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Genius is not enough: The sad story of Peter Hagelstein, living monument to the sunk-cost fallacy

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.

OK, then.

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!

41 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    Was this a “wrong project” or just a goal he couldn’t achieve?

    I.E. We can now safely conclude stuff like alchemy or perpetual motion machines were wrong projects.

    But is cold fusion similar? Do we know it cannot work or just that no one has been able to make it work so far?

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Cold fusion certainly didn’t work the way Hagelstein thought it did. I agree that prospectively, as of 1989, it did not seem like a bad gamble for Hagelstein to throw himself into cold fusion. So I’m not saying that was a bad decision on his part. At some point, though, it’s starting to look bad judgment for him to stay in that field. That’s why I’m calling it the sunk cost fallacy.

      • Chris Waigl says:

        In 1989 I was a young physics student getting my first portions of required introductory lectures. It so happened that my professor in the experimental physics course was an atomic physicist who immediately jumped on the “cold fusion” train to reproduce, or not, the original results. (He was highly skeptical, but of course as a good experimentalist did his best to create the conditions in which he and his group would have reproduced the effect, had it existed.) In this effort, he was one of the first, and certainly the first in Germany, so he got a lot of press attention. Once it was over he gave a public talk about it, and I remember him mentioning how odd it was to publish scientific results via the wire agencies (DPA in this case).

        (I first misread the other topic as The Science of Star Wars, and wondered what would be so controversial about a fluff piece about a SciFi franchise.)

        • Robert L Bell says:

          The villain in this piece is Chase Peterson, president (at the time, now deceased) of the University of Utah.

          The moment he got wind of Pons and Fleischmann and their intention to publish, he commandeered their work in service to his publicity scheme – hoping to gin up vast fortunes for the University and a promotion to the University of California system for himself.

          It didn’t pan out, but he did get too spend a good chunk of time before the tee vee cameras.

      • Rahul says:

        Andrew:

        I’m not so sure. When Perelmen or Wiles were plugging away for long years in their elusive quest that might have also seemed like a sunk cost fallacy?

        Sure, if I were a funding manager I’d put in very little or zero $ into cold fusion. But for a lone scientist it can be Ok to keep pursuing an idea that he’s passionate about even what seems a low chance of success line of research.

        Isn’t that how a lot of scientific progress happens? Because stubborn researchers kept going when they ought to have changed tracks had they been “sensible”.

  2. Dan Hicks says:

    4S is the main professional organization for sociologists of science, and science and technology studies researchers more generally, analogous to the Philosophy of Science Association for philosophers of science and the History of Science Society for historians of science.

    I hadn’t heard of either 4S Review or a journal called Science and Technology Studies before now; today the two primary journals for 4S members are Social Studies of Science (dates back to January 1971) and Science, Technology, and Human Values (dates back to October 1976). It looks like Science and Technology Studies was published for just two years before 4S abandoned it and made STHV the organization’s official journal.

    As a field, science and technology studies tends to be critical of mainstream scientific practice. Often this is from a left-wing democratic point of view: our society is too deferential to very fallible technical experts, and so on. But it also means that the field sometimes serves as a refuge for cranks. That may have been the case with Bauer. The field has professionalized a lot over the last 30 years, and so I suspect someone like Bauer wouldn’t find it as hospitable today.

  3. Paul Alper says:

    Andrew did not give the full picture of Henry Bauer. Here is a 1998 book by him that is must reading for anyone in academia:

    To Rise Above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean. University of Illinois Press (under nom-de-plume ‘Josef Martin’) ISBN 0-252-01507-X

    Below are some quotations from the book when I reviewed it back in 2001:

    “Long ago, one of my friends had assured me that administrators could survive
    by holding their hands almost as though praying, tips of the fingers together,
    periodically nodding the chin towards the hands and never saying anything except
    ‘I see,’ ‘go on,’ ‘Hmmmm,’ and the like.”

    Or, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of name usage and its implications:
    [I]f your department chair is an impersonal ‘CN’ but your dean is ‘Pete,’ is it
    not more promising to take your complaints directly to Pete rather than to CN?…
    If Pete wants to remain ‘one of the boys,’ then he has no business becoming
    dean. If he becomes dean, then he is no longer one of the boys; and if he tries
    to avoid that conclusion, he will be dean in title only.”

    Nor does Bauer deal with underlings only:
    “All the vice-presidents I’ve known are quite intelligent and well meaning. Many
    of their blunders could plausibly be ascribed to their having once read a book on
    management per se, or to having attended a seminar on that topic, or, at any rate,
    to their not bearing in mind that the only proper ‘objective’ of a college is education.”

