Arguments in science

Science communication Depiction of blue circle - cold fusion
All scientists wear white lab coats, right?
All scientists wear white lab coats, right?

From the outside it might appear that all scientists are the same. After all they have all spent a long time in higher education institutions, they all know quite technical things relevant to their field, and they all wear lab coats (right?).

But ‘the scientist’ is not an identity that any one person or group perfectly personifies.

Biologists and biochemists, astrophysicists and geophysicists. They are all different, and not just because of the fields they study.

Take the recent message written by Steven McKnight, President of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In it he humorously (but potentially offensively depending on who you ask) references the falling quality of young researchers. The resulting furor on social media suggests that not all scientists agree with McKnight’s perspective.

So, scientists disagree sometimes?

The answer to that question is, of course, yes.

 Cold fusion: When the majority overcame the minority

A better known instance of visible disagreement among scientists is the case of cold fusion as ‘discovered’ by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. On that occasion, these two men published a paper that was never necessarily replicated – though that wasn’t the most startling aspect of the controversy. Cold fusion is a case where two scientists, by ignoring standard practice and producing results that no one else could validate, stirred up conflict on a large scale.

Most likely because of the drive of the university to gain publicity, Pons and Fleischmann did not announce their work the traditional way – through a journal first. Rather, on the morning that the paper was due to be published, they held a press conference and invited the attendance of scientists as well as media.

The rather hyped up story took strong hold and for a while cold fusion became the solution to all energy problems.

Eventually, the excitement died down, the theory faded away, and Pons and Fleischmann went on to other studies, which is what happens in a lot of disagreements or controversies in science – later this week, I’ll explain this more through the theory of Leapin’ Lesbian Lizards.



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