Protecting the fringe allows the mainstream to breathe

Wikipedia is famously biased against fringe points of view or fringe science (and actually the bias can appear with any position considered “truth” by a majority or plurality faction). The pseudoskeptical faction there claims that there is no bias, but it’s quite clear that reliable sources exist, per Wikipedia definitions, that are excluded, and weaker sources “debunking” the fringe are allowed, plus if editors appears to be “fringe,” they are readily harassed and blocked or banned, whereas more egregious behavior, violating Wikipedia policies, is overlooked, if an editor is allied with the “skeptical” faction. Over time, the original Wikipedians, who actually supported Neutral Point of View policy, have substantially been marginalized and ignored, and the faction has become increasingly bold.

When I first confronted factional editing, before the Arbitration Committee in 2009, the faction was relatively weak. However, over the ensuing years, the debunkers organized, Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW) came into existence, and operates openly. People who come to Wikipedia to attempt to push toward neutrality (or toward “believer” positions) are sanctioned for treating Wikipedia as a battleground, but that is exactly what the skeptics have done, and the Guerrilla Skeptics (consider the name!) create a consistent push with a factional position.

There is increasing evidence of additional off-wiki coordination. It would actually be surprising if it did not exist, it can be difficult to detect. But we have an incident, now.

February 24, 2018 I was banned by the WikiMediaFoundation. There was no warning, and no explanation, and there is no appeal from a global ban. Why? To my knowledge, I did not violate the Terms of Service in any way. There was, however, at least one claim that I did, an allegation by a user that I had “harassed” him by email, the first of our emails was sent through the WMF servers, so if, in fact, that email was harassment, it would be a TOS violation, though a single violation, unless truly egregious, has never been known to result in a ban. I have published all the emails with that user here.

This much is known, however. One of those who claimed to have complained about me to the WMF posted a list of those complaining on the forum, Wikipedia Sucks. It is practically identical to the list I had inferred; it is, then, a convenient list of those who likely libelled me. However, I will be, ah, requesting the information from the WikiMedia Foundation.

Meanwhile, the purpose of this post is to consider the situation with fringe science and an encyclopedia project. First of all, what is fringe science?

The Wikipedia article, no surprise, is massively confused on this.


The term “fringe science” denotes unorthodox scientific theories and models. Persons who create fringe science may have employed the scientific method in their work, but their results are not accepted by the mainstream scientific community. Fringe science may be advocated by a scientist who has some recognition within the larger scientific community, but this is not always the case. Usually the evidence provided by fringe science is accepted only by a minority and is rejected by most experts.[citation needed]

Indeed, citation needed! Evidence is evidence, and is often confused with conclusions. Rejection of evidence is essentially a claim of fraud or reporting error, which is rare for professional scientists, because it can be career suicide. Rather, a scientist may discover an anomaly, au unexplained phenomenon, more precisely, unexplained results. Then a cause may be hypothesized. If this hypothesis is unexpected within existing scientific knowledge, yet the hypothesis is not yet confirmed independently, it may be “rejected” as premature or even wrong. If there are experts in the relevant field who accept it as possible and worthy of investigation, this then is “possible new science.” There may be experts who reject the new analysis, for various reasons, and we will look at a well-known example, “continental drift.”

There is no “journal of mainstream opinion,” but there are journals considered “mainstream.” The term “mainstream” is casually used by many authors without any clear definition. In my own work, I defined “mainstream journals” as journals acceptable as such by Dieter Britz, a skeptical electrochemist. As well, the issue of speciality arises. If there is an electrochemical anomaly discovered, heat the expert chemists cannot explain through chemistry, what is the relevant field of expertise. Often those who claim a field is “fringe” are referring to the opinions of those who are not expert in the directly relevant field, but whose expertise, perhaps, leads to conclusions that are, on the face, contradicted by evidence gathered with expertise other than in their field.

