Pathological by scientists involved in the polywater project,

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

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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”.³? 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.

Citations

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”.³?

 

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.

 

(2
p397)

 

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 1981.³? 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 do”.³?

Income

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 calculations

“the
present value of the income stream lost because of the polywater mistake may be
roughly $15,000 for some scientist 40 years old.”³?

 

This
meant that as of April 2009 the total value of income lost from 1973 when the
project ended to 2009 was $15,000.

Separation in university employment

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 active.

1981 – 1983, when the polywater project had
been a dead end for several years.

 

(2
p405)

 

 

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 two periods.

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 roles.

 

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.

 

Cold
fusion

 

In 1989, 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.

 

Analogous 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?

 

 

Neutrino
anomaly

 

Another infamous
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.

 

The group 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.

 

The OPERA 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

 

The three cases
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.

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