Then and now – a personal view of bias and censorship

Back in the early pre-historical dawn of experimental science, i.e. 1959, I began a PhD project on the electrical breakdown of liquid insulants. An abstruse topic, you might well think, but a small improvement could have saved billions of dollars and put all those overhead power lines that now so excite the epidemiologists underground.

The received wisdom in those days was that there was such a thing as intrinsic breakdown strength. That is to say that the voltage at which the sample breaks down (sparks) depends only on the properties of the liquid and not upon the apparatus and test method. A consequence of this theory was that the higher average breakdown voltage you got (for a given thickness of sample) and the lower the scatter of the normally distributed results, the greater your skill as an experimentalist. Lo and behold, published averages got higher and higher while scatter got lower and lower. I made a few preliminary measurements and got result nowhere near the published ones. I was about to give up and go on to some other topic before it was too late, when I attended a research seminar by one Andreas Sletten. He had demonstrated that high breakdown strengths could be caused by an impurity (oxygen), which blew the reigning theory out of the water. This gave me courage to carry on and I was able to show that the way the voltage was applied by the traditional manual control methods also contributed to high averages and low scatters. When I attended my first scientific conference at Durham University the following year, I discovered in the course of conversation with various people that at least a dozen pieces of research had gone unreported because the results obtained were not considered high enough. If all the unpublished results had been included the average publicly acknowledged value for breakdown strength would have been halved. Some research careers were killed at the outset because they failed to conform to the theory.

This was made all the more poignant by my research supervisor, a classical absent-minded professor who used to get the generations of students mixed up, and often referred to poor John Brignell, who never got his PhD because of low results, yet was probably right.

I have never said it publicly before, but the proponents are all probably now dead and gone, most of the senior academics in this field were lying in their teeth. Many of the published results were, in my view, impossible to achieve. I introduced computer-controlled methods of measurement that eliminated the “human skill” factor (much to the horror of senior colleagues of the “precision measurement” school) and demonstrated that wide statistical variation was intrinsic to the breakdown phenomenon, as the concept of the weakest link and extreme value statistics would demand. Conduction and breakdown properties of the materials had been “shown” to vary with such abstruse phenomena as molecular chain length, when the variations concerned were less than I was getting between nominally identical samples prepared by almost absurdly careful methods (such as multi-stage distillation in a system that had been baked under high vacuum).

The millions of man-hours that went into all that worldwide research have proved worthless in the pursuit of human progress. The main reason for this failure was the formulation of an establishment orthodoxy that prevented the publication of alternatives. In fact, when the intrinsic strength theory collapsed, it was immediately replaced by an equal and opposite, and equally banal, theory that all the phenomena were caused by sub-microscopic solid particle impurities. It again became difficult to publish results that disagreed with the new orthodoxy. The theorists felt secure in the knowledge that no one could make the measurements necessary to undermine their claims. It took me years of work to dispose of that one, and involved an elaborate computer aided experiment that measured the actual charges carried by randomly moving particles (femto-coulombs) and showed that they were many orders of magnitude too small to accommodate the theory. I spent a few more years knocking down theories, which in my Popperian view was the very stuff of science, but gradually moved over to the development of sensors that measured what needed to be measured, rather than relying of indirect deductions. Nevertheless, the general unease about the state of measurement science never left me and, in fact, grew. Most ominous was that fact that a new form of politics was emerging. Radicals of both the New Left and the New Right saw science not as an entity with its own integrity, but rather as a tool that they could bend to their own purposes.

Perhaps this background will go to explain the fact that I became something of a single-issue fanatic on the subject of “the abuse of measurement” and half a century later took early retirement to write a book with that as the sub-title. It is also the reason for the dismay with which I view the current scene. In one very important respect it is now even worse. Governments and the media now form part of the establishment that is trying to maintain particular theories against all the scientific evidence. Statistical fraud is openly practised by state sponsored bodies, such as the EPA. Worst of all, precious primary data, such as the historic temperature records, are being altered with Orwellian casualness to conform to the official theory rather than reality.

As detailed in Sorry, wrong number!, in 1989 Gordon Stewart wrote a paper challenging the official view that AIDs cases in the UK would reach tens of thousands by 1992. His paper remained unpublished during a four-year correspondence in which referees wrote comments such as “Why should I read a paper by someone who believes the earth is flat?”

Stewart’s paper, which was rejected by Nature, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal, was proved to be correct to within a remarkable 10%. The “experts” were out by several orders of magnitude. The establishment ignored their shame and simply moved on. The same process is now taking place with the Global Warming Myth. The reward for conforming is millions of dollars worth of grants. The penalty for dissenting is being relegated to a remote corner of the World Wide Web (among the cranks and pornographers), which is the last home of scholarship, as practised by such lone battlers as John Daly.

O tempora, O Mores!


John Brignell, July 2003