Pathologicalscience is a slightly abstract term. The term first came about in 1953 when itwas used by Irving Langmuir at the Knolls Research Laboratory. He coined thephrase as “the science of things that aren’t so”.
Using a more fundamentaldefinition, pathological science is carrying out scientific work based onwishful thinking rather than experimental evidence. There is a personalattachment to the work being carried out, which restricts and underminescritical thinking.Adverse effects of participating in pathological scienceParticipationin the polywater project was thereby participation in pathological science.
Those scientists who participated were subjected to many setbacks in theirscientific careers. Any associationbetween a scientist and the project was undermined their professionalreputationThesesetbacks were outlined in a publication by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. in his entryto the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in April 2009.
The title of this entry was: “The CareerConsequences of a Mistaken Research Project: The Case of Polywater”.³? Theentry considered how choosing a mistaken research project would affect thecareer of the scientist involved. The entry considered the case of polywater.Thethree main points of the entry were: Citationsreceived by scientists involved in the polywater project, the effects of theirinvolvement on the reception their post – polywater publications received.Theeffects involvement in the polywater project had on the income of thescientists involved.Theseparation in university employment of scientists involved in the polywaterproject relative to scientists who were not involved in the project.
CitationsTheentry was written in 2009, so it considered the period of 1966 – 2009, as thepolywater project began in 1966 and reached a dead end in 1973. Therefore, thisperiod considered the situation before the project, during its lifetime andafter it ended. The author considered scientists who were 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”.³? 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. (2p397) Thetable showed that citations received by those were pro – polywater decreasedfrom a mean of 44.1 in 1974 when the project had just ended to 40.
4 in 1981when 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 1974and 25.5 in 1981.³? This was an increase in citations. The increase occurredbecause con – polywater scientists could be considered successful in that theyhad believed all along that the project would be a failure and made attempts todisprove its existence.
Ifthe project had been successful then citations would have been produced,whereas the table above proved that “mistakes never do”.³?IncomeTheincome of the scientists involved in the polywater project was the other focusof this entry. The author argued that involvement with the polywater projectresulted in a loss of income over the following years, up to 2009.
Based on the author’s calculations “thepresent value of the income stream lost because of the polywater mistake may beroughly $15,000 for some scientist 40 years old.”³? Thismeant that as of April 2009 the total value of income lost from 1973 when theproject ended to 2009 was $15,000. Separation in university employmentTheauthor found that the polywater project had minimal effects on the employmentof those scientists who worked in universities.
The table below examined thechanges in career type of all scientists involved in the project between twoperiods:1969– 1971, when the polywater project was highly active.1981 – 1983, when the polywater project hadbeen a dead end for several years. (2p405) Thetable did not analyse all those involved in the project, the column on the farright indicates the number of polywater scientists who were “missing”. Thesewere the scientists who had been named as being involved in the project, butthe author was unable to obtain their career details in these two periods. The restof the columns indicate whether the scientists remained in academia between thetwo periods, progressed to academia between the two periods or were removedfrom academia between the two periods.
As the author stated “Little “downward”movement” was observed in the sample. In other words, the polywater project didnot cause the scientists to be demoted to lower roles. Summaryof career effects Thedata 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 scientistseither remained in their academic or non – academic roles.
Thelast result was surprising as the polywater project was renowned as such afailure. However, the reduced severity of involvement with the polywater projectcompared to other scientific failure of a similar magnitude came down to thenumber of publications by scientists in this case. The author found that manyscientists involved wrote only one article on polywater as the project was soshort – lived. This reduced the amount each scientist had their name associatedwith the project and hence reduced the severity of the effect the project hadon their careers.
A commontrend Thepolywater project was an unusual case. The most unusual aspect was the dramaticpotential that the world of science believed the substance possessed, and theboring real – life explanation of the substance’s properties. The idea that itwas analogous to Vonnegut’s “ice – nine” and that it could destroy the world’swater supply. In reality, the most dangerous capability it possessed wasproducing a bad smell. While it was an unusual case, it was not unique.
Itscourse followed a similar pattern to a host of other infamous scientificfailures.Twosuch failures were the cold fusion episode that began in 1989 and the neutrinoanomaly which occurred in 2011. Coldfusion In 1989, anexperiment was carried out which was believed to successfully achieve a fusionreaction at room temperature. At the time, it was common belief that such a reactionwould only be possible at extremely high temperatures. Temperatures of 100million kelvin, six times hotter than the core of the sun. As expected, twoscientists achieving this same reaction at a temperature of 300K in Salt LakeCity caused quite the controversy. The two scientists were Stanley Pons whostudied in University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann who worked in theUniversity of Southampton. They claimed that they had successfully fused thenuclei 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 withtwo protons and two neutrons. They also claimed that the experiment produced”100 percent more energy than was required to run it”. These bold claimssuggested that they had discovered a revolutionary method of harvesting pure,clean energy in endless quantities. Analogous to thepolywater experiment, the cold fusion episode was a result of pathologicalscience. Fleischmann and Pons, along with several other groups of scientistswho supported their claims, concentrated more on wishful thinking than theexperimental evidence. The truth was that the two scientists had been out oftheir depth and did not possess the required knowledge to discover the errorsin their experiment.
Like polywater, cold fusion eventually reached a dead endand the media hype died down. The University of Utah who spearheaded the coldfusion project discontinued its research in 1991. Polywater lasted seven yearstoo long, the cold fusion episode lasted two years too long.³? Neutrinoanomaly 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 group ofscientists 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 OPERA groupdiscovered after their initial findings that a loose fibre optic cable withintheir particle detector caused an error to occur in their timing system. Theparticle detector then recorded the neutrinos as travelling 60 nanoseconds fasterthan the speed of light. Does this sound familiar? Once again, wishful thinkingoutweighed logic. The scientists preferred to leak their findings to the mediarather than carry out close examinations on their own equipment. In thepolywater case, the reputations of the scientists were damaged. They were citedless after the episode and their income was reduced in many cases.
For the caseof the neutrino anomaly, the OPERA team believed the project had also damagedthe reputations of all involved. The group cast a vote of no confidence in twoof their elected leaders. The two leaders resigned from the group. PathologicalScience and Time The three casesmentioned above spanned a period of almost fifty years. The neutrino anomalyoccurred in 2011 while polywater began in 1966. While science itself hasevolved over time, pathological science itself has not changed. Science evolvesthrough mistakes like the ones mentioned above, disproving certain hypothesesallows other scientists to prove new ones.
For pathological science, it remainsthe same to this day due to human nature. Pathological science did not beginwith polywater in 1966 either, it has occurred repeatedly throughout historyand will continue to occur. These three globally renowned are examples thatoutline the fact that human nature can prevent critical thinking. Wishfulthinking has taken over many scientists’ careers and will continue to do so.While the polywater project is well and truly dead, pathological science liveson.