    “So the dean must tell white lies. Not, of course, to the vice-president, to whom
    the dean must justify what he does; but complete openness in that direction, too,
    would be a mistake.”

    “A dean has no friends, and a dean qua dean encounters no disinterested people. A dean cannot be a personal friend to any of the department chairs, lest the others suspect favoritism toward that department.
    A dean cannot, of course, practice personal friendship with any members of the faculty, because that would make the chairs of those departments nervous.”

    My favorite quotation from Bauer’s book is one that will resonate with everyone who reads this blog:

    “The mathematical scientists are at least three separate tribes: the computer
    scientists get more support than is warranted, but they think just the opposite
    to be the case; the pure mathematicians get all the support they need or could
    use, but think they should ask for more just for equity’s sake; the applied
    mathematicians and the statisticians find much of their own support and thus
    earn their keep.”

    And there is much more in the book! For additional information about Bauer, Bill Jefferys is the person to contact because he has written for Bauer’s “Journal of Scientific Exploration” and has tried to counter the prevailing atmosphere of the publication.

  4. I took Numerical Methods a few years ago from Peter Hagelstein at MIT. It was a great class and his notes were encyclopedic (they were supposedly the first draft for a book that still hasn’t come out). There was always a weird atmosphere to his circumstance at MIT but I didn’t know he was quite so well known back in the day. In any case, a great guy.

  5. For insight into how members of 4S think about AIDS, I’d highly recommend Steve Epstein’s Impure Science on the history of HIV/AIDS drug trials and how activists mobilized to change the standards for clinical trials in recognition of the realities of live with AIDS. It’s both an example of the best sort of work produced by 4S-style scholars, and possibly of interest to Andrew and readers of this blog given the topic (how best to do clinical research).

  6. Mayo says:

    Andrew: Thanks for informing me of this. It’s funny, but what I have to say about Bauer will have almost nothing to do with his interest in fringe science. (I’ll check that review later.)
    Bauer was a model dean. I’ve not known of a dean who had the guts to put through programs he regarded as intellectually important without giving in to the pull of politics, jealousy, and mediocrity that has drag so many universities down, including VT. He began the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at VT. He hired Larry Laudan, Dick Burian and others, and brought in international scholars. It’s what attracted me and kept me there during those years. (Most philo depts have 1 or 2 philosophers of science; we had like 8, plus interdisciplinary people.) Philosophy of science has never been seen as full philosophy, and if it’s relevant to current issues in science, then it is worse still! The Philo dept at VT became a kind of hotbed for relevant philosophy of science (linking other fields). I could comfortably do PhilStat, PhilMath, PhilEcon etc here without being told I had to frame it within analytic epistemology or the like.

    But back to Bauer. It was his building of the Center for Science Studies or STS or whatever it got to be called through the years that supported what we were trying to do in Philosophy. So Bauer gets my medal for Best Dean. This is all the more so after witnessing the deans that followed. Of course it couldn’t last…the administrative forces of mediocrity, new deans and deanlettes, set in. Laudan left (refusing to lower the standards of the Center), Bauer was out, and I moved over (50%) to Econ once Aris Spanos became chair of that dept. But the real culprit in the demise of the program was that STS had moved wholly into postmodernist country and increasingly fought against any kind of hard-nosed philosophy of science. For example, Steve Fuller was brought in…

    It’s remarkable that through all of the seminars and discussion groups growing out of Bauer’s Center, there was little attention to his side interest in fringe science. Defining science/pseudoscience came up a lot, but his stuff on Nessie and Velikovsky was just a little thing he did on the side. It’s worth noting that the 80s had a lot of that. In this blogpost, which by coincidence I thought of reblogging recently because of its attention to background knowledge, you can see where ESP was at the time (in an article by Diaconis). Experimental ESP was in a degenerating problem shift (as Lakatos would say) but wasn’t fully falsified for a few years. IJ Good, a UDP here in stat in those days was keenly interested in statistical tests of ESP.

    https://errorstatistics.com/2012/09/22/statistics-and-esp-research-diaconis/

    I marvel that I got Diaconis, IJ Good, and Pat Suppes to attend a conference session I put together on statistics and ESP! I was barely out of grad school. Thank goodness I decided not to publish a volume on it-though they wanted me to– deciding, after a round of fraud, that it had slipped from degenerating into being falsified.

    One last point on Henry: He was keenly in favor of not muffling scientists with views that challenged the status quo, even if he didn’t believe them. But he was a Nessie fan.

    • Mayo says:

      Lakatosians did sometimes use the term I wrote to describe fringe sciences slipping further into degeneracy, but I meant to write “problem shift”

      • Paul Alper says:

        According to Wikipedia, Bauer, a holocaust survivor, is still alive. One of his less admirable statements is

        “I regard homosexuality as an aberration or illness, not as an ‘equally valid life-style’ or whatever the current euphemism is.”

