Are you the best at what you do? Probably not. By definition, the concept of “best” is a rarely accurate accolade. Most of us must content ourselves with being “good.” There is, however, a convenient way to become “better.”
It all depends on context. For example, if I were so bold as to style myself a mathematician, I immediately fall to one of the lower rungs of the profession's ladder. I neither hold a Ph.D. (in math, that is) nor do I publish. My one original piece of research was my master's thesis, the result of which someone else independently discovered and published. So much for my standing in the mathematical meritocracy.
I'm a math teacher. On that scale I do believe that I am more successful than some of the university math professors of my acquaintance. In my niche as a community college faculty member I rank—dare I say?—fairly high. With a little exaggeration, I can even be the “best.” For example, I can confidently say, “I am the best early morning calculus teacher at my school.” (I am the only early morning calculus teacher at my school.) Yes, context is everything.
It's obvious how this game is played and there's no need to belabor the point. I want, however, to talk about more realistic ranking systems. Pecking orders, if you will. Some of us do grow tired of our meager scratchings and look to better ourselves in interesting ways. It doesn't always go well.
In the peer-reviewed meritocracy of scientific research it can be particularly difficult to ascend to the uppermost ranks. I present here a sad roster of people who strove for excellence in science—and achieved only a backward sort of fame. Each one, perhaps pricked by the fame and fortune of others, fled the morass of mediocrity and plunged headlong into ... nonsense. They traveled the darkening path that leads from science to pseudoscience.
The Galileo of UFOs
J.Allen Hynek may have been largely forgotten in the years since his death twenty years ago, but he was a famous figure during the height of the UFO phenomenon. Flying saucers have faded in popularity in recent years, perhaps because the ubiquity of minicams and camera phones has made it increasingly obvious that there aren't any shiny alien spacecraft flitting about us. (The place of UFOs in popular mythology is now mostly filled by tales of night terrors and supposed alien abductions—much more conveniently ambiguous.)
Hynek was a lead investigator for the United States Air Force in its studies of unidentified flying objects. The best known of these projects was Project Blue Book, which ended in 1969. Although disdained by UFO enthusiasts, these projects were extremely successful in attributing the vast majority of flying saucer sighting to mundane phenomena. Some people complained that the USAF was too eager to accept any naturalistic explanation (“swamp gas,” “the planet Venus”) and questioned the honesty of the investigations. Although he was one of the Air Force's chief architects of the explanations, Hynek began to question the insistence on dismissing all UFO sightings as misinterpreted everyday phenomena.
Hynek decided to focus on the handful of unexplained cases. These, he decided, had to be “real”—that is, actual evidence of remarkable occurrences rather than delusions. Although he was doubtful the UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft, Hynek thought the unexplained cases deserved serious continued study. He established the Center for UFO Studies in 1973 and began the final phase of his career: the most famous credentialed scientist who “believed” in UFOs (whatever they might eventually turn out to be).
His efforts were never crowned with success. CUFOS never adduced sufficient evidence to establish that UFOs were either extraterrestrial or extradimensional—or anything else interesting. Hynek slipped further and further into occult speculation, linking UFOs with various psychic phenomena (such as poltergeists), but never producing a coherent theory for that possibility either. (Of course, how could Hynek be expected to produce a coherent theory uniting two imaginary phenomena? I readily confess that I don't take psychic phenomena any more seriously than I do UFOs.)
How did a once-reputable scientist with a Ph.D. in astrophysics end up wandering so far into the fringe regions of scientific endeavor? The anti-UFO polemicist Philip J. Klass offered his theory in UFOs: The Public Deceived, in which he wrote
My own—admittedly limited—study of scientists who have become victims of “pathological sciences” suggests that those who are the most vulnerable are persons who are approaching the end of their careers without having achieved great prominence and younger scientists whose achievements have fallen short of their ambitions....Yes, I think Klass might well be right. The sad conclusion is that if Hynek will be remembered for anything, it is likely to be his invention of the “close encounters” classification system and his brief cameo in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the credulous UFO movie of 1977.
It is much more alluring to hope to become the “Galilieo of UFOlogy,” or its Albert Einstein, than to opt for the simple, Occam's Razor alternative—that roughly 98 percent of all UFO reports are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if sometimes unfamiliar objects by basically honest observers. And that the balance, roughly 2 percent, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities. There is no prospect of a Nobel Prize, or long-lasting scientific fame, for anyone who proposes prosaic explanations entirely within the framework of existing scientific knowledge, only harsh criticism from those eager to promote UFOs.
The Isaac Newton of Information Theory
William Dembski is another person with genuine scientific training who has lost his way. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, no mean feat, and later added a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. There aren't a whole lot of people who hold two earned doctorates.
