I sometimes pick up various old collections that will be suitable for bathroom reading, and so it was that the other day I was sitting on the throne reading the summer 1985 issue of Granta, entitled Science.
Lots of great stuff here, including Oliver Sacks on Tourette’s syndrome, Thomas McMahan on Alexander Graham Bell, and articles by Darryl Pickney, Italo Calvino, Stephen Jay Gould, and several other celebrated authors. Reading it gave me a pleasant sense of dislocation because the pieces were just slapped down, juxtaposed with captionless photos, requiring me to situate myself anew when reading each piece.
Anyway, I next turned to an article by William Broad, the long-time New York Times science writer, on The Scientists of Star Wars. He wrote about Edward Teller and Lowell Wood, of course, and then . . . Peter Hagelstein.
Where had I heard that name before?
Back in 1989, when that “cold fusion” thing hit all the newspapers, I had a friend in the physics department who told me about some young theorist at MIT, Peter Hagelstein, who, in a burst of effort, had come up with a physical model for cold fusion. Apparently the guy was gunning for the Nobel Prize. At the time we were not laughing: cold fusion was a big deal. Sure there was some skepticism, and it was considered to be unproven, but we didn’t think it was bogus either.
Interesting that this one physicist was in on two of the biggest scientific debacles of the late twentieth century. Broad’s portrayal of Hagelstein in that 1985 article seemed consistent with what my friend had heard. Brilliant guy, willing and able to work hard, lots of ambition, chose the wrong stars to hitch his wagon to.
A cautionary tale for all of us. It doesn’t matter how smart you are: if you work on the wrong project you won’t get anywhere. None of use has perfect scientific taste, of course: Isaac Newton worked on alchemy, and so forth. Hagelstein just had the bad luck to devote his career to two such projects.
Or, I should say, bad luck to enter these projects, bad judgment to stick with them. He’s a living monument to the sunk-cost fallacy.
P.S. I see from Broad’s wikipedia page that way back in 1982 he coauthored a book with Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science. I wonder what Broad thinks of Wade’s 2014 book on race and the wealth of nations.
P.P.S. The web is amazing. I was curious about Broad and Wade so I googled “william broad nicholas wade* and came across a review of their book from 1983. The review had the combative title, Betrayers of the Truth: A Fraudulent and Deceitful Title from the Journalists of Science, and was by someone named Henry H. Bauer. The review is unpleasantly defensive and in retrospect is all too complacent. It may well be that there was not much fraud and deceit in science of 1982, but there’s certainly a lot now.
Anyway, I followed the thread and googled Henry Bauer. I was guessing he was too obscure to merit a wiki entry—after all, the only thing I have on him is a thirty-five-year-old book review in a journal I’d never heard of—but here he is:
Henry Hermann Bauer (born November 16, 1931) is an emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”). He is the author of several books and articles on fringe science, arguing in favor of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster and against Immanuel Velikovsky, and is an AIDS denialist. Following his retirement in 1999, he was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a fringe science publication. Bauer also served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Tech., generating controversy by criticising affirmative action.
Kinda makes you wonder why a legitimate journal would publish a review by this guy. Asking a Loch Ness Monster enthusiast to review a book on fraud in science: kinda weird, huh?
The journal in question is called the 4S review and was published by Sage Publications, which is a legitimate press.
What is the 4S review? It was possible to google it (dodging reviews of the iphone 4S) and get to this Jstor page which starts with volume 1 number 1 in spring 1983, when the journal is introduced by chemist Arnold Thackray as a publication of the Society for Social Studies of Science, and going to volume 3 number 4 in winter 1985, in which sociologist Jerry Gaston reports that it was succeeded by the journal Science and Technology Studies.
In his farewell address, Gaston wrote:
The 4S REVIEW did not achieve fully the goals hoped for it . . .
No kidding—maybe it wasn’t such a good choice to ask a Nessie truther to write a book review on scientific fraud!
I googled Society for Social Studies of Science and it still exists! Where they stand on Aids denialism, I have no idea.
To tar this society with an unfortunate choice of book reviewer back in 1983 would be no more fair than associating the Institute of Mathematical Statistics with pseudoscience based on its unfortunate publication of that Bible Code article in 1994, or linking Psychological Science to power pose or linking PPNAS to himmicanes . . . ummmm, ok, I do blame Psych Science and PPNAS, since these sorts of things are still going on!