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The Believers: A Cautionary Tale of Sharing Science Too Soon

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Upon hearing the breaking news that the so-called “faster-than-light” neutrino finding was due to an error from a loose connection in wiring, it seemed appropriate to share about a film that captures the human side of one of the best known scientific flubs in recent history: that of cold fusion. If we’ve learned anything from the cold fusion debacle, it’s that a quick announcement of a scientific advancement or finding may be a lot of fanfare without substantiated and careful evaluation. This tendency to share too soon is fueled by the very human nature of scientists and the involvement peripheral players. The desire to “be there first” will often result in a decision to rush a speculative finding to the public.

137 Films in Chicago recently held a work-in-progress screening of their movie, “The Believers”, at the Gene Siskel Film Center and I was in attendance.

I previously wrote about the company and a preview to the film. Here is their trailer once again.

 

 

The film documents the announcement of the cold fusion finding at University of Utah in 1989 through to the downfall of scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann by sharing expertly edited TV news segments along with magazine and newspaper clippings. The story moves back and forth between these news stories and interviews with fervent believers and modern experimenters in cold fusion today as well as interviews with scientists who played a part in dismantling the cold fusion discovery.

Brochures for the work-in-progress screening of "The Believers"

Interspersed in these time capsule news clips are also interviews with Fleishmann (Pons disappeared from the scene so completely, and he has not spoken with the media or Fleishmann since), and his interactions with a discredited physician treating Fleishmann’s Parkinson’s disease. Juxtaposed to this, we see a teen who experiments with cold fusion by himself in his own basement, taking a very measured and scientific approach. This impressive display of impartiality stands in relief to a ‘believer’s faith’ in cold fusion that Pons and Fleishmann seemed to embody early on and is reinforced by the image of the aging and ailing Fleishmann being “treated” in the home of this physician with questionable practices who fervently claims to have some deeper knowledge of cold fusion and is writing a book on the topic.

The movie doesn’t go into extraordinary detail of exactly how cold fusion is supposed to work. Instead, the explanation is kept at the level that would have been explained to TV and reading audiences at the time of the unveiling with a focus on how it could be the answer for clean, cheap, limitless energy for all of mankind. The focus of the film was not on teaching us the technology, but rather on the drama involved and missteps by Pons and Fleishmann which ultimately led to their scientific downfall.

In the after-show Q & A session, an audience member seemed quite agitated that the movie hadn’t explicitly spelled out how science IS done or SHOULD BE DONE,  at least not ideally. In a follow-up email, I shared with co-director Clayton Brown my perception of what I sensed the film was doing with the scenario and felt the audience member was a bit off-base in what the film’s intention was meant to be. I wrote: “I felt the film spoke volumes about how science is done and the potential dangers of interference by academia in their greed. It addressed where the scientists went wrong in sharing their science (or not). I don’t think, given the aims of the film, that you needed to address each step of the scientific method and what went wrong. It seemed you had a fine balance, and focused on the human side and not the nuts and bolts of the scientific method.”

Clayton summarized in response to me,  ”I’m glad you understood the fact that the very definition of science and the scientific process was up for grabs in the film — it’s one of the main themes.  I totally agree with you about the audience member’s interpretation, that he perhaps missed the point we were trying to make which was, as you said, that there are contradictory ideas at work about science, the way it’s done, and what went wrong when the complicating factors of greed, academia, patents, hope, and belief got involved.  The film attempted to explore the mess rather than explain it.”

And “mess” or “drama”  are appropriate words to describe what unfolds during the movie. Having spent my career in academia, I viscerally reacted as I witnessed administration of the University of Utah proudly introduce Pons and Fleishmann and their finding. It was a moment of giddy pride and even arrogance, one that said,  ”Hey, look at us, we may not be MIT, but *we* are sitting on the most important scientific finding the world has seen.” It seems Pons and Fleishmann were pressured to reveal their finding early by the University of Utah which wanted to establish priority on the discovery before a colleague at Brigham Young University did so. The moviegoer witnessed the scientists’ initial hesitancy and nervousness being replaced by the glee of being the center of media attention as the days unfolded after the press conference.

I cringed as I watched as scientific peers rip the two men apart because the results could not be replicated in more sophisticated labs (like those at MIT). I watched the tension build as they defended their claims. My stomach knotted at the thought of patents, and the fear of being “scooped” in their findings. I imagined the hands of lawyers and PR agents muzzling the free sharing of the method that created the supposed cold fusion. I considered humility and the lack of it. There was the chaos of many humans wanting to be “right” and it’s intrusion into pure science.

