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The Undergrowth of Science 164

In the wrong hands, scientific discovery can be scary stuff. This first-rate book by a British biophycist describes some of the most infamous tales in scientific history and how they happened.
The Undergrowth of Science
author Walter Gratzer
pages 328
publisher Oxford University Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Jon Katz
ISBN 0-19-850707-0
summary how science can go outrageously awry


A scientist once wrote that all truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and eventually, accepted as self-evident. Charles Kettering, the legendary former head of General Motors, once lamented: 'First they tell you you're wrong and they can prove it; then they tell you you're right but it isn't important; then they tell you it's important but they knew it all along.'

Both of these notions are quoted in Walter Gratzer's excellent new book, "The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty." Gratzer writes exceptionally well. He teaches at the Randall Institute, King's College London. His books include the "Longman Literary Companion to Science" and "The Bedside Nature."

Gratzer examines the underbelly of scientific theory, namely how some of the most delusional and outrageous scientific theories -- Russian water that could congeal oceans, Monkey testis implants that restore declining sexual powers, "truths" about genetics and the discovery of matter -- occur and are widely accepted in the scientific community. This book is equal parts science and history, a collection of gripping tales that remind us to take even the most high-minded and supposedly scientific discoveries with some caution.

Science makes much of its rules and legendary peer review procedures, but personal vanity, contemporary politics, greed, stupidity, and incompetence all pop up in these shocking episodes. Gratzer details how intelligence and reason don't necessarily exclude irrationality. One chapter takes us to eighteenth-century France, where Franz-Anton Messmer persuaded a gullible public of the existence of animal magnetism and harnessed it to cure diseases. (Messmer didn't actually invent the theory of animal magnetism, he learned it from a notorious Austrian priest known as Father Hell.)

One powerful chapter details the tragedy of Soviet genetics, the history of Russian biology in the period between the Revolution and the death of Stalin in l953, a time the author calls "a woeful chronicle of wanton destruction of both a scholarly discipline and the lives of many of its most respected practioners." Gratzer also explores the misuse of science in the Third Reich, and the rise and fall of Eugenics.

This isn't just ancient history, though. Misguided scientific theory is all too contemporary.

"Most remarkable," writes Gatzer, "is the way that false theories and imagined phenomena sometimes spread through the scientific community. A kind of mass hysteria, which parallels in the world at large, such as UFO sightings alien abductions, 'recovered memory' and probably chronic fatigue syndrome, takes possession of a hitherto rational population, like a virus of the intellect. On such occasions scientists in some area of research throw aside, to the amazement of their colleagues, the intellectual constraints that had until then guided their working lives. They become selectively uncritical and intolerant of any unsought evidence. Sometimes such a perversion of the scientific method results from external, especially political, pressures, but at other times it is a spontaneous eruption."

In the media age, these scientific stumbles are particularly dangerous, as they become powerful memes that are rapidly and virally transmitted to the general population by information technologies like TV and the Net.

In this era, science and technology are central to contemporary political, social, economic and cultural lives. How science can sometimes go awry is thus an important story. Despite the fact that Gatzer tells it entertainingly and with enormous authority, this is a disturbing book. Science in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

Purchase this at ThinkGeek.

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Review: The Undergrowth of Science

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Lessee, Mr. Katz, you're saying that science is dangerous because it's unscientific. Obviously, then, we have nothing to worry about, because, therefore, science is not scientific at all and thus not dangerous.

    Thanks for explaining it all. All that hard science stuff was making my head hurt, anyway. Now I know I don't have to worry about it, because you've shown me it doesn't matter a bit. I can just believe whatever I want to, and it's just as valid as anything a scientist has to say.

    Rogue Bolo
  • "In the wrong hands, scientific discovery can be scary stuff".

    How observant!

    No kidding, Jon! So can smoking while pumping gasoline into your fuel tank!

    Thank you and have a day!
  • Is not being responsible for your own behavior because you're insane or drunk or "weak" a defence for having done something bad?

    The way I have always seen it is that if someone is prone to violence or drunkeness, then this should be an additional insentive to remove this persone from sociaty. What I'd like to see is a criminal lawyer work really hard to proove his client is sane to avoid being condemended as a lost cause (and turned into soykent green or soimething).. I mean that would be nice because it would make being responsible for your actions important.. Sort of a if-your-not-responsible-for-your-own-actions-and-a re-a-public-menace-you-might-as-well-be-dead philosophy.. I bet fewer people would drink too. Hell, it's one of the reasones I don't.
  • by Pinky ( 738 )
    You are bascially implying that facts don't exist with a second more dagerous implication that therefore you can believe anything you want... (I'll leave this as an exercise to the reader. Note the use of the word implying)

    What seperates a science from pure voodoo is a rigerous method of proof. Concequently you can say any one of these things is true within that context. Math for example has the most rigorous proof method.. As a result math people react quite badly when you say that pythagrous is just a theory. (He's a greek and it's a theorem not theory.. Slight difference there).

    NOTE: there are also implicit bounds on scientific claims. We assume that relations hold true for all *measurable* situations. IT MAKES NO SENCE TO MAKE A CLAIM ON A NON MEASURABLE PHENOMENON. These types of claims are called none scientific, just BTW... There are other implicit bounds to do with causality and making sure you've rigorously defining things as well. But anyways..

    Conclusion: You can accept theories as fact so long as you're aware of how they've been prooven, the scope (or bounds) of the claim and the measurability / amount of valid data availible for the claim.

    Evolution: Evolution is a perticularly fun one. People are always bitching that it's just a theory.. Geeze, everything is science is a theory. No surprises there.. The thing is science is unbelivably sure that evolution happens. I mean scientists simply cannot see how you can stop it happening.. The thing is there's not sure about some of the specifics or if evolution, as it's currently understood, is responsible for all the life we see. The thing is the answer is surely in this direction. Probably involving meta-evolution.

    The problems come when people don't understand.
  • I believe it would be:
    "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." - Carl Sagan

    other places say the quote was Newton/Einstein/Bozo. who knows? never heard Groucho Marx in there though, so I'm pretty sure that's wrong.
  • Here's a point to ponder: Science came before religion. If a tree falls, you get out of its way. If you don't, you die. Fish go from swimming in the river to being stiffly immobile while their skin crackles over a fire because people catch and cook them. Large carnivores stalk and eat people, unless they're distracted by offerings of other animals. Rain falls and rivers rise, in some places predictably enough to be correlated with the stars. But in many places, there are unforseen earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, and brushfires.

    If the Universe behaves in mysterious ways, you explain them by unseen uber-beings in various forms. In the public eye, the legacy of German romanticism sentimentalizes primitive religions by reducing all their myriad mythologies to one or two gently loving, completely nonjudgmental super-Deities (Earth and/or Sky), but this isn't even close to the truth. Most indigenes have historically posited a range of deities, sprites, demons, spirits, and totems, whose relationship to their faithful can only be described as moody. Bluntly, disaster is natural, good-fortune can only be achieved by some kind of intervention: folk magicks of all nations are the application of human psychology to these beings, who must be flattered, bribed, tricked, or even threatened into providing for the supplicant. Even if the Gods decree that all buffalo in a herd must be killed at once, or every beaver in a dam, or irregation ditches are dug in alkali flats, if the proper formulae are said, if the taboos are observed, the Gods will provide.

