An interesting editorial in the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry publication Chemistry World by University of Liverpool chemistry professor Mathias Brust encourages scientific journals to address and debate ‘bad science’. Brust’s article, entitled “Safeguarding science against falsehood demands debate”, expresses concern that there is not enough post-publication debate about problematic scientific claims, and feels that science will be strengthened if scientists get involved in robust back and forth discussions so that a thorough examination of new claims can take place.
Brust cites the 1989 cold fusion announcement in the article:
The late Martin Fleischmann, an eminent electrochemist of highest international standing, driven, no doubt, by his unbound enthusiasm for science, announced the discovery of cold nuclear fusion in 1989, together with his colleague Stanley Pons. Their claim had immense global importance and laboratories everywhere started to work on it, some claiming encouraging results, others unable to reproduce the effect. To date no functional cold nuclear fusion reactor has been built, which suggests that the original report was either flawed, or that the data were over interpreted.
Brust seems to be saying that the reaction of the scientific world to the Fleischmann-Pons claim was an example of the way scientists should respond to unusual and new claims — his point in the article is that this type of reaction has typically been the exception rather than the rule. Note, however, that Brust does not appear to be shooting down cold fusion here; he doesn’t call Fleischmann and Pons frauds. The last sentence in the quotation above is a cautious one, and leaves the door open to CF verification.
I think most rational people see the valuable role that science can play in uncovering deception and fraud in science. New claims should be carefully examined and rigorously tested before being adopted — but for science to work properly it is important that the investigators be open minded and clear headed, willing to go where the evidence leads. If scientists are motivated by fear, jealousy, greed, etc., the process doesn’t work.
It makes me wonder what would have happened if the 1989 University of Utah news conference had never taken place, and Pons and Fleischmann had published their findings in a journal and had been able to avoid the media circus that they became caught up in which seemed to polarize the players in the debate. Thankfully the cold fusion torch has not been entirely dropped, and great progress in the field seems to be taking place.