Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Institutional Incompetence, "Conspiracy Theories" and Pol Pot

Institutional incompetence defends itself by portraying all observation of its effects as "Conspiracy Theories". This defense mechanism is now, itself, an institution. Moreover it is an institution that is extraordinarily effective at protecting incompetence in all institutions (including itself).

Part of the problem is that almost all institutional incompetence derives from faulty incentive structures, so it is easy to impute to the critic the claim that such incompetence is not incompetence at all but, rather, is self-interest. The critic is hard-pressed to deny this (except insofar as such self-interest is unenlightened hence incompetent in that meta-sense) and is thence imputed to "theorize" a "conspiracy" of self-interested individuals as the basis for the maintenance of the institutionalized incompetence. Again, the critic may not have put forth nor even have thought of such a theory but he is hard-pressed to disprove that a "conspiracy" -- in some sense -- is at work so he cannot very well vigorously deny such a theory. This vulnerability of the critic is then viciously attacked. This all goes on within a subtext of the conversation so it is a rare critic that recognizes how the burden of proof has been shifted from the institutionally incompetent needing to prove that the critic has theorized a "conspiracy" (which, of course, would require defining "conspiracy") to the critic needing to prove that such a "conspiracy" (the definition of which is, after all, in the mind of the institutionally incompetent) is clearly out of the question despite the vagueness of the term multiplied by the lack of information with which to support or deny even a clear definition.

So, the institution of "Critics are crazy people." successfully defends all institutional incompetence.

While this is merely part of the problem, its effectiveness in promoting institutional incompetence leads to a rather undesirable state of affairs.

As an extreme illustration let me describe a fictional dialog between Pol Pot and a government funded "physicist" regarding the "cold fusion" debacle.

First a bit of background on this conversation between Pol Pot and a government funded "physicist":

January 26, 1990, the journal Nature rejected Oriani's empirical validation of Pons and Fleischmann's 1989 announcement of "excess heat" on the grounds that he didn't provide evidence of nuclear ash and, besides, others were having difficulties replicating the experiment. It is no exaggeration to say this rejection established the foundation for all future claims that there had been no replication of Pons and Fleischmann's announced results -- hence the summary rejection of virtually all submissions related to so-called "cold fusion": Nuclear "physcists" must be satisfied in their irrational standard of conformance to expectation before any experimental results would be published.

Then we are treated to the statement by the DoE's chairman of the panel appointed to investigate cold fusion, John Huizenga:

"Although the McKubre experiment is considered by many advocates to be the premier evidence for excess heat, no nuclear reaction products were reported."

Huizenga is not a Nobel Laureate but a co-chair who was a Nobel Laureate, Norman Ramsey had to threaten to resign if the conclusion of the panel was to cut off future research -- as was Huizenga's agenda. Ramsey managed to prevent a prohibition on future research funding -- and a recommendation that such research should focus on replication of the calorimetery, hence excess heat. That is all he was able to accomplish with his ultimatum. There was no positive recommendation that funds be put forth. Hence, no research was funded.

These two events created an environment in which it was career death for anyone to request funds for "cold fusion" research, let alone so-allocate discretionary funds.

For a complete account of the premature and enduring attack on "cold fusion" research, see "Excess Heat: Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed" by Charles G. Beaudette.


Pol Pot: So what did you do to replicate the P&F experiment?

Government funded "physicist": I ran a duplication of their experimental protocol and got no heat or neutrons.

Pol Pot: So, that's that?

Government funded "physicist": Of course. Falsifiability is the touchstone of science and I falsified their theory of "cold fusion". My G-d man, haven't you read Karl P-pper? Karl P-pper is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century!

Pol Pot: No, I must confess I haven't read Karl P-pper. Never heard of him.

Government funded "physcist": Why am I even talking to you?

Pol Pot: Maybe its because I'm holding a show trial and have my Khmer Rouge thugs over there drooling at the thought of torturing and killing you if you don't talk to me.

Government funded "physicist": Good point.

Pol Pot: OK, so getting back to reproducibility, how do you explain the discrepancy between P&F's results and your results?

Government funded "physicist": Wishful thinking by P&F? Pathological science? Inadequate calorimetry? The list of possibilities is endless. Why would you even bother asking? Its not my job to explain the falsity of their results -- merely to falsify. That I have done.
Others have tried and failed as well, and the weight of the evidence is what we scientists are interested in when falsifying claims. Absolute proof is for mathematicians.

Pol Pot: So you and the others who claim to have falsified P&F have no obligation to replicate their experimental error?

Government funded "physicist": We've got better things to do with our limited time and money.

Pol Pot: Have others tried and succeeded in replicating P&F?

Government funded "physicist": No neutrons, gamma rays, tritium, etc. At least none at the level required by fusion. Marginal levels with poor reproducibility are the recipe for pathological science.

Pol Pot: What about heat?

Government funded "physicist": Why would anyone care about measuring heat if you can't get fusion products to show up?

Pol Pot: To keep from freezing in the winter?

(Khmer Rouge thugs get restless and one asks Pol Pot politely: "Can we eat his brains now?" Pol Pot ignores the request -- waiting with bated breath for the answer to his own question.)

Government funded "physicists": No, I mean if its fusion, there have to be fusion products.

Pol Pot: Isn't heat a fusion product?

Government funded "physicist": Well, yes, but it can't be present in the absence of the other fusion products.

Pol Pot: Why not?

Government funded "physicist": Because it flies in the face of the physical theory!

Pol Pot: So even though mathematicians spend their lives exploring the full implications of a few axioms and barely make a dent in the potential theorems, and even though physicists can't claim the formal rigor of mathematical proof, you claim that it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the statement "deuterium fusion cannot occur with heat but without neutrons, gamma rays or tritium" is true?

Government funded "physicist": Well, when you twist my words around that way, I suppose I'd have to say no.

Pol Pot to Khmer Rouge as he steps back: OK guys. But don't eat his brains. It might be contagious.