Is there experimental evidence of CF?

Subpage of Steven Byrnes

Is there experimental evidence of CF?

This was a great question to ask, but it was not quite on point, because Cold fusion is undefined. He makes, at the beginning, many common — and misleading — assumptions. Here is his text:

I’ll kick off my new blog with an important question, a question that impacts whether this blog should exist in the first place: Is there experimental evidence of cold fusion? Here is my understanding, but this is all a bit new to me.

Cold fusion started with an experiment by Fleischmann and Pons. They did an electrochemistry experiment involving palladium and deuterium, and announced in 1989 that their apparatus produced excess heat (much more heat than could be accounted for by chemistry), and also signatures of nuclear reactions. Many labs immediately tried to reproduce these findings, and most failed, and it later emerged that those alleged signatures of nuclear reactions were misinterpreted. (Fleischmann and Pons are not nuclear physicists.)

The signatures they announced were unclear, and probably artifact. Yes, they were not nuclear physicists and they were not really ready to published, being pushed by circumstances. However, they were expert chemists, and the experiment they did looked simple, but was not. Most “immediate attempts” failed, foundering in lack of information. This story has been called the “scientific fiasco of the century,” by Huizenga, and it was. It took many months before positive confirmations appeared, and by then the rejection cascade was in full swing. They announced prematurely, and the death of cold fusion was likewise announced, at the very least, prematurely.

Over time, a consistent experimental picture developed, plus a host of other possible nuclear phenomena. Anyone approaching the field will be faced with a farrago of claims, with relatively little confirmed, and even less satisfactorily explained by theory.

Already here, the history becomes very contentious. For example, one of the groups that tried to reproduce the results was at MIT, and they said they couldn’t reproduce the heat signal. But in the cold fusion community, there’s a story that MIT actually did reproduce the heat signal, but reported to the contrary due to incompetence or fraud (allegedly to protect funding for the MIT plasma fusion program!).

People tell stories to explain what they do not understand. Yes, there was something away with the data presented by MIT, but it is very unlikely that they actually saw a significant heat signal, since they did not reach adequate loading, they were far from it, and they did not run the experiment for long enough to enter Pons-Fleischmann territory.

Conversely, the groups that claimed to successfully reproduce the results are accused by cold fusion skeptics of not actually doing so, again due to errors or fraud.

Fraud claims are relatively rare, but they did exist. None of them, with regard to major researchers, have ever been confirmed. There are issues about the meaning of “reproduce.” It became a huge mess.

Anyway, by 1991 or so, mainstream science and society had decided that there’s no such thing as cold fusion, but a small group of proponents continued to believe in it and study it.

How does “science” make decisions? Where was this “decision” made? And what is “cold fusion” that doesn’t exist? The 1989 DoE review was quite clear that it was not rejecting the possibility, only that the evidence, at that point — this was very early, actually rushed — was not convincing. And I agree with that. There were still far too many open questions.

And they still do to this day.

Byrnes follows the common trope that anyone studying cold fusion would be “believing in it,” and a “proponent.” It is essentially an assumption that the interest and approach is not scientific. Garbage in, garbage out. This could color everything he sees.

According to proponents, the subsequent decades of work have brought dramatically better experimental evidence of cold fusion, refined procedures, more consistent lines of evidence, and so on. The mainstream view is that this is the cozy consensus of true believers in a pseudoscience, egging each other on.

I am a proponent, an activist working for the facilitation of scientific research, following the scientific method, in which one attempts to prove oneself wrong. A far more consistent line of evidence developed in 1991. Later work confirmed it, and those familiar with the evidence do have a more coherent idea of what is happening with the Anomalous Heat Effect, as “cold fusion” is sometimes called. However, the evidence is not “dramatically better.” Just better, and the core work had been done by 1991.

That “mainstream view” is not scientific, it is not rooted in clear observation, it’s just an invented story, even though, like most such stories, it is not entirely wrong. Scientists, including those working on cold fusion, are human, and the invention of stories to provide meaning is a quintessential human activity.

Where do we find the “mainstream scientific view”? Byrnes appears to be quite fuzzy about it. I think he means “among me and my friends,” because there is an institution that reflects scientific views, and that is the journal system, and I counted, at one point, over twenty peer-reviewed reviews of the field that treated LENR as a reality, and almost nothing to the contrary. If the “mainstream view” is as clear as Byrnes thinks, something is quite odd.

