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Chapter 12: Media Reaction to the Arkansas Trial

[p. 156]

Audio Tapes Reveal Factual Account

Earlier in this chapter I reviewed how Roger Lewin had raised doubts about my credibility as a scientist in his accounts of the Arkansas trial. Also mentioned was a more serious matter: in certain places his version of my cross- examination seemed to differ from my own recollection. For over four years my suspicions about this material could not be confirmed because my testimony had not been transcribed. Since there were no plans for this to be done, it seemed that the matter would rest as Lewin had pictured it. Then, as this book neared completion, I remembered that the court reporter had made an audio recording of my testimony in addition to her own record. Contact was made and duplicates of the audio tapes were sent to me in time for this new material to be incorporated into this chapter.

Quoted below from the audio tapes are the NSF and superheavy element-related questions and my responses to ACLU Attorney Ennis:

Q You testified at some length about a letter from the National Science Foundation, July 11, 1977, which denied your application for a particular grant. A Yes. Q Is it not fair to say that that letter concluded that one of the reasons they denied your grant application at that time was that the panel felt that you and your colleagues were to be faulted for the techniques you used in coming to your initial conclusion that there were superheavy elements? A Yes, I believe it did say that. Q Did not that rejection letter go on to say that the panel felt that the principal investigator and his colleagues should have checked out all such possible reactions before publication because we know that that technique might produce the results you found? Is it not true? A I think what you are saying is generally true. [Merkel, 1981; Appendix—l.167 to l.182]

The reader should understand that I agreed to Ennis' second and third questions only because he asked whether the NSF letter (see Chapter 6) had made those criticisms. Yes, "the [Geochemistry] panel did fault the principal investigator [Gentry] and his colleagues for the techniques they used to try to detect superheavy elements" (Hower 1976; Appendix). However, with due respect to the NSF panel—all of whom were evolutionists—nothing was at fault with the technique which we used to generate our published report on superheavy elements. And the NSF's objection to another method [p. 157] (see Hower's letter) was just a red herring because our report contained nothing based on it.

The technique used in the superheavy element experiments, proton-induced x-ray fluorescence, is routinely used to determine the elemental composition of an almost unlimited variety of specimens. It is based on one of the most reliable elemental identification methods in experimental physics. In our experiments we did misinterpret some of the x-ray lines, but contrary to the implication of Ennis' third question, we did check other reactions before publication. I agreed to the third question only because Ennis asked whether the NSF letter made that criticism, not because I believed that criticism was valid. Indeed, the reader may remember from Chapter 6 that some of my associates remained adamant that our original results did show evidence of superheavy elements long after other experiments indicated otherwise. They reasoned that the other nuclear reactions had been so thoroughly investigated that the evidence for superheavy elements still remained. In this respect, it is always possible to misinterpret the results of a single set of experiments, regardless of the technique used. This is why continued experimentation is necessary until a proposed interpretation is confirmed or denied.

We now quote Lewin's version of the superheavy-element part of my cross-examination:

. . . Ennis also established that Gentry had shown poor judgment in using a certain technique in looking for primordial superheavy elements. Q You referred to the grant rejection letter of 11 July 1977. Isn't it fair to say that one reason the request was turned down was because the panel felt you were to be faulted for using a technique that was known to give false results? A Yes. (Lewin 1982b, 146)

A scientist who uses techniques that are "known to give false results" is incompetent or untrustworthy, and this is the inference that can be drawn about me from the above information. The audio-tape quotes given above show that Lewin's highly incriminating phrase, "known to give false results," is nowhere to be found in Ennis' questions. Neither is it found in the National Science Foundation letter (Hower 1976; Appendix) to which Ennis referred. This means (1) Lewin had no factual basis to claim that Ennis "established" that I had shown "poor judgment in using a certain technique" in the superheavy-element experiments, and (2) Lewin's version of the superheavy-element part of my cross-examination deviates, much to my [p. 158] detriment, from the actual courtroom proceedings. Lewin has my agreeing under oath to something essentially different from what Attorney Ennis actually asked during my cross-examination; moreover, I would not have agreed to the question if it had been worded as Lewin claimed.

