Self-serving belief inhibits advancement in science

The case of polywater demonstrates how the desire to believe in a new phenomenon can sometimes overpower the demand for solid, well-controlled evidence. In 1966 the Soviet scientist Boris Valdimirovich Derjaguin lectured in England on a new form of water that he claimed had been discovered by another Soviet scientist, N. N. Fedyakin. Formed by heating water and letting it condense in quartz capillaries, this “anomalous water,” as it was originally called, had a density higher than normal water, a viscosity 15 times that of normal water, a boiling point higher than 100 degrees Centigrade, and a freezing point lower than zero degrees.

Over the next several years, hundreds of papers appeared in the scientific literature describing the properties of what soon came to be known as polywater. Theorists developed models, supported by some experimental measurements, in which strong hydrogen bonds were causing water to polymerize. Some even warned that if polywater escaped from the laboratory, it could autocatalytically polymerize all of the world’s water.

Then the case for polywater began to crumble. Because polywater could only be formed in minuscule capillaries, very little was available for analysis. When small samples were analyzed, polywater proved to be contaminated with a variety of other substances, from silicon to phospholipids. Electron microscopy revealed that polywater actually consisted of finely divided particulate matter suspended in ordinary water.

Gradually, the scientists who had described the properties of polywater admitted that it did not exist. They had been misled by poorly controlled experiments and problems with experimental procedures. As the problems were resolved and experiments gained better controls, evidence for the existence of polywater disappeared.

“Self serving-beliefs inhibits advancements in science,” is Part 5 of our “On Being A Scientist” series, where we explore the culture and practice of science within the context of society. Stay tuned for Part 6 of our series.

Further Reading: On Being a Scientist, National Academy Press

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