Saturday, October 29, 2011

WUWT, Forbes, Wired keep on pushing cold fusion pseudoscience

In August, I discussed cold fusion claims by Andrea Rossi, a guy who was apparently found guilty of tax fraud and environmental crimes in the 1990s (his now-defunct company, Petroldragon, claimed to produce oil out of garbage) and served time in prison (see also details as interpreted by Rossi himself).

There are no new scientific data or evidence that would be given to us so I can't discuss any new science here, either. All people who want to assure themselves that these claims are completely nonsensical from a scientific viewpoint are urged to read my blog entry from August; nothing has changed (and, most likely, nothing will change) about its validity.

In August, Rossi would promise that there would be a working 1-megawatt prototype by October. What we got was another "demonstration" on October 28th that was claimed to produce half a megawatt for five hours. The result was that a mysterious U.S. consumer bought the device: a commercial success. Strictly speaking, if this (production of 500 kW for hours) were the case, it would still mean that Rossi didn't fulfill his promises but it would still be remarkable. Who cares whether it's 1 megawatt or half a megawatt if there would be a new source of energy that contradicts the existing knowledge of physics.

However, is it true? All the available evidence suggests that this is a scam.

What we got was another uncontrollable, non-transparent experiment where people are not allowed to look, where no one knows of any details, where the visitors could have been picked by Andrea Rossi's folks, and where Andrea Rossi claims that a significant amount of energy was produced de facto out of nothing. It's not the first time when we're given exactly this pseudoevidence. But an essential point is that in science or any proper rational approach to anything, one package of solid evidence simply cannot be replaced by repeated pseudoevidence. In science, it is not true that a lie repeated 100 times becomes the truth.

Energy out of candles. The main difference between the creator of the video above and Andrea Rossi is that the former didn't have the stomach to try to earn millions of dollars out of the trick.

So I am disappointed that Anthony Watts' blog published another content-free (but, at least, slightly skeptical) article by the same author who wrote the same thing in August that may be viewed as a promotion of the concept. Just to be sure, Wired also wrote about the "success" and so did Forbes (I am not sure which link is the best one here).

There are many skeptics on Anthony's blog (but it is clear that they're not an overwhelming majority in any sense; there is a clear atmosphere of political correctness that seems to push people to pay lip service to the possibility of a new source of "green energy"). On that page, you also find aggressive crackpots and blinded believers such as "RockyRoad" who clearly have no clue about physics but who are excited by the freedom to attack those who know their physics such as your humble correspondent. Among many skeptics, one reaction got a reply from Watts:
Carbon-based life form says:
October 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

About as much credibility as Jim Hansen, I’d say. Anthony, how about some technical vetting and “peer review” before putting this dubious gobbledygook up?

REPLY: That’s what this blog does – we try out ideas. Some like Willis’ recent paper on extinction and my surfacetstations project make it to papers. If you don’t like it don’t read it. cheers, Anthony
I agree with Carbon-based life's analogy as well. We simply can't allow Rossi to build his career out of huge claims without any real evidence – just because he makes big claims and he would become a cherished person if his discovery worked. (BTW having a paper published is not something incredible we usually use to settle questions, is it? We surely don't seem to be impressed if the climate alarmists may boast with such an "achievement" so why did Anthony feel the need to use it in his case?)

The reason why we can't allow something like that is identical to the other situations, including the merchants of the climate apocalypse such as James Hansen. Scammers must be treated as scammers until the laws – and laws of physics, in this case – actually change and they may only change if there's some tangible reason. Those people can't be allowed to "borrow" credibility out of a hypothetical shiny future that almost certainly doesn't exist. My reaction to Anthony's comment was the following:
Anthony: “That’s what this blog does – we try out ideas.”

Oh, really, Anthony? But why are you “trying” this pure pseudoscience, without presenting any new scientific or factual content at all, for the fifth time or so? When will the readers be allowed to conclude that your blog has joined those that actively promote “green energy” pseudoscience?

