5 Times Scientists Were Very Wrong About New Discoveries, Because of Hope


[♪ INTRO ] The scientific method — it’s what makes
the world go round. Not literally. But it’s how we understand the universe. Scientists are constantly developing and testing
hypotheses, which means a lot of ideas…especially seemingly revolutionary ones…get debunked
and go nowhere. But scientists are human, too. So every once in a while, some cling to early
observations that they can do over and over and over, but can’t be replicated by most
of the scientific community. So what gives? It’s called pathological science. It’s when researchers find patterns in experimental
data where none actually exist, or focus only on positive results. They might be convinced that other scientists
must be doing something wrong. And even though the science is wrong, it’s
not the same as fraud. These researchers aren’t trying to deceive
people, they’re just looking through a lens that keeps them from drawing objective conclusions. So here are 5 ideas that scientists tried
really hard to prove true… that just did not pan out. [1. Martian Canals] Sketches of the Martian surface started happening
basically as soon as telescopes were invented. But for the first couple of centuries, our
tech was not good enough to see more than dark smudges, or the white patches of the
polar ice caps. In 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli
observed and recorded long, thin lines on Mars that he dubbed “canali”, which is
Italian for channels. Unfortunately, this term was mistranslated
into English as “canals” — like the famous Suez Canal that was completed in 1869. Because Schiaparelli was a super distinguished
astronomer, his work got a lot of attention. And all this snowballed until the public and
astronomers alike believed that these canali were evidence of an intelligent Martian civilization. The biggest proponent of this hypothesis was
fellow astronomer — and Planet X hunter — Percival Lowell. He even built an entire observatory in the
Arizona desert to better observe Mars. As he told it, the Martian landscape had become
inhospitable, and the Martians had built the canals to bring water from the ice caps down
to the equator. He published 3 books in 3 decades on the subject,
and mapped almost two hundred canals — attributing his higher number to better viewing conditions. Meanwhile, the media ran with all of this
as fact. One New York Times article from 1911 was titled,
“Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years” because Lowell had found new lines! And Lowell wasn’t the only astronomer on
this bandwagon. One paper even proposed the canals were also
for power storage on the windy surface of the planet. There were plenty of dissenting voices too,
though. Some researchers suggested that they were
actually meteorite tracks, or giant fissures. Others proposed the lines were entirely fake
— just optical illusions. And, yeah, they were right. More experiments showed that, when looking
at dark, dot-like smudges, the human brain tends to connect them with straight lines. Our brains just really want to see patterns! Not to mention, there was probably a lot of
unconscious bias in believing Schiaparelli’s initial observations — that the canali did
exist even if they weren’t made by aliens. The 1960s brought the final nail in the coffin. The Mariner mission gave us close-up photographs
of our next-door neighbor, and there wasn’t a canal in sight. But Mars turned out that have a lot of other
super cool features, so I’m alright with that. [2. N-rays] Optical illusions actually are also responsible
for our next scientific flub. In 1903, physicist René Blondlot announced
the discovery of a new type of radiation while experimenting with X-rays. During his tests, he shot X-rays through a
quartz prism, which was known to not deflect X-rays. But out of the corner of his eye, Blondlot
saw an electric arc flash as if some radiation had been bent. So he concluded a new type of radiation must
be responsible for what he saw. Following the nomenclature of X-rays, which
had been discovered less than 10 years earlier, Blondlot called his discovery N-rays. The “N” was in honor of his home university
in Nancy, France. Future experiments detecting these rays involved
a phosphorescent screen, which would emit light when struck by photons from things like
X-rays… or I guess N-rays. And Blondlot took pictures that seemed to
show N-rays actually making spots brighter. Blondlot’s advice to other researchers attempting
to replicate his work was to shut themselves in a dark room for a half hour before the
data collection, and watch the screen out of the corner of their eye — not straight-on. He noted that it required “a certain amount
of practice” to detect N-ray flashes, because they were super faint. And other scientists totally backed him up. In the next three years, over a hundred mostly
French scientists published 300 articles about N-rays. They made claims about what kinds of objects
emitted them and their properties. Like, they could be stored in rock salt, or
refracted into a spectrum of different wavelengths by aluminum prisms. Belief in N rays wasn’t outlandish, since
a lot of other types of radiation and particles were being found too. And Blondlot had used visual observation in
other reputable research on the properties of X-rays and radio waves, so his technique
didn’t seem too sketchy. But plenty of scientists couldn’t replicate
Blondlot’s N-ray experiments. And they criticized his photographic ‘evidence.’ They suggested that it was actually caused
by non-uniform photo development practices, or poorly controlled exposure times. The beginning of the end of N-rays was in
1904, when American physicist Robert Wood visited Blondlot’s lab to observe some experiments
— and secretly conduct some of his own. For instance, when the room was dark, he removed
an aluminum prism that was supposed to be refracting the N-rays. And what do you know, Blondlot’s measurements
of the N-rays were unchanged. So the spots of light were just being imagined
by some overworked and biased brains. And Wood’s report of these failed demonstrations
was published in the journal Nature that same year, sealing their fate. That seems kind of a mean thing to do. But it’s science, he had to do the experiment. [3. Polywater] Scientists have discovered a lot of weird
forms of water ice that exist at extreme temperatures and pressures. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there
was a purported discovery of a weird form of liquid water in the 1960s — called polywater,
short for polymerized water. It was denser and more viscous than regular
water. It didn’t freeze at 0 degrees Celsius, or
boil at 100. Plus, it would turn into a glass-like substance
at about -34. Polywater first appeared when Soviet scientists
were experimenting with condensing water vapor inside super thin quartz tubes. Like, less than a millimeter in diameter on
the inside. Supposedly, the tubes were clean and the water
vapor didn’t have any contaminants. So the researchers concluded that, under these
conditions, the molecules formed a brand new structure. Once their discovery hit international circles
in 1966, scientists rushed to make up for lost research time. And because it was just ‘water’ — not
