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219) Post-workshop comments

Ludwik Kowalski (5/10/05)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

There was an interesting workshop at Stevens Institute of Technology last week. The title was “The Applied Science Problem;” I am grateful to a neighbor, Dr. Mary Ann Hellrigel, for inviting me. It was a gathering of about forty scientists, historians of science and students. Most contributions were very interesting and stimulating. Cold fusion was not mentioned but I think that most participants would be interested in it. The essay below was e-mailed to them after the workshop.

Protoscience, pseudoscience, etc.

Ludwik Kowalski
Professor of Physics, retired
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

After hearing about complex relations (linear and nonlinear) between science, applied science and technology, I would like to comment on pseudoscience and protoscience. In the linear model protoscience precedes science; it may lead to science or to pseudoscience. Someone mentioned that at least 95% of scientific publications describe research based on previous investigations. But each identifiable thread has a beginning, a seminal publication or a patent. It describes a discovery that was made, in one way or another, without an obvious connection with other studies. In science it may be a discovery of a new phenomenon, such as the piezoelectric effect; in technology it may be a gadget, or a new material. Subsequent accumulation of knowledge follows in a brick-by-brick fashion.

How are seminal contributions made? What do they have in common with other kinds of intellectual creativity, such as music, visual arts or poetry? That is a big topic and I do not want to deal with it. I am mentioning “seminal contributions” to define protoscience. A seminal contribution that has not yet been validated belongs to the realm of protoscience. The ways of validating scientific claims are based on additional explorations. The process of validation may be fast or slow. A topic becomes scientific when claims are confirmed by several recognized scientists. The process is gradual and no sharp boundary exists between protoscience and science.

But a boundary between science and pseudoscience is usually well defined. Pseudoscience, such as astrology, differs from science, such as observational astronomy, by the way in which claims are validated. Pseudoscientists only pretend to be scientists, sometimes to benefit from it materially, sometimes to satisfy their psychological needs. A large number of examples can be found in a book entitled Voodoo Science (1). Scientific error, says Robert Park, "has a way of evolving ... from self-delusion to fraud. I use the term voodoo science to cover them all: pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and fraudulent science. In pathological science, scientists fool themselves. Junk science refers to scientists who use their expertise to befuddle and mislead others . . . Pseudoscience has the trappings of science without any evidence. Fraudulent science is, well, fraud--old-fashioned lying.”

The author, however, was not able to recognize “cold fusion” as protoscience. I would like to focus on this point becaus the cold fusion episode, in my opinion, will be remembered as an interesting aberration in the sociology of science. This will happen regardless of how the scientific controversy, begun in 1989, will be resolved. The major proponents of cold fusion were recognized authorities in their disciplines. Some of them, now in their sixties and seventies, have been conducting research in the field for more than 15 years. As far as I know (from reading their papers and from attending conferences) their ways of validating claims are not different from those in various areas of recognized science. How was it possible, our descendants will ask, that such people were treated in the same way as pseudoscientists? How was it possible that their publications were often rejected by editors of mainstream journals and that financial support was not available to them as easily as in other areas of “pure science?”

I have been studying cold fusion for more than two years, not only as an observer but also as a researcher. This is reflected in over two hundred items posted on my website (2) dedicated to the subject. Experiments in which I participated did not provide a clear and undeniable confirmation of claims in which I was interested. The biggest problem was absence of reproducibility. But that does not mean that cold fusion research is pseudoscientific. Irreproducibility is an indicator that researchers are not aware of major influences. Electrostatic demonstrations were also highly unreliable untill the role of ambient humidity was recognized. Science is highly bureaucratic today and many think that nonscientific factors, such as competition for limited financial resources, have played an important role in the shaping of attitude toward cold fusion researchers (3). Historians of science have a unique opportunity to study cold fusion, as suggested, for example, in (4). Do not miss an opportunity to interview major cold fusion players; it may no longer be available in several years.