    Evangelical Christianity is a prime example of this. Although, in theory, the message is one of salvation and peace of mind, one need only read a Jack Chick tract to realize that the true message is that God the Father can and will visit humanity with earthly doom en masse and supernatural torments individually if he is not placated by the interference of his Son. (It's interesting to deconstruct John 3:16 in this regard: it's almost as if God cannot prevent humanity from perishing on His own...) Traditionally, evangelicals have been drawn from the poorer strata of society, the ones who are most likely to be devastated by an unforseen illness or stroke of bad luck, who live in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and who see the worst of life, and it's for this reason that they'll cling to Creation Science with the militancy of an anti-WTO rioter: Jesus is the only bulwark against a world they see as spiralling wildly out of control. It make no difference if you try to show them fossils, explain natural selection, or even point to the various ecological niches of birds in the Galapagos: it's all outside their ken, while proof is to be found of their hypothesis on every street corner. (At the same time, there is a strong love/hate relationship with the wealthy, who are alternately seen as being blessed and as false prophets: how else can one explain the near-veneration of such people as Princess Diana and Michael Jordan, or the strange ambivalence accorded Bill Gates?) If and only if humanity, individually and as a mass, understands this and is willing to accede to His promptings, then, we may pass through the coming Tribulation without harm and live forevermore in a fantastic City where everyone is healthy and rich beyond all comprehension. (cont'd)

  • As a matter of fact, bioengineered Frankenfood is mostly just a smokescreen issue. What has gone unspoken is that for a century or more, "inborn" has meant the same thing as "divinely ordained". If people who are addicts, mentally ill, deformed, homosexual, and so on are "born that way", we must, as a society, accept this else we fall into the trap of Nazi eugenics. Unfortunates thus affected should likewise accept their fate and accept their place in society as a proud, but perhaps differently-abled minority. Imagine the repercussions, then, if it suddenly became possible that alcoholics could suddenly shed their addiction, or gay males suddenly be able to lead heterosexual lives -- at their choice. Even leaving aside the issue of forced "nomalization", there is the question of whether it's moral to keep being an alcoholic, even a recovering one, if treatment is available. Given that gay culture is mostly a response to social censure, and that even the most privileged of gay men and women born into the most tolerant communities experience some hardship due to their sexual orientation, would it be moral to destroy gay culture as a whole in order to insure individual children a better chance of success? Start offering the chance for parents to choose whether their children would carry the genes for the features characteristic of their respective ethnic groups, and the issues become explosive. How can they throw away their heritage? How can we? How dare we? Having a potato with real "eyes" pales in comparison.

    If you look over these examples, you can see a pattern: here again, scientific advance is not an expression of God(dess)'s favor, but any and all disasters, even those which are not immediately apparent to the unscientific eye, are a measure of His/Her Divine Wrath. We don't, for instance, see penicillin a measure of divine reprieve from disease, even if it proves to be only temporary. No, it is our hubris in thinking that we can triumph over germs that is now being punished by the development of resistant strains. Instead, some alternative healers claim we must learn to lovingly "talk to" our illnesses, and see what they have to "tell us" in terms of spiritual and moral lessons. If this were generally followed, they theorize, we would live far more harmonious lives, even spontaneously healing when Nature wants us to. (Pardon me, but I'd rather have a pill, please.) Certain cancers were once thought of as being caused by sexual repression, now, we are more likely to point out that cervical cancer is caused by a virus spread by underage sex. While many posit AIDS as being a punishment for sodomy, if and when the cure is found, no one will likely interpret this news as a divine message to screw around and take drugs.

    It's examples like these that plague science both within and without. It might seem futile that any kind of progress is made at all, but I have hope. If scientific method can rise from medieval theology, then I can only see improvement over the next thousand years. My apologies to the author I stole these ideas from, but I stand behind every one of them. My further apologies to anyone I haven't offended...Let the flamage begin!

  • Sorry, evolution is an idea, not a belief. Subtle difference. I don't believe in evolution -- that would imply some random force I can't control inside my mind makes me just "know" it's correct. Instead, I found this nifty switch in my head marked "On/Off" when I was much younger, and flipped it on. When that happened, and my mind pondered "god" versus evolution, well, evolution seemed to make at least a *little* more sense to me. And yes, I check frequently that the switch is left in the "On" position. Although it'd be nice to find a "More Magic" position. :) <SARCASM> Perhaps it's just because "god" never loved me. </SARCASM> But it seems to me there's lots more convincing evidence supporting evolution than there is supporting "god." I will admit, though, that for me, the biggest hole in the evolution theory is that "survival of the fittest" bit -- if that's supposedly going on, where in the name of smeg did all these complete MORONS come from? No, I'm not addressing you, just pointing out that hair dryers must ship with labels insisting folks don't use them in the shower. And yes, you're right, that evolution is a theory should be taught right alongside the concept that "god" is a theory too. The assorted religions of the world have had *far* too much access to children throughout human history. "God" presented as fact, with this fledgling idiot Darwin prancing around talking about fish all the time. Don't even start on the "evolution has lots of plot holes" thread, because there's a veritable army of people out there with whole books describing the plot holes in your beloved bible. I'd try to put a disclaimer here, but avoiding people's hatred, particularly when it comes to religious discussion, is impossible. I will go hide the broom before anyone spots it, though. :)
  • opinions are like assholes my friend... Personally, I don't tend to agree w/anything that Katz says (or any reviewer for that matter -- remember a lot of people said Eyes Wide Shut was great, the only good part was Kidman naked). Thus his opinion is worthless to me. If you like what you read about book, buy it and see.
  • there has yet to be a single instance of a Biblical event being 'debunked' by science

    If you go back and look, PFactor did not use the word "debunked," he used the word "questioned," and you're already harassing him for pointing out how religions have historically harassed scientists and other freethinkers. You're exhibiting the same knee-jerk defense of an irrational position as the Roman Catholic Church. Congratulations for illustrating PFactor's point so well.

  • Please, do not blame True Christians for their over-sight and corruption of Scripture.

    Oh yeah, right. Blame Aristotle and Ptolemy for the catholic church's mistreatment of people like Galileo and Copernicus. How much more evasive and hypocritical can you get??

    "Please don't blame us for being small minded and intent on torturing and killing to defend our precious world view from the influence of curiosity, rationalism, and other evils. It's not our fault that we are so repressed we'd rather murder than see the spread of enlightenment. It's the fault of those mischievous Greeks who came up with the pagan ideas that we adopted centuries ago when we stopped thinking for ourselves."

    And then there's this:

    It is a mistake to do do.

    My God... talk about retentive!

  • /me wonders why katz doesnt take the time to make sure his grammar is correct.

    Well, learning the difference between the concepts of "spelling" and "grammar" can also come in handy. :-P

  • Ah, so if I'm reading this correctly, Katz indicates that this book describes scientists as PEOPLE!

    People are all biased based on their answers to the following questions:
    1. Where did we come from and who are we?
    2. What went wrong with the world?
    3. How do we fix it?

    These questions describe your "world view" and that affects all aspects of how you make decisions.

    So, the issue in the ongoing "debate" about religion and science is not about "those biased religious people" versus these "unbiased scientists" but rather biased religious people versus biased scientists.

    When it comes to the question of origins (universal) the question that you have to answer is not "Who is biased?" it is instead "Which bias makes the most sense?"
  • ..to quote Einstein apropos Quantum Theory:
    "God doesn't play dice with the Universe".

    Now we know that not only does God play, he uses loaded dice !!

    All new theories have to face a battle to be accepted, and that is as it should be, for without rigorous checking it is almost impossible to determine the true from the ridiculous. Anyway even "true" theories are not necessarily correct, but often just a more accurate model for what is really going on. e.g Newtonian physics works very well for normal velocities and motion etc, its only when you get significant speed, distance and/ or mass that the effects of relativity start to affect your calculations.

  • It was not so much Pons and Fleischman going to the media as much as it was the administration at the time. The University of Utah wanted so bad to be at the forefront of science that they completely jumped the gun and pre-announced the results before they went in for proper review. As I understand it, where Pons and Fleischman erred was allowing the University of Utah to dictate to tenured professors the media schedule.

    Additionally, I should state that several journals have published articles indicating that something unknown is going on at the nuclear level, but they do not believe that it is fusion per se. I wish I could quote you articles, but nuclear chemistry is not my chosen field of study. I am sure that a search of Nature or Science should pull some of those articles up.

  • He starts with
    In the wrong hands, scientific discovery can be scary stuff.
    and summarizes with
    Science in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.
    But everything in between indicates that the book is actually about it's advertised subject matter: "Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty", not the scary dangers of too much knowlege.

    He should have snipped off his introductory and concludatory sentences, and saved them for his next headline-grabbing hellmouth techsploitation novel. Book reviews should actually be about the book.

  • > "personal vanity" skews the scientific process so much that it deserves two mentions in the same list?

    \methinks Katzie gets paid by the word.

    Or maybe his freud was just trying to tell us his motivation for wanting to be a writer.

  • > There's a lot of stuff we don't know, and a lot of people trying to discover that.

    Yeah. I have used Alien Technology to prove that UFOs Exist, and I can't get published anywhere!