With “cold fusion,” named after a hypothesized source for anomalous heat,  in the Fleischmann-Pons Heat Effect,  (also found by many others), it was immediately assumed that the relevant field would be nuclear physics. It was also assumed that if “cold fusion” were real, it would overturn established physical theory. That was a blatant analytical error, because it assumed a specific model of the heat source, a specific mechanism, which was actually contradicted by the experimental evidence, most notably by the “dead graduate student effect.” If the FPHE were caused by the direct fusion of two deuterons to form helium, the third of Huizenga’s three “miracles,” if absent, would have generated fatal levels of gamma radiation. The second miracle was the reaction being guided in to the very rare helium branch, instead of there being fatal levels of neutron radiation, and the first would be the fusion itself. However, that first miracle would not contradict existing physics, because an unknown form of catalysis may exist, and one is already known, muon-catalyzed fusion.

Evidence is not provided by “fringe science.” It is provided by ordinary scientific study. In cargo cult science, ordinary thinking is worshipped as if conclusive, without the rigorous application of the scientific method. Real science is always open, no matter how well-established a theory. The existing theory may be incomplete. Ptolemaic astronomy provided a modal that was quite good at explaining the motions of planets. Ptolemaic astronomy passed into history when a simpler model was found.

Galileo’s observations were rejected because they contradicted certain beliefs.  The observations were evidence, and “contradiction” is an interpretation, not evidence in itself. (It is not uncommon for  apparently contradictory evidence to be later understood as indicating an underlying reality. But with Galileo, his very observations were rejected — I think, it would be interesting to study this in detail — and if he were lying, it would be a serious moral offense, actually heresy.

The boundary between fringe science and pseudoscience is disputed. The connotation of “fringe science” is that the enterprise is rational but is unlikely to produce good results for a variety of reasons, including incomplete or contradictory evidence.[7]

The “boundary question” is an aspect of the sociology of science. “Unlikely to produce good results,” first of all, creates a bias, where results are classified as “good” or “poor” or “wrong,” all of which moves away from evidence to opinion and interpretation. “Contradictory evidence,” then, suggests anomalies. “Contradiction” does not exist in nature. With cold fusion, an example is the neutron radiation issue. Theory would predict, for two-deuteron fusion, massive neutron radiation. So that Pons and Fleischmann reported neutron radiation, but at levels far, far below what would be expected for d-d fusion generating the reported heat, first of all, contradicted the d-d fusion theory, on theoretical grounds. They were quite aware of this, hence what they actually proposed in their first paper was not “d-d fusion” but an “unknown nuclear reaction.” That was largely ignored, so much noise was being made about “fusion,” it was practically a Perfect Storm.

Further, any substantial neutron radiation would be remarkable as a result from an electrochemical experiment. As came out rather rapidly, Pons and Fleischmann had erred. Later work that established an upper limit for neutron radiation was itself defective (the FP heat effect was very difficult to set up, and it was not enough to create an alleged “FP cell” and look for neutrons, because many such cells produce no measurable heat), but it is clear from later work that neutron generation, if it exists at all, is at extremely low levels, basically irrelevant to the main effect.

Such neutron findings were considered “negative” by Britz. In fact, all experimental findings contribute to knowledge; it became a well-established characteristic of the FP Heat Effect that it does not generate significant high-energy radiation, nor has the heat ever been correlated (across multiple experiments and by multiple independent groups) with any other nuclear product except helium. 

The term may be considered pejorative. For example, Lyell D. Henry Jr. wrote that, “fringe science [is] a term also suggesting kookiness.”[8] This characterization is perhaps inspired by the eccentric behavior of many researchers of the kind known colloquially (and with considerable historical precedent) as mad scientists.[9]

The term does suggest that. The looseness of the definition allows inclusion of many different findings and claims, which do include isolated and idiosyncratic ideas of so-called “mad scientists.” This is all pop science, complicated by the fact that some scientists age and suffer from forms of dementia. However, some highly successful scientists also move into a disregard of popular opinion, which can create an impression of “kookiness,” which is, after all, popular judgment and not objective. They may be willing to consider ideas rejected for social reasons by others.

Although most fringe science is rejected, the scientific community has come to accept some portions of it.[10] One example of such is plate tectonics, an idea which had its origin in the fringe science of continental drift and was rejected for decades.[11]

There are lost and crucial details. Rejected by whom, and when? The present tense is used, and this is common with the anti-fringe faction on Wikipedia. If something was rejected by some or by many, that condition is assumed to continee and is reported in the present tense, as as it were a continuing fact, when an author cannot do more than express an opinion about the future.  Now, plate tectonics is mentioned. “Continental drift” is called “fringe science,” even after it became widely accepted.

