Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion
Gary Taubes, Random House, NY, 1993
Hardback, 503 pages.
"Gary Taubes took an axe
Gave Pons and Fleischmann forty whacks
And when he saw what he had done
He gave John Bockris forty-one."
(with apologies to Lizzie Borden)
Gary Taubes begins this book on a witch hunt and never lets up. What could have been the definitive nail in the coffin of low-level phenomena in deuterided solids (a current and politically correct name for cold fusion), becomes instead a collection of hard facts diluted with opinions and innuendoes. Taubes is a scientific journalist who "studied physics at Harvard", but how could anyone who studied physics say "gases ... are unable to support a high enough concentration of ions to conduct electricity." Perhaps Mr. Taubes would like to test his assertion in the next thunderstorm? Perhaps he has never seen a neon sign? And yet this is one of the shreds of evidence he uses to indict a Pons and Fleischmann manuscript on gas-phase electrochemistry. This is not to say their papers, which he describes as "dead wrong to recklessly interpreted" were not. I can't tell, since he makes it extremely difficult for the reader to confirm the assertions, providing almost no references in the entire book.
"Bad Science" follows the misadventures of cold fusion advocates and skeptics from 1989 to 1992, from the ecstatic beginning through the rapid demise. It also examines in great detail both the scientific and personal lives of the major players in the drama: Pons, Fleischmann, Jones, and Bockris. I suppose Mr. Taubes felt that the only way to explain the mass delusion of so many scientists was to provide a psychological basis for the phenomena. And you know, he’s right! When you start looking at scientists as human beings and not as computers on legs, you also start to realize their fallibility.
The book is a treasure-trove of great quotations:
- The Vernon Hughes law of low-level statistics ("Despite the fact that a three-sigma effect appears to have a 99.73 percent chance of being right, it will be wrong half the time") is used to examine the level of confidence at which scientists publish. Steve Jones is quoted to say "if 4 sigma publish."
- The wager of Blaise Pascal, who renounced a life of science for one of faith ("To bet on the existence of God and to be wrong is to lose little or nothing. To wager correctly that there is a god is to be rewarded with an infinity of infinitely happy life ... if you win you win everyting, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.") is used to explain why so many jumped on the cold fusion bandwagon. As the Cal Tech electrochemist Nathan Lewis said, "If cold fusion were true, electrochemists would all have funding beyond their wildest imaginations ... an electrochemist’s wet dream!"
- But perhaps the most telling quotes are from Fleischmann ("If you really don’t believe something deeply enough before you do an experiment, you will never get it to work") and Bockris ("Negative results can be obtained without skill and experience.") Indeed, I found the most valuable part of this book to be the close examination of how those without skill and experience, or even with skill and experience, got positive results when none existed.
Finally, perhaps the most vilified person in the book is John Bockris, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M. While many know Dr. Bockris from his distinguished career in electrochemical research, others will recall the recent media examination of his transmutation experiments (see Academic Freedom or Scientific Misconduct?). Taubes notes that Dr. Bockris' research group kept the cold fusion balloon aloft by claims of tritium in their cold fusion cells, and points an accusing finger at a Bockris graduate student, presents circumstantial evidence of fraudulent spiking and claims a cover-up.
Perhaps the most puzzling question in the book was why Eugene Mallove, the outspoken supporter of cold fusion is mentioned only briefly and in a positive tone by Taubes. Very strange, since Mallove rakes him over the coals for his tritium accusations against the Bockris lab in his pro-cold fusion book, "Fire from Ice" (Wiley, 1991) published two years before.
There are few winners in "Bad Science." Taube’s witch-hunt finds plenty of victims, and few are innocent. I found the book easy to read and quite enjoyable, although when I finished, I wasn’t very satisfied. Perhaps the scientist in me resented the intrusion into private lives, or maybe it was just the absence of adequate references and documentation. I highly recommend "Bad Science", but also suggest you read it carefully with a skeptical eye.
Page prepared by: Mike Epstein
Last Modified: 30 April 1999