  • <BLOCKQUOTE>At least, that certainly seems to be the case, and people embrace that thought because it is a wonderful thought that no matter what you do, no matter how misbehaved you are, you are not responsible for your own actions. You are a victim.</BLOCKQUOTE>

    Well, I think that's a missunderstanding of those theories.

    Of course everyone is responsible for their actions, but sometimes (very often...) the individual are to "weak" to behave better. Or maybe he doesn't have the proper understanding of how and why he should behave in a certain way.

    Everyone has done bad things, that in a "perfect world" probably could have been avoided, and of course we must take responsibility for these actions, but because we doesn't live in this perfect world we didn't manage to avoid them.

  • The way I have always seen it is that if someone is prone to violence or drunkeness, then this should be an additional insentive to remove this persone from sociaty.

    I might agree with you, depending on how you define "remove this persone from sociaty".

    If you mean placing this person in an environment where he get a chance to learn how to handle his problems, then I'm with you.

    Just looking someone up in a prison, or drugging them down in some institution is of course not acceptable.

    Sure, it would seem that the "problem" dissapears, but think on what great potential you just throws away.

    I don't think "weak" people should be punished, they should be helped, and somehow be given a chance to deal with their problems.

    It's important to understand that all peaple are weak, however everyone doesn't do things that take us to prison. This doesn't mean that the people that goes to prison are "weaker" than the rest of us, just that their "weakness" manifests itself in another way. Maybe the rest of us hurt people around us at least as much as a violent criminal, but we do it in a more subtile, indirect, way

    Really... The greatest problem is not the dangerous actions of "weak" persons. That's just the symptom, the real problem is the weakness itself, and it's that that must be dealt with.

    I'm sory for the use of the word "weak" throughout this message, it might not be the most appropriate word, but it's the best I can come up with.

  • I did some digging on google, and managed to find (amidst all the alt.science conspiracy theories) a few interesting things:

    • a summary [ibiblio.org] of various experiments around the world, with widely differing reported results
    • a paper [ibiblio.org] from one such experiment
    • a paper [ibiblio.org] describing (in lots of geeky detail) the theory behind cold fusion

    For all the noise and fury around CF, the one thing that seems really clear is that a) no one really understands what's supposedly going on, and b) the results are not reproducible in any kind of reliable fashion.

  • Do you have any handy links to articles on the furour surrounding cold fusion? I did some quick searching on google and found some information on the experiments themselves (see my reply to the other post below), a whole lot of "cold fusion is real! The Man is keeping it down!" stuff and nothing about what was going on with F&P, the University of Utah, etc. I remember reading a Time article a long time ago on it, but the memory isn't what it used to be...

  • Science in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Not nearly so scary as the people who prompte ignorance, superstition, fear, and confusion.

    In the media age, these scientific stumbles are particularly dangerous, as they become powerful memes that are rapidly and virally transmitted to the general population by information technologies like TV and the Net.

    Like you, Mr. Katz. These kinds of screw ups do not happen in a cultural vacuum, as they generally fill an existing need to justify self-delusion, rather than create that delusion. The danger starts primarily with the ideologue and the sensationalist journalist, not with the errant scientist.
    Bush's assertion: there ought to be limits to freedom
  • These folks' ideas are about nothing but politics, the politics of resentment, of entitlement, of discrimination, of [...] advancement.

    I don't disagree with you, but I want to point out that these are the primary foci of politics and philosophy since both were established as disciplines. For a brief moment, these people cleared away all the crap we've created to justify our own stupidity. But they then proceeded to shovel in their own smelly dogma to fill the vacancy.
    Bush's assertion: there ought to be limits to freedom
  • I agree.

    People have an extraordinary capability of thinking that what they believe is the Truth. Add to that the ego and hubris and the pressure to publish and get money that is required to be a top scientist, and you have lot of ways that things can go wrong. The scientific method eventually wins out in the end, but it is a typical human mess along the way.

  • You need your head examined with a ballpeen hammer! There is no god; no one`s looking at you from on high!
  • Once, while getting my gas tank replaced after having hit a rock which I thought was a paper bag, the auto-mechanic was looking at the removed fuel pump, dripping gasoline all over himself, and smoking a cigarette at the same time.

    I didn't want to make him mad so I slowly backed as far away from him as I could get.

    Then it dawned on him. "Joe," he called to a co-worker, "I've been smoking a cigarette while working with this gas tank." He laughed as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever done.

    I wondered to myself, "if the man sets himself on fire, who was going to fix my car."

  • Galileo was 'shown the instruments' in the late 1400's

    I don't think so:

    Galileo Galilei, known as Galileo, lived from 1564-1642.


  • couple of quick points :
    1) there's no indication that any 'traditional scientist' thinks you're a loony for thinking the way you do, you'll also notice that no 'traditional scientist' has any plans on proving god doesn't exist either - your beliefs are your beliefs and science has nothing to do with them.

    2) if you can't reproduce something then how on earth are you going to study it ? did you want the answer to your questions or a nice guess based on a single occurrence where the description of events is hearsay ?

    3) science has to have strict rules controlling it's boundaries to avoid or at least minimize everything mentioned in the above article. without restrictions on what & how science can look at things (like say that it has to occur more then once) you'd get no theories at all that you could trust. science has done its damndest to isolate itself from societal pressures and you want to drag it back into an discussion it can't help clear up anyways.

    so to close : there's no scientist worth his salt that's going to dismiss your pseudo-scientific theories, all he's going to do is explain to you that he can't study them & that they can't be called science. that's all.

  • Well, if you're right, it's interesting that Arthur C. Clarke was duped. Doesn't prove anything, but it's interesting.

    Personally, from reading the book "Alternative Science" by Richard Milton (he's an Darwinism-skeptic, which unfairly prejudices some people against him!) I don't think the cold fusion debate is so open-and-shut as you make out.

  • I have read the Demon Haunted World, and let me tell you, "Alternative Science", by Richard Milton, makes a very well-argued counterpoint. Milton assembles a wide variety of case studies from "cold fusion" to parapsychology to show just how irrational scientists can be. Highly recommended. He also has a website, http://www.alternativescience.com/ [alternativescience.com]

  • Occam's razor is an esthetic measure.

    Yes, it can be, but it's also much more than that. I read an insightful analogy explaining it in "rational" terms recently. Basically, the idea is this (I've embellished it to make it life-threatening): Imagine you have only two plausible theories on which to base a life-critical decision. If you make a wrong decision you and your family will all die slowly and painfully. The two theories predict all the experimental evidence equally well, and both seem equally plausible (you can't rationally decide). The only difference is, the first theory has two fundamental assumptions which aren't independently verifiable, whilst the second theory has ten.

    I know which one I'd choose - and I think this says something fundamental about rationality.

    (Where the above argument is weakest, though, is the idea that the number of assumptions is independent of the plausibility - I guess what I really mean is "plausibility except for the number of assumptions".)

    We are model builders and not Truth finders. Truth is unacessible.

    Postmodern claptrap (taken in context). I advise you read some of the many excellent books critiquing these kinds of ideas:

    • Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, "Intellectual Impostures" (spelling varies so don't flame!)
    • David Deutsch, "Fabric of Reality"
    • John Searle (take your pick!)
    • Alan Chalmers, "What is this thing called Science?"
    • Raymond Tallis (take your pick!)
  • Gratzer details how intelligence and reason don't necessarily exclude irrationality.

    Katz just described the true essence of Slashdot, especially himself!


  • You wrote, "Humility, a value of many religions scoffed at by scientists, is still the paramount character trait to seek."

    On the contrary, humility is an intrinsic part of science, far more so than in religion. ("This just in: Pope admits Catholic church is wrong; mass conversions to Wicca are expected.")

    I think this quote from Carl Sagan sums it up best:

    In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

    I also like this one by Jean Rostand, writing in writing in "Penspes d'un Biologiste" (1939):

    Take heed of critics even when they are not fair; resist them even when they are.

    P.S. If you want more science vs. pseudoscience discussions, you might consider visiting Skeptic News [skepticnews.com].

  • Can you please submit your scientific proof of any biblical events? I think a good proof of 'the flood' or the red sea being parted, or maybe that walking on water thing...

    Or to sum up my basic argument against you, YOU CANNOT DISPROVE SOMETHING THAT DID NOT HAPPEN.