Byrnes is actually accepting what Taubes has called a “rejection cascade.” That is a social phenomenon, not a scientific one, though scientists being human, such cascades arise in the sciences. Beliefs arise and are reinforced simply because people tend to follow each other. Byrnes seems to think that this happens with cold fusion “believers,” but it is actually a universal phenomenon, and much of the scientific method was designed to counter this.

It’s really hard to evaluate these decades of experiments, because pretty much all the mainstream subject-matter experts have long ago stopped criticizing specific experimental results and methods,

Unstated assumption: that the experts stopped criticizing and ignored the newer results or analyses. In fact, this is circular, because there are people who are experts by any normal definition, who are working with LENR. The assumption fuzzes over to assuming that physics expertise is superior to that in other fields, that the necessary expertise with “cold fusion” is physics, but cold fusion is, first and foremost, an experimental phenomenon. It is explaining it that may involve very sophisticated physics, not the reality or unreality of the effects.

and instead they just ignore the field entirely. I am very familiar with this dynamic, because sometimes I edit Wikipedia articles on all sorts of bizarre, obviously dumb fringe physics theories like this one, and it’s always really tricky because the only sources who ever mention these theories are their passionate advocates or inventors

Anyone who thinks this is the case with LENR should get out more. It is true that there is a relative paucity of critique. This is probably associated with ignorance of the material. Notice the definitive statement, self-certain and convinced:

“the only sources who ever mention these theories are their passionate advocates or inventors.”

That is radically in contradiction to my experience, if this is applied to LENR. Now, this was Byrnes first post, and he acknowledge being new to the field. Yet he entered without any sign that there might be something deficient with this story.

So in some cases, literally everyone who is most qualified on paper to discuss Theory X (having published about it etc.) is a passionate believer in Theory X … but Theory X is still super duper wrong and dumb.

He writes like a teenager. Some people are delayed developmentally. True?

So we can get the wrong answer by deferring to the subject matter experts. I’m not saying that cold fusion is necessarily following this dynamic, I’m just saying that this is a possibility to keep in mind.

Good. We need to be careful what we “keep in mind.” It can color what we see. Again, what is the “wrong answer”? He is ontologically naive, immature. What is the “subject matter”?

He does have a point, but it’s a quite dangerous one, because recognizing the possibility of error and bias by “subject matter experts” does not make it wise to casually -disregard the opinions of those with knowledge. Rather, we, with experience, learn to distinguish between what people know with clarity and certainty, i.e., what they have actually experienced, and how they interpret it, which can be radically colored by other than reality.

So anyway, you read this old version of the Wikipedia article written by a proponent, and it sounds like there’s overwhelming experimental evidence for cold fusion. But if you digging, everything is murky. Did “Mitsubishi Heavy Industries [observe],…in a spectacular series of experiments that have proved 100% repeatable, host metal transmutations”?

Color me appalled. Was that version of the article “written by a proponent”? Byrnes claims to have extensive wiki experience, I think, but he doesn’t give us diffs to support his claim. The version he points to was edited by Jed Rothwell, who might agree that he is a “proponent,” but Jed very quickly abandoned Wikipedia. Did he write what Byrnes claims? Jed is sometimes incautious. Unless that was a quote, it would be completely inappropriate in a Wikipedia article, through Wikipedia was still fairly new.

The actual text in that version:

Y. Iwamura et al. (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd) observed excess heat, gamma rays and later, in a spectacular series of experiments that have proved 100% repeatable, host metal transmutations. [18]

That was peacock language, and the source does not support the peacock.  Yes, Jed Rothwell added that.

Well, “100% repeatable” may be a stretch when a different group could not reproduce the results despite spending millions of dollars and working closely with MHI. I’m not siding with NRL or MHI here—I haven’t tried to evaluate the back-and-forth—I’m just saying that it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on, it’s not immediately clear who to trust, and nothing can be taken at face value.

So, Byrnes picks a snippet of text, poorly written, added to Wikipedia seven years before he is writing, which overstated a claim, which overstatement is not in the source. Yes, it is “hard to figure out what is going on” with cold fusion, but an examination would start by distinguishing experimental results from interpretations. I’ve met Iwamura (from MHI), but I don’t recall any specific conversations. I spent a fair amount of time with Kidwell, from NRL. Start by trusting that when they say they saw X, and X does not involve much interpretation, they saw X. What that *means* can be very complicated, and that source cited was a “primary source,” not to be used generally for Wikipedia articles, precisely because it has not been independently interpreted.

Everything can be taken at face value, no more but also no less. The “face” is actually seen. It’s a legal principle, “testimony is to be presumed true unless controverted.” I was originally very, very impressed by the Iwamura results. But that faded with time. The significance is entirely unclear.

