Week 1- A real life scientific controversy from the inside

We began the second semester with a general science themed session. In the first hour, we were introduced to the various types of science that spark controversies. In the second hour, we were given (in detail) the first-hand experience of a person who was part of the cold fusion project, which blew up in the late 80’s- early 90’s. The project received backlash from the rest of the scientific community, and the hype around it died soon after. If you’re interested in nuclear fusion at room temperatures, read the informative wiki post.

The cold fusion cell that was supposed to generate vast amounts of energy at room temperature. Taken from undsci.berkeley.edu

My post will be focused around the first half of the session, with some current examples.

The 3 types of science gone wrong

  1. Science that is wrong: The scientific method is correct but the idea/hypothesis itself is completely wrong
  2. Pathological science: The researcher is led to believe an incorrect conclusion based on his/her way of looking at the experimental outcome.
  3. Pseudoscience: Something that is not science being disguised and conveyed as science. Commonly seen in popular science!

Science that is wrong

This is the reason why we do so many experiments. When we attempt to come up with new ideas, many of them will be tested and proven wrong. And, in general, not being afraid to be wrong is good for science because we learn from our mistakes!

Although the next example may not be the creation of a scientific idea, it is motivating to see how a setback does not equal a failure, and the same applies to science.

One of my favourite stories is that of the invention of the Post-it note.

Motivational post-it note!!

The co-inventor of the post-it note was a scientist working at 3M. In 1968, While attempting to make a super-adhesive in the lab, he created a weak glue that did not hold things well together- they could be detached just by peeling gently. This was useless at first, but then he thought of making a bulletin board with this adhesive on it. Although this wasn’t commercially successful either, it was one step closer to the ‘right answer’. A chemical engineer, also working in the company, suggested that the adhesives be placed on pieces of paper, rather than on the board itself. The community that got free post-it notes loved it! This lead to the successful development of the Post-it note.

Pathological science

Is this molecule too negative? Try making it yourself.

A good example of this would be polywater– a polymerised form of water that has a higher boiling point, a lower freezing point, higher viscousity- meaning higher overall stability. In the late 1960s, it was developed by soviet scientists, and the British and the Americans learnt of this a few years later, leading to concerns that the soviets were ahead of the west. The material had capabilities as an anti-freezing agent, and there was fear that polywater was ‘infectious’- that polywater would convert normal water into itself.

Never heard of polywater? Do you want to make it yourself? Here’s my step-by-step guide to making polywater:

1. First drink a cup of normal water. Your body is used as a medium for the creation of polywater.

2. Next, you should enter the correct mental state to create polywater. You are reading this random blog, when you feel a small chill down the back of your neck.

Imagine a person behind you- what do they look like? What are their intentions? Only scroll when you have a clear mental image of this person.

… Your heart rate seems to have gone up.

… As quickly as you can, turn back and face that person.

… Nothing there. But you were frightened.

… Now look at your palms. You have created your own polywater- sweat.

(Sorry if that was scary!)

What happened was that the soviet scientist’s flask of water was contaminated with organic materials, leading to its unusual physical properties. The American scientist who debunked the myth of polywater was an avid player of handball. After a casual game in the lab, he analysed his own sweat, and it was surprisingly similar to ‘polywater’!

What I learnt from this is scientists are human and make stupid mistakes. In many cases of pathological science, the scientist makes an unusual observation, and rather than go for the most likely explanation (“There might be a mistake in the experiment”), they choose an explanation that seems to excite them more (“New discovery!”). It is this split-second of non rational thinking that drives them to cling on a false belief.

What is worse is if they are a well-known, distinguished scientist, then people will automatically assume that they are correct. Controversial statements spread like fire through the general population, and many will accept it as a fact without critically analysing what is being said.

In the case of polywater, a more well-known Soviet scientist had verified the work of the first scientist (showing that both had contaminated equipment), which lead to the general public of the UK and US believing it almost straight away.

In the case of cold fusion, a world expert electrochemist advocated for the project. Although progress in science is driven by remarkable original ideas, they can be a double-edged sword and harm the progress in science if the ideas cannot be backed up by evidence.

5 Crazy facts about pseudoscience- you won’t believe #6!

Did you know that..

all scientists practice pseudoscience?

most scientists prefer to use more pseudoscience in their lives, if they could?

– pseudoscience and Vitamin C combined is 75% more effective for treating colds than just Vitamin C?

pseudopseudoscientists should not be trusted?

– If you drop your pseudoscience course at your local university, you can still pick it back up and eat it if you didn’t drop it for more than 5 seconds?

Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams?

Unlike pathological science, there are too many pseudoscientific statements to count them all, and what’s concerning is that the general public have ‘facts’ of pseudoscience grouped together with science because they seem indistinguishable.

So how does one distinguish pseudoscientific statements from those that are scientific?

1. The source. Is what you are reading coming from a reliable peer-reviewed journal? Or is it a buzzfeed article shared by your facebook acquaintance who posts everyday even though his posts get no likes? Regarding information from the internet, common sense is good for distinguishing the good information from the dramatic fake ones. However, if the source is the people around us, oftentimes it is easier to accept what they tell us as facts. Next time a scientific ‘fact’ or piece of advice is given to you by a caring relative or an enthusiastic friend, I recommend that you ponder on it before accepting it as a fact.

2. The evidence. After a controversial statement, is there evidence or an explanation to back it up? Or is the reader left wondering? Pseudoscience may not have evidence because the writers know that there is no good evidence. Sometimes, in an attempt to provide evidence, a single, small trial (prone to statistical errors) by a relatively unknown researcher is referenced. In general, the more sources, the better, especially if they are from scientific journals.

3. The status quo- for the scientists. What do the majority of scientists think of the statement you have seen? Is there a simple reason to debunk it as a myth? Google searching a pseudoscientific statement can often come up with contrasting statements- the scientists claiming that it is false, and the attention-grabbing sites that actively promote the statement.

4. Your common sense and intuitive mind. If it is a subject that you do not necessarily know a lot about, you may be driven to believe the statement that ‘looks’ the most correct. But does it seem right? Common sense may be helpful. It may also be helpful to know more about the subject before you decide on what to believe in- or perhaps just hold your opinion on the specific topic.

5. Know the biases.

  • Experimenter bias: the scientist conducting the experiment cherry-picks the results to only show ones that have an effect. This misleads the media into thinking the experiment is more successful than it really is.
  • Publishing bias: the majority of experiments that report a negative result are withheld and those that show a good result are published. This means that the ratio of success-failure as understood by the media is different from the actual ratio.
  • The placebo effect. A new medicine is 20% more effective than no medicine? Giving a sugar pill may do the same, because people actually get better when they believe they have taken medicine, regardless of what they are taking.
  • Manipulating percentages– if your risk of serious injury or death from a plane crash is increased by 200% if you are sitting in the non-aisle seats, is that a major concern? Probably not, as the initial risk is lower than 1 in 2 million (source).

And that is my post for week 1. It got much longer than I expected- which is okay so far because I still have free time. As course work for the other courses start to pile up, the posts may begin to decrease in length- but I will strive to keep the posts at a relatively good quality level.

Thank you for reading!

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