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The Undergrowth of Science

Review of skeptic Walter Grazer’s book The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty, Oxford University Press, 2000

In the film ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ there is a famous scene where religious fundamentalists (actually women wearing false beards) gather eagerly to stone to death a blasphemer who has profaned holy law.

The further I got into The Undergrowth of Science by Walter Gratzer, the more I was reminded of those women.

Today’s mob are scientific fundamentalists, acting in the name of reason to save science from blasphemers. The fake beards are a grotesquely distorted form of scientific rationalism.

Mercifully, the weapons are no longer rocks but merely unreflecting insults, malicious ridicule and scorn. They can nevertheless be deeply damaging to the careers of dedicated scientists, as several of this book’s targets discovered to their cost.

Had this book been written by one of the rabid pseudoskeptics who infest the Internet it would not even merit a response. But Walter Gratzer is professor emeritus of Biophysical Chemistry at King’s College London and hence someone you might expect to be careful with facts.

The first, and meatiest part, of the book is a familiar homage to Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Laureate who worked in the US General Electric’s laboratory and who coined the term ‘pathological science’. In 1953 he gave a lecture on self-deluding research to his colleagues. The transcript of this lecture was published in 1989 in the magazine Physics Today with the object of deriding Fleischmann and Pons for their announcement of cold fusion.

Gratzer recounts the cases from Langmuir’s lecture: Blondlot and his imaginary N-Rays; Davis and Barnes’s ‘electron capture’ experiments; and Fred Allison’s magneto-optical method of analysis. Like Langmuir he agrees that each and every case is one of self-delusion and the effects studied non-existent.

And he rehearses approvingly Langmuir’s list of diagnostic criteria for detecting ‘pathological science’

1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity.

2. The effect is near the threshold of visibility or the threshold of any other sense used to detect it, or many, many measurements are needed because of the very low statistical significance of results.

3. There are claims of great accuracy, great sensitivity, or great specifity.

4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.

5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.

6. The ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50 per cent and then falls gradually to oblivion.

He also follows Langmuir in another important way: he fails to bring forward any scientific evidence to show precisely why and how all these cases are ‘pathological’ or delusory. Because Blondlot was obviously barmy we are invited to conclude that all the other scientists mentioned must be guilty of self-delusion too. In reality, the first five of Langmuir’s criteria can be found in many key pieces of scientific research which today are universally accepted.

One of the best examples is Robert Millikan’s measurement of the charge on the electron by the oil-drop method — the laborious inspection of thousands of minute drops through a microscope, at the threshold of detection, and the statistical study of results. Indeed, Millikan’s notebooks reveal that he also selected his data to prove the desired conclusion — yet his method and his value are today accepted as underpinning the whole of atomic science, not decried as delusory.

Langmuir’s sixth criterion is as neat a piece of self-delusion as one could hope to find anywhere in the real undergrowth of science for it is true only in selected cases, and hence not diagnostic. Langmuir and Gratzer themselves cite cases they claim to be delusory science but where research still continues years or decades later.

Finally, they neglect to mention that pseudoskeptics like themselves are often instrumental in ending the research – not some natural loss of interest. For example, Langmuir himself admits that he wrote to Niels Bohr to ‘head off’ any further research into Davis and Barnes ‘electron capture’ and he and other chemists urged publications such as Physical Review to reject further papers by Allison — a policy that was adopted.

Both Langmuir and Gratzer also fail to explain how, if Allison’s magneto-optical apparatus was self-delusion, scientists using it were able correctly to identify a series of unknown inorganic substances in solution with 100% accuracy in blind tests, with a probability of their results being due to chance of 1 in 7560.

Superficially, Gratzer’s book appears well-researched but whenever he gets onto a subject with which I am familiar it becomes plain that he has made a number of errors in his reporting. Moreover, these errors assist the case he is trying to make rather than undermining it.

The colleagues of cold fusion researcher Dr John Bockris, at Texas A&M University did not ‘finally manage to have him removed’ as Gratzer claims. Bockris is now Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M simply because he is now 78 years old and hence retired! Before he retired, in December 1993, a number of Bockris’s scientific colleagues petitioned the provost to have him removed from his post because of his cold fusion work but, to their credit, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M defended his right to conduct chemistry research as he saw fit and rejected this attempt at witch-hunting.

Gratzer describes research into ‘cold fusion’ as ‘The most recent and globally spectacular outbreak of self-delusion — the triumph of desire over reason.’ One of his scientific reasons for saying so is the absence of an expected product of fusion — tritium (the heaviest isotope of hydrogen.) In fact Dr Edmund Storms and colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted 250 cold fusion experiments over a year. They found 13 Palladium electrodes containing excess tritium but Gratzer ignores these findings (and indeed almost every other replication of Fleischmann and Pons).

