This is a story about a strange field of research called Cold Fusion
, and my encounters with two individuals working in the field.
In case you don't recall, a Cold Fusion cell is a small electrolytic cell (like a cell in your car battery) that uses heavy water as the electrolyte and two precious metals (palladium and platinum) as the cathode (negative terminal) and anode (positive terminal) respectively.
The theory is that when you apply electric current to the cell, the deuterons (the nuclei of the heavy isotope of hydrogen) are driven to the surface of the palladium cathode, where some of them fuse to make helium and release energy. Fusion of hydrogen into helium takes place in stars (like our sun) and in hydrogen bombs.
Most mainstream scientists don't believe any nuclear fusion is taking place in Cold Fusion cells, and they note that there is no theoretical model to support the claim that any nuclear fusion is at work in these cells.
Much Ado About Scoffing
There is a curious chap named Abd Ul-Rahman Lomax
, who I met online (at Wikipedia Review
), who is into Cold Fusion. He is a true believer, proponent, and enthusiast who also wants to peddle kits to hobbyists who want to build Cold Fusion cells in their kitchen.
Abd has struck up a relationship with one of the few diehard professionals still working on Cold Fusion Research. Down in Santa Fe NM, a chap named Edmund Storms
is the Branch Manager (and sole employee) of KivaLabs. Storms has been involved in Cold Fusion Research since its inception. He, too, is a true believer, proponent, and enthusiast.
Recently, Storms published one of his occasional papers
surveying the state of Cold Fusion Research to date. Having nothing better to do for a week, I offered to contribute a review of this paper
as part of a little project that Abd was setting up on Wikiversity
I ended up corresponding with Storms (via E-Mail) and learned quite a bit about the story of his 21-year journey through the field of Cold Fusion Research.
He feels that his efforts to demonstrate Cold Fusion are largely unseen and unappreciated, and he expresses significant levels of frustration, vexation, disappointment, anger, bitterness, and disdain at mainstream scientists and government agencies who have withdrawn confidence in (and support for) research in his field.
Storms expresses high levels of personal confidence that he is on the right track, and he exhibits high levels of hope and determination to achieve success at demonstrating Cold Fusion, which he sincerely believes to be real, and not a misconception arising from any failure to rigorously adhere to the protocols of the scientific method in the course of his experimental work.
My extensive interview of Edmund Storms (mostly in E-Mail) has provided me with an unexpected opportunity to examine how emotions such as confidence, surprise, confusion, perplexity, anger, disappointment, hope, and determination arise in the course of a difficult learning journey.
It appears to me that the emotions he expresses and the beliefs he espouses jibe with and illustrate the mathematical model of emotions and learning
that I have been working on for the past 25 years.
I was curious to understand how Storms could look at the data from the many experiments and come to one conclusion (that CF is real) while others look at the same studies and come to the opposite conclusion.
It quickly became clear that Storms and I have substantial differences in how we construe and apply the protocols of the scientific method. Specifically, we have notable differences in how we envision the use of the Null Hypothesis and Control Groups.
In a typical experiment, the Null Hypothesis is that nothing unexpected is happening. The Experimental Hypothesis is that something new and interesting is happening, in accordance with a new theory or model that is being developed and tested.
I asked Storms how he falsified the Null Hypothesis, as well as other mundane hypotheses not involving any new and otherwise unexplained observations.
To my surprise, he told me that they don't use the Null Hypothesis Method in Chemistry. He told me that's only used in Physics. Basically, he simply assumed the Null Hypothesis was false, and set out to prove that Cold Fusion is real. Here is a typical quote from Storms on the point:
"As I keep saying, the Null Hypothesis idea does not work in chemistry or in Cold Fusion. All kinds of possibilities are eliminated based on experience and knowledge of chemistry up front and without much effort." --Edmund Storms, E-Mail, December 4, 2010
Then I asked him about other hypotheses, including the effect of any impurities or contaminants in the heavy water
(such as residual radioactive substances that would have been present if the heavy water were reclaimed from decommissioned heavy water nuclear plants).
Again, he simply assumed the fuels were free of impurities or contaminants that could account for any of the observed effects in the Cold Fusion cells.
I pointed out that in his survey of the literature, at least two experimenters had assayed the impurities found in both ordinary water and heavy water. Both kinds of water had impurity levels corresponding to the levels of the effects attributed to Cold Fusion. Notably the heavy water was found to have Xenon in it. Xenon is an inert gas of high atomic weight. It comes just above Radon in the Periodic Table. It occurred to me that if Xenon were found in samples of heavy water, wouldn't that suggest Radon might also have been present? Radon decays in a matter of weeks to Lead and Helium, both of which were found in these assays. How do they explain the Lead, and the other trace heavy metals? Storms says the hypothesis is that they are the result of alchemical transmutation, in which the nuclei of the metals in the cathode and anode absorb deuterons and change into other elements.
I asked him why he did not consider the hypothesis that these heavy elements were the residue of impurities in the electrolyte (that being the mundane Null Hypothesis). Again he said that they don't use the Null Hypothesis, and that he assumed the fuels were pure and free from any contaminants that could account for the residues found in the cells.
My tentative conclusion is that Storms adopts a variant of the Scientific Method that is at odds with the method of Hypothesis Testing that I am familiar with, and his departure from the Scientific Method (as I construe it) accounts for the discrepancy between his beliefs and the beliefs of the skeptics who are not convinced that Cold Fusion is real.