Wegener’s proposal of continental drift is a fascinating example. The Wikipedia article does not mention “fringe science.” The Wikipedia article is quite good, it seems to me. One particular snippet is of high interest:

David Attenborough, who attended university in the second half of the 1940s, recounted an incident illustrating its lack of acceptance then: “I once asked one of my lecturers why he was not talking to us about continental drift and I was told, sneeringly, that if I could prove there was a force that could move continents, then he might think about it. The idea was moonshine, I was informed.”[47]

As late as 1953 – just five years before Carey[48] introduced the theory of plate tectonics – the theory of continental drift was rejected by the physicist Scheidegger on the following grounds.[49]

That rejection was essentially pseudoskepticism and pseudoscientific. There was observation (experimental evidence) suggesting drift. The lack of explanatory theory is not evidence of anything other than possible ignorance. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The fact is that the continental drift hypothesis, as an explanation for the map appearance and fossil record, was not generally accepted. What shifted opinion was the appearance of a plausible theory. Worthy of note was how strongly the opinion of “impossible” was, such that “proof” was demanded. This is a sign of a fixed mind, not open to new ideas. The history of science is a long story of developing methods to overcome prejudice like that. This is a struggle between established belief and actual fact. Experimental evidence is fact. Such and such was observed, such and such was measured. These are truth, the best we have. It can turn out that recorded data was a result of artifact, and some records are incorrect, but that is relatively rare. Scientists are trained to record data accurately and to report it neutrally. Sometimes they fail, they are human. But science has the potential to grow beyond present limitations because of this habit.

Anomalies, observations that are not understood within existing scientific models, are indications that existing models are incomplete. Rejecting new data or analyses because they don’t fit existing models is circular. Rather, a far better understanding of this is that the evidence for a new idea has not risen to a level of detail, including controlled tests, to overcome standing ideas. Science, as a whole, properly remains agnostic. Proof is for math, not the rest of science. This does not require acceptance of new ideas until one is convinced by the preponderance of evidence. Pseudoskeptics often demand “proof.” “Extraordinary claims” require extraordinary evidence.” Yes, but what does that actually mean? What if there is “ordinary evidence?” What is the definition of an “extraordinary claim,” such that ordinary evidence is to be disregarded?

It’s subjective. It means nothing other than “surprising to me” — or to “us,” often defined to exclude anyone with a contrary opinion. For Wikipedia, peer-reviewed secondary source in a clearly mainstream journal is rejected because the author is allegedly a “believer.” That is editorial opinion, clearly not neutral. Back to the fringe science article:

The confusion between science and pseudoscience, between honest scientific error and genuine scientific discovery, is not new, and it is a permanent feature of the scientific landscape …. Acceptance of new science can come slowly.[12]

This was presented by formatting as a quotation, but was not attributed in the text. This should be “According to Michael W. Friedlander.” in his book on the topic, At the Fringes of Science (1005). He is very clear: there is no clear demarcation between “science” and “fringe science.”

Friedlander does cover cold fusion, to some degree. He hedges his comments. On page 1, “… after months of independent, costly, and exhaustive checks by hundreds of scientist around the world, the excitement over cold fusion cooled off, and the claim is probably destined to take its place alongside monopoles, N-rays, polywater, and other fly-by-night “discoveries” that flash across our scientific skies to end up as part of our folklore.”

He hedged with “probably.” On what evidence was he basing that assessment?  Cold fusion was not actually his primary investigation. On pp. 27-34, he reports the early days of the cold fusion fiasco, (with some errors), and doesn’t report on what came later. He doesn’t mention the later confirmations of the heat effect, nor the discovery of a nuclear product, published in 1993 in a mainstream journal (though announced in 1991, Huizenga covered it in 1993). He does not distinguish between the”fusion theory” and the actual report of anomalous heat by experts in heat measurement, not to mention the later discovery of a correlated nuclear product. He closes that section with:

To summarize briefly, the cold fusion “discovery” will surely be remembered as a striking example of how science should not be done. Taubes has compared “many of the proponents of cold fusion” to Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century scientist who “renounced a life of science for one of faith>” [Bad Science (1993), 92] The whole episode certainly illustrates the practical difficulty in implementing an innocuous-sounding “replication” and points to the need for full and open disclosure if there are to be meaningful tests and checks. It has also exposed some unfortunate professional sensitivities, jealousies, and resentments. At least to date, the exercise appears to be devoid of redeeming scientific value — but perhaps something may yet turn up as the few holdouts tenaciously pursue a theory as evasive as the Cheshire cat.