Replication failure is very common in a field where there can be practically insane sensitivity to material conditions. It would seem that the Iwamura experiment would be replicable, as simple as it is. That can be quite incorrect. Yes, NRL failed to confirm, and I trust that the attempt was sincere and handled with skill. Whether it was enough skill, I don’t know. But Iwamura has also been replicated, as I recall.

And it doesn’t actually matter, with regard to the overall issue. We will be looking for what is *widely* confirmed, and what is not so confirmed is not necessarily wrong, merely not conclusive.

It seems that Byrnes is looking for something that doesn’t exist: an infallible source. Then, when it turns out that no source is infallible, he wants to reject all.

Are the theoretical and experimental questions really separate? The theoretical question is “is there a plausible physical mechanism for cold fusion?”

The questions must be separate, or an endless regress becomes possible. The first issue is what is observed, both adventitiously, and, more probatively, through controlled experiment. I.e., “what happens,” what are the observables and what has been observed. Cold fusion has never been “observed,” not directly. (I would allow cloud-chamber tracks as observations, though they still require interpretation, so hot fusion could be said to have been observed. Cold fusion is, by definition, not energetic and could not be observed that way.)

“Cold fusion” is itself an “explanation,” an attempt to make sense of what has been observed. It was unexpected. It was thought by Pons and Fleischmann that the Born-Oppenheimer approximation was not accurate under condensed matter conditions, but they also thought that the deviation would be below what could be observed, but they decided to look. That idea was not particularly radical. The reality that hit them when their experiment melted down then created, in their minds, a radical conclusion.

This is reported fact: they were expert chemists. There is chemical energy available in that setup, but not enough to cause the damage they saw, in their estimation. What does this prove? Not much. What it was, with obvious legitimacy, was a cause for further investigation.

Looking for a mechanism for “cold fusion” is just about guaranteed to create confusion, because cold fusion is not defined, but having some training in nuclear physics, Mr. Byrnes is likely to have a whole series of preconceptions to contend with. The first question must be “what has been observed?” Not, “how can we explain it.”

The experimental question is “is there experimental evidence for cold fusion?”

When researchers have dedicated themselves to that question they have mostly confused themselves and others. Rather, again, the experimental question is “what happens when we do X and Y? If we keep X and Y constant and vary Z, what happens?

As experimental data accumulates, then patterns appear and it becomes possible to make predictions. Sometimes. Not always. When we cannot make accurate predictions, we will say that we don’t understand the situation.

Many cold fusion proponents argue that these are independent questions.

Byrnes has not properly stated either question, in my view. He may have those questions and he has the right to define his own questions, but what is distinct (not exactly independent, there is an interplay) is observation and interpretation, and from interpretation, arises prediction, which then supports shifting conditions to create new observation. The foundation, our connection with reality, is observation.

For example, here is an anonymous comment in a 2006 argument on the wikipedia cold-fusion discussion page:

Arguing with ghosts. The comments there are appalling.

you also say “the most important fact about cold fusion is that it cannot work” – no, the most important fact about [cold fusion] is the experimental observation that it does work; the fact that conventional theory cannot explain why it works is purely incidental.

All this makes no sense if the terms are undefined. The person — I’d suspect a supporter of the idea that cold fusion is real — confuses the observation (anomalous heat and certain other effects, correlated) with an interpretation, that this is “cold fusion.”

The preceding claim that “it cannot work” refers to a specific interpretation of “cold fusion,” probably d-d fusion. Further, that “conventional theory cannot explain it” mistakes a past failure for a permanent condition. We do not know what is stated about convention theory and we could not know it. All we could know is that, by some standard, conventional theory has not explained it.

In other words, cold fusion is an experimental observation, and experiments are the ultimate arbiter of truth in physics, and if theorists cannot explain an experiment, then they should get to work finding a better theory.

There is a truth here. “Cold fusion” is a name for a set of experimental observations. Experiments could well be said to be the ultimate arbiter of truth in physics, but it would be more accurate to ascribe this role to prediction of experimental results.

This sounds very nice. It sounds like The Scientific Method like we all learned in school and read about in Karl Popper. Who could object to The Scientific Method?

Many do.

It sounds nice, but it’s wrong! It is rational to give experiments a complete veto over theory onlyif experimental results are always correct.

Byrnes falls into this heresy by confusing results with conclusions about them. It is true that sometimes observations are incorrect. We might read a number incorrectly, we make interpretive errors. But that is not the norm. It is never “rational” to give any a priori principle “complete veto” over anything. That’s a setup for failure, in fact.