        From the website: “[Bauer] suggests that the free speech and other civil rights of homosexuals should be withdrawn to prevent what Bauer views as the negative effects of homosexuality from spreading. Bauer has since stated he no longer holds this view, saying he had been ‘wrong’ about the issue and had, in particular, mistakenly relied on the ‘naturalistic’ fallacy that reduced culture and ethics to biology. AIDSTruth.org, an AIDS information resource, notes Bauer posted the statement one day after an account of his views appeared on their website.

        I wrote a couple of things for his journal, one in particular being a positive review of a “Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Causes” by Nicholas Humphrey, a noted skeptic.

        http://scientificexploration.s3.amazonaws.com/files/jse-11-2.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJXJ6FAXJI7UFHDLQ&Expires=1473618772&Signature=Wv%2B9XI3Z7DLPaeYlpGqyx9GvToo%3D

        Despite the journal’s disdain for Humphrey’s point of view and my admiration for the book, not a word of my review was altered. Bauer followed my review with an “Editorial Addendum” in which he gently suggests that Humphrey take the time to examine the evidence for and against actual claims, claims which I and Humphrey had a prior of zero.

        • zbicyclist says:

          So, Bauer now says he is wrong.

          He has that in common with millions of us over 60, who held views about homosexuality when we were younger that we now do not agree with. Let’s forgive Bauer, and ourselves.

    • Rahul says:

      Nothing against Bauer, but your praise of him seems mostly because he supported areas & sub-disciplines you personally like?

      It is very hard to judge why this outcome is good or commendable: “Most philo depts have 1 or 2 philosophers of science; we had like 8”

      • Mayo says:

        Rahul: I’m sure i didn’t do justice to Henry’s great qualities (the ones he showed as Dean I mean–which is all I know), his integrity (in relation to harrassment issues) and the rare importance he gave to upholdingacademic integrity. This is in contrast to Deans who fire or fail to support scholars because some people feel their too good, and hold too high standards. I didn’t know anything at all about his personal views; he was dean a very long time ago, and my comments relate only to that window, and those interrelations with him

      • Mayo says:

        By the way, that was a parenthetical remark, but bad deans result in losing good and great people, and good people focusing their energies elsewhere. He was courageous, and fearless as an administrator, and I don’t see why my having had positive experiences thanks to him would be irrelevant to his character.

        • Rahul says:

          Integrity, courage, fearlessness are great qualities & those should obviously count in rating someone as a great dean.

          On the other hand, some of your other points just sounded like he favored your preferred side in a turf war.

          • Mayo says:

            Rahul: Well, I hadn’t been planning to write about him, and I knew it wasn’t the point of Andrew’s interest. I just decided to give my personal experience, off the top of my head, even though I hadn’t organized my thoughts as I would have wanted to (rushed)–because some of the remarks deriding Bauer were too quick, and failed to get at what’s true about the man. He’s a chemist by the way, or was. I just started writing after Gelman mentioned the post. So I strayed off to some other things that might or might not be of interest to people on this blog. So, Henry Bauer–a great Dean, a courageous and wise man, and his review of Broad and Wade is informative and more than fair.

  7. gyges01 says:

    The more I read of Bauer (thanks to your links and the people who’ve been kind enough to leave comments) the more ironic becomes your initial post (see for example, http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/DenialismEssayReview.pdf and compare you’re ‘pseudo-skeptical’ line, “Aids denialism”). I suspect if you read a bit deeper you’ll be changing your mind (as did Bauer on some of his opinions, http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/Iwaswrong.html) and drafting another blog post to which I look forward to reading.

  8. Chris G says:

    I met Hagelstein in ’89 I think – must have been after Pons and Fleischmann hit the news. He happened to mention to my advisor that he was looking for guidance on using Gaussian88, software for doing ab initio quantum chemical calculations. I had experience with Gaussian80 so my advisor pointed Hagelstein at me. We talked a couple times. Nice guy. I couldn’t see how Gaussian88 was going to get him where he wanted to go but I also figured “What do I know? I’m a first-year grad student and he’s an MIT prof.” Taking a quick look at his publication list, I’m guessing that he established fairly quickly that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do using it and moved on to a different tool/set of tools.

    PS We named our p.chem. intramural hockey team “Cold Fusion”. Team jerseys were intended to be fluorescent pink and black. What we got turned out to be dark pink and royal blue which, after a couple washes, turned baby pink and baby blue. The refs never called penalties on us. Well, not literally “never”. Might get called for something particularly flagrant and brutal. The lack of penalty calls seemed remarkable though – less likely to be penalized if you’re not wearing a manly-colored sweater? Perhaps an effect worth of publication in Psychological Science?