I agree with much of this, excepting his ignorance of results in the field, and his idea that what was to be pursued was a “theory.” No, what was needed was clear confirmation of the heat anomaly, then confirmation of the direct evidence that it was nuclear in nature (correlated helium!), and then far more intensive study of the effect itself, its conditions and other correlates and only then would a viable theory become likely.

Cold fusion was the “Scientific Fiasco of the Century” (Huizenga, 1992) It looks like Friendlander did not look at the second edition of Huizenga’s book, where he pointed to the amazing discovery of correlated helium. There was a problem in cold fusion research, that there were many “confirmations” of the heat effect, but they were not exact replications, mostly. Much of the rush to confirm — or disconfirm — was premature and focused on what was not present: “expected” nuclear products, i.e., neutrons. Tritium was confirmed but at very low levels and not correlated with heat (often the tritium studies were of cells where heat was not measured).

Nobody sane would argue that fringe claims should be “believed” without evidence, and where each individual draws the line on what level of evidence is necessary is a personal choice. It is offensive, however, when those who support a fringe claim are attacked and belittled and sometimes hounded. If fringe claims are to be rejected ipso facto, i.e., because they are considered fringe, the possibility of growth in scientific understanding is suppressed. This will be true even if most fringe claims ultimately disappear. Ordinary evidence showing some anomaly is just that, showing an anomaly. By definition, an anomaly indicates something is not understood.

With cold fusion, evidence for a heat anomaly accumulated, and because the conditions required to create the anomaly were very poorly understood, a “negative confirmation” was largely meaningless, indicating only that whatever approach was used did not generate the claimed effect, and it could have been understood that the claimed effect was not “fusion,” but anomalous heat. If the millions of dollars per month that the U.S. DoE was spending frantically in 1989 to test the claim had been understood that way, and if time had been allowed for confirmation to appear, it might not have been wasted.

As it is, Bayesian analysis of the major “negative confirmations” shows that with what became known later, those experiments could be strongly predicted to fail, they simply did not set up the conditions that became known as necessary. This was the result of a rush to judgment, pressure was put on the DoE to come up with quick answers, perhaps because the billion-dollar-per-year hot fusion effort was being, it was thought, threatened, with heavy political implications. Think of a billion dollars per year no longer being available for salaries for, say, plasma physicists.

However, though they were widely thought to have “rejected” cold fusion, the reality is that both U.S. DoE reviews were aware of the existence of evidence supporting the heat effect and its nuclear nature, and recommended further research to resolve open questions; in 2004, the 18-member panel was evenly divided on the heat question, with half considering the evidence to be conclusive and half not. Then on the issue of a nuclear origin, a third considered the evidence for a nuclear effect to be “conclusive or somewhat conclusive.”

The heat question has nothing to do with nuclear theory, but it is clear that some panel members rejected the heat evidence because of theory. The most recent major scientific work on cold fusion terms itself as a study of the Anomalous Heat Effect, and they are working on improving precision of heat and helium measurements.

If one does not accept the heat results, there would be no reason to accept nuclear evidence! So it is clear from the 2004 DoE review that cold fusion was, by then, moving into the mainstream, even though there was still rampant skepticism.

The rejection of cold fusion became an entrenched idea, an information cascade that, as is normal for such cascades, perpetuates itself, as scientists and others assume that was “everyone thinks” must be true.

In mainstream journals, publication of papers, and more significantly, reviews that accept the reality of the effect began increasing around 2005. There are no negative reviews that were more than a passing mention. What is missing is reviews in certain major journals that essentially promised to not publish on the topic, over a quarter-century ago.

One of the difficulties is that the basic research that shows, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the effect is real and nuclear in nature was all done more than a decade ago. It is old news, even though it was not widely reported. Hence my proposal, beginning quite a few years ago, was for replication of that work with increased precision, which is a classic measure of “pathological science.” Will the correlation decline or disappear with increased precision?

