When even the experts are at odds with each other, what's the ordinary person to think?
That question has been nagging Utah in particular and the scientific community in general following the announcement of the cold fusion experiments in this state.With some scientists claiming to have confirmed the University of Utah experiment while others dispute and even ridicule it, the ensuing controversy certainly has produced plenty of steam. If cold fusion does not pan out as a source of abundant energy, the world might consider arguments among academicians as an alternative source of heat if not of light.
This week the controversy abated somewhat when chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann admitted that some of their measurements were faulty. Though some observers were quick to claim that cold fusion will soon fade from public view as a result of those admissions, don't count on it. Pons and Fleischmann still stand by their claims that their experiment produces far more heat than it uses. Moreover, a series of conferences on cold fusion are planned throughout the year.
What's the public to make of all this?
Certainly the public should have been disabused of the notion that science is a dispassionate, disinterested search for the truth. Instead, the world has been treated to displays of both excess enthusiasm and mean-spirited pettiness on the part of scientists who ordinarily go out of their way to be modest and polite.
Likewise, we've seen some of the unavoidable difficulties of the trend toward increasing specialization, with chemists admittedly unable to apply some of the measuring techniques of physicists and physicists at sea in the realm of electrochemistry.
But perhaps the most valuable lesson of all for the average person involves the difficulty of balancing a couple of conflicting demands in science - the need to be open to new ideas while also remaining skeptical. A few passages from a recent report urging greater scientific literacy for Americans seem pertinent. The report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science notes:
"New ideas are essential for the growth of science - and for human activities in general. People with closed minds miss the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of intellectual growth throughout life. . . . The competition among ideas is a major source of tensions within science, between science and society, and within society. . . .
"Science is characterized as much by skepticism as by openness. . . . Because most scientists are skeptical about all new theories, acceptance is usually a process of verification and refutation that can take years or even decades to run its course."
Meanwhile, whatever science may ultimately conclude about cold fusion, the best advice in sorting through such squabbles still comes from a philosopher. After reviewing a long list of breakthroughs and flops in the history of science, Henry Frankel of the University of Missouri concluded:
"To deny that something can be the case because a theory tells you it can't be true is risky business. The lesson here is you shouldn't always believe the experts."