  9. Jeremy Fox says:

    Apologies for the self-promotion, but I started commenting and found myself re-typing chunks of this old post, so I’ll just link to it:

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/lost-causes-in-science/

    I agree with the commenter above who noted how difficult it can be to decide whether or not to stick with a given line of research. And that it can be a good thing for science as a whole to have variation in judgment among individuals as to what lines of research are worth pursuing.

    • Andrew says:

      Jeremy:

      Hagelstein should feel be free to make a choice. Still, looking at it from his perspective, it’s too bad that his career is defined, not by one, but by two poor choices. In your blog you refer to Steven Wolfram: that seems like a different story in that he seems to have fallen for his own hype. It’s almost like he forgot that he didn’t prove those theorems on his own, he paid people to prove them for him. Come to think of it, Hagelstein’s case might be similar in that he may have thought that he was so brilliant he could solve any problem. But it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, you can’t overcome the laws of physics (or mathematics).

      • Rahul says:

        That’s the point though: Had Hagelstein kept working on alchemy or a perpetual motion machine or something then I’d subscribe to your “you can’t overcome the laws of physics” argument.

        But is cold-fusion in the same league? Isn’t this like the 100 guys who tried making a helicopter but failed but eventually someone did succeed.

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          Possibly. But note one difference here. The helicopter was an intriguing idea and maybe not so different from what hummingbirds do (not to mention the autogyro). Lots of people worked on it.

          Missile defense was not a “thing” until the government dumped zillions of dollars into it, and Hagelstein wasted a few years of his life on that. Cold fusion was not a “thing” until Pons and Fleischman did some sloppy lab work and got tons of publicity. Hagelstein opportunistically jumped in. That’s fine—at the time, lots of people thought it just might be real, and why not spend a couple months on what might be the breakthrough of the century?—but the point is that it’s more of a mistake than an ongoing research project. I mean, sure, people are continuing to study it, but it seems more like hope than anything else.

          To put it another way, suppose there’s a 1% chance that cold fusion is a real physical phenomenon, just waiting to be discovered. Then if Hagelstein and his colleagues work really hard, they might make some progress. But if there’s nothing there to be discovered, it won’t be discovered. That’s what I mean when I say that he can’t overcome the laws of physics. There are two factors here: Pr(cold fusion is real)*Pr(cold fusion is harnessed | cold fusion is real). Hagelstein can affect the second factor in this expression but not the first factor.

          • Rahul says:

            So what I want to know is what value you or others (experts?) might assign to Pr(cold fusion is real)?

            Just for fun, I’d love to compare it to Pr(Scalable Univeral Quantum Computing is real)

        • Phil Koop says:

          I really don’t sympathize with this line of argument. Before Pons and Fleischman, nobody thought that cold fusion was theoretically possible. Most people were skeptical of the claim, but what if it were true? That would be awesome! And since something that actually happens is necessarily possible, a theoretical explanation for an observed phenomenon would be very helpful. But after Pons and Fleischman were debunked, that became a putative solution in search of a problem.

          The helicopter thing seems to have nothing at all to do with cold fusion and everything to do with hot fusion. We know in principle that hot fusion is possible, and we know it in practice too, because we see it every day. It’s “only” a matter of overcoming technical challenges. Maybe the people working on the problem will never succeed; but even so, I wouldn’t call their work wasted. But cold fusion? Oh yes.

  10. Mayo says:

    Andrew: OK, read around 95% of Bauer’s long review of Broad and Wade and find little to disagree with. Bauer points out the inconsistencies within the standpoints of the authors who don’t adequately support some of their strongest claims, but do expose some myths about science. I think it’s a very fair review. I recall some issues about Wade arose concerning semantics about evolution, Kitcher and others.

  11. Eli Rabett says:

    Journal of Scientific Exploration? John Mashey is the expert, but you can ask for it under the counter at your university library and it comes in a plain brown wrapper. What is it?

    Why it is a mighty curious little entity published by an extremely curious other little entity, the Society for Scientific Exploration. And what science do they explore ask the little bunnies? Well you can get a taste from the focus of their national conference ‘Emerging Paradigms at the Frontiers of Consciousness & UFO Research” but they have their doubts about HIV causing AIDs, plate tectonics and anything else you can rent-a-nut for. The best, by far was

    Unexplained Weight Gain Transients at the Moment of Death – In the Words of William the Sane, this guy weighed sheep while he was suffocating them with a plastic bag. He concluded…there’s no way to tell what he concluded.

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2010/11/journal-of-scientific-exploration-is.html

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