Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Scientists, the media, and desperation

I could've predicted this. Given current energy concerns, it's not at all surprising that the various media are ready to give airtime and column space to wacky stories like this one. The temptation must be irresistible: the public is desperate; the story itself is great TV - the lone inventor, persevering in the face of opposition from those stodgy old scientists; they can even put in quotes from the would-be inventor and the scientists and claim to be covering "both sides". You know the drill: "This conventional scientist says that if he drops this pencil it will fall to the ground. Others disagree! The controversy, up next after this commercial message." News flash: sometimes it doesn't make any sense to cover "both sides".

I think the part that frustrates me the most is the misperception by part of the public and some of the media that scientists want these alleged breakthroughs to fail. Nothing could be further from the truth! If someone discovered cheap, inexhaustible energy because of a remarkable revolutionary breakthrough, we'd love it - it'd be the most exciting time in science since the quantum revolution. The problem is, though, that keeping an open mind doesn't mean lowering your scientific standards because you'd like to believe the result. I, for one, am not holding my breath about hydrino power.


chad said...

Quote: "That logic could explain BlackLight's success in garnering investors, despite its lack of scientific approval: While the academic community stresses theoretical backing for a new discovery, the business world is more concerned with practical applications."

Hey, maybe their success in garnering investors is partially due to ludicrously uncritically press coverage like this! This whole mess is going to culminate in extradition hearings.

Joel Kelly said...

$60 million! Geez, that's a lot of money for not a lot of science. Are the science options in business school really that poor, or are these dudes the greatest shysters ever?

Anonymous said...

...cue platitudes about bubble bees not being able to fly.

Never mind, CNN seems to be doing their usual excellent job that too! Do these people even have journalism degrees?

Anonymous said...

is a harvard trained physician the person you want to trust with a new discovery in physics, let alone invest millions of dollars in?

i also like how his research into suspicious fuel cell technology is somehow evidence that "hydrinos" are the constituent of dark matter.

Aaron said...

The man found an exothermic reaction. I didn't have much chemistry in college, but I seem to remember such reactions being somewhat common (and did not need hydrino theory to explain them).

Anyone interested in "developing" a mentos/pepsi engine in which mentos-driven fountains of pepsi drive a turbine? If this "science" can get $60 million, I'm sure we could get at least that. Forget I said anything; I am sending in my own patent. Immediately.

Don Monroe said...

Journalists (including some science journalists) are suckers for some standard plot outlines, including the "lone inventor" script that you noticed. It's a good habit to become sensitized to these scripts and be on guard when the story fits too naturally into one of them.

Another very widely used script, which is very widely used, frames a new advance as overturning the reigning understanding, long after most people in the field have recognized a more complex reality. In biology, for example, Genomicron has complained about researchers being described as suddenly realizing that "junk DNA" is actually good for something, when most poeple have known it for a long time.

This is a good one to watch out for when someone is interviewing you for a new story or a press news release, because it is a very natural way to enhance the apparent significance of your work. It's a lot more work for us science writers to convey the real complexities of the current understanding, but you should encourage us to do so.

Steve said...

So the main validation for Blacklight's research is the level of financial investment into this company.

Now what exactly correlates an investment decision with the science behind a business proposal? I think that this correlation is actually pretty small, since investors tend to look at so many "soft" aspects of a business plan.

Recent history shows how investors happily pour their money into ventures, irrespective of mathematical reality.

descendent said...

As with most sensational articles about energy, there is no mention of energy balance (energy in vs. energy out). But it's not just the physics. The chemistry sucks too. The article mentions a sodium hydride "catalyst". Sodium hydride + water = lots of heat and hydrogen. But NaH is no catalyst.

This is fast becoming one of my favorite article on junk science:

okham said...

There is also, in my opinion, something disturbing about the public's eagerness to fall in love with a character who achieves a scientific breakthrough without being a "conventional scientist". It is similar in many respects to what is seen with alternative medicine, and speaks volumes about the PR problem that the science enterprise as a whole has.