Maybe the previous post would have been a nice way to close out this blog, but I’ll do one last post, because I saw something that just really horrified me. In this otherwise nice and unremarkable article about the low proliferation risks of conventional (tokamak) nuclear fusion, a commenter bragged that cold fusion is awesome because it has such a low nuclear proliferation risk. And I was thinking: Are you kidding?? How on Earth could you possibly think that???
I do, in fact, think cold fusion has a low proliferation risk, for the simple reason that cold fusion doesn’t exist in the first place! But I don’t want to just shrug and leave it at that. For people like me interested in research ethics, I think the cold fusion community is an interesting case study, in that the community apparently has no culture of research ethics whatsoever, despite what I see as clear-cut reasons for extreme caution, up to and including terrified paralysis! So I wrote this post to quickly summarize why I feel that way.
I think maybe the cold fusion advocates are complacent because cold fusion doesn’t fit into the mold of, say, research into making viruses more contagious, where we are afraid of something that is both very specific and very likely. Indeed, if cold fusion existed, and if it were explained and widely accepted, well, I can’t think of a single specific bad thing that would happen with high probability. But the “unknown unknowns” are a different story…
Research as “digging for buried treasure in a minefield”
Visualize “Truth” as a giant meadow. Scientists and engineers go digging around in this meadow with shovels labeled “Research”. Often we find a buried treasure, and occasionally we set off a landmine. If we discover and publicize “Knowledge About How to Prevent Pandemics”, then we have opened a treasure. If we discover and publicize “Knowledge of How to Cause Pandemics (in 5 easy steps using untraceable household chemicals)”, then we have set off a landmine!
Now, in most of the meadow, people can freely dig without worrying about landmines. Increasing humanity’s knowledge about astronomy, or entomology, or nutrition, or a zillion other topics, is always a 100% good thing. But a few sections of the meadow are notorious for being packed full of big scary landmines, and the “Nuclear Physics” section is one of them!
Now let’s put cold fusion in here. If it existed, cold fusion would be a new way to catalyze nuclear reactions, by a mechanism nobody yet understands, except that it’s definitely totally different from everything else known in nuclear physics. So in this analogy, it would mean that there’s a giant section of the Nuclear Physics minefield that’s totally uncharted!
Finding and publicizing the mechanism for cold fusion is like driving your car full-speed into the uncharted part of the minefield. That’s pretty reckless, but that’s just the beginning! Once you convince mainstream science and society that you’re right, all of the sudden 10,000 bulldozers come driving into this minefield right behind you! Think about it—just about every physicist, chemist, engineer, and entrepreneur on Earth is going to want to follow up on this work, once it is widely accepted. These people will be spending the next 30 years excavating every nook and cranny of this previously-uncharted territory. Whatever mechanism makes cold fusion work, the worldwide scientific community will study everything about that mechanism, refine it, twist it, slice it, dice it, uncover similar mechanisms in other contexts, find ingenious ways to combine the mechanism with other technologies, and on and on. Will they find treasure? Probably! Will they set off any landmines? It’s impossible to know! But good luck keeping a dangerous truth secret, when 100 top research groups in 100 countries are all digging nearby.
Maybe you’re thinking, “We already live in a world with nuclear weapons. So what’s the worst that could happen?” Well I say to you: If you can’t think of even a single possibility that gives you nightmares … if you can’t think of even a single possible outcome that is very very much worse than Climate Change … then you’re not thinking very hard!
As far as I can find, in the 30 years of the cold fusion community, no one has even acknowledged that there might be a problem here, let alone tried to weigh the risks and benefits, let alone succeeded in weighing the risks and benefits intelligently. I find that awfully depressing, and I sure hope that other communities, studying risky topics that actually do exist (unlike cold fusion), are doing a better job at research ethics.