Lewin's last comment about my work occurs near the end of his second report:

Ennis closed his cross-examination by asking Gentry if other people working in the field thought that conventional explanations would be found for the anomalous results he had. Gentry said "yes." . . . (Lewin 1982b, 146)

This statement lends great credence to the idea that a conventional explanation will be found for my "anomalous results" because of its appeal to the authority of "people working in the field," which in this case must refer to scientists doing research on halos. I didn't recall that Attorney Ennis had made such a reference, for this would have provided me with the opportunity to take exception to their proposed explanations; and I knew this had not occurred. So I highly suspected that Lewin's version of Ennis' question was incorrect, and that again he had pictured me as agreeing to something different from what actually transpired in the courtroom.

The audio tapes confirmed my suspicions. They reveal Ennis' question and my response as follows:

Q And Anders. Is it not true that Wheeler and Anders and other scientists who have read your material think that a conventional natural law explanation will be found for the existence of other polonium halos in granites? A Yes, they do. Q I have no further questions. [Merkel 1981; Appendix—l.223 to l.228]

The above quotes show that the scientists whom Ennis cited are those "who have read" my material. This is quite distinct and different from Lewin's characterization of them as "other people working in the field," because obviously this phrase denotes scientists actually doing research. Thus, the "other people" to whom Lewin referred had no tangible scientific evidence which would support a conventional explanation of polonium halos in granites. In fact, it would have been much to my advantage if Lewin had reported exactly what Dr. John Wheeler and Dr. Edward Anders had said about my work (Talbott 1977; Appendix). Indeed, Anders' evaluation was quoted in the last chapter as evidence to show that Judge Overton had ignored some important information in arriving at his decision. The last part of that evaluation reads:

[p. 159]

. . . I think most people believe, as I do, that some unspectacular explanation will eventually be found for the anomalous halos and that orthodoxy will turn out to be right after all. Meanwhile Gentry should be encouraged to keep rattling this skeleton in our closet for all it is worth. (Talbott 1977, 5; Appendix)

Perhaps the publication of this material, showing how Lewin's accounts deviate from the actual court proceedings, may yet rattle another skeleton buried within the scientific establishment.

Figure 12.1 Gentry Meets the Press

This photograph was taken shortly after his testimony for the State of Arkansas at the creation/evolution trial in Little Rock.

Another Viewpoint

A positive account of my participation in the Arkansas trial was published in the January 16, 1982, issue of Science News. It was entitled "They Call It Creation Science," with the subtitle, "Why would any reputable scientist agree to testify on behalf of the state of Arkansas in last month's creationist trial? Two [p. 160] who did tell Science News." These two were Professor N. C. Wickramasinghe, Chairman of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University College at Cardiff, Wales, and I. The first paragraph of this interview, quoted below, shows that the writer, Janet Raloff, provides a much different perspective of my contribution at the Arkansas trial:

Not everyone in science shares the view that "creation science" has no scientific validity. Among them are two who testified on behalf of the defending Attorney General's office as its key witnesses during the creation science trial last month in Little Rock, Ark. (Science News: 1/2/82, p. 12). About the only things these scientists have in common are the respect of the scientific community for the meticulous quality of their primary pursuits and their shared belief that life's grand scheme may be the product of "a creator."(Raloff 1982a, 44)

I was gratified that my research, when fairly evaluated, was recognized for adhering to the scientific method and that this was published in a national news magazine. But in practical terms, this subsequent account of my research was insufficient to override the negative impact of the articles in Science.

The history of science reveals that certain cherished theories have always been considered immune to criticism. Scientists who refused to acknowledge this immunity, openly challenging those theories, were on occasion "excommunicated" from the scientific establishment. Irrespective of how much evidence I had accumulated, I had openly challenged a superstatus theory which certain scientists felt should be immune from attack. Repercussions were bound to follow.

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