Friday, September 17, 2004

Cold fusion report by DOE scheduled for end of Sept. 2004

Later in September 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy will receive a report from a panel of experts on the prospects for cold fusion—the asserted generation of excess heat energy using tabletop apparatus. It's an interesting turn of events for something supposedly discredited more than ten years ago; a few people were surprised earlier this year when James Decker, the deputy director of the DOE's Office of Science, announced in April 2004 that he was initiating the review of cold fusion science.

from a talk by Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson:

This talk mirrors "Pathological Science", a lecture given by Chemistry Laureate Irving Langmuir (1). Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir. Alfred Wegener's continental drift proposal (2) provides a good example, being simply dismissed by most scientists at the time, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favour. In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. Ref. 3, containing a number of hostile comments by scientists with no detailed familiarity with the research on which they cast scorn, illustrates this very well. In this "denunciation mode", the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones. Irving Langmuir's lecture referred to above is often exploited in this way, his list of criteria for "Pathological Science" being applied blindly to dismiss claims of the existence of specific pheomena without proper examination of the evidence. We find a similar method of subverting logical analysis in a weekly column supported by the American Physical Society (4).

Other popular forms of attack are "if X were true we would have to start over again" (as we of course had to do with Relativity and Quantum Theory, and so the argument proves nothing), and then there is the dictum "Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence", which has the marvellous feature of allowing the requirements for acceptable proof to be stretched indefinitely as more and more support for a contested claim comes in. Its originator, the late Marcello Truzzi, later decided that his comment was 'a non sequitur, meaningless and question-begging', and had planned to write a debunking of his own creation (5). Ref. 6 takes a light-hearted look at a range of strategies used by critics.

"Cold fusion" appears to be the modern equivalent to continental drift, starting with the controversial claim, made by Pons and Fleischmann in 1989, to have generated in an electrochemical cell heat considerably in excess of anything explicable in conventional terms. This provoked hostile reaction: ignoring the possibility that an aggregate of ions in a condensed matter matrix may behave differently to a collection of freely moving ones, it was asserted that nuclear fusion could not be responsible for the claimed excess heat. Then came 'failure to replicate' by a number of groups, equated with the non-existence of the phenomenon, ignoring the fact that if different groups get different results there can be two explanations, one that the people who see some effects are bad experimenters, and the other that they were in fact better at creating the precise conditions needed for an effect to be seen. Usually in such cases time tells which side is right, but here the steadily mounting evidence that there was a real effect was suppressed through the publication policies of the major journals. Consequently, these apparently supportive results are not known to most scientists, who simply take it for granted that the Pons-Fleischmann claims have been disproved.


from physicstoday (Ludwik Kowalski):

Speculations about practical applications of new findings should be de−emphasized at this time. They will emerge naturally when basic scientific claims are recognized as valid and when researchers in cold fusion are no longer treated as if they were con artists and charlatans. The "chilling effect" mentioned by Randall Hekman in the Physics Today story prevents young scientists from entering the area of cold fusion research. I also agree with chemist Allen Bard that being able to reproduce experimental results is not good enough; it is only a preliminary step. But wasn't poor reproducibility the central point of criticism when cold fusion was first investigated 15 years ago? In my opinion, experimental claims should not be disqualified solely on reproducibility; validation should depend on credentials of researchers and, above all, on methodologies they used in particular experiments.

--> Just as a counterpoint to Kowalski, Marconi developed radio in spite of an imperfect scientific understanding (for example, he believed the "spark" was necessary for transmission). Separately, some of the people who had thorough understanding of E&M (e.g., Maxwell) did not develop radio.

As to "chilling effect," maybe more chill was needed as to the experiments of Jan-Hendrik Schon, which, unlike cold fusion, were readily embraced by most in the physics community.


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