some fancy-schmancy chemical — it entered the public consciousness, too. There were fears that it could escape labs,
get into natural water systems, and turn the whole world’s water supplies into polywater. In just a couple years, both the US and UK
had scientists successfully replicating the Soviet experiments and making this mysterious
substance. One scientist even managed to extract a whole
gram of polywater! Yeah, a gram. That was considered a lot. And the papers kept coming, with nearly 100
in 1970 alone. One paper studied polywater using spectroscopy
— the different light wavelengths it reflected or absorbed, and how much it absorbed them. Polywater’s infrared absorption spectrum
didn’t match any of the nearly 100,000 substances in the researchers’ database. So they jumped to the conclusion that it had
to be a brand new thing. They even used their data to predict the structure
of polywater: a honeycomb. And they suggested that the quartz somehow
catalyzed a reaction so the water molecules were locked in place by stronger chemical
bonds than what normally holds liquid water together. Their experiment data, by the way, was accurate. It really didn’t match anything in their database. But a more skeptical scientific approach would
have considered other possibilities. Now, there were plenty of scientists arguing
that this was all caused by impurities in the water that researchers weren’t catching. In fact, the original 1962 paper — written
in Russian — mentioned a possible sodium contamination. And upon further spectroscopy tests, polywater
was shown to have sodium, calcium, potassium, and chlorine. And you know what else has that combination
of elements? Human sweat. It turned out that polywater’s absorption
spectrum was virtually identical to that of sweat. So that’s what was causing these weird properties. Tiny amounts of perspiration must have gotten
into the test chambers in all these experiments. These findings were published in 1971, and
arguments for polywater died not long after. But pathological science wasn’t done with
water… [4. Water Memory] In 1988, the journal Nature published a paper
claiming that an incredibly diluted solution retained a “memory” of what was originally
dissolved in it. The French immunologist Jacques Benveniste
had adapted a test that was normally used to determine if people were allergic to certain
things. Basically, when allergens interact with special
white blood cells, the cells release compounds like histamine that cause the itchy, sniffly
symptoms of asthma and hay fever. And for this test, Benveniste used a solution
full of antibodies that would trigger the same cellular response as allergens. But when he diluted the solution so much that
there probably wasn’t a single antibody left, some of the white blood cells still
appeared to react to it. He concluded the water must have held the
“memory” of the antibodies somehow. A lot of scientists — as well as Nature’s
editor — were wary of publishing these results. But while Benveniste’s work defied everything
we know about chemistry, it couldn’t be outright dismissed by peer reviewers. There was even a possible explanation. Because the bonds between liquid water molecules
form and break super quickly — like, within a trillionth of a second — maybe clusters
could form with specific shapes or behaviors. But, because of our good friend the scientific
method, others had to be able to replicate Benveniste’s work. The paper was published with an editorial
caveat that a team would be sent to Benveniste’s lab for follow-up. And they did just that, supervising his team
to make sure unconscious biases weren’t affecting the results of the new experiment. They went through an almost ridiculously complicated
series of steps to keep the study blind. Like, they used codes for the vials of pure
water and very diluted water, wrapped them in foil so the scientists couldn’t see the
labels, and hid the key for the codes in the ceiling. In the end, the vials that Beneveniste’s
team decided had a “memory” of dissolved antibodies were… a random mix. And of course, that wasn’t the only replication
attempt. Some people still claim to observe effects
of water memory, especially to support homeopathy. But there have always been far more studies
that contradicting that than supporting it. [5. Cold Fusion] Finally, we come to what might be the best
example of pathological science: cold fusion. Basically, it’s the idea of a sustained
nuclear reaction that can happen near room temperature, as opposed to the 15 million
degrees you find at the center of our Sun. If scientists were able to prove cold fusion
exists, it would basically be a revolution in energy and also everything else. So it kind of makes sense why people were
so dedicated, even after the general scientific community concluded it was too good to be
true. The first experiments were conducted in the
late 1980s. They involved placing two palladium metal
electrodes in heavy water, which is when some of the molecules’ hydrogen atoms have an
extra neutron. And then they ran an electric current from
one electrode to the other. That caused the water molecules to break apart,
and those special hydrogens — known as deuterium atoms — got absorbed into the palladium
metal. Theoretically, the metal acts as a catalyst
and helps the deuterium atoms fuse together without blazing-hot temperatures. And supposedly, scientists could tell the
deuterium fusion was happening in a couple ways. They could measure the heat produced from
the nuclear reaction, or look for byproducts like helium or another version of hydrogen
called tritium. And yes, many a scientific paper reported
observing one or more of these byproducts. But the amounts reported did not jive with
our understanding of how fusion works. In the very first cold fusion experiment,
the amount of heat measured meant that there should have been so much gamma radiation emitted
that the researchers would have died… or at least turned into giant green rage monsters. And just like all our other cases of pathological
science, attempts to replicate these results failed. Experiments were only able to measure excess
heat 70 percent of the time at best. Plus, it could take days to weeks before that
heat appeared, and it was never the same amount of energy. Many papers claiming to confirm the results
ended up getting retracted. And those that didn’t were reporting measurements
that could be explained by other chemical differences. For all practical purposes, the hubbub of
cold fusion ended a mere five weeks after the first announcement was made. Exciting year, 1989… But later there were a few other phenomena
related to cold fusion that were previously thought to be impossible, but were shown to
be real. So hope remained. Even today, there are some researchers convinced
that it’s a thing. They call it by other names though, like Low
Energy Nuclear Reactions. But cold fusion is almost definitely not going
to provide the Earth with a new, cheap, infinitely abundant energy source. Sorry for the bad news… but maybe if we,
like, just bombarded with N-rays? Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. And a super special thanks to our President
of Space, SR Foxley! Thank you for helping us do what we do! If you want to see more episodes just like
this, head on over to youtube.com/scishow to subscribe. [♪ OUTRO ]

