TCS Daily

Science By Anecdote

By Eric Lindholm - October 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Anyone remember cold fusion?

At a March 1989 press conference, Professors Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced they had discovered a new form of energy generation, one that would usher in an era of limitless energy. Their technique, dubbed "cold fusion", involved electrolyzing heavy water with electrodes made of palladium and platinum, forcing the atoms together to release heat. If true, the deuterium duo had found the Holy Grail: a source of clean and abundant energy - an engine that runs on seawater.

The response was, pardon the pun, electrifying. Scientists who initially grumbled about Pons and Fleischmann circumventing the accepted practice of peer review plunged into the heavy water. Without a published paper for reference, chemists and physicists around the world cobbled together so-called "desktop reactors" based on the sketchy details of that initial press conference. Most of these experiments failed to produce energy. The ones that seemed to show evidence of fusion (e.g. detection of neutrons) were reported to packed university auditoriums. This "science through press conference" reached a fever pitch as positive results rolled in from Italy, Russia, Hungary, Texas A&M, and Georgia Tech, to name a few. The price of palladium rose 50% on the world commodity markets. Cold fusion made the covers of Time and Newsweek while U.S. News and World Report ran a story hailing "The Ultimate Power Trip". A world free of coal-fired and nuclear power plants, with energy for all, seemed within grasp.

A little more than a month later, cold fusion was dead. At a session of the American Physical Society in May 1989, a group of physicists from the California Institute of Technology dismantled cold fusion with cold reasoning and hard facts. Almost all of the researchers who reported energy generation retracted their reports (the others blamed "faulty equipment"). Research continues to this day, but for the most part the idea of room-temperature fusion has been relegated to the dustbin of science.

Still...there is something understandable about the irrational exuberance that propelled cold fusion onto the collective psyche. This was the "Big Idea", the breakthrough that would radically change the way we live and think about the world. The global economic and political ramifications of near-free energy are staggering. As a scientific triumph, it would make all other Nobel Prize-winning ideas pale in comparison. So scientists who desperately wanted to find evidence of cold fusion found it. Reporters who wanted the story of the century found that also.

If cold fusion is an object lesson in irrational hope, the level of discourse over global warming represents the model of irrational fear. Increasingly, the presumption of global warming by greenhouse gases is one that eschews methodical science for anecdotal evidence that appears on page one - the retraction appearing a week later on page 24. Al Gore and the Sierra Club believe what they want to believe while the press, searching for that world-shaking "Big Idea", follows along.

The standard scare behind global warming is the melting of the polar ice caps, so imagine the New York Times' glee when, in August 2000, some tourists spotted standing water near the North Pole. The first paragraph of the subsequent NYT article jumps right to the conclusion: "The North Pole is melting". One of the tourists, Dr. James J. McCarthy, who also happened to work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saw no room for argument: "There was a real sense of alarm. Global warming was real, and we were seeing its effect for the first time that far north." Very alarming...and very wrong. Standing water is common at the North Pole and the Times published a half-hearted correction on page D-3 ten days later. Never willing to let facts stand in the way of a good story, the New York Times ran a "Baked Alaska" story this summer complete with the now-standard reports of "melting permafrost." The Alaska Climate Research Center didn't mince words in response: "This statement is incorrect. The correct warming for Alaska is about 1/3 of the quoted amount..." that is, about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century instead of the Times' stated 7 degrees. Another grudging correction appeared in its wake.

Other anecdotal evidence abounds, from skinny polar bears to breakaway glaciers and rising floodwaters, and every hot day in California leads to an "A-ha!" response from environmentalists. But while carbon dioxide levels are indeed rising, one measurement of global warming hasn't budged for twenty years. If greenhouse gases are indeed causing warming, the evidence should have been noted in the troposphere where these gases collect; however, satellite data indicate and weather balloons confirm that the temperature of this layer has not changed. Surface temperature measurements by contrast have noted about a 1 degree Fahrenheit change over the past century. Unknown to anyone is to what extent this modest increase is the result of natural climate changes. Far from entering another "Medieval Climate Optimum" (when Greenland was green) for all we know we could be heading into another "Little Ice Age".

Global warming proponents will brook no debate. In a June 2002 New York Times opinion piece, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords opens: "It is already too late for the United States to lead the world in the fight against global warming." Al Gore, in the updated foreword to Earth in the Balance, intones: "Global warming is no longer a distant threat; it's as real, as clear and present an issue, with profound effects on people's lives, as war and peace or recession and poverty..." Fellow North Pole tourist Dr. Malcolm C. McKenna was quoted "Some folks who pooh-pooh global warming might wake up if shown that even the pole is beginning to melt..." Case closed.

Before we commit billions of dollars to a "remedy" such as the Kyoto treaty, we need to put aside this kind of overheated rhetoric. The global warming issue may be a source of purpose for the Greens; it probably sells newspapers. But "science by anecdote" is no better than "science by press conference" and neither is a replacement for the kind of rigorous, analytical review that put to rest the myth of cold fusion.



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