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Unconventional Ideas in Science: Ready for the Nobel Prize award, or sent to the Hell of Heretics? Experiences in the hall of scientific fame

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Unconventional Ideas in Science: Ready for the Nobel Prize award, or sent to the Hell of Heretics? Experiences in the hall of scientific fame . Brian D. Josephson Department of Physics, University of Cambridge. WARNING.

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Unconventional Ideas in Science:

Ready for the Nobel Prize award, or sent to the Hell of Heretics?

Experiences in the hall of scientific fame

Brian D. Josephson

Department of Physics,

University of Cambridge



Listeners may find some of the ideas in this lecture disturbing; they may conflict with deeply held beliefs.


(Interlude: my current interests)

Which is more fundamental?

  • Usual view: matter is more fundamental, and life emerges from it
  • Alternative: life, mentality etc. emerge from a more fundamental level of existence

(from lecture ‘A critical point for science’)


Smart systems

  • Stable
  • Cooperate to form smart complexes
  • ‘do things’, compute (= I/O + dynamics)
  • Communicate, make requests, anticipation
  • Mutual support in a group
  • Societies live longer
  • Melt-freeze strategy at edge of chaos
  • Development of specialisations

Smart systems


Examples of the ‘hell of the heretic’

  • What’s going on here?
  • motivation on basis of alleged dangers
  • erroneous nature of attacks
  • psychological and organisational factors
  • what can be done?

Example 1. Attack by Nature on work of Jacques Benveniste

“High-dilution” Experiments a Delusion

John Maddox, James Randi, Walter W. Stewart

Nature 334, 287–290 (28 Jul 1988)

Benveniste appears to have been ‘set up’ by Nature, who insisted, contrary to what one might think would be the reasonable order to do things, on publication prior to investigation.

Nature found it unnecessary to include experts in the field in their investigatory team, and unnecessary to have their report assessed prior to publication by experts!


What does Nature say, actually, about its inner workings?

Getting published in Nature: the editorial process

“Nature does not employ an editorial board of senior scientists, nor is it affiliated to a scientific society or institution, thus its decisions are independent, unbiased by scientific or national prejudices of particular individuals.”

More plausibly, the conclusion to such an antecedent would have been this:

“and so there’s quite a chance that our decisions will end up being scientifically ill-informed.”

  • 17 years on from the ‘Benveniste affair’, what do we find ... ?

2. Attack on Rusi Taleyarkhan organised by Nature, as reported by The Economist:

“In this week’s Nature, colleagues of Dr Taleyarkhan criticise his methods and claim to have had no success in repeating his positive results. In 2004 Dr Taleyarkhan moved to Purdue University in Indiana, where Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of nuclear engineering at the university, had been trying to repeat his experiments. Dr Tsoukalas’s team had completed several experimental runs, but had not seen any evidence for bubble fusion. Once Dr Taleyarkhan had arrived, members of the laboratory became increasingly concerned by his actions. Tatjana Jevremovic, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the university, told Nature that Dr Taleyarkhan would sometimes claim that the experiment was producing positive results when she could see no such thing. He then removed the equipment from a communal laboratory and took it to his own labs off-campus, preventing the team from continuing with its experiments ... .


“Moreover, the American patent office has quietly but firmly rejected Dr Taleyarkhan\'s bubble-fusion device. An application for a patent was filed in 2003, when he was still at Oak Ridge, on behalf of the Department of Energy, which funded the work. On December 27th last year the department formally abandoned the claim. Ricardo Palabrica of the Patent Office had described the application as ‘no more than just an unproven concept’ ... .


As The Economist went to press, Dr Taleyarkhan had made no public comment on the matter. But if the apparent problems are substantiated, they will cast a shadow over the entire endeavour. Unlike the work of Dr Pons and Dr Fleischmann, bubble fusion has a strong theoretical underpinning, and may yet work. The trouble is that eager, young researchers who want to make a name for themselves are unlikely to touch it with a barge-pole.


