Scientist Cleared, Process Unclear

The New York Times reports that Purdue has officially cleared Rusi Taleyarkhan of charges of scientific wrongdoing over his claim to have produced nuclear fusion on a tabletop through the magic of sonoluminescence. You might recall that these claims were made a couple of years ago, but nobody else has been able to replicate them.

Purdue has conducted some sort of inquiry into the matter, and declared that there was nothing dishonest about the results. The inquiry was not what you’d call a model of transparancey, though:

Purdue did not reveal what allegations the committee had considered. It even refused to state the number of inquiries that had been conducted.

The university originally announced last March that it had started a review of Dr. Taleyarkhan’s research, and three months later it said that the committee had finished its work — but that the conclusions, as well as any discipline or follow-up investigations, would be kept confidential.

In Wednesday’s statement, the university said that with Dr. Taleyarkhan’s permission, it was revealing the conclusion of the inquiry “in the interest of ending speculation.”

But the statement did not specify — and a university spokesman declined to answer — whether the conclusions came from the previously confidential inquiry that ended eight months ago or from a new inquiry.

This is why lawyers should never be let near the workings of academia. Any time we have a faculty meeting about a topic that touches even tangentially on legal issues, I leave the meeting frustrated and annoyed. Lawyers have a way of refusing to answer yes-or-no questions that leaves me feeling like I know less after their answer than before I asked the question.

These paragraphs bear the clear stamp of overcautious legal advice, and don’t do Dr. Taleyarkhan or Purdue any favors. The process by which he was cleared remains so murky that those inclined to think ill of him have no reason to change their minds, and those who are undecided have plenty of room to remain dubious. To steal a phrase from Josh Marshall, this is dingbat kabuki– or possibly dingbat bunraku, as you’re supposed to just pretend not to notice the shadowy figures moving around in the back.

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Natelson
    February 13, 2007

    The whole point of inquiries into misconduct is that they’re supposed to be open to public scrutiny. I just do not understand Purdue’s reluctance to state the charges (e.g. that Taleyarkhan unduly influenced the authors on the alleged independent confirmation of his work) and explain their findings. Why not be open? What do they have to lose? They can preserve essential confidentiality (who brought the accusations) without violating the spirit of open access. None of this even gets to whether they think the scientific result is correct, of course.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    February 13, 2007

    Taleyarkhan used deuteroacetone, bp=55.5 C. Suslick spectroscopically, reproducibly observed that cavitation bubble conditions become more extreme with increasing medium boiling point up to concentrated (98.3%) sulfuric acid, bp=290 C. Fusion figure of merit is (temp)x(pressure)x(duration).

    If acetone-d6 works then 98.3% deuterosulfuric acid/D20 will be an unquestionable success. Aldrich, 98 wt-% D2SO4/D20, 99.5 atom-% D, 100g/$(US)113.40. Do the experiment and stop whining.

  3. #3 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    He’s an employee and employee relations are governed, in many places, by law and additionally, damage to one’s reputation is litigable. So you’re bound to get lawyers involved and the science is going to sit in second place (because, in this case, the employee’s rights are presumably seen to be more important).

    I am not sure what standard of proof is required in these cases, nor how easy it would be to get it.

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