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The LK-99 BS Further Undermines the Credibility of Science

The rejection or distortion of genuine science can have tragic consequences

Social media is afire with reports that South Korean researchers have synthesized a room-temperature and room-pressure superconductor they call K-99. This is the biggest scientific news this year — yes, ChatGPT is now so last year. A representative Wow! from experts has been: “If LK-99 is the real deal, it could be a game-changer for everything from quantum computing and medical imaging to energy and transportation.” 

Long pursued by physicists and engineers, room-temperature, room-pressure superconductivity would revolutionize electronics and engineering by allowing current to move through wires without any energy loss. Everything will be cheaper and more efficient. Trains will levitate! 

Alas, the likelihood that this is BS research is very close to 100 percent. In the 110-year history of superconductors, the highest temperature recorded by scientists at ambient pressure is a chilly negative 120 degrees Centigrade or negative 189 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, these researchers claim they have created a room temperature (about 20 degrees Centigrade, 68 degrees Fahrenheit) superconductor which is 140 degrees higher in Centigrade and 257 degrees higher in Fahrenheit than the previous record!  

Both of us have written extensively about how real science is done. Many of the examples of sloppy science in Gary’s most recent book, Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science, involve researchers seeking fame and funding by making media-friendly, loosely supported claims that ultimately undermine the credibility of science and scientists — living near power lines causes cancer; power poses increase testosterone; hurricanes with female names are deadlier. 

Jeff has written extensively about using performance and cost data to measure technological progress and to understand the ways in which progress occurs. His papers have looked not only at superconductors, but at microprocessors, semiconductor memory, camera chips, power circuits, organic transistors, conventional and quantum computers, hard disks, solar cells, data transmission, DNA, sequencing, energy storage devices such as batteries, capacitors, flywheels, and many others.  

While technological progress is often exponential, there are seldom huge, discontinuous jumps in performance or cost. Improvements build on previous improvements, causing relatively small, incremental gains — tens or hundreds of data points over a five-to-ten-year period. The chances are near zero that scientists have suddenly found a material that superconducts at temperatures 140 degrees higher than the previous best material. Such an achievement would be unprecedented and dwarf those of Nobel laureates. 

Many scientists are understandably skeptical, citing a lack of evidence beyond a video purportedly showing magnetic levitation. Many have argued that levitation by itself is insufficient; superconducting also requires proof of zero resistance and increases in heat capacity, neither of which were demonstrated by the South Korean researchers or others who purportedly replicated the research. Other scientists cited inconsistencies in figures or text and said the data was “fishy” and “sloppy.” Even the co-authors said they were not consulted about the paper’s online publication. 

The South Korean researchers did not send material samples to others, even to the Korean Society of Superconductivity and Cryogenics when they visited. The society dismissed the research, even implying fraud

Unfortunately, wild claims like those involving power lines, power poses, and powerful hurricanes, often resonate with some people and live on as zombie research, which should be buried but continues to roam the land. The public’s apparently insatiable appetite for nonsense, fueled by a firehose of falsehoods on the Internet is astonishing.  

Millions still believe that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism even after The Lancet, which had published the research, retracted the paper with the editorial comment: “It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false;” the British Medical Journal called the study “an elaborate fraud;” and the UK General Medical Council barred the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, from practicing medicine in the UK. 

Millions of Americans believe that the U.S. government is controlled by alien lizard people. Twenty-to-thirty percent of British, American, and Russian adults believe America’s moon landing was staged. During the COVID lockdown, 44 percent of Republicans, 24 percent of independents, and 19 percent of Democrats believed that Bill Gates was developing a COVID-19 vaccine that would implant microchips in us so that our movements can be monitored. 

It is tempting to laugh but the rejection of science can have tragic consequences. When the K-99 hoax is confirmed, some will count it as further evidence that science is an elaborate and expensive game. Others will conclude that the multinational corporations are suppressing breakthrough technologies to protect their products and profits. 

Science has enriched our lives enormously and we desperately need to restore the luster of science and scientists. Publicity stunts like this superconductor fiasco will not help. 

Gary N. Smith

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of dozens of research articles and 16 books, most recently, Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science, Oxford University Press, 2023.

Jeffrey Funk

Fellow, Discovery Institute
Jeff Funk is a Retired Professor and currently a Fellow at Discovery Institutes's Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence. His book, Competing in the Age of Bubbles: Understanding the Real Signals of Market Growth, is forthcoming from Harriman House.

The LK-99 BS Further Undermines the Credibility of Science