[N]early a thousand scientists from every corner of the globe were preparing to gather in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on May 23-25 for what was billed as “the cold fusion shootout.” Tens of thousands of others would gather to watch the proceedings live via satellite. The secretary of energy, Admiral James Watkins, had asked a distinguished Nobel laureate, J. Robert Schrieffer, to organize the Santa Fe meeting and to ensure that all points of view were fairly represented. The objective was to exchange every scrap of theoretical and experimental evidence that might shed light on the question. Schrieffer invited Pons and Fleishmann to lead off the conference, and they accepted, promising to present the results of their new tests. But that was before the raccoon attack.
The tale of cold fusion is hilariously recounted in Robert L. Park’s Voodoo Science, quoted above. You see, there was this raccoon which had wandered into a transformer. The transformer exploded and the raccoon received a surprise cooking. Unfortunately for the future of humanity, the transformer was connected to Pons’s laboratory, causing a power outage and disrupting the crucial experiment whose results were promised at the Santa Fe meeting. At least this was the story coming from Pons and Fleishmann.
The media excitement over cold fusion was enormous. Congress got involved; politicians were taking photo-ops with Pons and Fleishmann; millions of dollars in public and private donations were being thrown about; venture capitalists came clamoring for deals. All while scientists were becoming increasingly skeptical of Pons and Fleishmann, not only because of their lack of results but because of what increasingly looked like shenanigans on their part. When at last the raccoon attacked, scientists had not been entirely surprised.
The point I wish to make about Pons and Fleishmann is that they did not start out as frauds. The subtitle of Park’s book is The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. It gives some interesting accounts of individuals who traveled along this road.
It starts out with a few not-quite-true but well-intentioned statements, rationalized as serving a greater purpose (and which, after all, do not matter anyway). Some time later a foolish decision is made, perhaps in part to compensate for one of the previous not-quite-truisms. Eventually, a raccoon is introduced.
The guy depicted above has just made a small mistake. Say, he just formed an opinion on some issue using faulty data or he said something which was technically true but misleading. Since he has only taken a small step in the wrong direction, there is still hope for him. He can be persuaded to change his newly formed opinion; he won’t be too embarrassed to backtrack on what he said.
Mistakes were made describes the fascinating psychological apparatus in place which causes our protagonist to start sliding down that pyramid. As he slides he becomes more invested in his viewpoint while becoming ever more insulated from reality.
We already know a phenomenon of this sort exists just by looking at the Amazon reviews of a book on a controversial topic, although the dichotomy there is not necessarily reality/unreality but simply PositionA/PositionB. All things being equal, one should expect the 1- to 5-star histogram to roughly resemble a bell curve. But when the book is about a contentious issue the graph is often U-shaped, and steeply so! There is an attractive force pulling readers toward one side or the other, thinning out the middle.
Since the reason for the sliding is not the purpose of this post, I won’t delve into the explanation. If you are interested then you can read the book and/or listen to the podcast(s). Most likely you have observed this kind of sliding, and the fact that it happens is not in dispute. So for now I will simply assume: that guy is sliding.
The most important thing about that guy is that he could be you. And he could be you at a moment when you are not quite thinking straight–when you are angry, upset, or whatever. If so, then in effect you’re about to start sliding without your full consent. Your own psychological apparatus is going to screw you. The only preventative measure I can imagine is to be attentive and to recognize the situation when it arises.
Next consider someone you know who is in that position. What do you do? I don’t have an answer except that if you can recognize yourself in that person then you’ll be more able to pull them back.
And finally, how do we deal with those who have traveled far down the pyramid, far away from reality? Most likely they are beyond reach, but not always. For the truly obstinate ones, we can hold them up as warnings to us all. We can show the clear, unassailable evidence of why they are wrong, but also–and this is what I wish to add–we can provide a full explanation of how they arrived at such unreality and why they persist in it.
The above image is based on art from N by Metanet Software.