What’s going on here?

in such cases, ‘the scientific community’ considers the claims wrong

there is also a need to act


‘emergency situation’

bad things will happen if we do not act


what bad results?

intelligent design: evolution in question

memory of water: use of homeopathic remedies

telepathy: deluded people

‘cold fusion’: waste/diversion of resources


Benveniste case:

Problems with the debunking (by Dana Ullman)

1) The Nature team ignored one blinded experiment which showed the biological action of the microdoses.

2) The Nature team presumed to have disproved Benveniste\'s five year\'s worth work in two days of experiments.

3) The Nature team did not include an immunologist, and thus they did not know that white blood cells are not always sensitive to large doses of antibiotics, let alone microdoses of them.


4) The Nature team created a disruptive environment in the laboratory which was not conducive to scientific investigation. James Randi performed magic tricks during a crucial part of the experiment, making it difficult for the experimenters to perform their work, while Walter Stewart was acting so hysterically that he had to be asked several times to stop shouting by John Maddox and by Jacques Benveniste.

5) The original work showed that heating, freeze-thawing, or ultrasonation suppressed the activity of the highly diluted solutions. This fact suggest that the microdoses are sensitive to various external stresses and that a couple of experiments that do not "prove" its action may have some unknown factor inhibiting its action.


Why not go through the usual scientific process?

Ans: irrationality takes over; science requires rationality

the new ideas may pose a threat

problems with counter-arguments may not be recognised

the usual theories/assumptions may be wrong


cases of erroneous concepts/arguments

continental drift: ‘movement impossible’ (cf. tectonic plates)

intelligent design: evolution not denied by advocates; ID is ‘working hypothesis’ not theory; orthodox theory not verified quantitatively so is just as much a hypothesis

telepathy: almost total ignorance of expts. on part of sceptics

memory of water: failure to understand that liquid water, unlike vapour phase, has a structure

‘cold fusion’: failure to understand environment in condensed matter background can be source/sink of energy, and that phenomena in such circumstances may be hard to replicate


The complexity of water

(simulation by Errington and Debenedetti)

15-molecule cluster

qc =0.85, T = 240 K; ρ = 1 g/cm3


And now a look at the ‘cold fusion’ saga, extracted from my lecture ‘Pathological Disbelief’, archived at


Q. how do you persuade the scientific community to believe that something is the case when there is insufficient evidence to make a proper case?

  • state that the claim being made contradicts scientific understanding
  • claim the experiments are faulty
  • MAKE YOUR POINTS LOUDLY, and make them before time has shown them to be incorrect; with any luck, the major journals will then refuse to publish the relevant information when it becomes available.

Write a book with a title such as ‘cold fusion: the scientific fiasco of the century’, and get the right people to give it glowing reviews:

`An authoritative, frank, hard-hitting account of the cold fusion fiasco.\' GLENN T. SEABORG

`As a distinguished nuclear chemist he is uniquely qualified to evaluate the field. Cool, dispassionate scientists and policymakers will receive his book, I trust, with the respect it deserves.\' FRANK CLOSE, NATURE


Let us examine two important ‘vehicles of power’:

1. The physics preprint server,

2. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)


First, the good features of arXiv (all quotes taken from articles on the site — my emphasis):

“Until recently, there were few effective options for physicists to break into an intellectually void closed loop involving only publisher and library systems ... the on-line electronic format will allow us to transcend the current inadequate system for “validating” research in a variety of ways. No longer need we be tied to a one-time all-or-nothing referee system which provides insufficient intellectual signal, and a static past database. We eagerly anticipate a vastly improved and more useful electronic literature, taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by the electronic medium and unhindered by artifacts of its evolution from paper.

“What then is so essential about the arXiv to its users? The immediate answer is ‘Well, it\'s obvious. It gives instant communication, without having to wait a few months for the peer review process.’ ”


Now the serious problem. To quote from Ginsparg’s article again:

“From the outset, a variety of heuristic screening mechanisms have been in place to ensure insofar as possible that submissions are at least of refereeable quality. That means they satisfy the minimal criterion that they would not be peremptorily rejected by any competent journal editor as nutty, offensive, or otherwise manifestly inappropriate, and would instead at least in principle be suitable for review (i.e., without the risk of alienating or wasting the time of a referee, that essential unaccounted resource).”