  • "personal vanity" skews the scientific process so much that it deserves two mentions in the same list?

    heh, those wacky scientists.

  • What you say is nice to know.

    Newton was also a religious fanatic who beleived in the Aryan religion, a virulent anti-catholic bigot, an incredible egomainiac who held personal grudges for decades
    However, I am aware of no evidence to support this. Can you please point us to primary literature that indicates that Sir Newton was outwardly anti-catholic? Claims are great and all, but without any sort of linkage or documentation, you might as well be claiming that the earth was flat.

    Don Armstrong -".naidnE elttiL etah I"
  • OK, OK, Katz sucks, evolution vs. bible blah blah blah... Never mind all that -- the Russians have ice-9!!! (Well, "congeal" sounds kind of jelly-like, maybe it's ice-6 or 7.) We must all bow down to our new masters before they make the earth all squidgy! Seriously though, what the hell!?
  • What is your point exactly? Do you want more people to try to research the paranormal? I don't see what good that would do considering the huge number of people trying to gather evidence already. There has been a GREAT DEAL of people trying to prove the existance of the things you talk about for many many years, some scientists, some not. I'm sure you are aware of this, so I guess that probably isn't your point. You have no real need of getting more people to look into the paranormal.

    Hrm, so whats left. I guess your point is that you want people to have an open mind, and by open mind you mean "Agree with me that these things are paranormal even though the thousands of people researching it can't support that claim."

    Sorry bud, I guess I just can't have an open mind.

    Look, I realize nobody has proved it yet, but that doesn't mean nobody is looking, lots of people are.

    On the other hand, since lots of people are looking, and have been for many years, I guess maybe you should consider the possibility that they aren't finding anything because there is nothing to find?

    Are you sure you are the one with an open mind?

    I used to think these things might be true, or possible. I used to read all the books, watch all the shows, trying to find out the truth. Then I found out that crop circles were hoaxes. All of the information I had read about them, all kinds of things about the strange lay of the crops, or the way it wasn't possible for humans to make them because none of the stalks were broke, or because the germs didn't seem quite right, all of that went out the window when I saw films of 2 men making one crop circle. The next day I saw another film of these so called "experts" all saying that this was a "geniune crop circle" and going through their usual routines about why it couldn't have been man made. Blah blah blah. At that point I came to realize one thing: "If it is possible for people to hoax something then they will."

    Couple that with the fact that a large percentage of the population will just casually lie about any given subject and you have a good explanation for the widespread belief of extraterestial encounters.

    "But what about all of the people who saw them, are they liars?"

    You know that guy at work or the bar who always has a story to tell? You know the one who, it doesn't matter what the subject is he has been there and done it better or seen bigger? Yeah, everybody has one or two of those around. If someone starts talking about the possibility of UFO's what do you think he is going to say?

    How can so many people be wrong? Easy, in fact it's quite common. What religion are you? Christian? Muslim? Catholic? It doesn't matter, whichever one you are, there is another group of many millions of people who believe you are wrong with all of their being, and another group that you believe is wrong with all of yours. A good example that a great many people will believe foolish things if given a reason.

    Now that I understand these things about human nature, I cannot possibly believe any paranormal claims without extremely strong evidence. It's not that science forces people to be closed minded, it's the science forces you to be open to every possibility, even the possibility that everyone else is flat wrong.
  • Then there is the "modern truth" of c-space. It is impossible to ever pass the speed of light. Just like it is impossible to pass the sound barrier? Or just like humans won't be able to breath when the pass 30 miles per hour? I don't know, I think it is ridiculous to assume that just because we haven't found a way to do something, that automatically means it is impossible.

    There is a fundamental difference between the modern result that seems to imply that it is impossible to travel faster than light and the early 20th century belief that humans could not travel faster than sound. The latter was not scientifically grounded, but rather supported by "common sense." The former is not an aesthetic judgement or common sense, but the result of equations derived from a very few assumptions Einstein made about the Universe; i.e., the result follows from axioms, and is thus in a completely different class than the latter. Additionally, there are no claims by modern physicists that because "we haven't found a way to" travel faster than light, it is therefore impossible to do it. There are many instances in which Math. has predicted the ability to do something, such as create a new element, etc., that at the time was impossible to do. Later advances in technology were able show that the predictions were correct; in the case of faster than light travel, the math seems to say that it would require an infinite amount of energy. One interpretation of this is that this travel is then impossible, others say that there are ways around this, but very few are saying anything like "just because we haven't found a way to do something, that automatically means it is impossible."

  • We've lost courage. Rate this story as you dare.

    Academia is mired in fear. The nail that stands up gets hammered. The researcher who discovered that ulcers could be cured is ridiculed. [britannica.com] I have had researchers at Fermi and two universities candidly talk about areas they cannot explore; e.g., checking if Saint Einstein's theories would be sufficient with time dialation limited to gravity effects. One had a clear warning that this would put them on "the radical fringe, clearly not tenure material".

    So how do we get back to courage?

    The obvious part of K-12 science education to cut is the teaching of evolution. Fundamentally, we need more roboticists, computer scientists, physchologists, and geneticists than folks who study evolution, so it is better to cut this class than any math, chemistry, or physics. Let's gut this class in one fell swoop and blow the minds of a couple students. Here's what I propose...

    A class that starts with Creationism, Theory of Evolution, and the Prachet giant turtle theory. Compare and contrast the beliefs, examine the evidence and consistency, look at the scientific method and places it falls down, study some famous mistakes and some radical breakthroughs. Explore the accidental discoveries [alaska.edu] and the effect on society. Get students to think about where they get their information.

    Maybe we could get our courage back.

  • Never has anything spread so fast with so little proof.

    www.oop.ismad.com [geocities.com]

  • That evolution occurs is fact. The Theory of Evolution is an attempt at explaining how it happens. The thoery may or may not be correct, but that has nothing to do with the existence of the phenomenon.

  • Let's see... It rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and the water covered the highest mountains. That's what, 20,000 feet? So, 40 days is 960 hours. That works out to more than 20 Feet per hour of rain. Anyone who's ever been caught in a storm that fell at a rate of four inches per hour knows how powerful that force is - the force of 20 feet per hour would certainly have torn apart any Arc in no time.

    Also, the pressure at 20,000 feet below is enormous. Certainly enough to crush all the trees and such.

    And where did all that water go?

  • but personal vanity, contemporary politics, greed, stupidity, personal vanity and incompetence all pop up in these shocking episodes.
    bad memory?
  • ------- Please visit my Ministry at True Christians Unite!!!

    Take it outside, godboy.

  • Perhaps it is you who should find another forum to preach your dogmatic bullshit, Dad

  • This reminds me of Stephenson's thesis in Snowcrash of how a multimedia culture makes a great medium for the viral transmission of ideas.

    It doesn't matter which came first, the secret government helicopter landings in the corn fields or the bored youth out fabricating DIY crop circles, the imaginings of whomever has the most feasible or just plain convincing story are going to propagate.

    Can you get vaccinated against grocery store tabloids?

  • Science leads to Microsoft? What science? Voodoo or witchcraft is more accurate. A touch of this, a touch of that, dance around the mainframe naked and viola! MS Office came forth.
  • Ummm, he's being defensive, not offensive. You can't have it both ways by claiming that the same type of question by one person is an attack, but by the other person isn't an attack. Just because you agree with PFactor and not the other poster doesn't mean that the other poster has committed the fault.

  • I will admit, though, that for me, the biggest hole in the evolution theory is that "survival of the fittest" bit -- if that's supposedly going on, where in the name of smeg did all these complete MORONS come from?

    Oh, that's a simple one; I'm surprised you even need to ask yourself that. :) Humans have created an environment (at least in 1st-world countries) where "survival of the fittest" is no longer law. Now it's basically "survival of everyone," and the most fit tend towards being economically successful (not counting other factors like being destroyed by those more fit, chance/luck, etc).

  • Of course scientific progress is important, anyone who has ever played civilization knows that. If you don't put enough resources into science, you will sooner or later be conquered by the evil Aztecs or Russians. :)


    "I'm surfin the dead zone
  • What the world need is metamoderation of reviewers!

    Seriously, you can always look around and trying to find some reviewers that share your opinions in movies, books, music or whatever, and hope that they will review the item you are interrested in.


