Saturday, June 09, 2007

When Imagination Trumps Science

I recently finished an interesting book that was a pure impulse item at the local library -- those scheming librarians put books on display all over to snag the likes of me! Imaginary Weapons is the saga of various Department of Defense funded efforts to develop a new class of weapons based on some exotic physics, efforts that are characterized by the steady flow of funding to a scientist of dubious quality to work on a phenomenon that is unrepeatable. My tax dollars at work!

The book is flawed in many ways, and some squishy details at the beginning set me on edge. There is also a lack of a good description of the exact topic being discussed (clear isomers of hafnium), and the author all too often uses 'hafnium' as a shorthand for 'hafnium isomer', even when she is discussing nearby the ordinary, stable form of hafnium. There is also an excess focus on the strange setup of the key experimenter, who uses salvaged dental X-ray equipment for the crucial test. This is probably not the right gear, but the question why is never explored.

The key figure running the 'experiments' (to use the word charitably) is constantly updating what the doubters should have found to reproduce his experiments. "I know signature X was in the paper, but I now know you should look for Y". Negative controls -- forget about it; they were flatly refused.

The truly sad part were the enablers at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. DARPA is supposed to fund longshot stuff, and so it could be argued this work was appropriate initially. But to keep sinking money into a clear incompetent, that is the travesty.

The author actually interviewed most of the participants in the fiasco on both sides, but she really missed the golden opportunity. When asked why this research kept being funded, despite criticism from anyone with standing in the physics community, the answer was always that the applications were so promising and it was DARPA's job to fund high-risk, high-reward science. The question that apparently went unasked is 'why this topic'? Why pour so much money into hafnium isomers, rather than zero point energy or antimatter or antigravity? Once you've decided to ignore the recognized experts in a field, how do you go from there? Of course, one can hope this works as 'push polling' to reconsider the meaning of science, but more than likely the next budget request would include funds for the research arm of the Jedi Knights.

Supporting important science that isn't initially respected is a challenge. Biology has plenty of examples of scientists who fought orthodoxy and ultimately were proven correct: Mendel (genetics), Roux (oncogenic viruses), Prusiner (prions), Langer (drug release systems), Folkman (angiogenic factors), Marshall (H.pylori & ulcers), Brown (microarrays) & Venter (whole genome shotgun is just a tiny list. But it is also important to balance that against the stuff that was dodgy then and is still dodgy now, such as Moewus and Kammerer and a host of others. Even if what you claimed to do is eventually done, that doesn't mean you were right -- the claim of cloning a mouse in the 70's has nothing to do with the reality of cloning a mouse in our time. What separates the good fringe science from the crankery is an attention to the criticism, not ignorance of it. I've heard both Langer & Folkman speak, and they clearly kept addressing their critics concerns in their papers. These pioneers also weren't just right; they had done their science well. Mendel found the right laws & his data was generally good; in contrast the uniparental mouse of the 70's is still a fraud despite mammalian cloning ultimately playing out.

Bad work in the guise of science, either outright fraud or self-deception (what Feynman termed 'cargo cult science') will probably be with us forever. Great travesties have been perpetrated claiming to be scientific (e.g. the Tuskeegee syphilis horror). This year's big investigation is bubble fusion; last year's was cloning & next year it will be something else. Reading about science gone wrong isn't much fun (well, the N-ray expose is fun to contemplate!), but it is necessary.


Anonymous said...

Let us hope that DARPA is better advised this time, when funding the search for fundamental laws in biology. While this is obviously no quackery, the feasibility of this enterprise if far from being proven. I have discussed this issue recently in my blog, including some explanations by Jonathan Eisen who is involved in the project. See

- Kay

Steve Murphy MD said...

What an excellent post. The field of molecular medicine/personalized medicine/genomics has a long road ahead. I am often reminded that Semmelweis' ideas of hand hygeine took almost 50 years to become accepted practice. Handwashing!!!! OMG, I am at a loss for the risk benefit analysis there....