This is exactly the work that a genuine skeptic would want to see.

I have often written that genuine skepticism is essential to science. As well, those who will give new ideas or reported anomalies enough credence to support testing are also essential. Some of them will be accused of being “believers” or “proponents,” or even “diehards.”

The mainstream needs the fringes to be alive, in order to breathe and grow.

Diehard believers have hope, especially if they also trust reality. Diehard skeptics are simply dying.

(More accurately, “diehard skeptic” is an oxymoron. Such a person is a pseudoskeptic, a negative believer.)

Author: Abd ulRahman Lomax


9 thoughts on “Protecting the fringe allows the mainstream to breathe”

  1. Anomalies are fun. They tell us that the standard explanation isn’t quite right. Some people like to hold that the rules they know have always applied and will always apply, but the fringe pushes at the boundaries of what we “know” to be true. As you’ve noted, fringe ideas do move into mainstream once the evidence becomes irrefutable, but the expansion of our knowledge really happens at the fringes.

    An example of someone at the fringe would be John Goodenough, who gave us the Li-ion battery. His current project uses Lithium both sides of the barrier, and most people seem to think he’s crazy since that can’t work (standard half-reaction analysis shows no energy can be stored by ion movement). I’d however bet that someone with that much experience is probably right and has got the measurements correct, and that we’ll be using those batteries once the manufacturing is sorted out. Maybe worth noting that if you analyse a Lead-acid battery that way it can’t produce the voltage it actually does, either. It’s probably going to be a while until theory catches up with what Goodenough is doing experimentally.

    Another example of fringe science would be the EMDrive from Shawyer. An explanation for this can actually be found in standard theory, since the EM field can (and in fact must) carry momentum, and the light-speed related modifications to Newton’s laws in relation to coils and magnets have been known for a long time. Like LENR, though, it is considered to be against theory and that it can’t work, and the thrust is small enough to be dismissed as experimental error, and so until someone produces a large-enough force to be unmistakable it will probably remain fringe. Crackpot stuff.

    For LENR, the big problem is the technical difficulty of getting the experiment right, so that it can’t be easily demonstrated by someone trying to replicate it. The theoretical problem, where no-one knows why it happens, isn’t a major problem, since we can run a parallel with superconductivity where no-one knew why that happened for around 3 decades after it was experimentally proven. However, get a good refrigeration system and some Mercury and you can demonstrate that it happens experimentally even if you don’t know why. No such ease of showing LENR, where you’ll probably need to spend a year on preparations and get everything right to even have a chance of seeing a small amount of heat which (because of the lack of theory) can then be attacked by sceptics as being within experimental error. IMHO, people like Shanahan are putting forward even-less likely explanations for the heat measurements or the correlation of that heat with the Helium measurements than the obvious one that the heat and Helium are produced in the same reaction. Other simply imply that the measurements are wrong since LENR can’t happen, but don’t advance any alternative explanation for the correlation. At least Shanahan puts forward something that can be tested for and eliminated. It’s even possible that in some cases he has a point, and we need to check case-by-case to see if his ideas apply.

    It remains that getting finance for fringe science is going to be a little difficult. The failure rate will also be pretty high – most of the time standard mainstream science is that way because it works, and anomalies will quite often be found to be measurement errors where the methods used for detection have some susceptibilities that were previously unrecognised. For example, a Geiger counter tube can be fired by EMP as well as a charged particle, and the electronics used may also react to an EMP by showing a pulse where the tube didn’t actually fire. You can’t trust such a counter around sparks or high dI/dt. Getting the measurements reliable and where the central property to be measured is measured in multiple ways using different principles is very necessary. Lack of money at the fringe means that such overkill on measurement kit is unlikely to happen. The people working there will also need to largely self-finance so will likely be fairly old (retired or with sufficient security of tenure to do what they want). It’s unlikely to be someone young, since it takes a while to get the necessary resources and young people have other sinks for their money and time (family and housing, for a start).