    "I'm surfin the dead zone
  • > a theory is just a theory it should not be > accepted as truth. How true that is, A theory is just that. Evolution, pythagrous, relativity. The problem comes about when people accept them as facts.

    First off, a scientific theory is a very different beast from a theorem in mathematics. So the Pythagorean theorem doesn't belong on your list.

    Second, the notion of Fact and Theory are intricately tied together; truth is relative. Sorry.

  • Saucer of milk for table 3... ;-)

  • The sentence: "Humility, a value of many religions scoffed at by scientists, is still the paramount character trait to seek."

    What I meant was, "Even though many scientists scoff at religion, humility, a value common to religious belief systems, is something we could all use." I was not saying that science scoffs at humility ;-)

    Sorry for any misunderstanding! :-) I know that science treasures both humility and skepticism. The ability to admit you are wrong is key to scientific endeavors. I was just trying to point to an irony, in that despite the open hostility between religion and science, they often have shared values :-)

  • A more honest description would have been along the lines of: "There's something really odd going on here guys, something not explained by any known physics of materials, and we've been running experiments to try to figure out what's going on."

    Calling the unexplained phenomenon cold fusion at that stage (or even at the current stage) was pretty damn silly --- despite the fact that whatever is happening is very real and very unexplained by current theory, it is not fusion as we've known it for decades and may not be fusion of any kind at all. This could have led to an excellent area for loads of well-funded pure science and maybe by now even some solid engineering, instead of the media circus that was. Shame on everyone.
  • In high school, I read Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man [amazon.com]. That's what opened my eyes to how scientists are just as prone to wanting to advance their causes as the next guy (or gal).
  • ...but there is no guarantee for how long it will take. Bad science can survive for a generation or two and cause much grief on the way.

  • Is it just me, or has Jon Katz never actually reviewed a book here? He'll make a few offhand references to things mentioned in the book and then just use them as a springboard for ranting about whatever is eating at him at that moment. (Which is usually the same four or five topics, but that's another gripe.)

    Personally, I expect a book reviewer to tell me something about the book, its strengths and weaknesses, and maybe some biographical info about the author. Silly me.


  • Not open hostility. Just derision, mockery, and ridicule for someone who promulgates "creation science" and it's circular "evidence" for pre-ordained conclusions, and then turns around and criticizes science for being mostly "junk."

    Scientists are human, so yes, you will find many examples of quackery, and many examples of closed-minded intolerance of other opinons that you can point at as anecdotal evidence to support your predetermined conclusions. But as a group, scientists do not confuse opinion with fact, and few of us claim to know "absolute truth," despite your accusations. In fact, it is the religious community that claims to have a monopoly on the truth, but in your typical intellectualy dishonest mode of argument, scientists are the ones accused of such hubris.

    I refuse to tolerate your intolerance. That's what I mean by "go away." If you are willing to ask questions without first formulating the answers, then you are welcome to stay and debate.

    In other words, faith is not evidence. So go away.

  • Screw the grammar. I just wanna see Katz learn the difference between a " 1 " and an " l ". "l953"?
    Me too. This show's Katz's old age; he obviously learned to type on a typewriter*, where there is no " one ", and one has to use the lower case " L " key...

    Hey, Katz, you oughta read " The mac is not a typewriter [amazon.com] ", by Robin Williams. That'll teach you how to type properly.

    * For the younger fry out there, a
    typewriter is a machine with a keyboard which IMMEDIATELY prints the character you type on a piece of paper inserted in the abovementionned machine.


  • If you ask me the guys who came up with repeated reports of cold fusion after it had started being debunked should be dragged through the streets and forced to repay every penny of taxpayers' money that they got in grants
    If that's an example of your opinion, I wont' be asking.
    So it's okay to follow a line of research as long as no-one's debunked it? That'd be great for the idiots who spend their lives debunking evolution, and it also pretty much puts paid to extra-solar planets, cloning, relativity and... well, pretty much everything. Look back far enough and you'll probably find someone grunting the caveman equivalent of 'fire? load of bollocks, that'.
  • > The problem I have is this: traditional science is only set up to understand that which is easily and repeatedly observable under controlled conditions.

    If that were true, we wouldn't have any astronomy. As it happens, astronomy is one of the oldest of sciences.

  • . . .just like the rest of the world.

    Screwball theories taking hold is the scientific equivalent of Dave Rhodes and "Make Money Fast". . .

    You must also remember, being a Scientist does NOT give you a corner on every single aspect of reality. Hence, ideas that appear plausible to one scientist on a general basis may be obviously bogus to another with specific and detailed knowledge of that particular field of study: things are WAAAAAAY too broad for any scientist to have much more than an informed laymans' level of knowledge of most of it. . .

  • To people in India the recent (last five years) floods must seem 'biblical' in scale. Thousands died, the flooding was from horizon to horizon in some areas.

    I don't doubt that flooding has always killed people, even the ancestors of those who wrote the bible. But I do doubt the forty days and forty nights, and the bit about rain covering the highest mountain.

    You need fairly specific proof, not just that someone named Noah did live and did get through a flood on a raft/boat, but that he had a boat big enough for two of every animal plus food, for well over forty days.

    It is widely accepted that there was a siberian/alaskan land-bridge, this isn't enough proof for Moses and the red sea... etc

  • 1) Skepticism is what untestable claims should be greeted with.

    2) Scientists are very good at testing claims that something happens very rarely.

    Ok, more detail....

    For #1, many more things don't happen than do happen. For every time a bird flies by, an uncountable number of UFOs and invisible dragons DON'T fly by. If someone says that an invisible dragon flies by, only when nobody capable of testing for it is nearby, it MAY be true, but very probably is not.

    Also, if that claim is testable but always produces negative results, out of line with those reported, it's reasonable to believe it's false. If your phone line had static during all calls, except that the telco people could never hear static even when placing a call from your house, they'd be justified in thinking it didn't exist. If however they merely try a few tests and don't find anything, they're being lazy in presuming it's nothing.

    And as for #2, how do you think doctors discover that a drug causes side effects to one in two-hundred thousand people?

    Similarly, when scientists are looking for something they have reason to believe is uncommon, they perform very many tests.

    But if they're testing for something that they are told happens very often, they can conclude that (if the event is independent of their testing (ie, the static doesn't go away just because test equipment is hooked up)) the event isn't happening, or at least, not as reported.

    What you attribute to the inability of science to deal with uncommon events is merely the laziness of people who don't want to investigate something that might mean them making a hundred tests over a long period of time. That's not bad science, that's bad tech support.
  • There are two different arguments in here Phil, both of which are important:

    Firstly, how 'truth' is pursued within the boundaries of a particular scientific community, and secondly, how those outside the community try to manipulate the work for their own benefits.

    What you refer to with reference to your own field is the tension that arises when the boundaries become blured - and, I agree, commercial funding of academic research labs can result in unfortunate situations.

    Reading some of the other posts, it is interesting to see people complaining that the scientific establishment, which controls funding and publications, is intransigent and guided by vanity and personal ambition. At the same time, others are complaining about quite the opposite - fraudulent, or faulty, science that claims exciting new breakthroughs, is too easy to sell to an uneducated, gullible public. This suggests to me that the current peer-review process, coupled with scientific method is probably the best compromise we can come up with at the moment. The intransigence of peer review at least provides a level of hysteresis, and, I think I'm right in saying, most of the most embarassing 'scientific' cock-ups were as a result of people not publishing under peer-review (e.g. Arpad Puztai and his Genetically Modified Potatoes - I notice that sounds like a fairground act, which seems quite appropriate really :-)).

    As far as outside manipulation goes, you are right that science tries to build a self-sustaining edifice, that industry and politics try to manipulate it, and that academic scientists have a duty to be aware of these pressures and resist them.

    The thing that irritates me the most is the use of the phrase 'there is no scientific evidence that...' (insert Mad Cow disease and BSE, uranium tipped shells, Genetically Modified anything...). Generally, this is because no one has done the experiment. This is the same problem that predicate calculus has - True and False aren't enough to represent incomplete knowledge.

