of the effect the
project had on their careers.
A common trend
The polywater project was an unusual case. The most unusual aspect was
the dramatic potential that the world of science believed the substance
possessed, and the boring real – life explanation of the substance’s
properties. The idea that it was analogous to Vonnegut’s “ice – nine” and that
it could destroy the world’s water supply. In reality, the most dangerous
capability it possessed was producing a bad smell. While it was an unusual
case, it was not unique. Its course followed a similar pattern to a host of
other infamous scientific failures.
Two such failures were the cold fusion episode that began in 1989 and
the neutrino anomaly which occurred in 2011.
an experiment was carried out which was believed to successfully achieve a
fusion reaction at room temperature. At the time, it was common belief that
such 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 of
300K in Salt Lake City caused quite the controversy. The two scientists were
Stanley Pons who studied in University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann who
worked in the University of Southampton. They claimed that they had
successfully fused the nuclei of deuterium, also known as heavy water (nothing
to do with polywater, of course). The result of this fusion was supposed to be
a helium nucleus with two protons and two neutrons. They also claimed that the
experiment produced “100 percent more energy than was required to run it”.
These bold claims suggested that they had discovered a revolutionary method of
harvesting pure, clean energy in endless quantities.
to the polywater experiment, the cold fusion episode was a result of
pathological science. Fleischmann and Pons, along with several other groups of
scientists who supported their claims, concentrated more on wishful thinking
than the experimental evidence. The truth was that the two scientists had been
out of their depth and did not possess the required knowledge to discover the
errors in their experiment. Like polywater, cold fusion eventually reached a
dead end and the media hype died down. The University of Utah who spearheaded
the cold fusion project discontinued its research in 1991. Polywater lasted
seven years too long, the cold fusion episode lasted two years too long. (3)
scientific mishap occurred in September 2011. A group of European scientists
that worked with the OPERA particle detector (located at CERN) claimed to have
recorded neutrinos that travelled “0.002% faster than light”. Such a claim
disputed Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Analogous to both polywater
and the cold fusion episode, this was another bold claim made by scientists
that they had defied the laws of physics.
of scientists were quick to announce their findings, rather than attempt to
disprove the discovery they had made. News of the data travelled the globe and
the media began to build hype. On June 8, 2012, a group of scientists in Japan
announced they had disproved the findings of the CERN scientists working with
OPERA. They were the fifth group who had independently reached the conclusion
that neutrinos do travel at the speed of light, as Einstein predicted. The
project reached a dead end at this stage.
group discovered after their initial findings that a loose fibre optic cable
within their particle detector caused an error to occur in their timing system.
The particle detector then recorded the neutrinos as travelling 60 nanoseconds
faster than the speed of light. Does this sound familiar? Once again, wishful
thinking outweighed logic. The scientists preferred to leak their findings to
the media rather than carry out close examinations on their own equipment. In
the polywater case, the reputations of the scientists were damaged. They were
cited less after the episode and their income was reduced in many cases. For
the case of the neutrino anomaly, the OPERA team believed the project had also
damaged the reputations of all involved. The group cast a vote of no confidence
in two of their elected leaders. The two leaders resigned from the group.
Pathological Science and Time
cases I have mentioned above spanned a period of almost fifty years. The neutrino
anomaly occurred in 2011 while polywater began in 1966. While science itself
has evolved over time, pathological science itself has not changed. Science
evolves through mistakes like the ones mentioned above, disproving certain
hypotheses allows other scientists to prove new ones. For pathological science,
it remains the same to this day due to human nature. Pathological science did
not begin with polywater in 1966 either, it has occurred repeatedly throughout
history and will continue to occur. These three globally renowned are examples
that outline the fact that human nature can prevent critical thinking. Wishful thinking
has taken over many scientists’ careers and will continue to do so. While the polywater
project is well and truly dead, pathological science lives on.