    Plan B should produce solid data that can’t be denied, and this will hopefully thus move LENR into the mainstream (much the same as superconductivity) where the effect is known to happen even though why it happens is not. After a while of being an unexplained but real effect, someone will produce a theory that explains it, and thus the experiments can be optimised to produce more power. Such a theoretical breakthrough will likely be by someone fairly young, too, since they have less knowledge of what is impossible. It may be a long time before LENR is a useful power source, and that may not happen at all, but the theoretical explanation may lead to other important insights.

    1. Yes. The pseudoskeptics confuse a practical argument, an efficiency heuristic i.e. — the investigation of anomalies may be unlikely to generate useful results, therefore should be dismissed to conserve precious research funding — with reality arguments, and an understanding how diversity of interest and opinion is essential to to science, overall, (as it is to many areas of life). I do not argue for a massive research program at this point, but rather for relatively modest fundamental research to answer basic questions, which is the same as was the actual recommendation of the U.S. DoE. I designed Plan B for efficiency, to focus on the most basic issue, the reproducibility of the heat/helium ratio, and its value. This has something for everyone. A “skeptic” would want to know, with even more clarity than is possible at present, as to the correlation coefficient and the precision of the ratio, and a “believer” would want more precision in the value, because this is a theory-killer or could confirm some theories.
      In exploring the boundaries, what has not been explored before — in specific detail — there will be many possible artifacts and errors in interpretation. This characterizes, not :”Bad Science”, or “pathological science,” but ordinary science at the fringes of knowledge. As Bauer effectively points out, “pathological science” is not necessarily either scientific misconduct nor is it “pathological.” (That reference was in the Wikipedia pathological science article for a long time, but instead of presenting possible controversy, covered under peer review, the anti-pseudoscience faction removed that entirely, having banned others who might have objected. That article presents cold fusion as an example of “pathological science,” when sources are far more nuanced. For example, Bart Simon is quoted, but Simon is clear that there were pathologies in the rejection of cold fusion.
      The problem is not skepticism, per se, but what creates deception in the pursuit of “debunking.

      The next post in this series will explore Parapsychology, even though Parapsychology itself has nothing to do with cold fusion. Exploring how Parapsychology has been treated by pseudoskeptics, and how shallow understandings pervade the critique of Parapsychology — which is, by definition, a science (and “science” does not depend on practical utility for legitimacy) — confusing study with “belief” in some vague conclusions. I have no “belief” in the paranormal — the object of study for Parapsychology, with an implication that it has to do with the mind (“psyche”) — as something outside the “physical world,” because I know of no division between “physical” and “non-physical,” other than as a philosophical distinction between fact and interpretation or perception. Does the smile of the Mona Lisa exist, and if so, where? And how would we know? Does “meaning” exist? My ontology is my theology, there is only reality and patterns of interpretation, and interpretation is never reality other than the reality that we interpret, interpretations are either useful or not, as to predictive value or effect, not “true” or “false.”
      There are clearly some anomalies where, so far, at least, I have not seen demonstration of artifact. That does not prove anything other than ignorance, and we move beyond ignorance by acceptance of reality (and the reporting of observation and experimental results, as distinct from interpretation, are as close as we get to reality.) Debunkers actually deny reality, commonly with ad hominem and straw man arguments, as we will see.
      Debunking can look like skepticism, but is not.

      1. Abd – thanks, the Bauer article is very good. The reference to semiconductor development there is apposite, since I suspect that also applies to LENR. The extreme purity (by normal standards) of the semiconductor coupled with a precise level of a specified impurity is what gives the semiconductor the properties we need, and until this was understood and the right materials could be produced it was not possible to produce a replicable transistor. That is the reason that, a while back, I suggested that if samples of “Uncle Martin’s” samples of Pd alloy that worked well should be analysed as completely as possible to find out what exactly is in it and what the crystal structure is is multiple locations. There may well be clues there, especially when compared to the same analyses of Pd alloys that don’t produce heat/Helium. What is different?

