Thursday, March 09, 2006

Real science vs cargo-cult science

Bubble fusion is a fringe idea and gets some more column inches in Nature (here via Reddit). Bubble fusion is the idea that collapsing bubbles in some solvents (including acetone, the lab chemists equivalent of water!) can create pressures and temperatures sufficient for fusion reactions to occur. This would, quite simply, be amazing and would revolutionise the world. There are serious doubts however but the 'mechanism' of science (which is all science is, it's not the body of facts that have accumulated) is kicking in quite satisfactorily. Let's go through a couple of the salient points:
  1. The work is on the fringe but still got published in major journals. And quite rightly, if it's correct, it will herald a new age (there are angles to consider also in how journals compete to get articles but that another story)
  2. The effect is ameniable to duplication by other researchers. If an incredible effect can be reproduced by independent labs, you're well on your way to a Nobel prize. This editorial is stating that this isn't happening and hence, the judgement is that these guys have fallen for an erroneous set of results. Nothing special, happens to the best of us, error-correction process working normally.
That's about it. Science as a process aint that complicated. If an experiment can't be duplicated, its not science (in the vast majority of cases this is your first criteria. You get subtle exceptions with things like earthquake science, nobody duplicates earthquakes but they are still able to approached scientifically - specifically the concept of falsifiability i.e. tectonic plate theory).
So unless these guys come up with a foolproof way of duplicating their results and getting others to do the same, this is a non-event, there's millions of real questions needing answers and only thousands of scientists, most of us have to do work that is likely to yield results. Tenure is the (theoretical) mode of allowing crazy ideas room to grow ;-)

Drawing parallels and/or contrasts with cargo-cults, creationists and perveyors of magnets/raiki/chi therapy is left as an excercise for the reader.

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