In a historical discursion, Gratzer follows the usual line of dismissing Anton Mesmer as a charlatan and says, ‘Messmer’s [sic] reputation could not survive this unequivocal judgement [of the Royal Commission] and he departed hastily for Austria, never to return.’ In fact the Royal Commission reported in 1784 and its malediction had no effect at all on Mesmer who remained in Paris and continued to practice. It was the French revolution five years later in 1789 which caused Mesmer to flee to the safety of England.

Many other such careless examples can be found.

Gratzer acknowledges in passing that scientists who pursue research that is considered unsound by their conservative colleagues are unlikely to get published and unlikely to receive funding grants. Yet he fails to connect this phenomenon with the fact that most people in charge of peer review committees and research funding committees are conservative pseudoskeptics like Langmuir and himself. It is yet another diagnostic criterion that in reality is no more than a self-fulfilling prejudice.

Gratzer relates accounts of several notable wrong turnings taken by scientists; ‘polywater’, memory transfer through RNA injections, monkey glands, unnecessary surgical removal of organs — all good knockabout stuff. And there are warnings of what happens when politicians attempt to interfere with science, illustrated by the failed policies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

But buried in the heart of this book is a contradiction that Gratzer makes no serious attempt to resolve. It is this. He piles example upon example of delusory science, with the aim of building in his reader’s minds an unambiguous and categorical distinction between ‘real’ science, acceptable science, of the kind that he and his ‘real’ scientific colleagues practice, and the self-deluding science that is practised by fools and charlatans on the fringes.

But he does not attempt to analyse or define this distinction, and the only tools he offers us to tell which science is delusory and which is real prove to be illusory themselves. Langmuir’s criteria turn out to be subjective and just as applicable to ‘real’ science like Millikan’s. This raises the question how does Gratzer himself know which science is delusory and which real?

Surely the whole of science proceeds by precisely this kind of trial and error process? Theories are proposed, tested, criticised and, sooner or later, accepted or rejected. The failed theories are no less ‘real’ than the successful ones. Of course the process is often far more complex. In many cases ambiguous phenomena continue to be argued about for years or decades, or the experiments continue for years or decades — sometimes longer than they should. But who is qualified to say which cases are which? Take hot fusion for example, which Gratzer holds up as an example of real science. It was first experimented with in the 1950s, there have been numerous false dawns and disappointments, and millions continue to be spent each year, still with no practical results. Hot fusion is as far from reality or commercial exploitation today as it was fifty years ago, yet no-one calls hot fusion self-deluding science. So why not exactly?

To my mind this is the question that Gratzer should be addressing. What — precisely what — is the difference between experiments with hot fusion and those with cold fusion such that the former is respectable and the latter is not?

It is not until the closing chapter of the book that Gratzer finally recognises the problem and asks, ‘How then are we to recognise what I have called (after Irving Langmuir) ‘pathological science’ and distinguish it from an authentic conceptual leap that transcends the wisdom of the day?’

Alas, the question remains unanswered. Gratzer puts forward several suggestions but, finally, recognises that they are inadequate. He again offers us Langmuir’s rules on the grounds of their ‘quite remarkable generality’ but fails to notice their shortcomings because he makes no serious scientific attempt to evaluate them – even though he is a scientist writing about scientific issues.

In a section devoted to science under the Nazis, Gratzer describes Heinrich Himmler thus; ‘Himmler was a man of severely limited intelligence and had no notion of the nature of scientific enquiry. He believed, in particular, that truth was vouchsafed through the imagination and that the task of science was to gather proof of revealed propositions . . .’

This may very well be an accurate description of Himmler’s outlook, but it can equally be applied to some professional scientists. How for instance did Irving Langmuir know that Allison’s method was ‘pathological’? How does Gratzer himself know so clearly that cold fusion is self-delusion? It isn’t experimental evidence because the evidence can be interpreted either way. What is left? Only some kind of ‘truth’ vouchsafed by rationalist intuition alone.

Gratzer’s identity parade of suspects whom he invites us to convict is nothing more than a selective look at some of the normal failures of science with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, a post hoc rationalisation. He simply omits to mention the many other scientific failures which did not raise his hackles at the time.

My sister in law earned a postgraduate degree in nuclear physics by spending several years at CERN looking for a particle which proved probably not to exist. The search for this particle involved many scientists and probably cost millions. But such routine negative results as this do not attract Gratzer’s wrath because it is unimportant to him whether the ‘X’ meson exists or not. But it is very important to him whether cold fusion is real or whether homeopathic dilute solutions are real or whether there is such a thing as a biological form of energy – important enough to write a book denouncing them.

The trouble is that telling us exactly why such subjects are important to him – the one admission that could make this book useful or interesting – is the one thing he avoids revealing to us, as though he would be showing us some fatal weakness in his case.