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Also of interest…

In this week’s eSkeptic, we reprint an article that appeared in Science magazine on December 15th, in which Michael Shermer reviews Sharon Weinberger’s book Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld (Nation, 2006, ISBN 1560258497).

Imaginary Weapons (detail of cover)

Imaginary Weapons (detail of cover)

Dr. DARPA — or How the Pentagon Learned to Stop Worrying and Love…

a book review by Michael Shermer

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the character Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper reflected on the opinion on war expressed by the World War I French Premier Georges Clemenceau: “He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Read Al Qaeda for communist and homeland security for precious bodily fluids to see how life imitates art, although today we have allowed scientists into the war room (where no fighting is allowed). This is equally problematic, for scientists are subject to the same cognitive biases as these other cohorts. In fact, even smart people like scientists believe weird things, because they are highly skilled at rationalizing beliefs that they arrived at for nonsmart reasons1. And after two decades of investigating weird beliefs on the borderlands of scientific credulity, I know pseudoscience when I see it.

“Pseudoscience” is also the verdict rendered by the former chief scientist at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Peter Zimmerman, to Sharon Weinberger, an investigative journalist and the editor of Defense Technology International, when she inquired in 2003 about the Pentagon’s top-secret superweapon, the hafnium bomb. “One knows bad science and after a while learns to recognize it as such,” Zimmerman explained. Weinberger’s query led her into the Pentagon’s “scientific underworld” that “starts the moment a military official tosses aside science and proceeds with some idea too far out to believe.” The further down the rabbit hole she went, the weirder things got. Rockets based on antimatter physics, psychic spies who employ extrasensory perception–like “remote viewing” to find missing soldiers and hidden weapons, and Star Trek–like research on “teleportation physics” and “warp drive metrics” are just a few of the goofier projects Weinberger encountered in her search. “I would learn that Pentagon officials enter the underworld of science, never again to leave. That’s when things can go terribly, terribly wrong.”

Imaginary Weapons is Weinberger’s gripping account of her investigation into a terribly wrong idea: a two-kiloton “nuclear hand grenade” based on highly questionable physics involving an unstable atomic nucleus, an isomer called hafnium-178. This isomer bomb was sold to the Pentagon as a vital weapon in the war on terror, a weapon that could melt human flesh through a powerful burst of gamma rays, penetrate underground concrete bunkers, and cause an entire city block to disappear in one fatal blast.

To determine the feasibility of the hafnium bomb, Zimmerman was charged with directing a secret group of elite scientists called the Jasons. Their verdict was unequivocal, as Weinberger explains: “Hafnium couldn’t be made into a bomb for a host of scientific and technical reasons: it was too radioactive to be around; it was too expensive to produce; and there was no way to get the chain reaction needed for an explosion.” In fact, it couldn’t even pass the “snicker test,” Zimmerman noted. “It was, in the truest sense of the word,” Weinberger concludes, “an imaginary weapon.”

Then how did the Pentagon come to believe in it? Here’s how:

  1. Adopt a high risk–taking philosophy. In the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—charged with developing the secret weapon—“impossible” is just the sort of project their scientists are supposed to undertake; in fact, “DARPA hard” refers to technological challenges considered beyond the capability of the military’s other research and development laboratories.
  2. Remove the normal checks and balances that accompany scientific research. Within DARPA, notes Weinberger, the agency’s “science and technology projects are shielded from the periodic oversight and cost audits that plague the Pentagon’s more expensive weapons.”
  3. Ignore negative results. Whereas in normal science failures are learning opportunities, in DARPA “no one remembers the failure,” reports Tony Tether, head of the agency in 2002. “DARPA is Groundhog Day. We do things over and over and over again.”
  4. Favor short-term thinking. DARPA’s policy is that program managers are not allowed to serve for more than four years. Although this prevents the ossification suffered by other federal agencies top-heavy in lifelong bureaucrats, it means that long-term projects will be passed over.

With this milieu of credulity in place, Weinberger shows, “all it took was a used dental x-ray machine, a few die-hard supporters, some farfetched claims of a new arms race, and the Pentagon thought it was on its way to the next superbomb.” Given the power of the hindsight bias (whose vision is always 20/20), is it fair to task the Pentagon for not heeding the warning signs? Yes, concludes Weinberger. The signs were too numerous and too substantial: the failure to replicate key experiments; the increasingly elaborate reasons offered by hafnium-bomb supporters to explain away experimental failures; ignoring the negative assessment of the project by the Jason scientists and instead listening only to supporters; the fact that no one in the nuclear physics community outside of the bomb group believed that hafnium could be triggered with x-rays; and, therefore, the concoction by hafnium proponents of an elaborate conspiracy theory alleging actions against them by the “scientific elite.”

The story of how DARPA convinced the Pentagon to quit worrying and love the hafnium bomb presents an important lesson in healthy skepticism. Weinberger’s account in Imaginary Weapons offers a warning about excessive credulity that should be heeded by scientists and policy-makers alike—for nature will not bend to political predilections.

Reference
  1. M. B. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (Holt, New York, ed. 2, 2002).

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