My favorite take-away thoughts from the film were insights into science as expressed in the loose interplay set up in the film between Robert Park, an eminent physicist who made the announcement that took down cold fusion for the American public, and Edmund Storms, the older bearded gentleman in his sweater seen in the trailer, a physicist formerly with Los Alamos, who is a firm believer in cold fusion. The two, while on different sides of the cold fusion issue, both say true things about how science is done and the state of science in America.

Robert Park charms the TV audience while in Washington DC: ”I was the first scientist to speak out on this.  To be perfectly frank, it’s a preposterous claim.  Now, I’m sure the claimants are quite sincere in their claims.  But of course, there are sincere scientists who also believe in psychokenesis and flying saucers and creationism … and even the Chicago Cubs.” (The Chicago Cubs announcement went over very well with the Chicago audience, eliciting amused and knowing laughter!)

Listening to Parks as he shared his views quite eloquently speaks volumes about charisma having tremendous influence in leading people to “choose sides” in any debate, even in science. Eventually the scientific facts bore out, but the charm of a well-spoken scientist was first to lead the way to turning the public tide against cold fusion.

Ed Storms makes a statement in the film that made me stop and think:  ”Science thinks it prides itself on its openmindedness and its willingness to go explore new ideas, and it does to some degree.  But there’s also a tremendous unwillingness to make those changes.  You see that — it used to be in the church.  That was the bastion of conservatism.  Increasingly, that’s moved into physics in the United States.”

As much as I hold the ideal of science in my mind much of the time, the reality is often much less pristine and it was enlightening to hear Storms articulate his thoughts and apply them to situations scientists find themselves in modern research.

Robert Park, at the end of the film, claims scientific openness (in opposition to Storms’ perception) but in a subtle closing of that openness, takes a jab again at cold fusion and those who pursue it:  ”Now, is there room in science for passion? Of course, there is. And moreover, I would defend these people who are still involved. That’s what’s great about science.  It’s open.  You can challenge anything. And if they want to spend their life going back trying to redo those experiments and make them work, they have every right to do that.  The great breakthroughs in science usually come from someone who went counter to the current.  It’s perfectly all right to go spend your life doing cold fusion.  I wouldn’t want to spend my life that way.  But if these guys want to question whether there’s cold fusion, hey, that’s up to them.”

The directors are shopping the film around for screenings at various film festivals. I look forward to their final version being showcased and also hope to see it picked up in wider venues. When you see “The Believers” come to your town in the coming months, be sure to make some time to watch it.

137Films is working on their next documentary called “Truth or Consequences” about The New Space Age. I will share more on this in a later post.

Until then, remember to view every excitedly announced scientific breakthrough with skepticism.

Joanne Manaster About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a university level cell and molecular biology lecturer with an insatiable passion for science outreach to all ages. Enjoy her quirky videos at www.joannelovesscience.com, on twitter @sciencegoddess and on her Facebook page at JoanneLovesScience Follow on Twitter @sciencegoddess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Jerzy New 9:26 am 02/27/2012

    If “faster-than-light neutrino” story should teach us something, it is for scientists to be cautious and have limited faith in science.

    A year ago, if somebody said that anything can move faster than light, scientists and science commentators would tear him apart “100 percent of scientists agree its impossible”. Two months ago, the same people would accept it as possible. On its impossible again.

    Which should make scientists more humble. Especially ones who say things like: “scientists say global warming will melt glaciers” “scientists say global warming will bring new Ice Age” “scientists say DDT is the only way to stop malaria” “scientists say DDT should be banned” etc.

    Link to this
  2. 2. HondersSr 1:28 pm 07/3/2013

    Yes, a little premature but not incorrect and certainly not fraudulent. Just check and see what our government agencies are saying today. NASA’s chief Bushnell, Zawodny, SPAWAR, DIA etc. Our universities are also coming around to believe. U of Missouri is hosting a cold fusion conference in July, MIT ran a course this January (2013, which I attended) called Cold Fusion 101. The field had to be re-branded Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) and is about to come to the public consciousness, none too soon, but not surprising, given the disruption potential to the ‘burn the fossil fuel’ interests.

    Link to this

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