Enabling Maverick Science

February 28, 2022

Enabling Maverick Science

Our esteemed colleague Huw Price, Emeritus Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, recently published an article in ArXiv, “Risk and Scientific Reputation: Lessons from Cold Fusion.”

Professor Price brings up a valid scientific concern: many scientists are wary of the potential “catastrophic risks” associated with powerful new technologies, but expressing concern is one thing, identifying serious candidates another. By definition, risks that may lead to breakthroughs will be novel, rare and difficult to study; data will be scarce, and speculation necessary. 

This brings us into the realm of “maverick science” – often a hostile and uncomfortable place. Science is conservative, and there is strong cultural pressure on scientists to work within the current paradigm. Yet advances – scientific revolutions – often depend on far-sighted individuals who resist these conservative pressures and continue to work outside the mainstream. The dichotomy between risk aversion and scientific breakthroughs is particularly evident in cold fusion or LENR (low energy nuclear reactions).
Huw outlines his experiences with cold fusion:

“Nothing in [those] ten years has shaken my conviction that cold fusion is a fascinating real-world example of maverick science, in the sense relevant to the study of extreme technological risk. Indeed, I have come to see my own experience in thinking and writing about the field – in particular, some of the reactions I have encountered from others – as an interesting illustration of some of the general characteristics of maverick science.”

The article further describes his own engagement with cold fusion and the lessons he believes we should take from it. He notes that science can be unkind to mavericks, who are often shunned and ridiculed, but they are usually right in the end. 
According to Huw, the cold fusion community is currently living in a reputation trap, tainted with a reputation that is both dismissive and contagious, making it off-limits to mainstream investigators. He calls for an end to the culture of reputation traps: it’s unhealthy for science and potentially dangerous for all of us, at least in cases (such as cold fusion) where the costs of “wrongful dismissal” are especially high. 

As part of his analysis, he quotes Anthropocene Institute’s founder, saying: “Scientists must test their intellectual honesty from time to time by looking at research with conclusions outside the consensus. Otherwise, how do you know you are a scientist, and not an adherent to an ideology? Or just fashionable. 

Given my interest in energy, I was asked to meet with a ‘cold fusion’ researcher. I said ‘No’ until I had a chance to see why the field is so unpopular with many intelligent people. After a year of reading and talking to experts, I discerned a textbook example of an important and unexpected result that provoked every form of unscientific reaction, literally terrorizing honest researchers. Motivated reasoning, rampant academic nepotism, self-interest, intra-disciplinary conflict, ideology, math dominance, and authoritarian rule.”

Let’s follow Huw’s lead and listen to those who may seem like iconoclasts, but whose curiosity and relentless pursuit of breakthroughs prevail in the end. Read the full article here.
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