What “heuristic screening mechanisms”? These are not divulged, probably for good reason.

What appears to be the situation is that the heuristics are geared to the typical paper, so that most contributors never realise there is a problem. Significant deviations from the ‘norm’ trigger off action from the archive, however, sometimes leading to individuals being barred from the archive for no apparent reason. “We have no blacklist — that is your term”, say the archive’s administrators (!)


Take the case of Dr. X. He has numerous publications in regular journals, but has for some time been barred from posting to the archive. Noting that Dr. X has in fact got recent papers on the archive, I asked him how this was to be reconciled with his statement that he had been barred for quite some time. His reply was disturbing.


“The reason I was able to post papers in 2002 at the archives was because they were posted from different e-mail accounts from friends in *** and other places.

“If the archive’s robot had seen the *** address, it would have bounced off the paper automatically, as it had done in the past.

“When the people at the archives learnt that I was posting papers from different e-mail accounts (others did it for me), they took measures to prevent it. All papers submitted in 2003 and 2004 have been removed. Not only that, also papers written with other authors have been removed, authors who by themselves can post papers without any problems.”


The official word from Cornell’s librarian, Jean Poland, begs a number of questions:

“I am comfortable with our policy that the contents of arXiv conform to Cornell University academic standards.”


Very occasionally, the archive’s moderators will respond to complaints, but in a way not entirely suggestive of a rational or responsible attitude. The response to my querying an assertion that “the submission was removed as inappropriate for the cond-mat subject area” was this:

“The answer above appears correct. If it is research in nuclear fusion then it would necessarily be classified as Nuclear Physics. If it is not research in nuclear fusion, then it is neither Nuclear Physics nor Condensed Matter Physics. In either case it is inappropriate for the cond-mat subject area.”

Aristotle might have had a little difficulty with this logic!


And what about the following logic?

“A talk in an Electrical Engineering Dept, by someone who does not have a Physics appointment, on work that is not publishable in Physics journals, does not suggest that the subject matter is appropriate for this resource.

“We regret that we do not currently have a section for Electrical Engineering.”

“Thank you for your interest.”

The person concerned was a Principal Investigator in the Optics and Quantum Electronics Group in his department, and had had papers published in Appl. Phys. Letters and Phys. Rev. A in the previous year.


What is going on here? Is it the system, or the people running it, that is at fault?

It is true that physics will not grind to a halt simply on account of the preprint archive being run in this manner, but innovative research which seems to be preferentially targeted by the administrators, will suffer from the unavailability of the archive to its participants.

While it is true (as the archive’s moderators are very keen to point out) that“if you do not like our policies, there are other places where you can post your contributions”, that can only be second best.

The situation seems far from satisfactory, and it is suggested that others who also judge it unsatisfactory might wish to convey their opinions to the Cornell authorities.


Sociodynamic issues


influence of emotive attacks

systematic neglect and bias in system


(important case: physics preprint archive, see

media unable to judge for themselves, rely on authority, hence perpetuate ignorance/bias


pathology continues because its existence is denied!

mistakes re controversial matters (e.g. continental drift) are admitted, but they are ‘only in the past’


What is the basic psychology/sociology?

can beliefs be changed easily? (protected area of mind?)

separate kingdoms (keep off my territory!)

science and religion

separate, compartmentalise, or mix?

different countries, different attitudes


compartments can exist even in the sciences, e.g.

string theory and loop quantum gravity

compacted dimensions vs. Randall-Sundrum model

innate vs. acquired cognitive skills such as language

such competing views can coexist because (i) lack of decisive experiment or (ii) inability of one side to comprehend ideas of other (iii) there may be no real incompatability

the coexistence of subdisciplines in the form of ‘legitimate science’, as opposed to the ‘hell of the heretic’, may just mean that neither’s existence, or heartfelt principles, are seriously threatened by the other


changes of paradigm/closure of disputes depends on

(a) evidence (b) the ability to accept evidence


What can we do?

education, but who can educate emotional people?

can professional scientific ridiculers (e.g. Park/APS, Shermer/Scientific American) be in some way ‘shown the door’ by the scientific community?

[Q of free speech vs. responsible activity]

Royal Society discussion meeting?