Byrnes is correct to point out that there can be what we can call “experimental error.” This is really in the interpretation of results. We then, often, refer to human expertise. Were the results recorded by those with experience and scientific intention (which requires careful truthfulness)? If so, and if the results conflict with established ideas, what then?

The Scylla and Charibdys here is tossing the results and tossing the established ideas. Far more powerfully, we do neither. We suspend judgment and review both sides, and, when possible, design experiments to distinguish them further.

The history of cold fusion is full of experiments designed upon unwarranted assumptions. For example, if you look at the Britz database, you will see that experiments that set an upper limit on neutron radiation from “cold fusion experiments” was considered a “negative” result. Yet it is not controversial that these experiments produce practically no neutrons. This was considered reason to reject the observed anomaly (excess heat!), but it’s distinct and independent, it only shows that whatever the phenomenon is, it is not d-d fusion, which, I agree, is very, very unlikely to explain the FP Heat Effect.

(And as we approach reality, we do not focus first on what is “very, very unlikely.” We start with simplicity.)


That’s not the case! Sensors can be calibrated incorrectly. Procedures can be followed incorrectly. Results can be described and interpreted incorrectly. Experiments can be wrong for reasons that are extraordinarily subtle, reasons that are not understood for months, or years, or ever. This is not a nitpicking hypothetical, it is one of the most basic facts of life for everyone in experimental science and engineering.

Yes, but this is only an argument against a serious straw man, the assertion that experiment automatically trumps theory. It does, but only in a certain way, a way that fully considers the possibility of experimental error.

The elephant in the living room here is interpretation of experimental data.

Therefore it is not only extremely common in practice, but also entirely correct, to use theoretical physics to inform our guesses about which experimental results are trustworthy.

This is also true, but, again, can readily be applied in a harmful way. Anomalies (where results deviate from expectations) deserve more attention, not less. They are often the result of some kind of error, but they are also where the future might be found. What would be stupid is to reject successful theories based on a quick interpretation of experimental results, without testing the affair with controlled experiment.

Further, until the new possibility is actually understood to a level where it is better for prediction than existing theory, the existing theory remains the most useful *theory.*

The error that many complain about is a blanket and unexplained rejection of results based on theory. I.e., that enshrines theory as infallible, and, remember, contradiction is also an interpretation and can easily err.

In other words, we are doing a Bayesian analysis of what to believe, and both theoretical and experimental knowledge are legitimate inputs into this analysis.

This is little more than a rationalization of the fact that we do trust our experience, and do not give up what has worked for us for years in favor of some flash appearance of a contradiction. We merely, at best, suspect that something may need investigation, and whether or not we personally investigate is a complex issue. It might be sufficiently inconvenient that we don’t. That, by the way, is not “pseudoskepticism,” which is a failure to maintain a skeptical reserve about our own ideas. I may suspect my ideas and still stand on them, it turns out that the truth does not mind our skepticism. It may actually love it, if it is honest and not arrogant. Pseudoskepticism is typically arrogant.

(Example: Here is a link to a meta-analysis in support of parapsychology. Oh, you still don’t believe in parapsychology? Did you meticulously read that article and judge its methodological soundness on its own merits? Or did you rule it out based on prior expectations derived from theoretical physics?)

I have not looked yet. Is Byrne running an parapsychology scam here? I.e. using parapsychology as a poster boy for Bad Science? Parapsychology explicitly lives on the edge, it was designed for that, as the investigation of the claims of the paranormal, the paranormal being simply what is not (yet) explained (and with “psychology,” unexplained about the psyche, the mind). Parapsychology then gets confused with “belief” in such claims, but it is, in inception and by design, an investigational science.

Is anything unexplained? If we claim that there is no such thing as the paranormal, it is a corollary that we understand everything. And that’s arrogant!

(Note: If the previous paragraph doesn’t work for you because you really do believe in parapsychology, you’re definitely reading the wrong blog.)

What does it mean to “believe in parapsychology”? Is Byrnes claiming that parapsychology does not exist? My God, the man is confused.

The link is to a meta-analysis by Bem, a major figure in parapsychological research, highly controversial. What does Byrnes expect? What I’m suspecting is that this is a test of his readers. If they react with horror at the idea of “Feeling the future,” they are his kind of person.  I don’t react with horror at the idea, and routinely feel the future. What I don’t do is to interpret this as involving anything more non-physical than the mind itself, and we do not know the limits of what the mind can do. The “mind” is not well-defined. I have seen what certainly looked like telepathy, but which also could have been something I called “entrainment,” where two people, mutually connected through sensory pathways, behave as if being one mind. Is that possible?

