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Science's evil twin

Hugo, Bart Simpson's evil twin


Every time that I find myself discussing “cold fusion,” I need to explain why I think there exists a "good" science and a "bad" science; the latter sometimes defined also as “pseudo-science” or “pathological science.”. It is a point which is perfectly obvious to scientists, but very difficult to explain to non scientists. So, let me describe a discussion that I had with Steven Featherstone, American journalist and writer, who came to visit me as part of an investigation of the cold fusion phenomenon in Italy, that he recently published in the November issue of “Popular Science”. I'll report our conversation in a novelized form that – I think – keeps the essence of what we said to each other in more than four hours of talking. These are not, obviously, the exact words said in this occasion, but Steve has been so kind to approve this version. So, here it is.

“But what is that, exactly?” Steven said, somewhat surprised, after I had ushered him into the lab, to face the huge metal machine in the center. It was a giant mass of tubes, flanges, connectors, and more. Two students and one technician were busy tooling around with wrenches and screwdrivers; all while watching the screens of several computers placed around the machine.

“A super-microscope, basically”, I said. “it can see atoms, one by one. It is called a scanning tunneling microscope.”

Steven seemed to be duly impressed by the scene. He asked to me, "But these students; what they are learning, exactly?" My first answer was, "They are learning how to operate an atomic resolution microscope..." Then, I came up with something different. "But, really, they are learning how to be scientists. It takes years."

As the computer screens kept flashing their images, I tried to explain. “See, Steven, those two young guys, the two graduate students, they are going through a kind of training. It will make them slightly different than the average human being. They are going to learn that, in science, the "pecking order" is often established by proving that your colleague is wrong. No one plays the nice guy in this. Whatever you do will be scrutinized by your colleagues with the specific purpose of proving you wrong. And you'll do the same with your colleagues. It is the way science works.”

Back in my office, we continued the discussion. “Scientists are human beings, of course,” I said, “and to err is human. But the system works in such a way that, as a scientist, you find yourself “embedded” and, normally, it is very difficult to miss the beat. In science, there is this tight system of controls. Mediocre scientists can still perform honest work; bright ones find that their creative flights of fancy are ruthlessly destroyed by their colleagues.”

“But,” Steve said, “If the system keeps in check the behavior of people, how can there be a 'bad science', or 'pseudo science'?”

I scratched my head a bit. “Well....” I said,”you know, Steve, pseudo science is just like 'Hugo Simpson,' you remember, he is a character of the Simpsons series. Hugo is Bart Simpson's evil twin. He looks like Bart, but he is not Bart. He lives in the attic and he eats fish heads raw.... So, pseudo-science looks like science, but it is not science. Pseudo-scientists make measurements, or at least what they call measurements. They write papers, they claim to have obtained results. And pseudo-science has academies, journals, conferences, prizes, everything.  But it is all different, it is like Hugo Simpson – he is not Bart!”

At this point, I think I looked fully paranoid to Steve, who started looking at me rather puzzled. As I tried to say more, he stopped me. “All right, Ugo,” he said, “let's go to things real. From what you are telling me, it is clear that you classify 'cold fusion' as pseudo-science”

I didn't even need to nod with my head as Steve continued. “So, just tell me why cold fusion is pseudo science.”

“Steve,” I said, “I read that you visited the nuclear plants in Chernobyl, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“An interesting experience, I figure.”

“You bet.”

“How would you classify the Chernobyl plant; science or pseudo-science?”

“Well.... the whole thing was in shambles but... hmmm.... it looked pretty much like science to me. I mean, serious stuff.”

“Right. Chernobyl was a disaster, of course. But it was science. The nuclear plants were built by scientists on the basis of scientific results. And the plants worked. They produced energy for many years; until someone had this idea of making a test to see what would happen in case there was a sudden loss of the external power supply.”

“That was the scientific approach?”

“It was. Scientists have this tendency of blowing themselves up with their experiments. It has happened so many times in the history of science! But it is the scientific method: you have an idea, you need to put it to test. See, Steve, I am not so happy to have to say this, but from what I read about the Chernobyl disaster, it was a legitimate experiment. A poorly designed experiment, yes, but a legitimate one. In a way, it even worked. They learned what they should not have done. A bit too late, unfortunately....”

Steve smiled, “It reminds me of the scientist who injected himself with bacteria to prove his theory on the cause of ulcers." He said. "He could prove that he was right!”

“Yes, I know the story. They should never have that guy get even close to a nuclear plant! A friend of mine said once that for humans discovering nuclear energy has been like it would be for ants to discover fire.... but this is another story. “

“Well, all right," Steve continued, "so Chernobyl was good science, and....”

“All right, let me get to my point, Steve.  Most of the victims in Chernobyl were killed by radiations. If you have nuclear reactions you have radiations: that's a fundamental point. And nuclear radiations kill people - we know that. That happened not just in Chernobyl; there are many cases of people who were hurt by radiations - sometimes even killed. You have to be very careful when you deal with nuclear reactions. I have worked a little with X-rays and nuclear isotopes and I can tell you: it is scary stuff. "

"I see your point," Steve said. "You mean that there are no radiations with cold fusion..."

"Yeah, people claiming that they can attain 'cold fusion' show no sign of radiation damage, as far as I know. Not that I wish that they would get hurt, of course, but if they were really getting nuclear fusion, the energies involved are immense and.....

“But,” Steve said, “there is this claim of 'excess heat'.....”

“Well, see, Steve, there are rules. You claim you have this 'excess heat,' Fine, you can claim that, but your claim must be verified. In science, experiments must be clearly explained, must be reviewed by competent people, must be repeatable and not just repeatable - must be actually repeated. And if competent people can't repeat your experiment, then you don't claim that there is a conspiracy against you. You are wrong and you must admit it. You know, this is not arbitrary. These rules are applied because they work. You don't apply the rules? You are not doing science – you are doing pseudo-science. You are like Hugo Simpson in the Simpsons. Not the real Bart.”

Steve seemed to be thoughtful for a while “But, you know, there is one thing about Hugo Simpson.....”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember how the story ends?”

“Hmmm..... I think I understand what you mean.”

“Yes. In the end it is discovered that Hugo is the “good” twin, whereas Bart is the evil one. Could that happen with pseudo-science?”

“You mean, discovering that pseudo-science is real science?”

“Yeah.”

I laughed. “Sure! In that case, some scientists will be confined in a damp attic and forced to eat fish heads raw!”

Steve laughed, too. “Do you think it could happen?”

“Well, it is the beauty of science: if you can prove than an accepted theory is wrong, then it is proven that it is wrong - everybody accepts it. But you must provide good proof and follow the rules of science.”

“And you don't think that the cold fusion people.......”

“No way!”

“But they could.”

“In principle.......yes. But, you know, Steve, I am not really afraid of having to eat raw fish heads any time soon!”

“Which reminds me of something....”

“Yep! You know, in Italy we can have something much better than raw fish heads for lunch!”

“I was sure of that. Let's go!”

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