Letters – Volume 43.3

Cold Fusion Thirty Years Later

Reading the article “Cold Fusion: Thirty Years Later” (January/February 2019) reminded me of some interesting discussions that occurred at the time.

In 1989, when Pons and Fleischmann made their announcement concerning “cold fusion,” the internet was still fairly new, but it did exist, and there were some early versions of what would evolve into “social media,” in the form of online fora distributed by services such as “USENET news.” There were hundreds of groups with common interests of all sorts, but the important ones in this instance were “sci.chemistry” and “sci.physics.” Being a technical sort, I was subscribed to both.

In the chemistry forum, the participants were discussing possible chemical reactions and their proposed efficiency, which ones were most likely in the experimental environment described in the announcement, what the reaction products would be, how much temperature rise would be expected, and so forth.

Meanwhile, over in the physics forum, the common question was “Why aren’t they dead?”—from radiation poisoning, which there would have been a lot of had the experiment actually worked.

Isaac Wingfield
Petaluma, California

The E-Cat Hoax

In “Why E-Cat Is a Hoax” (January/February 2019), I was surprised to find that author Sadri Hassani lays blame for scientific illiteracy in general, and belief in cold fusion in particular, on John Wheeler. Since John is no longer around to defend himself against this nonsense, I’ll do my best—leaving the defense of Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Schrodinger, tarred with the same brush, to others.

Wheeler, by his own admission, was obsessed with the question “Why the quantum?” The Copenhagen Interpretation, which delivers all of quantum mechanics’ unchallenged powers of computation and prediction, still leaves us without understanding of its underlying mechanisms (if any). Wheeler took this most-successful theory and interpretation at face value and spent the latter part of his career trying to crack open what it meant. There may be some poetry in this, but it is not mysticism. Blaming him for Deepak Chopra is just silly.

It is certainly disappointing to find John Wheeler disparaged in Skeptical Inquirer. Because of his association with the stranger aspects of general relativity (e.g., black holes) and quantum mechanics (e.g., delayed choice), he attracted more than his share of crackpots, and his methods for dealing with them are legendary. He is also famous for his attempt to rid the AAAS of its affiliation with parapsychology. He should be a hero to your readers.

Peter D. Meyers
Princeton, New Jersey

I enjoyed Sadri Hassani’s article on the E-Cat Hoax. I sympathize with his critique of scientists who have contributed to common misunderstandings of modern physics (and especially quantum mechanics) in their popular books by using colorful and easily misunderstood language such as “quantum teleportation,” which of course is not at all the same as the science fiction idea of teleportation.

However, his criticism of the philosophy of John Archibald Wheeler or the founders of quantum mechanics massively overstates the problem and comes close to a prohibition of philosophical discussions. Of course, many great scientists have flirted with strange philosophies, but this in no way implies “they believe in ideas that contradict their science,” as Hassani claims without going into details. In any case, it should not be forgotten that revolutionary scientific ideas often originated in the philosophical leanings of their proponents.

His article takes a further turn into bizarre territory when he claims—without any supporting evidence—that the public is “more prone to scientific conspiracy theory than its political counterpart” when in fact many scientific conspiracy theories are motivated by political ideology (Stephan Lewandowsky, et al., “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science,” PLOS One 8(10), 2013). If Hassani has an axe to grind with some forms of science communication, the readers of Skeptical Inquirer might be better served by a more detailed critique in a separate article.

Dr. Philippe Leick
Gerlingen, Germany

I spent the better part of a year chasing down the facts (almost nonexistent) and the falsehoods (predominantly) surrounding the convicted fraudster Andrea Rossi. I am pleased to see that one of your writers has found the investigative work I did to expose this scam.

Steven B. Krivit
Publisher and Senior Editor,
New Energy Times
San Rafael, California

Sadri Hassani replies:

Peter Meyers and Phillipe Leick (and a few other readers) lament my criticism of John Wheeler, and as one of his admirers who benefited from his mentorship as a first-year graduate student at Princeton University many years ago, I struggled with the decision to criticize him. However, in writing my article, my responsibility of exposing the nonsense of modern gurus who exploit his extra-scientific views outweighed my reverence to Wheeler.

In his genuine obsession with “Why the quantum?,” Wheeler is indeed to be commended. However, in his sometime far-fetched conclusions, he provides powerful ammunition for modern gurus, New Age mystics, and pseudoscientists. And in so doing, he is following a tradition that has afflicted quantum physics from the very beginning. Self-help books are filled with references to the founders of quantum theory who, regrettably, had an inclination toward mysticism.

When great physicists make mystical utterances, we cannot blame self-help fraudsters for exploiting them. If we could split John Wheeler into a “black hole Wheeler” and the Wheeler who said, “you create the universe” and the “universe is adapted to man,” then I would join Peter Meyers in recommending the former as the hero of SI readers. Otherwise, we would be playing into the hands of self-help charlatans. If we don’t separate physicists from their physics, we put our stamp of approval on the nonsense propagated by the mystics that is poisoning the minds of hundreds of millions of people. I’ll end my response to the letters with the same sentence with which I ended my article: It is the message that counts, not the messenger.

Sputtering Creator Belief

In 1966, John Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and will be proved right.” This sounds very much like the argument SI constantly makes in one form or another—Gregory Paul being the latest example (“The Sputtering Engine of Creator Belief,” January/February 2019).

Unfortunately, for all my skeptical friends, this is not happening! As Tim Keller writes in Making Sense of God, “Most sociologists now agree that the secularization thesis—that religion declines as a society becomes more modern—has been empirically shown to be false.” Far from sputtering, the engine of belief continues to hum along just fine and even seems to be increasing in horsepower!

As a believer in God and a reader of the Skeptical Inquirer, I would ask for two things. First, I’d ask for an admission that faith and science are not mutually exclusive. One can believe in God as creator and still believe that God accomplished creation using the wonders of science. Second, I would ask for a bit more humility in claiming the realm of reason as being the exclusive domain of atheism and agnosticism. After all, beyond various claims regarding the source of morals and meaning, which really makes more sense: an uncaused god, or an uncaused cause? In the end, neither can be proved or disproved … which just might make both articles of faith!

David Garrard
Finchville, Kentucky

Gregory Paul replies:

Among those who disagree with Garrard’s claim that Christianity is not shrinking are the authors of the World Christian Encyclopedia who bemoan that “massive defections from Christianity … took place in Western Europe due to secularism … and in the Americas due to materialism.” 

Garrard makes the common narcissistic theist demand that skeptics agree that faith is compatible with science while severely criticizing other unsubstantiated belief systems. But why? One important reason many do not is because those of faith often appear to have problems dealing with facts. In my article, I presented one statistic after another detailing how religion is in overall decline. RedC and the World Values Survey have measured a shrinkage of theism of over a tenth of the global population since the turn of the century. Ignoring the credible data, Garrard’s citing a pastor’s book claiming the contrary is like citing a creationist’s book claiming to have refuted Darwin.  

When it comes to skepticism, I am not a bigot; I’m an equal-opportunity skeptic. I have yet to hear a viable argument as to why believing in a supernatural creator is any more plausible than is, say, the belief that aliens had something to do with the creation of humans or of the pyramids. Why is being a god believer in any way superior to thinking Bigfoot is real, as some atheists I know ardently do? Although at least we know that big apes and protohumans are real; the deity thing is worse because it is sheer speculation.

Especially and totally bogus is the conceit that a creator deity can in any way be a source of morality or even common decency. As I detailed in a 2009 paper in Theology and Philosophy, if there is a creator of our brutal planet, it has overseen the death of fifty billion children, most due to the diseases the supposedly loving god allowed our planet to be infested with. It is abjectly impossible for a creator that gives a damn about the lives of children and human free will to exist. 

There is no need for skeptics to be faith friendly. Instead, it is theists who need to finally admit there is no such thing as a good god. 

Gregory S. Paul’s article seems to me to be asking the wrong question.  If we accept that a decreasing percentage of the human race now espouses traditional religious beliefs, the right question is whether the beliefs being adopted are any more rational. For instance, in the previous century, masses of people abandoned messianic theistic religion for messianic atheistic Communism. Old wine in new bottles still makes people drunk. I would prefer to know whether people are getting more rational rather than whether they are simply changing superstitions.

Nina G. Wouk
Menlo Park, California

Cancer Screening

Felipe Nogueira makes a sensible point by suggesting that certain prostate and breast neoplasms be renamed to indicate their indolent course (“Screening for Prostate and Breast Cancer,” January/February 2019). This has been done in other organs, notably urinary bladder and thyroid. While urologists have criteria that allow them to assign some prostate cancer patients to active surveillance, thus avoiding or delaying treatment, there are currently no histologic criteria that pathologists can use to reassign certain prostate and breast cancers to other categories. That will take a significant amount of time and research.

I look forward to the day when we can more accurately classify these neoplasms and allow those patients who do not need to be treated to avoid the consequences of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Michael Finfer, MD
Assistant Chairman
Department of Pathology
JFK Medical Center
Edison, New Jersey

Felipe Nogueira’s discussion of prostate cancer screening and PSA testing was comprehensive and well referenced. However, it failed to mention a more recent development in prostate cancer screening, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This technology is playing an increasing role in assessing patients with early prostate cancer, including those with abnormal PSA levels prior to definitive interventions. MRI-based assessment has been shown to better distinguish between clinically significant and insignificant tumors than PSA testing alone. Preliminary data indicate that MRI can outperform PSA in the identification of patients with clinically significant prostate cancer.

The advent of multiparametric prostate MRI allows clinicians to now see cancers that are significant and life-threatening while at the same time avoiding the diagnosis of the insignificant ones and overtreatment. However, MRI utilization requires new expertise for the urologists who perform prostate biopsy as part of prostate cancer treatment decisions.

Tim Skene
Montreal, Quebec

MPD, Life, and the Universe

The Research Review “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe, and Everything?” by Robert Stern (January/February 2019) tarnishes the image of this magazine and skepticism.

While attempting to criticize an essay of the same title by me and others on scientificamerican.com, Stern admittedly fails to understand the essay or even discern what it does and doesn’t claim. For instance, he states—embarrassingly—that we illegitimately bring quantum physics into our argument, while the word quantum doesn’t even appear in our essay. He criticizes one of the papers we cite as being based on subjective claims, while somehow missing the point that the paper’s thrust is precisely the use of objective EEG measurements.

Most embarrassingly of all, Stern believes our central claim to be that having multiple personality disorder helps one understand life and the universe, and then dedicates most of his article to countering this straw man. It’s hard to see how any minimally attentive reader, who read beyond the title, could misinterpret our essay so pitifully. Our claim, of course, is that the observable psychological dynamics underlying a dissociative disorder can help a philosopher who studies the disorder tackle the so-called “decomposition problem” in philosophy of mind. The philosopher does not need to have the disorder himself to attain this insight.

Beyond a failure of skepticism, Stern’s article betrays an embarrassing lack of basic understanding of the issues addressed. Your magazine deserves better.

Bernardo Kastrup
Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Robert Stern replies:

It is true that I fail to understand Mr. Kastrup’s essay, but it is not for want of trying. Let me take his criticisms in order:

1. While the word quantum does not appear anywhere in his article, the tenth paragraph begins “Physical entities such as subatomic particles possess abstract relational properties, such as mass, spin, momentum, and charge.” Those are precisely the subjects of quantum physics, although I’m puzzled by the subsequent suggestions that “matter already has experience from the get-go,” and that “even subatomic particles possess some very simple form of consciousness.” Evidence, please?

2. The MPD patient with sighted and blind “alters” did not have an EEG; she had a Visually Evoked Potential (VEP) exam, testing the integrity of her visual system. The two exams are not the same. Dr. Strasburger, who performed the VEP, arrived at what appears to be an obvious diagnosis: psychogenic blindness.

3. VEPs are not objective, only suggestive. I can point Mr. Kastrup to several ophthalmology journal articles reporting the ease of dissimulating blindness during VEP exams by misdirecting attention, “front-focusing,” and even meditating. An EEG would have lessened those possibilities.

4. Psychological dynamics are not observable.

5. I can offer no defense for misinterpreting the article’s theme as having anything to do with MPD/dissociation other than to point out that with the title, the subheading, and eleven of the seventeen paragraphs discussing or referring directly to MPD/dissociation, it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

The IPCC Report

Amardeo Sarma’s dismissal of the IPCC’s reduced energy use scenarios (News and Comment, January/February 2019) appears to be based on two false assumptions: 1) Correlation is causal; and 2) a reduction in overall energy use implies a reduction in the energy use of developing countries.

People use energy for the services that it provides. It is the services, such as refrigeration or lighting, and not the energy use per se that drives development and provides for human welfare. Efficiency has improved dramatically for some end uses, and over 45 percent of the countries with a GDP (PPP) greater than the average had a declining energy use since 2006 (BP statistical review). This is despite the fact that the population increased in 70 percent of these countries. As population growth increasingly slows and technology spreads, more countries will be able to reduce energy use.

In 2017, the population of countries with above-average GDP (PPP) was only 25 percent of the world population, but their energy use was 58 percent of the total. A 1 percent drop in their energy use would balance a 1.4 percent increase elsewhere. This is not an easy goal, but it is probably more realistic than assuming that the people of the world have the will, money, expertise, and time to stave off global warming by building nuclear power plants.

Robert Clear
Berkeley, California

Amardeo Sarma replies:

Robert Clear is correct to point out that there is a huge potential in energy saving measures in high-income countries. Such savings are not going to be easy and will take decades. At the same time, there is no way a world population of ten billion is going to be able to use less energy than today. Realistically, even with energy savings, we would be looking at almost doubling today’s primary energy production.

Even if we were to maintain current levels of energy production globally, we would need to decarbonize our energy systems using all low-carbon energy sources available. It is not an option to use CO2-emitting fossil fuels such as natural gas as a backup. We do not have the luxury to leave out proven low-carbon options such as nuclear to come to net emissions that are close to zero within one or two decades.

Those Martian Canals Again

Please allow me to send a short comment regarding a previous letter published in Skeptical Inquirer, the letter “Those Illusory Canals” by Klaus R. Brasch (November/December 2018).

In the last paragraph, it says that “finally, it must be pointed out that not all the martian ‘canals’ were illusory, just not artificial.” The letter then makes reference to Valles Marineris, the giant canyon (or canal in the broad sense of that term) located near Mars’s equator.

However, it should be pointed out that if it was “observed” by Percival Lowell (or anybody else at the time) that finding would have been purely serendipitous because that feature is invisible to telescopes available at the time. Valles Marineris (the best case) was discovered in 1972 by the Mariner 9 spacecraft.

Manfred Cuntz
Department of Physics
University of Texas at Arlington

Klaus Brasch replies:

In his comments on my letter “Those Illusory Canals,” Manfred Cuntz states that it would have been impossible or purely serendipitous for Percival Lowell and others to see the giant Martian canyon, Valles Marineris, with any telescope available at the time. I must respectfully disagree. None other than noted planetary scientist William K. Hartmann makes the following statement in his book A Traveler’s Guide to Mars (Workman Publishing, 2003): “Proof that some of Schiaparelli’s and Lowell’s much-criticized canals were based on real features can be found in a Martian region known as Xanthe.”  

During favorable Martian oppositions, Valles Marineris can indeed be spotted in this region, even with larger amateur telescopes, as a dark albedo feature called Coprates in the pre-Mariner spacecraft days, lying just north of Solis Lacus (sometimes referred to as The Eye of Mars). It was also repeatedly photographed by astronomer Earl C. Slipher with the Lowell twenty-four-inch Clark refractor (see Mars: the Photographic Story, Sky Publishing Corp., 1962). Schiaparelli, using an 8.6-inch refractor at Brera Observatory in Milan, first noted and named this feature Agathodeamon in 1888. In 1909, using a much larger 32.6-inch refractor at Paris Observatory, legendary planetary observer E.M. Antoniadi also saw it but depicted it not as a typical “canal” but as a mottled, wider feature.

Part of the popular confusion about Lowell’s imaginary artificial canals is that he depicted them as very thin, linear features that, if real, were well beyond the resolving power of any Earth-based telescope. He and many others, however, also saw extended streaks and contrast features, probably due to wind-blown dust but also some larger Martian structures such as Valles Marineris.

Apology to James Alcock

I owe James Alcock an apology and a brief clarification. In my fervor to discredit organized religion (Letters, November/December 2018), I inadvertently misunderstood his stated premise (in his article “The God Engine,” September/October 2018). Supernatural belief is a natural consequence of normal cognitive development. Children at an early age, who are not concerned with mortality, do imagine—and believe—the existence of many things: the tooth fairy, gnomes, trolls, leprechauns, imaginary playmates, the Thing lurking in the closet, etc., etc., all supernatural beings. I just don’t connect this indisputable fact to the (to me) also indisputable fact that adult humans, unable to understand the mystery of death, have imagined and constructed a false narrative. I certainly do not believe that fear of death is the reason that humans believe in the supernatural, and I did not mean to imply that. Alcock is without question correct. I suppose it was the title of the article that got me started. When the subject of God and the baggage that accompanies it is raised, I bristle, and sometimes it causes my language to sound critical and combative, and I apologize for that too.

Gene White
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cold Fusion Thirty Years Later Reading the article “Cold Fusion: Thirty Years Later” (January/February 2019) reminded me of some interesting discussions that occurred at the time. In 1989, when Pons and Fleischmann made their announcement concerning “cold fusion,” the internet was still fairly new, but it did exist, and there were some early versions of …

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