Season of the Weird: Cold Fusion and Hot Tomatoes
Cold Fusion and
Hot Tomatoes

BY TIM PATTERSON

     And you probably thought I was going to write about
Jackie Kennedy, still showing grace under ground.
     Well, you're wrong. This is about Science. There has
been more Science in the news lately than at any time I can
remember since the Sputnik hysteria in the late '50s.
     This has been front-page stuff: experimental
confirmation of the existence of the top quark, the last
missing sub-atomic particle predicted by the theory of
quantum mechanics; photographic confirmation of the
existence of black holes, another clincher for the theory of
relativity; and at least a dozen articles a week on the
wonders of the Internet, confirming that millions would
rather commune with their PC screens than communicate with
their neighbors.
     All of these are examples of Good Science, the
successful application of the rigorous experimental method.
Meanwhile, I've been having a great read going through Gary
Taubes' Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold
Fusion.
     You may remember the splash made in spring 1989 when
two University of Utah chemists held a press conference
claiming that they had induced nuclear fusion at room
temperature, thus holding out the promise of a limitless,
safe, dirt cheap source of energy. According to its
boosters, cold fusion would earn its proponents a Nobel
Prize and change the course of history -- not to mention
revise nearly all the known laws of physics.
     The book is a careful, deadpan account of a temporary
psychosis that hit a section of the scientific world in the
months following the announcement. Despite overwhelming
evidence that the pursuit of cold fusion was a fool's
errand, pockets of scientists all over the country kept
sticking palladium rods into heavy water and turning up the
juice, with no controls and hardly any record keeping. And
when these bizarre experiments produced predictably bizarre
results, more press conferences were held.
     Does this remind you of any other arena of "scientific"
activity you may have been involved in? Read on.
     Taubes uses the running metaphor of Pascal's wager to
explain the appeal of self-delusion. The famous 17th-century
French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal
eventually bagged scientific rationality and turned to faith
in God, arguing that while it might be a long shot, there
was a really big potential payoff if the wager turned out to
be right. Over and over, the cold fusion folks make
essentially the same argument -- sure, it sounds crazy, but
what if it works?
     When the results didn't pan out, and couldn't ever be
reproduced, the explanation was that the critics must not be
doing the experiments right. Then it was that you really,
really had to believe in cold fusion for it to appear in
your laboratory. Finally, the argument was that the burden
of proof was really on the nay-sayers, who had to prove that
the new theory wasn't true, rather than the fusionists
having to prove it was true.
     After a few hundred pages of this, Taubes introduces an
intriguing model, first developed by 1932 chemistry Nobel
laureate Irving Langmuir, of the dynamics of "pathological
science -- the science of things that aren't so." The basic
progression is that sloppy work by sloppy scientists gets
picked up by even worse scientists, who do worse and worse
work for smaller and smaller audiences. But the kicker is
that this kind of bad science may not completely die out for
a very long time, but just take on more and more peculiar
forms.
     Are we, as they say, on the same page here? Are any of
you still on this page at all?
     The only good thing about the rise and fall of cold
fusion was that it was blissfully brief. Along the way,
however, it did attract some heavy-hitting adherents,
including the Wall Street Journal, whose reporter apparently
couldn't see past the dollar signs. And when the Utah
fusionists needed a high-rolling power lobbyist to plead
their case for research funding before Congress, who did
they hire but Ira Magaziner -- yes, the same Ira Magaziner
who oversaw the concoction of the Clinton health care
package. (The similarities between cold fusion and managed
competition are too obvious to belabor.)
     Next up: the bio-engineered Cal-Gene tomato, now being
test marketed in Chicago and California, with a shelf life
longer than yours. The first food product that may carry
postmodern side effects. I can hardly wait to find out if
this one is Good Science or just Pascal's tomato.