100 thoughts on “5 Times Scientists Were Very Wrong About New Discoveries, Because of Hope”

  1. Why does the show more button no longer work? Why does it remain on the screen? Why does YouTube not offer an email address?

  2. These scientists make me feel stupid belonging to the human race. People still believe in "God" and ghosts and… /sigh.
    To be intelligent, would that mean being stupid as well?

  3. Lowell Observatory is NOT in the Arizona desert. It's in Flagstaff, which is a logging town surrounded by pine forest and snow capped peaks. It has a ski resort. There's more to Arizona than cacti and bad football.

  4. WHy is it that when i mouse over the playing video, the background for the host shot goes from green to blue. And then back when i take my pointer off the video?

  5. I don't know that it was so unfortunate that people thought there were canals on Mars. Some of my favorite books were born of that misconception. It was a nice dream, while it lasted.

  6. This is a fundamental problem, and not just – and mostly not because of – the stereotypical lab-coat scientists.

    "Research" masquerading as real science done by otherwise legitimate institutions is constantly thrown about, despite invalid conclusions. This is mostly done by policy-driven organizations like police departments and social programs. We have papers and articles being relied upon that employ faulty statistics and faulty methodology, not to mention a lack of rigorous background knowledge and often ulterior motives or pervasive biases. Sometimes these are submitted to journals, but often they are not. They are simply "reports" done by various groups. But these materials are horrendously unreliable. Yet they are relied upon for policy decisions and healthcare plans and so on.

