Open discussion

If you have something to say, but it’s not particularly related to any specific blog post, you can comment here. Please keep comments on-topic, assume good faith, avoid sarcasm, etc.

4 thoughts on “Open discussion

  1. Fred Zoepfl

    I really enjoyed reading your discussion of “cold fusion” (aka LENR). What do you think of the U.S. Naval Institute publishing (in the SEP 18 issue of “Proceedings”) and even awarding a prize to a bizarre LENR essay by Michael Ravnitzky (a Lew Larsen protege)??

    Here’s the essay: https://cryptome.org/2018/09/This-Is-Not-Cold-Fusion.pdf

    So how embarrassing and humiliating is this for the U.S. Navy, the USNI, “Proceedings,” and the entire engineering/scientific community? It’s as if the USNI had published an article praising polywater or ESP research! It’s really too bad that they didn’t publish this essay on April Fools’ Day.

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  2. steve Post author

    Dear Fred, Thank you for posting the link. I submitted an online comment there focusing on Widom-Larsen in particular. It’s not just that Widom-Larsen theory is wrong, I think it’s super-transparently wrong even compared to other wrong cold fusion theories, and I really don’t understand how it came to play such a big role in the cold fusion community.

    It’s funny that you bring up ESP; wasn’t there military ESP research at one point? I could be wrong; I only know about it from the book “The Men Who Stare at Goats”.

    I’m sad that the article was written, but I don’t feel very upset at anyone in particular here. Good scientific judgment is hard: if someone tells you that there’s an expert consensus on X, it’s not right to blindly believe them, you have to confirm that it really is an expert consensus, and have the judgment to know that this is the kind of situation where an expert consensus is highly likely to be correct. Even if there were a straightforward “who to trust” algorithm that always works (and there isn’t), you still have to recognize this correct algorithm from the infinity bad algorithms that people also use. So, I’m sad that lots of people have poor scientific judgment, and I think about how to educate them, but I don’t usually feel anger or outrage at them.

    Anyway, maybe the people at USNI who have masted the skill of good scientific judgment are in charge of doing and managing the actual work, rather than editing the newsletter? (One can hope!) And articles in research institute newsletters are not (and probably shouldn’t be) subjected to the kind of scrutiny and checks that you would apply to a big expensive research program. Maybe the editorial procedures for this particular newsletter should involve more scrutiny … or maybe that wouldn’t be worth the time and the false negatives. Who knows.

    Well actually, there is one specific person who I am upset at: the person (I am sure they exist) who reads through the newsletter to check for sensitive or dangerous information, yet let this article pass, as I argued in the last post. Again, I can sympathize with people whose scientific judgment is out-of-tune, but I would think that someone whose job it is to recognize dangerous information should be able to do so.

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  3. Fred Zoepfl

    Steve, thanks for your comment on Disqus. It was excellent. I would agree with your approach to these types of unfortunate events, except that in some of these cases the authors are engaged in deliberate academic and even criminal fraud.
    For example, Mr. Larsen is like the P.T. Barnum of LENR fraud. After 13 years, he must know very well that his “theory” is nonsense, and yet he persists in trying to convince gullible and ignorant people that it’s real. That behavior really bothers me. If Larsen truly believes his theory, then at this point he must be delusional. If he does not really believe it and yet continues to tell people it’s true, then maybe he’s a pathological liar. I don’t know which it is, but I can assure you that at this point, it’s surely not an “honest mistake.” I’m not a trained psychiatrist, although I have asked some very eminent ones about people like Larsen and what would make these people tick. One neuropsychologist told me that pathological liars get a real serotonin rush when they get away with a lie. Their brains just light up, and the reward is better than sex for them.
    The other aspect is that Larsen is knowingly and willfully taking advantage of USNI and “Proceedings” to parlay their “endorsement” into his investment fraud scheme. His “SlideShare” presentations on the web are ludicrous but might appear to be believable to those unfamiliar with nuclear physics.
    So this is fraud. Academic fraud, investor fraud and internet fraud. The latter two are criminal offenses.

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    1. steve Post author

      Perhaps you have specific information that Lew Larsen is acting in bad faith, but just the fact that he has worked on cold fusion for 13 years is, to me, very weak evidence. My opinion is that the world is full of people—people with the full range of human intelligence and psychological dispositions—who devote their lives in good faith to a topic that is completely unhinged from reality. Do you doubt this? Well, are you an atheist? If so, you have to believe that all the clergy, rabbis, etc. of the world are in this category. Or if you’re religious, you should at least put atheist activists, naturalist philosphers, etc. into this category. Or more generally take any debate on issues of fact. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Do minimum wages increase unemployment? Are there any innate differences in preferences or skills between genders? These questions have answers, and whatever they are, people are spending their lives arguing for the wrong answer with complete self-confidence.

      So, one of my bedrock beliefs is that there are intelligent people everywhere spending decades arguing in good faith for something which is completely, utterly false. I do not generally expect people, even subject matter experts, to eventually come around to the truth, at least not within a mere lifespan. (In certain situations, truth-seeking can be more successful, but that’s not the default.)

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