Science Reporting and Getting it Right
By Charles G. Beaudette

Back to Science Philosophy and Science Journalism

Excerpt from Excess Heat & Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed (2nd Edition)(from chapter 23)

There are a few cautionary rules for reporters once the chase is underway. Do not assume that the scientific establishment is as pure as the driven snow, that it has no other purposes than to help sort out the science. I have run into themes of punishment for slights, noble motives of protecting the public, protection of funding, and myriad other reasons for putting down the claimant, all of them quite separate from the question of the validity of the claims.

Scientists are people subject to human failings. The institution of science is as likely to fail as any other social institution. We take it for granted that catastrophes occur even in our most important and carefully run institutions: major banks occasionally collapse in bankruptcy; schools fail to educate children; a surgeon cuts off the wrong leg, a house is built on the wrong lot. Most of the time our institutions function well, but no one thinks they are perfect. For some strange reason, reporters have convinced themselves that the profession of science alone has somehow achieved perfection.

There is wide variety in science. It stretches from the physicist, to the geologist, to the biologist, and beyond. The nuclear physicist may demand a recipe for replication of an experiment, but that demand may be peculiar to nuclear physics. To a considerable extent, the nuclear physicist does not look upon the “Dolly” event as following the protocols required for science. The reporter who must jump from field to field in his reporting should be keenly aware of this variety of protocols. He or she may find a number of the references in this book helpful in that regard.

According to another science reporter, “[Science reporting] often requires the skills of a good police reporter”. I would emphasize that comparison. The police are often constrained in their actions because they cannot get away from the fact that a crime has been committed, and something has to be done about it. A comparison, if it is not driven too hard, will help to elucidate the rules. There was an old tradition attached to the “police blotter,” a genre sometimes called crime reporting. The reporter’s job was to do much more than print the official statements passed out by the police department or the mayor’s office. The reporter had to learn the circumstances of a crime, and watch the police behavior with a critical eye. There was no suggestion in this that the “crime” reporter knew better than the police, only that he was independent. He had to keep the whole picture in mind, and think about how things fit together. This kind of analysis of the content and sequence of events was not evident in the large volume of reporting on the cold fusion saga during 1989.

The best way for a reporter to learn exactly what the claims were was to read what the proponents said. These claims could then be followed to see if the scientific community was seriously evaluating them, or merely grandstanding for its own diverse purposes.

Another step in the right direction comes with identification of the science sub-specialty of interest. This should be done with care if the reporter wants valuable consultations. The global warming debate has been marked by such choices made by the different sides when planning interviews.

The choices in the matter of cold fusion were largely between physics and chemistry, but the choices between nuclear physics and solid state physics, calorimetry and electrochemistry were also important.

It is particularly worthwhile to report about critical experiments published in serious journals, especially when the matter is controversial. No one field of science has a direct channel to interpret natural phenomena and can know for certain who or what is right. The sophisticated reporter is always aware of nature as a hidden partner in science; she can trump any argument mankind might devise.

The influence of the science reporter was a strong one as the cold fusion episode entered its twelfth year. The American scientific community remained ignorant of the experimental developments in the field. The reporter would recognize the fact that professors of chemistry and physics in the most prestigious research institutions are quite unaware of what has been achieved in the years since 1989. Reporters making inquiry can be careful in selecting the expertise they need to consult. They can, for example, ask the expert interviewee the extent of his familiarity with cold fusion literature and research, and pass that on to the reader. The best source will be a scientist who is up to date on the literature.

This is the place to turn, finally, to a resolution and conclusion regarding the many contentions in the field of study called cold fusion.