    We also have issues where material that is indeed submitted for peer review is not rigorously reviewed and similar faulty methods and difficulties being more prominent in "softer" fields, like psychology. However, at least here, there is more recognition of the matter in academic circles and at least some effort at improving the problem (often in conjunction with open-access efforts). Lack if funding and unwise funding incentive structures are an impediment. The adage "publish or die" (or publish something attractive and positive or die) is very old.

    But the increasing pervasiveness and reliance on bunk "research" has enormous consequences. And it's always more difficult, expensive, and time consuming to counter and correct nonsense one it spreads. My experience is one of going from statistical analysis in a hard-science setting to dealing tangentially with the American legal system. The amount of… bs (not to mention the biases and, frankly, psychopathic behavior) being spread by our institutions was shocking to me and staggering. The inefficiencies and costs would have been as well, if not for the inherent wrongness of so much of what goes on.

    We need to make a point of relying on real science and to recognize what is and what is not science.

  7. Uncle George was a nuclear physicist at UC Berkeley. He had a hand in the "Big Boy bomb. He later worked on the Bevatron and at SLAC. He brought his own equipment up to Utah to see Marty Fleiscbmann's cold fusion experiment. He said THERE WAS DEFINITELY SUBSTANTIAL EXCESS ENERGY BEING GENERATED BUT THAT IT COULD NOT BE FUSION BECAUSE THERE WERE NOT ENOUGH NEUTRONS BEING PRODUCED. I asked him what it was and he said "A previously uncharacteristizwd known hydrolysis effect. Uncle George was an experimentalist not a theoretician. Believe what you will.
    .

  8. This is why peer review/confirmation/negation studies are so important in science. Yet studies with positive studies are given more importance than negation studies. There is science a big issue with sensationalism

  9. Cold fusion will never work cuz the of the kind of science we are forced to use and the science we are not allowed to use cuz it isn't "real"

  10. Well I am little disapointed about water memory, because there is also an article where they described such a effect, but was super short at it is another nail to water memory.

  11. Just more evidence as to how humans stop human evolution lol now if we could eradicate people who believe in magic (religion), we would make leaps and bounds

  12. Get your cold fusion reactor, with heavy, poly water that has a memory (that water has to come from the Martian canals) then bombard it with n-rays, thanks Hank, for the expert advice

  13. And, decades later, people are still going on about water memory and cold fusion, usually when they're trying to sell something or promote a conspiracy theory.

  14. "I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a 'body of knowledge,' but rather as a system of hypotheses; that is to say, as a system of guesses or anticipations which in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are 'true' or 'more or less certain' or even 'probable.'
    "

    -Karl Popper

  15. It's like in a criminal courtroom… All the relatives of the defendant will refuse to believe the evidence no matter how good the evidence is, and all the relatives of the victim will believe the evidence no matter how incomplete or bogus the evidence is.

  16. What if we built a machine that traps muons and bombards a vat of hydrogen to generate electricity? That's possible and makes sense!

  17. But climate change is settled, right? Those pesky models that can't predict anything are just a small bug, because shut up.

  18. The person responsible for supervising the Benveniste experiment was not himself a scientist, but well-known magician and skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi. Benveniste resented the inclusion of a non-scientist in this trial, especially the part sticking the sample codes to the ceiling, and never did fully accept the implications of his failure.

  19. Which reminds me: Fusion reactors are pathological technology. A waste of vast amounts of resources pursuing something that is never going to work.

  20. 10:53 I tried making a cold fusion reactor when I was like 12.. I didn't have palladium or a way to isolate heavy water, what I ended up making was an electrolysis machine.

  21. Number 3 should not be on that list, there is now a lecture, given every year since 2015 on Electrically structured water by Dr. Pollack, at the University of Washington. https://youtu.be/JnGCMQ8TJ_g

  22. I'm disappointed in you Hank, part of why science appealed to me was the ability to open your mind to the things that are impossible and not label them immediately as something that's not possible (ahem cold fusion, unless proven to be repeatedly so…and even then) cause we all know the idiots who mention things that will never work and are almost always proven wrong in the future.