    There is no scientific evidence that I am not a teapot. It would be foolish, however, to assume that, as a result, I am one.
    Often, these arguments are combined with the use of spurious statistics - Children in single parent families are more likely to commit crime, therefore divorce should be made harder. Creative people are, apparently, more accident prone, therefore if you're accident prone, you're likely to be creative. People that wear skirts to school do better in exams, therefore, we should oblige all children to wear skirts so that their academic grades improve. Fire engines are associated with fires, therefore we should ban fire engines...etc... All these statements are equally ridiculous, it's just that some appear less so than others.
  • "Most remarkable," writes Gatzer, "is the way that false theories and imagined phenomena sometimes spread through the scientific community.

    It seems to me the *reverse* is opposite. The scientific community seems very resistant to new, strange ideas. Otherwise totally rational people, having gotten a certain meme stuck in their head about how implausible or silly something is, totally discount it, refuse to rationally look into it, for fear of being considered a fool by peers. Shouldn't we have gotten over this by kindergarten? Remember, a lot of science is people's egos and careers. Galileo wasn't too popular for his ideas of the earth revolving around the sun, and it took Columbus and Magellen to dispell the stigma on the notion that the world was a sphere. Einstein also shook up those adamant that the entire universe was based on simple Euclidean geometry. New ideas have to fight every way to be recognized. A lot of the "common sense" we take for granted was vehemently opposed by the scientific community at one point.
  • Can lead to Microsoft.
  • >/me wonders why katz doesnt take the time to make sure his grammar is correct.

    Screw the grammar. I just wanna see Katz learn the difference between a "1" and an "l". "l953"?

    DUDE! It's a computer, not a typewriter! And the Courier font's "1" has been different from the "l" for decades!

  • that should read:

    /me wonders why katz doesnt take the time to make sure his grammar is correct.

    how can journalistic integrity be maintained without correct grammar as a basis?
  • The problem *isn't* in "cold fusion". There's a *lot* of work going on there. Some of it quite interesting, I understand.

    The *problem* is Pons and Fleischmann had that huge announcement, and were debunked (proper scientific theory, a success). However - now people scoff at the idea of "cold fusion". (A misnomer)

    But there's a lot of reseach in the same fields going on. Its not bogus, and they're not trying to save the world and make a huge announcement.

    You're letting the 1 big event color your perception of the the entire field - which isn't correct. There's a lot of stuff we don't know, and a lot of people trying to discover that.

    http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/SocialConstruct io n/ColdFusionPrimer.html

    "Cold fusion" is a real but still incompletely explained energy-producing phenomenon, that occurs when ordinary hydrogen and the special ofrm of hydrogen called deuterium are brought together with metals, such as palladium, titanium, and nickel. Usually, some triggering mechanism, such as electricity or acoustic energy, is required to provoke the "cold fusion" effects. Both ordinary hydrogen and deuterim are abundant in ordinary water --- whether fresh water, ocean water, ice, or snow --- so the process will likely end many of the world's energy concerns, if it can be developed commerically. Now, this seems all but certain. (the deuterium form of hydrogen is present naturally as one out of every 7,000 hydrogen atoms and is easy to separate.)

    Cold fusion releases enormous quantities of energy in the form of heat, not radiation, as in hot fusion. This heat energy is hundreds to thousands of times what ordinary chemical reactions could possibly yield. If "cold fusion" is a hertofore unknown form of benign nuclear reaction --- as most researchers in the field believe --- there is more potential cold fusion energy in a cubic mile of sea water than in all of the oil reserves on earth

    (Google is your friend!) :)

  • Granted, this book is probably a fun an interesting read. But one of the best things about the scientific process is that eventually, after all of the human frailties have burnt out, truth does prevail. It may take years or decades or even centuries - but truth is truth, and no amount of human greed, bigotry, or censorship can ever change it.
    John "Dark Paladin" Hummel

  • A SlashDot login in the wrong hands is.... um... OK, I guess *that's* harmless :-)
  • And Microsoft leads to suffering.
  • There's a lot of stuff we don't know, and a lot of people trying to discover that.

    True statement...and that's why scientists will have jobs for many many generations.

    However, this "field" of "cold fusion" research is not one of them....many many studies have been done in the years after the Pons/Fleischman debacle, and have shown conclusively, beyond any shadow of scientific doubt, that this "cold fusion" of hydrogen is NOT in fact happening. Every single "experiment" that has "shown" that cold fusion is occurring has been:

    • seriously flawed
    • unreproducible
    • and statistically irrelevant
    The claims of the "cold fusion" advocates are mostly wishful thinking and bunk. I don't go so far as to claim they are crack pots, just that they don't have the training and experience to realize and understand where their experiments are flawed and why they are getting junk results. Doing experiments correctly is HARD and most experiments take years to work out all the known bugs and to understand in detail the nuances and effects present in the system.

    Always remember: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof....and cold fusion advocates have not even been able to show repeatable experiments, much less mundane proof!

  • "Science is prejudiced by those that perform it?" Shock! Horror!

    It never fails to amaze me how people cannot fathom that such things as history, science, government, education, religion, art, etc. are directly influenced by those who practice it. Nothing, I repeat NOTHING, is free of the influence of people no matter how much we wish it to be (or, to be more accurate free of influences other than our own). No perfect system will ever be put into place. But, what you can do is have a) acknowledge that bias exists and b) have a free and open society where alternate ideas can at least be expressed. It doesn't guarantee that what is "right" or what is "true" will come out on top, but it's a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

  • *sigh*

    Every one of these has been stringly refuted. You should read the talk.origins archive [talkorigins.org], but you probably won't.

  • Just because paranormal phenomena are difficult to observe under controlled conditions, that does not mean they don't exist.

    You really should read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Not that I think you wrong, exactly, but to paraphrase Sagan's example, if you say you have a dragon in your garage, but it's invisible, leaves no footprints, can't be touched, can't be covered in paint, makes no noise, and breathes invisible fire without heat; then your neighbors are going to have doubts. :)

  • It's the easy to say "Blame the society/system"
    In many cases when a revolutionary new view of things was introduced by someone, it wasn't the public that ridiculed and humilated him, his peers, the other scientists were the ones that fought against those new ideas(of cource thereby forming "Public" opinion
    Not even the greatest minds(think about how long the academie francaise denied to accept any evdience for meteors, think abouts Einsteins constant tries to "defeat" quantum mechanics, think about simon newcombe mathematically "proofing" that a body that is heavier then air can never fly).

  • From my "Degrees of Deviance" College textbook:

    "To be shaped by one's background or to be shaped by the force of structural circumstance is to be in a context of past meanings from which newly created meaning is hewn." (32 words)

    Translation (as best I can tell): "Your past influences how you see the world." (8 words, a 4 fold savings)

    Or, my favorite, from "Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives"

    "For those whose roles primarily involved the performance of services, as distinguished from assumption of leadership responsibilities, the main pattern seems to have been a response to the leadership's invoking obligations that were concomitants of the status of membership in the societal community and various of it's segmental units. The closest modern analogy is the military service performed by an ordinary citizen, except that the leader of the Egyptian bureaucracy did not need a special emergency to invoke legitimate obligations." (80 words)

    Translation: "In ancient Egypt, the peasants could be conscripted for work." (10 words, an 8 fold savings)

    Look, my point is: Mr. Katz does a fairly good job with reviews. They get to the point, and are informative and fairly easy to read. I'm not saying they are up for pulitzers, but be fair. If you really hate them, go into your prefs and turn Mr. Katz off.

    Thank you.


  • Science in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Money in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Power in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Coke and Pop-Rocks in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Religion in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Fresnel lenses in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Computers in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    A nation in the wrong hands, used for the wrong reasons, is scary stuff.

    Dude, that's seven more aritcles for you, right there.

    information wants to be expensive...nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.

  • For those of us geeky enough to care about what the cold fusion claim was about:

    Fusion is what happens when two atoms' nuclei fuse, or join, into one nucleus. Its simular to fission, which involves one atom's nucleus splitting into two. Both fusion and fission turn a small amount of matter directly into energy, and even though the amount of matter involved is almost miniscule, its far more efficient then chemical reactions (such as burning coal), which only involved harvesting energy from breaking chemical bonds. Fusion is what powers the sun, which transforms 2 hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. It requires very high temperatures to strip the electrons away from the nuclei so that the nuclei can react. Although fusion is a form of nuclear power, no nuclear power plant that I'm aware of uses fusion as a source of commercial power generation. All fusion power generators that have been built (such as the tomahawk) have been experimental machines. Due to the heat involved, fusion is a tad difficult to harness. Quite literally, its like having a piece of the sun on the earth.

