Carl Zimmer is an award-winning science journalist whose insightful reporting on the frontiers of biology appears regularly in the New York Times. Of his thirteen books about science, one of my favorites is an early one, Evolution: Triumph of an Idea, a large-format, very enjoyable guide and companion to a PBS series on evolution. Stephen Jay Gould wrote the introduction. At our CSICon 2018 conference in Las Vegas, Zimmer gave a great talk on the powers, perversions, and potential of heredity (based on his latest book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh). We asked him to follow that up with an article for Skeptical Inquirer.
In this day of ubiquitous DNA test kits, Zimmer’s “Seven Big Misconceptions about Heredity,” our cover article, is a cautionary reminder of how easy it is to draw the wrong lessons from what we learn about our personal DNA. More than fifteen million people have already had their DNA tested, and that number may reach 100 million by 2020. The data can be useful and fun, but it’s important to fight the misconceptions about it, Zimmer argues, and I agree.
I won’t elaborate on them here—his article does a fine job of that. But I think even those of you who consider yourselves reasonably knowledgeable will encounter some surprises. I did. Take a look at misconceptions #2 and #6, for example.
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We introduced readers to the E-Cat, a claimed but dubious cold fusion device, in our November/December 2018 issue. Florida-based inventor Andrea Rossi, who has a background that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, is now marketing the device to investors using a new weird three-hour video, released in late January. The thing is not much bigger than a small electrical space heater. (And, like a space heater, it is plugged into the wall!) Supposedly you can now arrange to have an E-Cat installed in your factory and get working heat out of it. But given Rossi’s past behavior, it is doubtful that’ll really happen. Rossi is, as usual, vague on engineering details and won’t let independent scientists examine the device’s inner workings. He has declined Australian skeptic and entrepreneur Dick Smith’s one million dollar challenge.
Ian Bryce, an engineer/physicist and the chief investigator for the Australian Skeptics, has been investigating Rossi and his claims about E-Cat for years. In this issue, he presents the results of his inquiries. He also offers his own explanation of where the supposed extra energy may be coming from. Bryce finds there is no real doubt that the whole thing is fake.
We also asked energy expert and CSI Fellow Thomas R. Casten to examine Rossi’s claims for us. His brief report follows Bryce’s. He likewise found nothing credible. “The E-Cat presentation makes giant claims of scientific breakthroughs with no validations,” Casten says. All this, he notes, is a red flag for scientific skeptics. How Rossi has been able to persuade some gullible investors that he’s onto something is the real mystery.
We’re going to continue our investigations. Expect more as time goes on.