Falsifying the Null Hypothesis
For the past week, I've continued my correspondence in E-Mail at some length with Edmund Storms, and I now have a pretty good bead on him. I've found out where he differs from me in the way he construes the protocols of the scientific method, and how he differs from me in the tools for thought that he relies on when carrying out his work.
The question that I couldn't get a straight answer to was, "How did you falsify the Null Hypothesis?"
At first I got a lot of hand-waving, along with a variety of disdainful and dismissive remarks like: "That's a "silly" question, a "dumb" question, a "trivial" question, that reveals the person asking it is is "ignorant of science."
I pressed him on it, and finally obtained this succinct quote from Storms:
"As I keep saying, the Null Hypothesis idea does not work in chemistry or in Cold Fusion. All kinds of possibilities are eliminated based on experience and knowledge of chemistry up front and without much effort." —Edmund Storms, E-Mail, December 4, 2010
In a nutshell, he discarded the Null Hypothesis at the outset and never looked back. Thereafter he systematically ignored or dismissed evidence for the Null Hypothesis and systematically began collecting and compiling evidence to support the CF hypothesis.
Another clue came in E-Mail when he expressed disdain for my reliance on "fuzzy logic." From that clue, I discovered he was evidently relying on Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle, that if something is false, then its inverse must necessarily be true, and vice versa. Since he assumed the Null Hypothesis to be false, then (by Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle), another explanation must necessarily be true, and that explanation, he maintains, is Cold Fusion.
But there is no satisfactory theory for a mechanism of Cold Fusion that jibes with what we know about Atomic Physics.
How can he conduct experiments without working from a technical theory that offers any insight into what's presumably going on?
And this is the next big difference I discovered in my correspondence with Storms. I routinely rely on Model-Based Reasoning, using scientifically reliable models constructed in accordance with the protocols of the scientific method. If I don't have a reliable model about something, I don't really have a good way to think about it, because I can't reliably anticipate what's going to happen if I tweak things this way or that.
It became clear that Storms could not be relying on Model-Based Reasoning, as he agrees that no one has a satisfactory model to work from, so the question arises, what tools for thought is he relying on, in lieu of Model-Based Reasoning?
Here, I get very fuzzy responses from Storms, that he simply knows things from long observation and experience.
So I turned the question around. I asked him what dispelled his skepticism and turned him into a believer. His response was simply to tell me to read his book, where he lays out all the evidence to support the theory that Cold Fusion is real.
I kept looking for some singular observation that converted him from a skeptic into a believer. Where were the "Aha!" moments when things became clear?
And, astonishingly, he said there weren't any. Gradually, over the years, his doubts just slowly melted away, like an exponential decay.
How could that be? Simple. He stopped looking at evidence for the Null Hypothesis, and interpreted all "relevant" evidence as support for CF. Any possible evidence going the other way was "not relevant" and not worthy of his time to figure out what was wrong with it. Evidence that he once noted as surprising or challenging to address, he now blithely dismisses as probably a misreading of the meaning of the data. And he quietly ignores it, thereafter.
This led him to concoct a number of fantastic reasons and non-standard methods to reject stubborn evidence or analysis that didn't concord with CF. The most fantastic concoction was adding alchemical transmutation to CF, a development that I was previously unaware of and astonished to find in the CF literature.
Again, I asked, "How did you falsify the Null Hypothesis regarding the presence of the heavy element
cations that you are now explaining by alchemical transmutation?"
And that's where things got weird. Of course he didn't falsify it, he simply assumed that all the evidence must necessarily be interpreted to fit his preferred theory, that CF is real.
I posited, for example, that the heavy element cations, found at trace levels, were simply trace impurities in the fuel. He insisted the fuel was free of impurities. Then, when I pointed to the specs from the suppliers, listing the purest grades of heavy water to have roughly 1 ppm of otherwise unanalyzed miscellaneous impurities, he conceded there were impurities, but he insisted they made no contribution to the observed effects.
I worked out, as an exercise, that 2 parts per trillion of dissolved Radon gas in the heavy water sufficed to account for the excess heat, Helium and residue of Lead found in the cells. He countered that there could not be any Radon in the heavy water, because the stuff is radioactive, and if there were any Radon, you'd "quickly die." I frankly didn't believe that, but I didn't yet have the knowledge to rebut it.
In the most recent E-Mail, when he maintained that one would die from heavy water, I asked what the coroner would put down as the cause of death. Storms replied, "Poisoning from drinking heavy water," pointing out that you can get sick from drinking 100 mL of the stuff.
So I looked it up.
From one site: "Heavy water toxicity manifests itself when about 50% of the water in the body has been replaced by D2O. Prolonged heavy water consumption can cause death." The stuff costs $300 per liter, and one would need to consume (and not pee out) at least 40 liters of heavy water, at a cost of $12,000, just to get into the ball park of toxicity. But I'm not drinking
the stuff. Nor am I bathing in it. There are even musings of a murder mystery based on administering heavy water to an invalid. Surprisingly enough the numbers were run by a guy I happen to know. He got the same answer I came up with.
Anyway, Storms conveniently forgot that it was Radon contaminants at a few parts per trillion that I was reckoning, not personally drinking a few gallons of the stuff.
Bottom line, the guy is apparently self-deluded, not a source of reliable information, not a very good scientist, and otherwise exemplary of what's wrong with our system of science education in this country.
Watch for me to make this my annoying new mantra: "Excuse me, but exactly how
did you falsify the Null Hypothesis?"