When Pons and Fleischmann made their announcement, they were instant heroes riding in from nowhere to save the world. Soon, whispers of doubt turned to accusations of fraud and a barrage of insults that must have been hard to take from their freshly painted pedestal. That has always puzzled me. Assuming that most scientists do not believe that the scientists expected to survive such a fraud (and therefore take those accusations with the derision they deserve) why were the two men attacked so relentlessly?
That attitude survives today. Does the profession really attract a disproportionate share of nasty people or are the sneerers simply the loudest or more powerful?
An important pillar of the scientific method lies in disputing the work of others. In a way, a scientist is conditioned to attack. Normally the focus is on the work and not the person and all good practitioners are as tough on their own conclusions as they are on others. Perhaps the habit of questioning everything conditions one to superiority when ego meets stupidity. This tendency can be multiplied when packs of scientists gang up on some subject the collective deems nonsense. Once in that place, a particular idea or subject has a long climb to credibility over the bodies of its sneering detractors. Group-think short circuits real thinking and scientists are saved the time, money and bother of wasted effort on obvious dead-ends. Stereotyping is a useful tool but a dangerous one when it goes wrong.
Rationalising the behaviour of those who pilloried two hard-working intelligent men can only take you so far. In attacking the men along with the science, their ideas were being buried along with them. The sneering, jeering taunts and the derisory headlines were a warning to others. This could happen to you. Cold fusion is toxic. Stay away. In destroying their credibility, their baby – cold fusion – would stay dead for some time.
If every scientist who proposed something new was treated like Pons and Fleischmann, we would have no new ideas. There is no doubt that these two heritics were selected by fate or by men for special treatment and that treatment infected how (and if) their peers viewed the science they tried to birth.
However it happened, here we are. And where that is – the attitude and power of the collective – is something I want to examine in Part Two.
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