Hot debate over cold fusion

Richard MiltonMisguided scepticism by some scientists was put under the microscope by author Richard Milton (right) in a presentation to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London (13 July, 2010). His update on what he describes as “the forbidden science” included homeopathy, iridology, remote viewing, synchronicity and cold fusion. Though there appears to be nothing paranormal about the last of these subjects – which if harnessed could one day provide the world with abundant energy – many scientists have reacted to claims about it in the same way that they dismiss the evidence for paranormal phenomena like ESP, telepathy and psychokinesis.

Because they don’t believe it is possible, they refuse to examine or accept the evidence. They prefer to dismiss other scientists’ findings as flawed, rather than open their minds to new possibilities. In other words, the statements they make are based on belief not evidence, which is hardly a scientific approach.

To his credit, Richard Milton was not too scathing about such sceptics. He sympathised with their inability to accept evidence that would require them to totally change the way they thought about certain topics. He also acknowledged that there were other pressures, relating to employment or funding, which might be powerful influences in preventing them from accepting new concepts.

The sceptics have been pouring cold water on cold fusion ever since the phenomenon was first reported by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989. They revealed the results of electrochemical experiments that had produced excess energy (they got out more than they put in) and theorised that it could be nuclear in origin, but working at room temperature.

There was a race to replicate their experiments, with mixed results, leading to their work being dismissed by most scientists. And that’s how things stand today, in terms of public belief in cold fusion. Ask anyone, scientist or otherwise, what they know about cold fusion and they are likely to tell you it doesn’t exist because it has been discredited. You’ll find the same sentiments in the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer (is there anything it believes in?) which regularly adds cold fusion to the mix when dismissing paranormal phenomena.

Richard Milton, however, set the record straight, telling his audience at the SPR that contrary to popular belief, not only is cold fusion still being researched in many laboratories but some scientists are producing impressive results. “100 universities in 10 countries have reproduced it,” he affirmed

Edge Science magazineIt so happens that a few days before his lecture I had been reading a very detailed account of this research in the pages of Issue 2 (Jan-March 2010) of Edge Science, a quarterly magazine available online that is published by The Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). I’m not going to go into too much detail because you can read it here, for free, along with two other issues – “Cold fusion: is vindication at hand?” (page 14).

It deals in depth with an unclassified, eight-page, Defense Analysis Report on the topic, produced by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and released in November last year. However, probably to avoid controversy, it refers to the phenomenon as “low-energy nuclear reactions” (LNER) rather than cold fusion.

The report reveals that researchers “are now claiming paradigm-shifting results, including generation of large amounts of excess heat, nuclear activity and transmutation of elements” adding, “Although no current theory exists to explain all the reported phenomena, some scientists now believe quantum-level nuclear reactions may be occurring. DIA assesses with high confidence that if LENR can produce nuclear-origin energy at room temperature, this disruptive technology could revolutionise energy production and storage, since nuclear reactions release millions of times more energy per unit mass than do any known chemical fuel.”

The DIA says “Japan and Italy are leaders in the field, although Russia, China, Israel and India are devoting significant resources to this work in the hope of finding a new clean energy source.” The United States is notably missing from this list, a side effect surely of the sceptical brigade.

The problem, it seems, is that results have not yet been produced consistently across all laboratories, but nobody knows why. This will be a familiar story to anyone who has studied the literature on research into ESP or other alleged psychic abilities. And perhaps that’s not the only connection.

Dr Stephen Braude, well-known parapsychologist and editor of another SSE publication, Journal of Scientific Exploration, which devoted a special issue to the subject in winter 2009, explains why the subject of cold fusion deserves close attention:

“For one thing, a number of responsible and competent scientists seem repeatedly to get intriguing results which received scientific wisdom says should not occur. On the other hand, those results have not been replicated by other responsible and competent scientists. Not only is there much material here for sociologists of science, but one can only wonder to what extent experimenter expectancy might account for the bifurcation of cold fusion researchers into either successful or unsuccessful experimenters. It may well be that the psychodynamics of cold fusion research are far more complex and messy than either its proponents or opponents like to think. In fact, although most LENR researchers would probably resist the suggestion, it’s worth considering whether – or to what extent – their results are a psychokinetic effect.”

In other words, mind over matter, or what psychic researchers call “the experimenter effect”, with results mirroring what the researcher believes they will be.

Richard Milton, whose books include Forbidden Science: Suppressed Research That Could Change Our Lives, offered another, equally controversial, explanation: “It’s possible that some phenomena just do not yield to scientific analysis.”

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