(I have no doubt, but I do not seize on “possible interpretations” as being “truth.” I just know what I’ve seen. I also routinely see my own white blood cells and other unusual things that most people don’t notice.)

Finally, my answer to the question: Is there experimental evidence of cold fusion? Based on what I know so far (which isn’t very much!) my assessment is: There is enough experimental evidence of cold fusion to make it worthwhile to spend some time searching for a plausible theory of cold fusion … especially since this is the kind of thing I like doing for fun.

I think there is a Nobel Prize waiting for someone who actually identifies the mechanism. I also think that success at this is extraordinarily difficult, and will not come through more intensive *thinking* about it. We need much more data, and the successful theoretician will probably be involved in experimental design. Hagelstein has started to do that, and he may be making progress, or not.

But there is not SO much experimental evidence that I would believe in the existence of cold fusion without seeing such a theory!

The existence of what? Anomalous heat? Anomalous heat exists, there is no doubt about that, because “anomaly” is about what we don’t understand, and there has been such heat. The 2004 DoE review was evenly divided (9:9) on the issue of the heat, half considering the evidence for it “conclusive.” But that did not mean that they felt that the evidence for “cold fusion” was conclusive. And, in fact, I don’t think that what Byrnes calls “cold fusion” exists either. It is something else. In that review, a third of the reviewers though that the evidence for the heat being nuclear was “convincing” (1 of them) or “somewhat convincing” (about 5).

Now, if half think the evidence for something is conclusive, what do the other half think? The opposite, one might easily imagine, but that presumes a polarized “jury.” No, by 2004, the preponderance of the evidence was surely for the heat being real. If you are not convinced about the heat, you surely won’t be convinced it is nuclear in origin. So of those who thought the heat evidence was conclusive, two-thirds considered the evidence for a nuclear origin to be at least somewhat convincing.

And so, if we are interested, we may decide to actually look at the evidence. That review was shallow. They were presented with a pile of papers and we don’t know how many of them actually read the papers. (Many physicists, out of the box, so to speak, believe that they already understand “cold fusion,” it’s total BS, so why bother studying papers about BS?) There was only a one day session with the presenters. It would take amazing skill to present the evidence for cold fusion in one day, with no back-and-forth in the preparation of the report. The report was replete with major (and obvious) interpretive errors, the kind that happen when those who don’t understand something try to summarize it.

Still, I agree with the overall conclusion: no major program, but encouragement for continued research, “under existing programs.” I agree with the last part, except I would have asked for and promoted the creation of a “LENR desk” to monitor the field and develop expertise to vet research proposals, not to fund them, but to advise funding agencies. Much LENR research funding has been wasted. Basic issues go without investigation.

I would rather disbelieve even 100 independent cold-fusion experiments than throw out everything we know about quantum field theory and the Standard Model of Particle Physics, if that’s really the choice.

And it is easy to understand why. Those are extremely successful models. But who is asking you to throw them out? Yes, some “cold fusion proponents” have claimed that existing physics is wrong. I don’t think that, I merely think that it is incomplete in certain ways. I remember one thing directly from Feynman, that we cannot calculate the solid state, it was far to complex, the math is horrendous.

There is plenty of room for unexpected phenomena to be seen, without tossing out what is obviously of high utility.

(Whatever experimental evidence there might be for cold fusion, it’s absolutely dwarfed by the experimental evidence for our current best understanding of the laws of physics in general.)

The contradiction is in the eyes of some analysts. What “law of physics” does “cold fusion” violate? If we don’t know what “cold fusion” is, how could we derive a violation of law from it?

So that’s my motivation for starting this blog. Is there a plausible theory of cold fusion? Let’s find out! The journey begins…

“Plausibility” is also in the mind of the beholder. There is a lost performative, “plausible to whom?”

I know of one theory that impresses me with partial plausibility. It is not a complete theory, it does not explain everything. We will come to that. I don’t know, as I finish up this first post examination, if Byrnes has looked at it. Since he just might have the math chops to understand it (I can give a lay understanding about certain aspects that the theorist sometimes does not explain well, but that’s about it. The core theory is very much a set of calculations in quantum field theory, beyond my pay grade. But not necessarily beyond Byrnes. I’m looking forward to the possibilities.

Ontologically, there is substantial power in allowing contradictions to exist without insisting on resolving them. Often, they will naturally resolve in a way that takes us to a new level of understanding. This is about learning how the brain works.

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