Fraudulent con artists (pseudoscientists) described by Park are usually people without recognized credentials. Cold fusion protoscientists, on the other hand, at least those I met at two conferences, have excellent academic credentials. I suspect that the controversy surrounding cold fusion attracts con artists and charlatans. But such an assertion is difficult to prove. More obvious is the fact that people working in different areas of protoscience tend to attract each other. I do not know, for example, what the so-called ”zero point energy” field (5) has in common with cold fusion. But research reports in that field can often be found in journals and magazines devoted to cold fusion (6,7,8). Likewise, research on hydrinos -- atoms of hydrogen “excited” to presumably-existing states below the ground states -- and on perpetual motion devices, can be seen intermixed with cold fusion papers. My definition of cold fusion, described in (9), focuses on a correlation between a chemical process, such as electrolysis, and a nuclear process, such as emission of alpha particles.

Sometimes people say that experimental validation of cold fusion would inevitably result in “paradigm shifting.” I do not take this for granted. Many investigators try to understand cold fusion in terms of new theoretical models. But, as far as I know, their models are not able to identify conditions under which cold fusion anomalies (chemically induced nuclear reactions) become reproducible. Who said that the existing paradigm (the arsenal of existing models) will not be able to make sense out of reported experimental observations? On the other hand, how can a theory be validated when experimental data are not reproducible? The phrase “theories guide but experiments decide” describes the essence of scientific methodology. It implies that making cold fusion reproducible is a precondition of possible evolution from cold fusion protoscience to cold fusion science.

And here is my last question. How long can an area of research remain protoscientific without becoming pseudoscientific, by default? Yes, I know that asking questions is much easier than answering them. The main point is that the questions I am asking here belong to the sociology of science; they do not belong to science per se. I will end with a quote from wikipedia, an editable encyclopedia of science on the Internet (10). The description of cold fusion one finds there is worth reading. But keep in mind that anybody can change anything in wikipedia at any time. I can not be sure that what you will read there will be the same as I read several weeks ago.

“ 1) A pseudoscience is any body of knowledge purporting to be either both factual and scientific, or of an even higher standard of knowledge, but which fails to comply with scientific method. Motivations for the advocacy or promotion of pseudoscience range from simple naivety about the nature of science or of the scientific method, to deliberate deception for financial or other benefit. Some people consider some or all forms of pseudoscience to be harmless entertainment. Others, . . .consider all forms of pseudoscience to be harmful, whether or not they result in immediate harm to their followers.

2) Pseudoscience is distinguishable from revelation, theology or spirituality in that it claims to offer insight into the physical world by "scientific" means (i.e., most usually in accordance with the scientific method). Systems of thought that rely upon "divine" or "inspired" knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim to be scientific or to overturn well established science.

3) Pseudoscience also differs from protoscience . The latter may be defined as speculation or hypothesis which has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consisent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. Pseudoscience, in contrast, is characteristically wanting adequate tests or the possibility of them, occasionally untestable in principle, and its supporters are frequently strident in insisting that existing scientific results are wrong.

4) The boundaries between pseudoscience, protoscience, and "real" science are often unclear to non-specialist observers. They can even be obscure to experts. Many people have tried to offer objective criteria for the term, with mixed success. Often the term is used simply as a pejorative to express the speaker's low opinion of a given field, regardless of any objective measures.

5) After more than a century of active dialogue, the question of what marks the boundary of science remains fundamentally unsettled. As a consequence the issue of what constitutes pseudoscience continues to be controversial. . . . Examples of fields of endeavor that many consider – to varying extents – pseudoscientific include Cold fusion, Pseudoarchaeology, Gene Ray 's Time Cube, astrology and homeopathy.

6) There are also young fields of science that are sometimes frowned upon by scientists from established fields, primarily because they are speculative in nature. [For example]: (a) exobiology /astrobiology, (b) Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and (c) Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI). These fields are not considered pseudoscientific or protoscientific by most scientists, though, and they are studied at many universities and specialized institutes.

Please share your comments about cold fusion and other social topics associated with it. My e-mail address appears above. Information about ongoing cold fusion events can be found at (11).

1) R. Park, “Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud,” Oxford University Press; 2000.
2) <>
3) E.F. Mallove, "Fire from Ice: Searching for Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furror," John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1991.
4) <>
5) <>
6) Probably still available from Hal Fox in Salt Lake City, Utah.
7) <>
8) <>
9) <>
10) <>
11) <>

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