    Now cold fusion is the dream of a fusion reaction that runs at around room temperature, making a simpler, more easily controlled reaction. Although its a nice dream, in reality, there is no theoretical framework for cold fusion.

    People, being people, still tried. One group of researchers came forward and said that they finally discovered a method for cold fusion. However, their results were never reproduced in other experiments. (See the parent post for more information about this.)

    If I understand the science behind it, they were claiming that something at the chemical level could affect something on the atomic level and generate "cold" fusion, by acting as sort of a catalyst. Now chemical reactions can change electron orbits, but they (AFAIK) cannot change anything in the nucleus, therefore, their cold fusion claim was rather remarkable, since nothing in chemistry ever indicated it was possible. Chemical reactions don't care about the nucleus, if they did, it would be possible to do stuff like seperate different isotopes of uranium chemically. (When the US government seperated U238 from U235 during the second world war, they *did* combine it with florine into a chemical gas (UF6), but only so that they could seperate the isotopes due to U238's slightly heavier mass. The florine did nothing but made it into a gas for easier seperation. I haven't doublechecked this fact, but I believe it was through diffusion, which was allowing the gas to escape into another chamber through a small hole, due to U238's weight, it didn't diffuse as fast, repeating this step many times led to higher concentrations of U238.)

    Therefore, any cold fusion claim is like a claim of discovering little green men on Mars, or that the earth is actually flat. Its just bad science.
  • I see things like that throughout history and I just keep wondering how many "modern truths" will be proven as ridiculous as the "modern truth" in that time that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth.

    For instance, the "modern truth" that people that are way too angry and take that anger out on others are somehow victims themselves. That one kills me. It seems the modern science of psychology says that we are all victims. Even the guy that picks up a gun, carries it in his car, and shoots people at random is a victim. He's suffering from "road rage". It seems that the "modern truth" of psychology is that no one is responsible for their own actions. At least, that certainly seems to be the case, and people embrace that thought because it is a wonderful thought that no matter what you do, no matter how misbehaved you are, you are not responsible for your own actions. You are a victim.

    Then there is the "modern truth" of c-space. It is impossible to ever pass the speed of light. Just like it is impossible to pass the sound barrier? Or just like humans won't be able to breath when the pass 30 miles per hour? I don't know, I think it is ridiculous to assume that just because we haven't found a way to do something, that automatically means it is impossible.

    Of course, I'm not one of those "science can cure all ills" people that thinks of science as the modern religion. I don't ask for blind faith, but common sense would suffice. If a theory is just a theory it should not be accepted as truth. If a "truth" is proven wrong, easily and verifiably, why beat the person that has proven it into a mental shell?

    Of course, in today's society, the possibility that science will continue to move forward seems to be dwindling as well. Science in the wrong hands may be better than science in no one's hands. But, in the "money is all that matters" society of today, even that seems unlikely. Advancement for the sake of advancement would be an interesting proposition, but I think we are a long way off from the "Star Trek" version of humanity, where money ceases to be a concern, and scientific discoveries become paramount.

    Ah, the beauties of modern science.

  • The theories you mention have remained unquestioned by modern science for a long, long time. Unfortunately, the common misconception is that if a theory isn't "proven" wrong in a few days/weeks/years, then it must be a fact. There is probably a good reason why those theories are not proven wrong, there is no one questioning them.

    (Well, except for Evolotion, which is only questioned by the hard-line, militant, christian propogandists, and thusly, the only people questioning it are dismissed as "wackos". Pity really, even the wackos have a valid point sometimes. I happen to disagree with their conclusions, but I don't mind listening to their arguments.)

  • by Kostya ( 1146 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @06:27AM (#1391798) Homepage Journal

    We are not discussing societal or cultural pressures forcing a scientist to recant against his will or better judgement. That is well documented, and actually is still happening today.

    What we are talking about here is that scientists, trained and immersed in the discipline of skepticism and doubt, are often blind to their own propensity for making assumptions. This, coupled with believing you are being scientific leads to moronic theories at best. At its worst, it brings us mass extermination and eugenics.

    Humility, a value of many religions scoffed at by scientists, is still the paramount character trait to seek. If you are seeking truth, you must first realize your own limits and your own propensity to think of yourself more highly than you ought.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @07:04AM (#1391799)
    Science is knowledge that survives testing.

    However, it may take a generation or two to get
    past some wrong or evil idea if controlled by a
    dogmatic group.

    The opposite of science is dogmatism and revealation.
    By definition, their body of knowledge is presumed
    correct, albeit errors in transmission.
    All new data has to fit their world view or be
  • by eddy the lip ( 20794 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @06:44AM (#1391800)

    The problem with the cold fusion fiasco wasn't a credulous scientific establishment, it was that Fleischman and Pons went to the media instead of publishing for peer review first. There's a reason that major discoveries show up in Nature before the New York Times - the editors and readership of the former are equipped to examine claims critically. The general media is not.

    Once other labs started trying to duplicate the cold fusion experiments of Fleischman and Pons, it quickly became evident that they hadn't discovered anything except poor experimental procedure. There was some brief noise about a couple of labs that said they had seen something that might, maybe, have been evidence of a cold fusion reaction, but that it wasn't reproducable and didn't produce statistically significant results. Again, the media broadcast this all over the place as collobarative evidence.

    Now, I'm not saying that cold fusion shouldn't be researched further. I'm not qualified to make that judgement. What bothers me about this is how frequently I hear this particular incident cited as an example of why we shouldn't trust the scientific method. The damage that was done to public perception of the scientific establishment, and the methods of scientific inquiry, was inexcusable.

    The ignorant are always looking for an excuse to remain so.

  • by cje ( 33931 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @09:20AM (#1391801) Homepage
    The obvious part of K-12 science education to cut is the teaching of evolution.

    Don't forget the Big Bang and heliocentrism as well.

    It's not enough that these subjects be taken out of the curriculum; they must be banned outright. The teaching of evolution needs to be criminalized immediately, and in order to give this legislation teeth, the Congress needs to authorize an expedited death penalty for anyone who is caught disseminating information on these topics. Along with this, we will need to incinerate any and all books related to these topics. I would recommend beginning a complete and total purge of the works of Darwin, Hawking, Einstein etc. from our society.
  • by catseye_95051 ( 102231 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @11:24AM (#1391802)
    gives a wonderful lecture that starts with the staement "Science runs on incompetance."

    And yes, he is a scientist-- a systems-science approach botanist.

    Ironicly, after showing how the scientific structures basically prevent most truely new dieas from gaining the wide audiance the need for acceptance, he concluded with the observation that this is necessary. Withotu such constraints science would be TOO creative and nothing woudl get explored in depth.

    A moment of philosophy:

    The world is what it is and is ultimately unmeasurable by us in any direct way. All we have are the inputs of our flawed senses and the arbitrary pattern matchign of our intellect. We are model builders and not Truth finders. Truth is unacessible.

    What's left to judge our models by are just the dual criteria of utility and esthetics. (Predictive cability is a utility measure. Occam's razor is an esthetic measure.) All real scientists know this, unfortunately they usually aren't terribly good at communciating this to the common man.
  • by pestie ( 141370 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @07:08AM (#1391803) Homepage
    Since it was mentioned in the article, and since I haven't posted anything in a while, I think it's time for me to rant against the wholesale dismissal by the traditional scientific community of UFO's, extraterrestrials, and other paranormal/fringe science phenomena. In my defense, I'm not a "UFO nut" - heck, I'm not even a "believer." I'm careful not to "believe" anything, but to work from the best evidence I have at the time. Sometimes I'll take the word of experts, provided that what they say makes sense to me, but I rarely if ever take anything at face value, and I prefer to base my assumptions on evidence I've seen first hand.

    The problem I have is this: traditional science is only set up to understand that which is easily and repeatedly observable under controlled conditions. Traditional science is unlikely to be able to investigate paranormal phenomena because many of these phenomena are transient and almost impossible to produce on demand. This doesn't mean such phenomena don't exist; it simply means that traditional science is ill suited to the study of such phenomena.