In Dembski's view of the world, his mathematical training is to be put at the service of his religious promptings. He uses unnecessarily abstruse mathematical notation to obscure the vacuity of his writings in the theory of intelligent design creationism. He is today one of the most notable figures in the intelligent design movement and it has garnered him recognition and accolades from other creationists. His special focus is on a variant of complexity theory (he calls it specified complexity). Dembski attempts to undermine evolution by demonstrating that natural phenomena are insufficient to produce the existing complexity of life on earth. Since life is information based (for example, the coding in DNA), one way to attack evolution is to assert that evolution violates entropy by increasing the amount of information in the world.
Most other mathematicians do not give Dembski's take on complexity much credit and computer scientists like Mark Chu-Carroll have punctured Dembski's pretensions to being an information science theoretician. Nevertheless, Dembski's admirers have even called him “the Isaac Newton of information theory.” Sorry, folks, that accolade belong to Claude Shannon. No one who knows anything about information theory would argue otherwise. Dembski is like the one-eyed man who is king in the land of the blind.
But I think he keeps that one eye closed most of the time.
Tempest in a teapot
Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were respected researchers in their field of electrochemistry until they became media rock stars in 1989. At a specially called press conference (a most unusual venue for the announcement of a scientific breakthrough), Pons and Fleischmann reported their discovery of cold fusion. They claimed they could generate energy by means of a room-temperature fusion reaction. It was an astonishing claim.
The world went nuts over cold fusion. If true, it promised the end of all of our energy-shortage problems. What's more, it scored a major point for chemists in their never-ending grudge match with physicists, who tend to regard chemistry as a dirty-hands younger sibling to the older and wiser physics. An element of professional envy was in it.
A fever pitch was reached at the 1989 annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, stoked by its president, Clayton Callis, in an address to the assembled multitudes. The occasion was recounted by John R. Huizenga in Cold fusion: The scientific fiasco of the century:
He excited the seven thousand chemists, gathered in a large arena at the Dallas Convention Center, to an extremely high pitch by his introductory remarks, in which he hailed the tremendous potential of cold fusion as an energy source, and claimed that it might be the discovery of the century. He then went on to detail the many problems physicists were having in achieving controlled nuclear fusion. “Now it appears that chemists may have come to the rescue,” he said, and the thousands of chemists in the arena broke into loud applause and laughter.The physicists were more than willing to counteract. The main sticking point was the absence of certain byproducts of the reported fusion reaction. In brief, Pons and Fleischmann should have been killed by the success of their experiment. As Huizenga put it, “Early critics recognized that on the basis of the reported heat, Fleischmann and Pons would have to had been exposed to massive, lethal doses of nuclear radiation.” Their evident good health was the first clue that something was wrong with their theorized reactions.
The first rush of enthusiasm over cold fusion quickly began to fade. Although there was an initial spate of apparently confirming experiments, these were increasingly outweighed by carefully controlled investigations that came up negative. A real body blow to cold fusion was delivered by a multidisciplinary Caltech team. They didn't find the excess energy that was supposedly generated and they didn't find the nuclear byproducts that were supposed to be formed. Various government agencies and research universities began to turn away from further research into cold fusion. There are still open questions regarding what Pons and Fleischmann observed, but “anomalous energy” research has become a backwater as far as most chemists (and virtually all physicists) are concerned.
As recently as 2004 the Department of Energy commissioned a review of fifteen years' worth of cold fusion research. The dispiriting conclusion of the DOE report was that there was insufficient evidence to warrant expenditure of federal research funds on cold fusion.
Pons and Fleischmann are scarcely anywhere to be found these days, as they labor on in renewed obscurity.
Face to face with Darwin
The perfect example of pseudoscientific hubris is provided by Duane Gish, the biologist who has never ceased to struggle against biology's evolutionary foundations. A tireless practitioner of art of babbling past the opposition, Gish prefers the debate platform to the science lab when it comes to promoting creationism. While the deft turn of phrase or debate-trick gambit carries no weight in peer-reviewed research, such devices can sweep all rational thought aside in front of an appreciative crowd. Gish has his favored sound-bites, his polished counterexamples to evolution (all of them long since explained away, but still favored by the man who nevertheless repeats them anew to audiences who don't know any better).
Martin Gardner could have been thinking of Duane Gish when he quoted Shaw in Fads and Fallacies:
George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. “Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him”; writes Shaw, “and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable.”Gish fancies that his platform skills have made him into a great spokesman for “creation science.” In that he is almost certainly correct, but that does not make him into any kind of scientist. It is a measure of his self-importance that he can depict himself on the cover of Creation Scientists Answer Their Critics as standing on an equal footing with Charles Darwin himself. There they are, face to face and nose to nose, Charles and Duane. This is really the final word in science envy.