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143) Social Aspects: Two Items

Ludwik Kowalski (5/21/04)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

Item 1.
In browsing the Internet I found this page:

It is an old document, entitled “The Cornell Cold Fusion Archive” written by Bruce V. Lewenstein. The date is not specified; I think it was posted in 1994. The author asks questions belonging to the realm of “science and society”. I think that these questions are worth thinking about. What follows are very extracts from his paper.


“. . . . Many analysts have attempted to draw morals from cold fusion, labeling it "pathological" or worse, while others have pointed to the ongoing investigations and challenged critics to approach cold fusion with the openness that is claimed to be the hallmark of scientific inquiry. But we should look at the cold fusion saga neither as an episode of error nor as an exemplar in science. Instead we learn much more by considering what it tells us about science at the end of the twentieth century. Among the key issues:

a) What role does the press play in modern science?
b) Does the press merely disseminate the results of experimental investigations,
or does it become an active player in the scientific process?
c) Was its behavior in the cold fusion saga somehow different than in other
scientific episodes?
d) What changes in science communication does cold fusion foretell?
e) What is the place of politics in science? Are politicians just players on the
outskirts of scientific investigation--or are they integral to modern scientific
f) What does politics in science accomplish?
g) How important is competition between research teams?
h) Is science fundamentally a search after nature's truths, or is it a game with
winners and losers?
i) How do patents affect research?
j) How can a field that puts so much emphasis on priority of discovery deal
with instances of double discoveries?

k) How can scientific commitments to
open communication be reconciled with intellectual property rights?
l) And, perhaps most fundamental, what does it mean for science when
experiments are unclear? If modern science depends on the belief that
an experiment can yield an answer, how can it deal with ambiguity and
incoherence in the research process?

Some scientists hope that cold fusion is unique. But I believe that the opposite is true. Virtually nothing about cold fusion is new or different. Instead, the cold fusion saga simply illustrates much of what we already know about science--about how researchers interact with the media, with politicians, with the patent system, with each other, and with nature. We can use the history of cold fusion as a window through which to view modern science.

The History of Cold Fusion
. . . . Recollections differ on the outcome of the March 6 meeting. Jones believes the two groups agreed to simultaneously submit manuscripts to Nature , with no public statements before the submission on March 24. Pons and Fleischmann have said that they planned on the simultaneous submission, but made no commitment to staying quiet.

In the event, they didn't. A week after the meeting, they submitted a "preliminary note" on their work to a specialty journal that promised them quick publication. And the day before they were to meet Jones at the airport Federal Express office for the simultaneous submission, they announced their findings by press conference. Fleischmann showed up at the airport as scheduled, but Jones didn't; by then, furious at what he believed to be a broken agreement, he had faxed his manuscript to Nature

According to Frank Close, a British theoretical physicist whose book on cold fusion, Too Hot to Handle , is critical of Pons and Fleischmann, this prehistory explains much of the chaos that followed. Close argues that the competition between the groups fueled the secrecy and speed with which they worked, leading to incomplete experiments, misinterpretations that persisted because they were never disclosed and debated with other scientists, and various other mistakes. On the other hand, the succor which the groups provided to each other--after all, each of them seemed to offer independent verification of the same results--also explains the certainty with which each side proceeded to defend its findings.

. . . The findings of the two groups were not identical. Jones claimed--and in 1993 continues to believe--that his apparatus yields signs of a small amount of nuclear fusion, an amount so small that it comes nowhere close to ‘break-even,’ the point at which an experiment produces more energy than it consumes. Pons and Fleischmann, on the other hand, claim that their experiments produce more heat (and thus energy) than can be explained by the chemical reactions occurring in the cells. Pons and Fleischmann acknowledge that their experiments do not produce the typical signs of fusion--neutrons, gamma rays, tritium, and helium in amounts correlated with excess heat. They argue that a "hitherto unknown nuclear process"--a new form of fusion--must be causing the heat.

But whatever the findings of Pons, Fleischmann, and Jones, they were not the only actors in the cold fusion drama. Within days of the press conference, scientists around the world had taken up the challenge posed by the two teams, and attempted to replicate the experiment themselves . . . The first widely-publicized confirmation of heat production came on April 10 from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. On the same day, a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta announced that they had detected neutrons in a cold fusion cell, confirming that fusion was occurring. (The Georgia Tech team publicly withdrew its claims within a few days; with less fanfare, the Texas A&M group later did the same.) By the end of April, a dozen laboratories from around the world had publicly announced partial confirmations of some aspect of cold fusion; at least 40 articles had been submitted to refereed journals on cold fusion.

