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83) Disassociate cold fusion from unscientific claims

Ludwik Kowalski (July 22, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043


On July 21, 2003 I posted the follwing Phys-L message about the cold fusion conferennce in Boston.

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Today, 7/21/03, is the last day to register for the ICCF10 (The 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion at MIT, August 24 to 29) at a reduced price. Go to the http://www.lenr-canr.org site, if you are interested. The list of submitted papers can also be seen there. Fleischmann himself is making two presentations. I am going because I want to meet him and others who contributed to an important scientific controversy. I also want to see cold fusion demonstrations; unfortunately, the list of demos has not yet been posted.

Contrary to what the leaders of our scientific establishment claim I no longer think that qualified cold fusion researchers are practicing voodoo science. Nor have I definitely concluded that chemically induced nuclear proceses are real. That is why I am going to the conference. Perhaps I will have something new to share after my return. But in September my priorities will shift back to teaching.

The phenomenon of pseudoscience is very real and society should be protected from those who exploit ignorance in order to benefit from unscientific claims and manipulations. Making money on therapeutic magnets, for example, is a scam; the healing effects of such gadgets have not been validated, as far as I know. The same applies to devices delivering electric energy from a so-called “vacuum.” How can society be protected from con artists without confusing charlatans with honest scientists addressing non-conventional topics? I hope this difficult issue will be addressed at the conference.

In my opinion cold fusion researchers should be as active in exposing pseudoscience as those who do so under the banner of mainstream science. How actively have they done this? How often do cold fusion researchers criticize each other? I suspect that this does not happen too often. I noticed, for example, that journals publishing cold fusion papers also publish papers devoted to topics of more questionable validity, such as perpetual motion devices, antigravity or hydrinos. Many cold fusion researchers probably disagree with such articles. But how often do they express this openly?

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The above message was also sent to two conference organizers. One of them responded in length and gave me permission to share what he wrote. The reply (in blue), is shown below; my comments (in red) are shown at the end.

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1) You asked: “What do you think about this issue?”

I do not think much of it.

2) You wrote: “In my opinion cold fusion researchers should be as active in exposing pseudoscience as those who do so under the banner of mainstream science.”

Why? They are not policemen. They are busy. Frankly, I don't see much point to spending a lot of time trying to judge what is pseudoscience and what isn't. People doing pseudoscience cause little harm, especially compared to people doing some types of conventional science such as plasma fusion.

3) You asked: “How actively have they done this?”

Not at all, as far as I know. I would advise them not to associate themselves with pseudoscience in either a positive or negative way. In fact, I do not think anyone should try to judge research he has not carefully investigated, for months or years. Cold fusion scientists are no more qualified to investigate something like "magnetic healing" than anyone else is. Only a medical researcher who has made a careful, honest, serious study of this topic has any business passing judgement on it. If no medical researchers have taken up this topic and performed experiments, then we have no way of knowing whether it is pseudoscience or real science. Experiments are the only standard of truth. You can never tell, a priori, whether a claim is true or false. Theory may predict a likely outcome, but only an experiment can produce an outcome (if you are lucky).

4) You asked; “How often do cold fusion researchers
criticize each other?”

Always. Vociferously.

5) You wrote: “I suspect that this does not happen too often.”

You couldn't be more wrong. I do not think you have any basis
for this suspicion.

6) You wrote: “I noticed, for example, that journals publishing cold fusion papers also publish papers devoted to topics of more questionable validity, such as perpetual motion devices, antigravity or hydrinos.”

Which journals? Infinite Energy perhaps, but not the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics. I do not think you can generalize. And how do you know whether hydrinos are pseudoscience or not? Unless and until someone tries to replicate the hydrino experimental results no one can judge that issue.

7) You wrote: “Many cold fusion researchers probably disagree with such articles. But how often do they express this openly?

Very often.

8) You wrote “The phenomenon of pseudoscience is very real and society should be protected from those who exploit ignorance in order to benefit from unscientific claims and manipulations. Making money on therapeutic magnets, for example, is a scam; the healing effects of such gadgets have not been validated, as far as I know.”

You may be incorrect about that. There have been some surprising positive results from valid studies. See The New York Times SCIENCE, December 9, 1997, “Study on Using Magnets to Test Pain Surprises Skeptics. A small trial raises hope, but it is not the last word.” by L.K. Altman, M.D.

Quote: ”No one was more skeptical about using magnets for pain relief than Dr. Carlos Vallbona, former chairman of the department of community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. So Dr. Vallbona was amazed when a study he did found that small, low intensity magnets worked, at least for patients experiencing symptoms that can develop years after polio. . .”

However, it is extremely unlikely these results will be replicated or confirmed because there is such rabid opposition to unorthodox ideas these days, so we will probably never know.

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I agree with some of the above. In 5, for example, the word “guess” would be more appropriate than “suspect.” And in 6 I should have said “marginal journals.” I suppose that all cold fusion papers in JJAP were published because they passed the rigor of the strict “peer review” scrutiny. I was happy to read that cold fusion people often criticize each other work. That is a sign of health in science. The article you atached made me more receptive to the claims of Dr. Vallbona who said that magnets did reduce pain of many postpolio patients. I was not familiar with statistical studies conducted to verify the effect. To illustrate my point I should have chosen a less controversial example.

And what about item 2? My guess, based on some reading, is that con artists and charlatans do exist in every society. They often try to exploit simple people by asking them to buy things or to invest in projects. In that sense pseudoscience can be harmful. If I were involved in cold fusion research, and if my article were published in the same journal as an article about “hydrinos,” “quantum heeling” or “antigravity,” I would try to disassociate myself from these claims publicly. I would do this to protect my own image, not to be a policement.

Item 3 refers to validation of scientific claims. That is a big issue. To validate some textbook claims teachers often perform demonstrations. In addition students may be asked to validate things via laboratory work. But most claims are accepted on the basis of authoruty of textbooks and articles published in scientific journals. (In practice students accept what teachers say and teachers accept what scientists say.) Nobody has means and qualifications to verify everything by the way of experimenting. Existence of quarks, for example, can not verified in a typical university lab. That is why most of us wait untill experiments become 100% reproducible, as declared by recognized experts, before accepting new findings. You will see this issue addressed at my ICCF10 presentation.

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