    Another factor enters in at this point: ego. Traditional science is conducted by PhD's at universities and research institutions. Most of us have gone to college or are at least familiar with the academic environment. The egos, narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness of some of these experts is unbelievable! They're as dogmatic as the most fanatical religious fundamentalists. They worship knowledge rather than question it. If something doesn't fit their picture of how things work, it's discarded, ridiculed, and those who proposed the idea are ostracized and regarded as fools. Only the smallest, most obvious new ideas, or those with overwhelming evidence in their favor, are accepted by the traditional scientific community. The problem is that this leaves little or no room for quantum leaps forward in understanding.

    I know a lot of you must think I'm full of shit by now, so let me give you an example most of you can relate to. Have you ever had a transient problem with a piece of equipment and the manufacturer/vendor/whatever refused to admit the problem existed? Most of us have. I remember having a problem with static on a phone line once. It was so bad that my modem wouldn't stay connected, and often couldn't connect at all. It wasn't always like this - some days it was almost okay, and others it was terrible. The telco insisted that there was nothing wrong with the line. They tested it from the central office - "looks okay from here!" They sent a tech out to my house. He hooked up some piece of equipment that tested the voltage, impedence, and other line characteristics. "They all look normal." They told me the problem was with my in-house wiring (even though the static was still there when I disconnected the indoor wiring and tapped in directly at the telco interface). After many days of calling and complaining I finally got a competant tech who started at the house and traced the line step-by-step back toward the central office. He found a bad splice a couple hops down the line, in a junction box on another street. Well, what do you know - I was right all along!

    Sounds a lot like how the traditional scientific community works, doesn't it? Now, imagine if the telco worked even more like the scientific community. Imagine if, when I first called to report a problem, they not only denied the problem's existance but cancelled my phone service and refused to speak to me ever again on the grounds that I spoke heresy. I would have been right all along, but proving it would have been damn near impossible. That is how the scientific community works. It's roughly on a par with the Catholic church in open-mindedness.

    Just because paranormal phenomena are difficult to observe under controlled conditions, that does not mean they don't exist. The explanations for them may be other than what people think (strange lights in the sky being aliens from outer space vs. secret military aircraft, for example), but the phenomena themselves are quite real and quite explainable for those who are willing to open their minds to possibilities and just look.

  • OK, ok, you got to make your awful pun.

    There really have been some cool experiments with spiders on drugs, and how that impacts their work. Check out this page [cling.gu.se]. And this page [geocities.com], which includes a picture of a web spun by a spider on LSD -- it's more precise than the work done by a straight spider. Pretty damn weird.

  • by fatphil ( 181876 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @05:49AM (#1391805) Homepage
    If you ask me the guys who came up with repeated reports of cold fusion after it had started being debunked should be dragged through the streets and forced to repay every penny of taxpayers' money that they got in grants. OK, the guys who did it initially made a mistake, you can only prush boundaries if you step outside them. I'm thinking of the bloody bandwagon that followed.

    -- Real Men Don't Use Porn. -- Morality In Media Billboards
  • by Phillip2 ( 203612 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @05:54AM (#1391806)
    One of the interesting things about this is the examples that have been picked. There have been many times in the past where fraudulent science has been used to justify a particular ideology. Examples would include most of the eugenics movement for instance (which in turn gave birth to my own field, which is genetics!).

    I think more interesting though are the examples of where science is manipulated in a more subtle way. Namely by emphasis of funding. A good example would be the maniuplation of entomology by the large agrochemical companies. By extreme selectivity of funding, science can be used to prove anything. I think that within my own field, the large scale commercial pressures are pushing things in the same way.


  • by Bonker ( 243350 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @06:20AM (#1391807)
    An interesting example of this is the discovery of 'caucasoid' cromagnon fossils in Canada and the U.S.

    In the 1700's and 1800's, racist scientists tried to prove that since the different human races had different body and skull shapes then the caucasian races were 'more developed' and 'more highly evolved'. This false science was used as everything as a justification for slavery to evidence in criminal trials.

    In the late 80's and 90's, scientists started finding *very* early human fossils in Canada and the U.S. that seem to indicate that the first Asians who cross the Bering Strait were caucasoid rather than mongoloid. At first there was an outcry by the human rights activists who feared a new round of 'evolution scaling'. Then there was an outcry and a demand for posession of the fossils by certain Native American tribes. The tribes claim that it is their legal right to bury the fossils respectfully since they were the 'first'.

    Indeed, they may have legal precident. It also seems, however, that they are trying to effectively destroy any evidence that the current race of Native Americans weren't necessarily the first race to inhabit North America.
  • by Sara Chan ( 138144 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @10:21AM (#1391808)
    Another good recent example concerns the extinction of the dinosaurs. In the 1970s, Luis Alvarez claimed that this was caused by a cosmic impact: so much dust was injected into the atmosphere, by the impact, that it blocked out the sun and forced a severe extended "winter" that killed off lots of things.

    There were, however, some problems. First, the dinosaurs didn't die off in a few years; they became extinct over a period of millions of years. Second, there was never any palaeoecological evidence of such a "winter" found. Thus, although there definitely was a large impact around the time of the dinosaur extinction, the hypothesis that it's dust caused the extinction could not realistically have been true. Moreover, there's an alternative hypothesis: massive extended flood-basalt volcanism from the Deccan Traps, in India.

    Alvarez, however, was a Nobel prize winner. He used the power that gave him to discredit anyone who questioned him. He launched major attacks in the media. And he pressured the chairpeople of academic departments to fire departmental researchers who tried to show the flaws in the hypothesis. Some careers were severely damaged. Read all about it, and the science, here [vt.edu].

    The impact crater was eventually found, in Yucatan, Mexico. Research has shown, however, that the amount of dust injected into the atmosphere, by the impact, was far too small to have forced cosmic winter. With Alavarez dead, there is now at least some reasoned debate. Recent work by Sharpton at the U of Alaska speculates that the impact might have vaporized enough rock to make the atmosphere very acidic--and that this might have led to long-term ecological changes that forced dinosaur extinction. (This research was presented at last month's meeting of the American Geophysical Union [agu.org]; abstracts available online via http://www.agu.org/meetings/waisfm00.html [agu.org].)

    Maybe, in the end, it will turn out that Alvarez was right. Or maybe not. For the integrity of the scientific process, though, it makes no difference. A powerful scientist used his political power to squash any scientific debate.

    "... the microkernel approach was essentially a dishonest approach aimed at receiving more dollars for research. I don't necessarily think these researchers were knowingly dishonest. Perhaps they were simply stupid. Or deluded." --Linus Torvalds on kernel research by Computer Scientists (in Open Sources)

  • by taliver ( 174409 ) on Saturday January 08, 2000 @05:51AM (#1391809)
    "They laughed at Newton.
    They laughed at Einstein.

    But they also laughed at Groucho Marx."

    --Carl Sagan

  • I recall quite a bit of misinformation being spread around in the 60's when those scientests were exposing every creature under the sun to LSD.

    IIRC, one scientist postulated that exposing spiders to LSD ruined their depth perception, when later is was realized that spiders have no depth perception. This was later made into an open source truism:

    Many eyes makes bugs shallow.
  • The reason junk science is so prevalent today is because we (the United States) have failed to adequately educate our population in the area of science so that they can effectively sort out the bullshit from the real science. When your average citizen has no clue about how their bodies function, or how their TV works, or what happens during a solar eclipse, it's no wonder snake oil salesmen are so successful. I kid you not, just yesterday I saw a TV commercial for a pill advertised to increase a woman's bra size...

    And people like you and your colleagues are one of the biggest reasons why our citizens are so susceptible to people selling bad science. At every turn you oppose the teaching of any scientific fact that doesn't agree with your precious world view. The Jihad against the theory of natural selection is just the worst example, but across the board, Christian's intolerance of any disagreement with their dogma has stifled the science education of the average person to the point where they can't reliably sort out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to scientific claims.

    And then you turn around and point at the resulting niches and cracks where pseudoscience has gained footholds and you use that to support your claim that science in general is unreliable and deceitful. THAT is the ultimate deceit. Those crackpots might just as well be your direct agents for all the mileage you get out of them.

    Go away already and let us educate our people so that they can function in a modern society. God knows they can't even program their VCRs, and before long they will have to be able to program their refrigerators just to be able to eat.

In 1750 Issac Newton became discouraged when he fell up a flight of stairs.