Obviously Climate Audit has captured a small part of the zeitgeist of the scientific world, especially in regards to the obvious failures of peer review to detect bad practice and scientific misconduct. It has been asked by some climate scientists why access to original data and full disclosure is so important, as if proper audit and replication were an invasive medical procedure rather than intrinsic part of the Scientific Method.
From another area of science, which has already had one thumping case of scientific misconduct already, another one appears to be coming to the boil: the claim of tabletop fusion.
Nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan’s claims that he had achieved table-top fusion in collapsing bubbles caused a storm when they were first reported in Science in 2002. If the effect is real, and could be harnessed, it might one day provide an almost limitless source of energy.
Four years later, Taleyarkhan’s work retains an almost magical ability to grab the headlines, most recently in January, when his latest claims were promoted in a press release by the American Physical Society, and Science defended its initial publication of the work in an editorial as recently as 3 March. Millions of dollars are being spent trying to repeat the work, including $800,000 from the US Department of Defense. But corroboration remains elusive.
Taleyarkhan and his co-authors vigorously affirm that the effect they have seen is real, and have published several further positive studies – most recently in Physical Review Letters, in which they claim to have countered previous technical objections to their work.
Yet there has been no independent confirmation of their results, and an investigation by Nature of the circumstances surrounding the experiments reveals serious questions about their validity. Interviews with researchers who have worked closely with Taleyarkhan at Purdue University in the past two years, a re-analysis of his data by a group critical of him, as well as a review by the US patent office, suggest that serious doubts are prevalent in the physics community.
And if that wasn’t enough, independent verification is slightly tougher that is strictly necessary:
Purdue University did not promote Taleyarkhan’s most recent paper to the media. This may reflect the fact that other faculty members at the university, who are trying to repeat the work, have been concerned by Taleyarkhan’s actions since he arrived there full-time in 2004. The steps he has taken, they say, include claiming positive results from equipment on which they had seen only negative data, before removing the equipment from their lab altogether [My emphasis].
And for Steve, some excuses which should bring deja vu…
Taleyarkhan defended his findings in a 2005 episode of the BBC’s Horizon strand, protesting: “My lab has been audited, my instruments have been audited, my books have been audited, the data speaks for itself.”
No, Dr Taleyarkhan, it doesn’t. Nobody can replicate your work and you’re making claims which cannot be checked.