One may say the same thing about the climate alarmists in general. They’re just “trying ideas”, aren’t they? Like the idea that the CO2 is killing the planet. Except that they have also been making living out of these lies for decades so they’re not just “trying”; they are actively cheating the world.

This article shouldn’t have been written because it contains no new evidence and it just repeatedly struggles to advocate the indefensible. It’s just another promotion of another theater of the very same type that’s been described many times: an uncontrollable “demonstration” that is claimed to have created energy but there’s no evidence one could actually verify. Obviously, the “anonymous consumers” have either been duped or they are a part of the game.

To support the idea that something like that could work, in contradiction with known laws of physics, one needs some genuine scientific evidence, under controllable conditions, instead of pseudoevidence and “demonstrations” meant to bring profit to someone through religious “testimonies” and completely uncontrollable flows of energy.

You don’t have any evidence worth the name so given the knowledge science has, Rossi is a scammer unless proved otherwise. You can’t replace evidence by repeated pseudoevidence and by implicit threats that those who don’t praise this complete nonsense are politically incorrect.
What I forgot to react to is Anthony's sentence "if you don't like it, don't read it". This is a very pathological answer that confirms the original point by the commenter, indeed. He just dared to say that big claims must be evaluated with a critical eye and tested and if tests badly fail, the ideas shouldn't be pushed. Anthony proposes something else: only those who like an idea (in this case, cold fusion and its constant hyping) should be reading it and contributing to the discussion. This is really just a different way of formulating Anthony's sentence "if you don't like it, don't read it".

I find this approach very pernicious. It's the same approach that has overtaken the institutionalized climate science. If you don't like "it" (the claims that CO2 is dangerous for the climate), don't participate in the research of the climate. This is really the vocabulary that brought us to the situation that according to some statistics, 97%-98% of the people employed in climate science are complete imbeciles. But in a healthy world, no one, not even Anthony Watts, should gain the power to filter the ideas in this way and only allow readers who uncritically confirm a certain viewpoint. People must be allowed to evaluate claims in a color-blind way.

In my opinion – and fortunately, it's very far from being just my opinion – Anthony shouldn't allow future articles on this topic unless he can offer some new and/or controllable evidence. And I think that this opinion of mine – and many other readers – is much more important and valuable than all the rubbish that's been written on this pseudoscience on Anthony's blog or any other place. I would even say that Anthony's blog is influential exactly because people may gather there and together with the authors, they may critically evaluate various claims and when a sufficient number of the evaluations ends up negatively, they may dismiss a concept as something that doesn't deserve to be hyped. In this sense, the reader represented the "real WUWT" while Anthony didn't.

1. In a small way, this is an analog to the FTL neutrinos.
In both instances, a phenomenon is adduced that appears spectacular, but that really scrunches so much of what we know from hard experiment that we know it is not true.
You deserve a larger audience for your thoughts and comments. Rational discussion is getting to be scarce on the internet. Unfortunately, Gresham's Law may apply in science publishing just as it does in economics.

2. This comment has been removed by the author.

3. Great to reload my mobile phone batery if one day there's no more electricity!!!

4. Lubos: "What I forgot to react to is Anthony's sentence "if you don't like it, don't read it". This is a very pathological answer that confirms the original point by the commenter, indeed. He just dared to say that big claims must be evaluated with a critical eye and tested and if tests badly fail, the ideas shouldn't be pushed. Anthony proposes something else: only those who like an idea (in this case, cold fusion and its constant hyping) should be reading it and contributing to the discussion. This is really just a different way of formulating Anthony's sentence "if you don't like it, don't read it".

"I find this approach very pernicious. It's the same approach that has overtaken the institutionalized climate science. "

ME TOO. Anthony has failed to uphold proper, skeptical standards here. And CAGW cranks as well as respected warmist scientists will hold it against him and WUWT. This is regretable and a slippery slope diluting hard-won respect.

I hope there is no repeat. I lived through the Cold Fusion fiasco of the 1980s. While I've heard rumblings and rumors of "success," I'm much more critical of those who indulge their "hopes" - it is the foundation of new religions and the lifeblood which scam artists feed off.