. . . The president of the University of Utah, who had already secured a $5 million commitment from his state legislature, asked for $25 million from the federal government. On May 1, at an American Physical Society meeting in Baltimore, physicists turned the tables on the chemists, producing a string of negative evaluations of cold fusion in a marathon session that began in the early evening and ran until well past midnight. A similar session took place the next evening, as well. The APS meeting marked the beginning of the end of media attention to cold fusion. But the scientific controversy rolled on. . . .

Understanding the Cold Fusion Saga
Cold fusion skeptics have called this sequence of events everything up through fraud, pointing to abundant evidence of sloppiness and error in many of the experiments. True believers prefer to highlight new experimental work and recall the admonition that all scientific knowledge is tentative and temporary. But both of these approaches are normative attempts to say what science ought to be. Instead, we should ask, What does cold fusion tell us about science as it really is ? What, after all, is unique about cold fusion?

It's not the presence of the press. The media have been covering science closely for most of this century, with the active support of the scientific community. In the United States, the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are just three of the mainstream scientific organizations that devote significant fractions of their resources to cultivating press coverage of their fields. Press conferences have been used in the past, and will be used in the future, to present research both before and after it is published in the peer-reviewed literature.

A content analysis of the media coverage of cold fusion conducted by my students suggests it matched media coverage of other scientific topics. It met journalistic standards of "balance"-- that is, it reported both (or more) sides of the story. It rarely sensationalized. It was essentially accurate, erring primarily by the sin of omission. While scientists may not always be happy with the way science is covered by the media, many observers have come to understand that publication in the worlds of journalism and science have different meanings. Journalists will never provide the details scientists want, and scientists will rarely look for the "story" that excites journalists. Given the constraints under which science journalists operate, they did a competent job with cold fusion.

. . . One unusual aspect of cold fusion was the media's role as an active information broker. In several cases, reporters served as go-betweens for scientific groups that were not in direct contact. . . . Science communication is a complex, multifaceted, multidirectional process that involves many actors in various reciprocal arrangements. The media comprise merely one set of actors in the process. One new aspect of science communication in the cold fusion saga was the role of electronic communication (faxes, electronic mail, and computer bulletin boards) in the ongoing distribution of information about cold fusion. When preprints of manuscripts by the BYU and University of Utah teams became available about a week after the public announcement, copies of the preprints were faxed and (after having been scanned into computer-readable format) e-mailed around the world.

. . . Another area in which cold fusion is sometimes considered unique: competition. But competition between research teams is not new. In 1991, Science magazine featured an article on the ways in which teams try to beat each other to press, to shave just a few days off the publication process, in order to win to themselves the kudos of their peers. The physicist Philip Morrison has recently suggested that science is like sports. One implication is that while some parents may try to shield their children by saying that "doing your best" is the goal, we all know that for many people in sports, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. The same holds true for many scientists. They are in the game because they want to win.

. . . The implication of the experimenter's regress for modern science is multifaceted. If science is not the objective investigator of nature that its proponents often assert, then what is the basis of its claim to a privileged role in our daily affairs? If, on the other hand, we say that nature greatly constrains the possible judgments that a researcher (or a citizen) can make, even in the face of experimental uncertainties, how should we deal with arguments that push the limits of the uncertainties? Cold fusion is not unique in raising these questions; it simply puts them in bold relief.

. . . Cold fusion doesn't teach us anything that we don't already know about science. But perhaps the saga of cold fusion itself may be explained by the confluence in a single case of all the things we already know. And since the same confluence of media, patents, controversy, and politics shows up in other recent examples of high-profile science (high temperature superconductors are probably the best example), it seems likely cold fusion is merely a harbinger of confluences to come. In other words, cold fusion is a prototypical example of the contemporary social context of science.

Item 2.
In browsing the Internet I also found this page:

It is a sound file, a public lecture of David Nagel at the 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion. Some social issues are touched upon. I was in the audience and my voice can be heard. I tried to compare cold fusion with Manhattan project. The number of scientists working on cold fusion, worldwide, is about the same as the number of those who worked on Manhattan project. And caliber of scientists were more or less the same. How come, I asked, that in fifteen years cold fusion researchers could not produce a single item to convince other scientists that a new phenomenon was discovered? David said that those who developed atomic weapons had unlimited governmental support while those who discovered cold fusion were declared to be pseudo scientists. One can note that the efforts of weapon scientists were highly organized while the efforts of cold fusion researchers were not coordinated by an army general. Each of these two factors (support and coordination) is important.

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