  23. Scishow: Low temperature nuclear fusion won`t give up a lot of free energy. Muon: Hold my beer for like 20 years

  24. Great word… pathology. We send samples in medicine to the pathology department for analysis and study…believing the results. But someone who regularly lies…is called a pathological lier… Hmmmm
    But I used to build web applications in a language called ColdFusion…gee that was confusing for the non IT folks

  25. Just wait till they find out the Big Bang is still going on. The universe will continue to expand as long as the facet is open. :-p

  26. Water memory is so true. Just drink the water at your home. Right. Taste like urine, right? Of course. Certain molecules in that glass of water you have just drank has probably in the past been the excrement of some animals. And water so retains it's memory over the eons. Happy drinking urine. Lmao

  27. Priest: "My god is real!"
    Scientist observes: "Nuh uh"
    Priest: "no no, he lives WITHIN me!"
    Scientist: "okey dokey" Probes butt
    Priest: "AH! NOT THERE! He lives within my HEART!"
    Scientist "uhuh" gets power-tools

  28. Fun fact: Room temperature fusion actually is possible, and has been done since the 1960s; it's called Muon Catalyzed Fusion today (it was called cold fusion before the 1989 debacle). It costs more energy than it produces though, so it is mostly a research curiosity with a few practical applications, mostly preparing or treating radioactive samples. This is because of the Muon, which is like a very heavy Electron and can replace one on a deuterium atom, allowing the nuclei of two deuterium atoms to get close enough for fusion at normal temperatures by screening the electromagnetic repulsion. However, Muons take a lot of energy to make, and they aren't stable under any known conditions, so it will never be a free spring of energy.

  29. 95% of climate models run way to hot compared to reality. This is pathological science in action.
    https://curryja.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/christy_dec8.jpg

  30. Ads Suck
    Ads are so repetitive. 40% of ads are on the same topic instead of the hundreds of advertisers

  31. hey water memory guy FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU… you

  32. Scientists were sure that the Martian Canals were proof of intelligent life.
    And they were absolutely right! Their only mistake was in guessing at which end of the telescope the intelligence was to be found.

  33. Yes! My problem with homeopathy has always been, if water has memory then everything that’s ever been in it will be remembered. Like, feces, urine, all chemicals, etc. wouldn’t that be nice?

  34. Lipid hypothesis. The most expensive, largest studies have all shown saturated fat is pretty neutral when you look at actual end points (e.g. All cause mortality) and yet here we still are being recommended low fat (aka high sugar, because the fat is where the flavour is).

  35. Yes they are actually trying to deceive people threw agendas propaganda or profits (pharma,drug tobacco lobbies and so on) to boost there credibility and maintain there seat in a "discovery or findings " bias science has been a huge issue for years but is changing .

  36. 90% of generally accepted science "facts" are actually false. It is all made up to brainwash and control all you sheeple. Wake up!!!

  37. I was never taught about any of these failed discoveries during school. I'm not surprised. Why would I be taught about things that weren't true?

  38. Ahh yes, water memory, it's one of the tenants of those essential oils crazies and all those other "alternative medicine" brain neutrals. You know how you know that "Alternative Medicine" doesn't work? If it worked it would be called…MEDICINE.

  39. Cols fusion…wasn't that the end game of the movie The Saint with Val Kilmer? I vaguely remember watching it as a kid and a scientist in the movie had figured out cold fusion and all these different powers wanted to get ahold of the formula/process so they could turn it into infinite military might or something, I think it might have been that they wanted to own and control the process so they could charge the entire world for energy…pretty sure it ended with Kilmer delivering the knowledge to a female scientist and going with her plan to release the knowledge for free to everyone, thus eliminating the energy crisis.

    As a kid I didn't believe in the whole "too good to be true" saying when it came to science that hadn't been proven impossible, still don't and for the same reason, the universe doesn't check to see if somethings output is considered to be too good before allowing it. Just look at space flight, nuclear energy, airplanes, cars, trains, etc. They were all considered to be "too good to be true" by the human race as a whole right up to the moment in which they were successfully achieved.

  40. You forgot the giant recent one. Anthropomorphic induced climate change. If you look carefully you'll see the temperature variance occur only along the canale.

  41. I hope to live long enough to see global warming now changed to climate change hysteria added to this list.

  42. Check out "Piltdown Man" (flat-out bloody LIE!), "Luminiferous Ether" (It really SHOULDA been there!), and the "LGM1" (Little Green Men 1) signal from space! Hey, they TRIED!!! As for "cold fusion"…if only!

  43. DuPonts 'discovery' of Nylon was an ERROR!!! It was almost discarded as a failed process. It's FIRST name was DuPAROOTH. for "Dupont-Pulls -A-Rabbit-Out-Of-The-Hat"!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *