History of Science

Controversy in Chemistry: How Do You Prove a Negative?—The Cases of Phlogiston and Cold Fusion**

Jay A. Labinger* and Stephen J. Weininger*


I think this article deserves a closer look. It relies heavily on Simon, a very good source. It's also possible to misinterpret Simon, I've seen that on Wikipedia.

For our second study we have again
chosen two stories that appear to be
about as disparate as one could possibly
arrange. One, the overthrow of the
theory of phlogiston, dates from the
origins of modern chemistry, and is now
universally considered a central development
therein. The other, the cold
fusion episode, is only 15 years old, and
is now generally (though by no means
universally) considered as just a stumble
in the long historical march of chemistry.
Why have we paired them? Because we
feel that, as with the previous study,
closer examination reveals certain connections
that are instructive for a general
understanding of how controversies play
out and, in doing so, serve as a powerful
engine for the advancement of science.
The question of what counts as evidence
is important here as well, but we will
focus in particular on the persistence of
belief, associated with the difficulty of
demonstrating the non-existence of a
theoretical or hypothetical entity.

This was written in 2004, before the DoE review came out, which they anticipate. Certainly it was true, then, and possibly now -- though far less clear -- that CF was considered a "stumble." In fact, don't we agree on that? We just have, perhaps, a different understanding of exactly what the stumble was. Many sources have, in fact, regretted what happened in 1989-1990, with even skeptics acknowledging that the reaction to CF was exaggerated and even "believers" acknowledging that Pons and Fleischmann had made mistakes. Nobody currently thinks that that first press conference was a great idea. But, seriously, were the attorney's wrong to insist upon it? Yes, it turned out to be an error, but based on the knowledge that they had at the time, was it? Pons and Fleischmann were hot on the trail of a tiger, and it looked like they might have it by the tail. But even though they saw the tiger, and were able to record some of its characteristics, it got away. The attention, however, caused many to start looking for tigers where nobody had looked before.

It's easy to imagine that the attorneys, and P&F, though that with more funding, which did arrive as a result of the announcement, they'd soon have the tiger in a cage. It was a gamble, in hindsight, and even when a gamble is a good bet, it's still a gamble and can fail.

I read this symmetrically, whether the authors intended that or not. The persistence of belief is a real phenomenon that affects scientists as well as others. Everyone, really, for persistence of belief is necessary to a degree. It is only when we lose context and mistake belief for evidence and proof that we go astray. Proofs are based on assumptions, and assumptions can be incorrect. Certainly that is what happened with cold fusion and the theory used to reject it. Theory was applied outside the realm where it was well-established, on the margins.

Imagine if somehow relativistic phenomena had been overlooked, so Newtonian mechanics reigned supreme. Then, as would be inevitable, eventually, some experiments moved into the realm where relativistic effects would be measurable. And it was found that measured acceleration no longer was equal to force divided by mass. It would be pointed out, it's easy to understand, that this violated the law of conservation of energy, a law that, by that time, would be thoroughly well-established. But it doesn't violate that law; the assumption of violation would be based on assumptions proceeding from experience at lower velocities.

It was known that quantum mechanics was an approximation, but had it been proven that the approximation was adequate to predict fusion cross-section under all the different possible conditions in condensed matter, which might involve configurations of matter not even contemplated? Had anyone ever calculated, using quantum field theory, what would happen under various conditions of confinement of multiple deuterons? I don't think that happened until the 1990s. And the results were different than expected, and confirmed, as a possibility, what Fleischmann had observed. This theory is still not demonstrated to be the mechanism behind cold fusion, but I raise it to show the reason why theory should lead to caution, but should not completely trump experiment, ever. The application of theories is based on assumptions, and we don't know what causes experimental results until we have much more information than we may initially have.

What P&F found looked, to them, like "deuterium fusion." But it did not have the stripes of that tiger. Even though, later, it was shown that the predominant ash was helium and the predominant fuel was deuterium, and the excess heat correlated well with that expected from the amount of ash generated, this still did not show that the actual mechanism was d-d fusion, and it's quite likely that it isn't. It is, quite possibly, something else, but by conservation of energy and mass-energy equivalence, if the input is deuterium and the output is helium, that heat ratio is required.

The mechanism, though, could make all the difference. Besides the Tetrahedral Symmetric Condensate theory of Takahashi, there are theories that involve other possibilities that would also take in deuterium and spit out helium. If, for example, deuterons, perhaps multiple deuterons, fuse with heavier nuclei that then decay through alpha emission, with that energy being dissipated either through electromagnetic radiation that ends up as heat (i.e., EUV that can't penetrate the cell confinement), or as the energy of the alphas, which will also end up as heat, we'd see the heat ratio, but not the radiation signature of d-d fusion.

And, of course, it remains possible that there is some mechanism whereby d-d fusion does occur, but special conditions, again unexpected, allow direct transfer of energy to the lattice and a different branching ratio.

Labinger and Weininger are correct: it is difficult or impossible to prove a negative. But it's also an error to imagine that scientists should be attempting to do so. Rather, the proper skeptical position, real skepticism, would not consider anything proven that hasn't been proven! Including the negative. Instead, the question asked would be different. Is there any reason to believe that this phenomenon is real? How reasonable, given all the evidence, is the hypothesis that the experimental results are artifact, perhaps amplified by publication bias, wishful thinking, or even fraud?

Skepticism, especially for those not familiar with the literature, is quite understandable. That scientists would not investigate, personally, every new claim is likewise reasonable. But there is a collective responsibility to remain open to revision of theory. When many researchers come with confirmations of a rejected claim, if nobody investigates, we have and a pretense of negative proof enthroned and in charge. And that is the end of science on the topic, it has become pure politics, pretending to be science.

Many scientists, indeed, understood this, hence the allowance of seminars on LENR at conferences. Even if only as some activity in a corner, the door was left open, at least in theory, and, to some degree, it obviously was open. The last several years have seen a major uptick in the number of papers being published by reputable journals, and in the quality of the work and the evidence presented.

Labinger and Weininger begin by examining the phlogiston theory and its advocates, with this remarkable comment:

Conants respectful treatment
of phlogiston and the phlogistonists was
entirely appropriate.

If they are making an analogy, how would this apply to cold fusion? Cold fusion researchers have been derided, have lost professional credibility and position and access to resources, and peer review was denied by editors based on "policy," or such peer review as there was, at many publications, was knee-jerk rejection and ridicule, many of these reviews have been published, and Simon covers some of this.

In describing the positions of "believers" and "skeptics," Labinger and Weinninger present the views as an impasse, but to do this, they must neglect or underemphasize aspects of both positions. They do acknowledge the problem: skeptics bring up the criticisms of 1989 as if they had never been answered, as if those "facts" and conclusions were unquestionably valid and accurate, such as the oft-repeated claim that effects disappear with increased accuracy of measurement. That's one of the Langmuir's characteristics of pseudoscience, so it is comforting to skeptics to believe that, even though there isn't serious evidence for it, i.e., disappearance of the effect simply with more accurate measurements, especially with regard to the excess heat effects, that has stood the test of time. The contrary hypothesis, that negative replications were simply failure to reproduce the necessary conditions (which were very poorly understood in 1989), is clearly just as reasonable, and Labinger and Weininger note this reasonableness.

Further, because an entirely new possibility was being considered, and the reality might turn out to be quite complex, with multiple possible reactions and secondary effects, the variation in results is not surprising. Early in the exploration of the western hemisphere, various explorers returned with descriptions of the lands found. Those descriptions did not always match each other. Did this mean that they were all mistakes? More likely, wasn't it, that they visited different parts of this new territory.

Nevertheless, the paucity of exact replications has been a problem in gaining respectability for the field. It's quite understandable, though. In the search for an amplified effect, the "working power generator" that some seem to think necessary, why bother repeating experiments that showed measurable but practically useless levels of reaction? Why not keep trying new approaches?

There is no money in replicating someone else's experiment, unless one is supported by grants or institutions, and that is exactly what was denied to the CF researchers. Both U.S. Department of Energy reviews recommended grants to investigate the obviously open questions, and in 2004, there is no doubt that this recommendation was sincere on the part of half, or more, of the reviewers. Yet no grants appeared. The work by the U.S. Naval Laboratory at San Diego, SPAWAR, was not funded by high-level appropriation; the researchers worked on their own time, and they were assisted by relatively small discretionary funding, as well as access to sophisticated and expensive equipment, as such a laboratory would have.

In addition, while the claim is not without any basis that "nobody has been able to reproduce the experiments" -- this still appears frequently in media stories -- that claim completely neglects that difficult experiments involving unknown conditions can still show confirmation and significant results through statistical analysis. Labinger and Weininger do obviously reognize the significance of the claim of heat-helium correlation. They don't seem to realize the depth of that claim, that it was not just one researcher; that several independent groups came up with the same results, within experimental error, is a stunning confirmation, requiring some serious contortions to attempt to explain it without LENR.

Overall, the article has a tenor of assumption that LENR is an error; however, they also recognize the problem, that this hasn't been proven. They focus on the impossibility of proof of a negative, but that is a bit of a red herring. Rather, positives can be proven, or at least covered by sufficient evidence to be conclusive. N-rays were not rejected because of proof that they did not exist, but by conclusive exposure of the error in the experiments which purported to show that they existed.

It's easy to understand why many think that this happened with cold fusion, because of the demonstration that Fleischmann's neutron results were erroneous. But errors happen in experiments, and that wasn't the original basis of Fleischmann's work. Once their suspicion that the excess heat they were measuring, in a significant fraction of their experiments, was nuclear in origin, of course they looked for neutrons, and when one looks and encounters an artifact that confirms the expectation, and publication is rushed, as it was, the artifact gets reported. But, while the calorimetry was criticized, those criticisms were often far from cogent and applicable, and, definitely, no "smoking gun" was found showing them to be, as well, artifact.

The apparent reality of the DoE recommendation in 2004: more attention was paid to a misunderstanding of the conclusions of that report than to the actual report. The report concluded that it's recommendations were "much the same" as in 1989, and, since we all know how negative the 1989 report was, it's easy to assume that they were confirming that earlier report. But the 2004 report and the 1989 report were like day and night, in fact, the similarity was only in the formal conclusion: no special federal program, but targeted funding to answer open questions. Excess heat was, apparently, was accepted as a real effect by exactly half of the reviewers. *One reviewer* changing his mind would have made excess heat a majority conclusion, and we could point out that there was likewise no majority for the view that it was error.

Now, if you don't believe that excess heat exists in these experiments, you certainly are not going to believe that its origin is nuclear. So we could assume that the half that rejected excess heat, considered there to be no conclusive evidence for it, would also reject a nuclear origin! Thus the statement of the report that one-third of the reviwers were "somewhat convinced" that the origin was nuclear means, in fact, that of those who recognized excess heat, the hypothesis that it is of nuclear origin was considered relatively strong.

Given the weakness of the process used in 2004, the clear errors made by one of the reviewers about heat/helium correlation, compounded by an even more serious error made by the summarizer in reporting this, that, thus, probably the strongest evidence for nuclear origin was not well considered, and that to understand this field seems to take months of work, reviewing thousands of documents, that the knee-jerk rejection of cold fusion clearly affected some of the reviewers, who showed no sign of actually considering the evidence, 2004 could be considered a turning point for cold fusion, in terms of acceptance.

But the misstatement of the results, so common, has made it seem otherwise. And that overall impression probably influenced reactions to funding applications. Labinger and Weininger come to this:

So there matters stand: no cold
fusion researcher has been able to dispel
the stigma of “pathological science” by
rigorously and reproducibly demonstrating
effects sufficiently large to exclude
the possibility of error (for example,
by constructing a working power
generator), nor does it seem possible to
conclude unequivocally that all the
apparently anomalous behavior can be
attributed to error. Under these circum-
stances, the DOE has decided to carry
out another review, which is underway
at the time of writing (summer 2004).
From the range of comments made in
response to that announcement,[51]
though, it seems most unlikely that their
report will settle matters ....

Now, they were incorrect about this. Effects sufficiently large to exclude error as a reasonable possibility were known well before 2004. While levels of heat and levels of helium were low in the Miles work and in that of others, they were large enough to be significant, and the *correlation* was far stronger as evidence. Labinger and Weininger do not seem to be aware that Miles' work was confirmed. Sure, details of the experiments differed. But the clustering of these results around the Q factor for deuterium -> helium was probably the major result that convinced me, and I assume it has had that effect on others. The neutrons from SPAWAR were frosting on that cake, full circle. Yes, Virginia, there are neutrons.

Probably from secondary reactions, not a signature of the primary reaction at all, but definitive evidence of nuclear reactions. We can argue, still about some of the SPAWAR findings, is that chemical damage or nuclear effect on the front of the CR-39, but the back side triple tracks and other clearly anomalous radiation, likely proton knock-ons, on the back, away from the cathode, consistent, well above background, over many experiments, that's another matter. I'm still concerned about the level of replication of this part of their results. Hence my own work. Unlike the Galileo project experimenters, I'm optimizing for neutron detection, forget the alphas or whatever it is on the front side. I'll confirm the patterns, I assume, i.e., I'll see something on the cathode side of my CR-39, but it won't be important. I'm adding detector stacks, not merely single detectors. If it's energetic neutrons, it should continue to produce results in subsequent layers.

I'm not trying to make a "working power generator." I'm reproducing the Galileo protocol, which is a SPAWAR protocol as far as the electrochemistry is concerned. I'm modifying it to make it smaller, to lower costs. That is, I'll be aiming for the same ratio of PdCl2 to gold wire, hence the same presumed thickness of deposit, and the same current densities, and the same LiCl concentration in the heavy water, as described in the detailed Galileo protocol. I'm standing on the backs of those who came before. And then, assuming it works, I'll sell the kits, that's how this is being funded. If it doesn't work, maybe I can sell the kits to Park or Close or one of them fine upstanding scientists.

But, first, I'll do as much as possible to get it to work, consulting with everyone willing to provide advice, fixing every possible error. I want a simple, reliable kit to demonstrate a simple, reliable indicator of nuclear reactions. It has to work not only for me, but for others, or this will be an exercise in futility.

*Then* people can start working on that power generator, it won't be me, I expect. Too much investment and too much risk involved. It might never happen. But until enough people recognize the possibility, for sure it won't happen.

Or maybe I'll prove that LENR is all a big mistake, or at least this part of the evidence for it. I rather doubt it, it's hard to conceive, at this point, of how that could be, but it would not be a bad outcome. Science is about reality, not about what we want or even expect.

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