46) Charlatans versus scientists

Ludwik Kowalski (March 7, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

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An interesting paperback book was published in 2003 by Keith Tutt in England. The title is "The Scientist, the Madman, the Thief and the Lightbulb." The book begins with the biography of Nikola Tesla, goes over the alleged discovery of Henry Morey from Salt Lake City (1930's) and then focuses on recent episodes, including that of cold fusion. In chapter 11, entitled "Of Charlatans, Conspiracies and Skeptics" the author gives a description of schemes by which con artists take advantage of naive expectations of many investors and convince them to finance unreasonable, often non-existing projects. One recent episode of that kind involved an Australian manipulator, Brian Collins.

He was claiming to invent a miraculous energy-making machine "measuring just 12 inches by 3 inches and weighing only 10 pounds. During the tests the machine was said to produce enough electrical energy to completely power an average size home. . . . With the availability of unlimited amounts of affordable electric energy, individuals can at last pursue their creative aspirations in a new age of society. In a longer description of the device, published at the same time, the claims are even more generous: "The prototype . . . produced electrical energy in excess of 1000 kW, enough power to satisfy the energy needs of 100 domestic dwellings at average load demand."

Exploiting naive desire to get rich from free energy Collins wrote: "The special few who sent funds . . . for every dollar that they sent, they'll see more money than they ever believed possible, . . . [I]n the next few weeks there could be some amazing things happening that could see many, many times the funds returned to everybody." But several months later, when money was collected, he apologized that he had been misled by his scientists about the status of the generator. The only persons who benefited from the fraud were Collins and his associates.

In reading numerous books critical of cold fusion I never encountered an accusation of fraud directed to Fleischmann and Ponds or to those who carried out additional investigations in thirteen years after the initial announcement. I saw accusations of misinterpretation, lack of expertise, self-delusion and inappropriate methodology but no accusations of deliberate deception or fraud. The only exceptions were words attributed to an MIT professor Ronald Parker. According to a journalist, Nick Tate (Boston Globe, May 1, 1989), cold fusion was denounced by Parker as "scientific schlock." But in a news conference next day the professor denied using these words.

On the other hand, I encountered one accusation of fraudulent manipulation of data on the part of critics of Fleischmann and Pons. According to E. Mallove, the chief science writer in the MIT's press office (who had access to nearly all the information that was put out by the Plasma Fusion Center) there was a deliberate campaign to discredit cold fusion. Those who orchestrated the campaign (Parker among them) were motivated by the desire to protect their own projects supported by the government ($ 200,000,000 per year). Mallove wrote that "MIT as a whole did, indeed, acquire the deserved reputation as a 'bastion of skepticism' on cold fusion. . . . They suspected that .. . . if the public were to have a too open-minded attitude toward . . . the cold fusion, funding for their [hot fusion] program would be endangered. Assuming this to be true one is tempted to criticize the motivation based on financial self-interest. Scientists are expected to be objective in the analysis of experimental facts and theories. But how can one be impartial when asked to evaluate a competitor?

On page 139 Tuff shows two sets of plots summarizing a calorimeter experiment conducted at MIT. The draft plot, dated July 10, 1989, shows evidence of excess heat, as reported by Fleischmann and Pons. That evidence, however, was removed from the final plot, dated July 13, 1989. l (who discovered the contradiction) asked for the original data but his request was ignored. Mallove believes that this was a conspiracy designed to influence the US Department of Energy.

By the way, a colleague sent me a copy of an interesting article of R. Park. It was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (vol. 49, issue 21, page b20, 2003). The title is “The Seven Warning Signals of Bogus Science.” You can still access this article at : http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i21/21b001.htm

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