Is there experimental evidence of CF?

[UPDATE 5 YEARS LATER: After spending a lot more time studying this question, I wound up having stronger and more informed opinions on it; see the post The case against cold fusion experiments.]

I’ll kick off my new blog with an important question, a question that impacts whether this blog should exist in the first place: Is there experimental evidence of cold fusion? Here is my understanding, but this is all a bit new to me.

Cold fusion started with an experiment by Fleischmann and Pons. They did an electrochemistry experiment involving palladium and deuterium, and announced in 1989 that their apparatus produced excess heat (much more heat than could be accounted for by chemistry), and also signatures of nuclear reactions. Many labs immediately tried to reproduce these findings, and most failed, and it later emerged that those alleged signatures of nuclear reactions were misinterpreted. (Fleischmann and Pons are not nuclear physicists.)

Already here, the history becomes very contentious. For example, one of the groups that tried to reproduce the results was at MIT, and they said they couldn’t reproduce the heat signal. But in the cold fusion community, there’s a story that MIT actually did reproduce the heat signal, but reported to the contrary due to incompetence or fraud (allegedly to protect funding for the MIT plasma fusion program!). Conversely, the groups that claimed to successfully reproduce the results are accused by cold fusion skeptics of not actually doing so, again due to errors or fraud.

Anyway, by 1991 or so, mainstream science and society had decided that there’s no such thing as cold fusion, but a small group of proponents continued to believe in it and study it. And they still do to this day. According to proponents, the subsequent decades of work have brought dramatically better experimental evidence of cold fusion, refined procedures, more consistent lines of evidence, and so on. The mainstream view is that this is the cozy consensus of true believers in a pseudoscience, egging each other on.

It’s really hard to evaluate these decades of experiments, because pretty much all the mainstream subject-matter experts have long ago stopped criticizing specific experimental results and methods, and instead they just ignore the field entirely. I am very familiar with this dynamic, because sometimes I edit Wikipedia articles on all sorts of bizarre, obviously dumb fringe physics theories like this one, and it’s always really tricky because the only sources who ever mention these theories are their passionate advocates or inventors. So in some cases, literally everyone who is most qualified on paper to discuss Theory X (having published about it etc.) is a passionate believer in Theory X … but Theory X is still super duper wrong and dumb. So we can get the wrong answer by deferring to the subject matter experts. I’m not saying that cold fusion is necessarily following this dynamic, I’m just saying that this is a possibility to keep in mind.

So anyway, you read this old version of the Wikipedia article written by a proponent, and it sounds like there’s overwhelming experimental evidence for cold fusion. But if you digging, everything is murky. Did “Mitsubishi Heavy Industries [observe],…in a spectacular series of experiments that have proved 100% repeatable, host metal transmutations”? Well, “100% repeatable” may be a stretch when a different group could not reproduce the results despite spending millions of dollars and working closely with MHI. I’m not siding with NRL or MHI here—I haven’t tried to evaluate the back-and-forth—I’m just saying that it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on, it’s not immediately clear who to trust, and nothing can be taken at face value.

Are the theoretical and experimental questions really separate? The theoretical question is “is there a plausible physical mechanism for cold fusion?” The experimental question is “is there experimental evidence for cold fusion?” Many cold fusion proponents argue that these are independent questions. For example, here is an anonymous comment in a 2006 argument on the wikipedia cold-fusion discussion page:

you also say “the most important fact about cold fusion is that it cannot work” – no, the most important fact about [cold fusion] is the experimental observation that it does work; the fact that conventional theory cannot explain why it works is purely incidental.

In other words, cold fusion is an experimental observation, and experiments are the ultimate arbiter of truth in physics, and if theorists cannot explain an experiment, then they should get to work finding a better theory.

This sounds very nice. It sounds like The Scientific Method like we all learned in school and read about in Karl Popper. Who could object to The Scientific Method?

It sounds nice, but it’s wrong! It is rational to give experiments a complete veto over theory only if experimental results are always correct. That’s not the case! Sensors can be calibrated incorrectly. Procedures can be followed incorrectly. Results can be described and interpreted incorrectly. Experiments can be wrong for reasons that are extraordinarily subtle, reasons that are not understood for months, or years, or ever. This is not a nitpicking hypothetical, it is one of the most basic facts of life for everyone in experimental science and engineering.

Therefore it is not only extremely common in practice, but also entirely correct, to use theoretical physics to inform our guesses about which experimental results are trustworthy. In other words, we are doing a Bayesian analysis of what to believe, and both theoretical and experimental knowledge are legitimate inputs into this analysis.

(Example: Here is a link to a meta-analysis in support of parapsychology. Oh, you still don’t believe in parapsychology? Did you meticulously read that article and judge its methodological soundness on its own merits? Or did you rule it out based on prior expectations derived from theoretical physics?)

(Note: If the previous paragraph doesn’t work for you because you really do believe in parapsychology, you’re definitely reading the wrong blog.)

Finally, my answer to the question: Is there experimental evidence of cold fusion? Based on what I know so far (which isn’t very much!) my assessment is: There is enough experimental evidence of cold fusion to make it worthwhile to spend some time searching for a plausible theory of cold fusion … especially since this is the kind of thing I like doing for fun. But there is not SO much experimental evidence that I would believe in the existence of cold fusion without seeing such a theory! I would rather disbelieve even 100 independent cold-fusion experiments than throw out everything we know about quantum field theory and the Standard Model of Particle Physics, if that’s really the choice. (Whatever experimental evidence there might be for cold fusion, it’s absolutely dwarfed by the experimental evidence for our current best understanding of the laws of physics in general.)

So that’s my motivation for starting this blog. Is there a plausible theory of cold fusion? Let’s find out! The journey begins…

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