Saturday, October 21, 2006

Conspiracy-theory Scientists

Keywords: Academic freedom; Professor Steven Jones; research; cold fusion; Mormon; Brigham Young University; World Trade Center; conspiracy; thermite.

What should be the rules of ? I am heartily in favor of the principle that scholars should be allowed to follow their noses when they are on the trail of an interesting discovery or theory.

Yet of course no principle is absolute; we live in a real world where “my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” And there are also institutional rules managing the right to investigate interesting problems. Probably the most significant regulation comes from funding, or the lack thereof. Scholars have to present their research proposals for competitive review if they are to obtain grants to support their research. And when it comes to publication, they also must submit their reports to scrutiny by qualified peers. Benefits such as promotions and salary increases, not to mention tenure in universities, all are based on the dossier one accumulates over the course of a career. The dossier is only part of the story; there is also the informal reputation one builds as a careful researcher or a wild-eyed nut case.

Still, it is generally possible for a dedicated (or fanatical) researcher to carry on persistently investigations that others regard as goofy, even within the limitations imposed by these standards and institutional procedures.

But suppose you’ve built up a good record throughout a twenty-year career, apart from an occasional quirk or two, but then you come out with something really shocking and implausible. What may the university properly do to you to indicate its displeasure? That’s a question that occurred to me this afternoon at a meeting when we were informed about the plight of Professor of Brigham Young University, and were asked to write a letter protesting against the university’s punitive treatment of him. I’m really not sure how far to go in supporting him strictly on the basis of my belief in academic freedom.

It seems that Professor Jones (see photo) is a physicist who has done a good deal of credible scientific research in the field of fusion. My antennae quivered in response to the term “cold fusion,” though I was reacting mostly out of prejudice. In the mid-1980s, there was a flurry of excitement about the apparent discovery of an unexpected phenomenon in the laboratory: “cold fusion.” Fusion is considered the much-sought-after solution to all energy problems on earth, but it has not been developed in a practical way. Some physicists suddenly claimed to have discovered evidence that fusion was taking place in the laboratory. Jones was one of those scientists, though another team of researchers, Professors Pons and Fleischmann, announced their own discoveries ahead of him, and were roundly criticized for their sloppy methods. Jones, on the other hand, made much more modest claims and his paper received a favorable review. In the end, nothing came of their approach. was not exactly a hoax, but rather the result of some anomalous findings resulting, most likely, from error. This evidently did not tarnish Jones’s reputation.

But then there were some other odd-ball papers. Jones (along with most of the inhabitants of Utah) practices the faith. He wrote a strange paper presenting archaeological evidence that Jesus had visited Native Americans after his resurrection, as , the Mormon founder, had declared. This paper probably damaged his reputation as a scientist, but it may have enhanced his credibility on the campus of Brigham Young University, which is a Mormon institution. Besides, it is assumed that one’s religious beliefs are exempt from criticism on scientific grounds, so perhaps the article was not a liability to Jones’s career.

In 2003, Jones moved further along his quirky path by publishing his theory that the US government had orchestrated the falling of the towers on September 11, 2001. He claims to have physical evidence too: the existence in materials from ground zero of a substance called , which is used in military detonations. Terrorists could not have obtained this material, he insists.

He had already been arguing the case for a , even before publishing his scientific conclusions about the traces of thermite. For example, at a meeting this summer he gave a speech saying,

“The chain of events leads me to reluctantly conclude that indeed there does seem to be insiders. In other words, not just hijacked planes, but also others setting these thermite cutting charges into the World Trade Center and bringing them down.”

Partly in response to Jones’s charges the State Department has issued a rebuttal in a 10,000 page report.

Brigham Young University took stronger measures. Criticizing Jones for having not published his findings in the appropriate scientific venues, the university put him on paid leave, assigning his courses to other professors to teach. He would, however, be allowed to conduct research while the university reviews his actions. Jones responded by retiring from the university. Yesterday he and the university finalized a retirement package. He will be out of their hair as of January 1.

The scientific community has mixed opinions about what should be done in this case. Mostly the reaction is against the university for abridging academic freedom – and not for the first time. At the Science for Peace meeting today, one scientist read aloud a letter than he had written in support of Jones, asking us to endorse it and send it on letterhead to the Brigham Young authorities. Another scientist wanted to water down the language somewhat, particularly to make sure it did not say that we find Jones’s theory plausible. To resolve the matter, we agreed that the two men would meet and work until they could agree on a text, which we would then sign.

I have to say this much: I have read some of the publications by other “9/11 conspiracy theorists” – especially – and there are some problems in the official story. Or perhaps there are good explanations for the anomalous findings, if I would but look more deeply into the matter. I understand that a substantial majority of Americans now doubt the official story, as I myself also do. However, that does not make me into a conspiracy theorist. I cannot imagine that any conspiracy of that magnitude would hold up. Thousands of people would have had to be in on the plot, and surely some of them would have come forward by now to tell about it. The most I can accept is that there are some unanswered puzzles, for which we may never learn the full account.

Did Jones deserve to be put on paid leave by his university? Probably not. Does a university ever need to resort to such measures? Probably so. I know of one case when a professor had a full-blown psychotic episode while teaching a large class. His problem was treated as a medical issue, as it should have been.

There have been real conspiracies. I discount conspiracy theories just because it’s a line of thinking that I don’t like to pursue, for it becomes too hard to know what is crazy and what is not. But a few of them are probably true. It’s almost unthinkable that the US government was complicit in 9/11. But I wouldn’t persecute a person for speculating about it, so long as he or she does other scholarly or scientific work that is sound. The system has to be able to tolerate odd-balls just to make room for genuinely original research. It’s a tricky issue, fraught with risk. But I for one would be willing to sign the letter urging that Professor Jones be allowed to continue his dubious investigation of the World Trade Center collapse,


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