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.