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164) A case of mutual deception?

Ludwik Kowalski (7/28/04)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

This morning I received an interesting private message from Teacher XX. It was probably prompted by voices reported in unit #161. But that unit is already too long. Furthermore, I think that this reflection deserves a separate unit. Is it possible that the disbelieve about cold fusion is nothing else but a self-fulfilling prophesy? Is it possible that those who believe in cold fusion are also victims of mutual deception?

Cold fusion and closed-loop self-fulfilling prophecies.

Teacher XX

Is the widespread disbelief in the reality of "Cold Fusion" based upon solid reasoning? Or could it be akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy or an "emergent phenomenon," as when each member of an animal herd rushes forward only because immediate neighbors in the herd are rushing forward? I imagine this conversation to take place between a research scientist and a journal editor:

Sci: Why is Cold Fusion (CF) an illegitimate topic?

Ed: Because there are no reports of CF observations by competent researchers.

Sci: Why are there no reports?

Ed: Because scientists don't submit them to journals.

Sci: On the contrary, I'm a scientist who does submit these to journals, which suggests that the dearth of reports is actually caused by rejections rather than lack of submissions. Why does *your* journal reject them?

Ed: Because everybody knows that CF is not real.

Sci: Why does everybody "know" this?

Ed: Because if CF was real, it would appear in many journals.

Sci: Why is CF not in one specific journal?

Ed: It's because CF is not already in many other journals, and that many journal editors couldn't possibly be wrong.

Sci: But why do the OTHER editors reject CF papers?

Ed: Well, the other journals must have a good reason, and I just follow the consensus expert opinion, and I assume that other editors have sharp minds, and this large group of experts couldn't be wrong about an important topic.

Sci: But what if all editors think exactly as you do: journal A rejects papers because they see no papers in journal B, and journal B rejects papers because they see no papers in journal A? Yet neither editor takes any CF paper seriously enough to sit down and read them with an open mind?

Ed: Well, that doesn't matter. We all know that CF is an illegitimate topic.

(go back to the top and continue.)

The above is obviously aberrant reasoning, where a population of minds can amplify the status of an initially-random opinion. The weak opinion
becomes strong because each member of the group puts great stock in the number of other members having the same opinion, so that a slight majority becomes an overwhelming majority, yet no new information justifies such certainty.

Another example is from 1905, when the Wright Brothers' claims were being ridiculed. This was back when they demonstrated their airplane repeatedly in public for more than a year. Why were there no news articles about the successful flying machine? Scientific American explained its refusal to verify the Wright's claims:

"If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face -- even if he has to scale a fifteen-storey skyscraper to do so -- would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?"

In other words, "we won't send a reporter, on the grounds that other magazines haven't send a reporter." Each editor also makes the unspoken assumption that those other editors must have a good reason. But what if all editors reason in the same manner? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's what actually happened to the Wrights. The Wright brothers finally broke the jam by traveling to Europe where the closed-loop disbelief-reasoning had not yet emerged in the community. They demonstrated their airplane in Paris. News reporters DIDN'T refuse to attend, and the Wrights became famous overnight... this after more than a year of public demos in the USA at which no invited reporters or government observers ever showed up.

Another example involves "Ball Lightning." Today BL is increasingly considered to be a real phenomenon. But until the last two decades, the major portion of the scientific community was certain that BL was really just some misperceived retinal afterimages, if not hallucinations reported by crazies. On what grounds did the community base its certainty?

Among other things, we reasoned that if Ball Lightning was real, then quite a few scientists would report seeing it, yet the reports came almost exclusively from the untrained public. The reason for this was not what you might expect. One investigator later questioned the staff of the Empire State lightning research project (which had set up automatic cameras to photograph the many strikes on the Empire State Building in NYC.) He discovered that a large proportion of the research crew had personally witnessed Ball Lightning. Why did they not report this? Because each was afraid of being labeled as a "lightning-ball quack!" It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists were afraid to report a real but "illegitimate" event, and the event became labeled as "illegitimate" mostly on the grounds that, if it was real, scientists would already be reporting the event. The switch flipped, certainty arose, but it arose because of a runaway feedback loop.

The problem caused by community-wide closed-loop reasoning is also mentioned below in regards to the "illegitimate" status of research into hypnotism:

The Research Game (See item no. 2 about new fields of science)

The late Dr. Thomas Gold describes the problem of the unwarranted "sharpening" of community opinion. Certain researchers are trimmed out during each round of competition for funding; rejected on the grounds that they are "outliers." This trimming-of-outliers happens repeatedly until a consensus opinion rules the research community:

New Ideas in Science, Gold 1989

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