        Paranormal research (the men who stared at goats) probably has to run under different rules than normal science. One assumption in normal science is that if one group can do something in one lab, then it must be able to be replicated by another group in another lab. This assumption may not be absolutely accurate anyway, since it is obvious that conditions in the second lab will not be identical. Gravitational force varies across the globe, air composition and pressure will vary, and there may be other variations in the locally-available materials that may be either below the threshold of measurement or not considered to be important. I recall one biological experiment where paper separators were used to produce routes for some bugs in one lab, where in the replication the bugs all died. It was found that the paper from the local trees in the second lab contained a substance poisonous to the bugs used…. Achieving a precise replication is actually impossible, and the question is whether the differences will be important or not. Still, in paranormal research you are looking for some response in people, who will not be replicable and may be fraudulent too. Looking at the work of Derren Brown, who has trained himself in reading microexpressions and makes a good living from “magic”, it may be that people give out far more information than is normally thought, and also that some people are sensitive to more environmental clues than we normally think as well. A sufficiently-sensitive magnetometer can probably detect an underground stream through the magnetic field differences, and since humans (along with other animals and birds) do have some magnetic field sensing (in humans it’s in the nose) then dowsing for water may be quite possible. Since dowsers are employed by hard-headed oil companies (and also water-companies trying to locate the leaks in their pipes) I would expect that the accountants have determined that they have a worthwhile improvement over pure chance.

        Debunking really means finding evidence of fraud or self-deception. N-rays and polywater were debunked despite the replications. As Feynman said, the easiest person to fool is yourself. We also know now that our impression of continuity in daily life is something that is created in our brains, and that it is quite easy to fool the brain into both seeing things that are not there and in not seeing things that are there. On this imperfect perception is built the profession of stage magic. From my experience, measurement kit can also be fooled into producing invalid results – maybe especially now that a lot of kit is digital. Not too long ago there was a spate of people taking digital photos of daily life and going “ooooh!” at the “orbs” that it showed – supposed to be some lumps of ectoplasm we don’t see with our eyes. Actually a pretty-normal result of lenses and imperfect blacking of the internals of the camera when there’s a light-source that is out-of-frame. Similarly, a digital ‘scope can show you a waveform that isn’t actually there if you have the settings wrong, and a digital meter can give you the wrong measurement. There are far more ways of getting a measurement wrong than right, and getting it right requires knowledge of the total measurement process and its limitations.

        As usual, therefore, sorting out the truth from the errors/fraud is going to be difficult. Where things get to be generally useful is when they will work anywhere for anyone. There are probably a lot of strange things left to find out that would appear to us like magic. Any sufficiently-advanced technology will seem magical, after all (A.C.Clarke). Some people approach the paranormal with belief, others with disbelief. I think both approaches are flawed, and try to approach the unusual with neither belief nor disbelief but instead trying to see what is actually happening.

        1. “Some people approach the paranormal with belief, others with disbelief. I think both approaches are flawed, and try to approach the unusual with neither belief nor disbelief but instead trying to see what is actually happening.”

          I agree. It is an individual choice whether or not to explore anomalies or to think “they may be making some mistake” — which can be a normal thought. However, as Garwin said in an interview with CBS, as I recall, “they must be making some mistake,” is a bridge too far. Perhaps some mistake is being made, but that is an untestable hypothesis, only specific mistakes might be testable. (i.e., pseudoskepticism is a form of pseudoscience, merely believing in established thinking or world-view, than in what is considered “woo.”)

          I’ve been rotting my brain with watching talks of some genuine scientists who have reviewed a ton of evidence and are convinced, apparently, that something is missing from the “materialist” conception of reality and the mind. While it is disturbing that they were declaring and agenda to “prove” that psi is real, which is a dangerous agenda to be avoided by scientists, in my opinion, I also must respect that they are human and we, humans, do have a tendency to “believe” our conclusions from decades of research. If they can still maintain at least a theoretical reserve, they can still produce useful research.

          The problem in most of what I’m seeing at this point is not that there is no anomaly, but that conclusions are drawn from the existence of anomalies that seem, to me, to be premature. But I am ignorant of the evidence compared to them. The problem with the debunking agenda is that it dismisses evidence and often declares “there is no evidence.” But there is evidence, and the real issue is weight. And evidence of what? Details matter.

          Where this relates to cold fusion is only that there are common pseudoskeptical activities, including some who will be deceptive (apparently willfully) in order to “prove” that “believers” are deluded or worse, frauds and charlatans. In the recent flap on Wikiversity, cold fusion was not the primary target, parapsychology was, but when I demonstrated — beyond a reasonable doubt — impersonation socking and a long-term agenda to attack the study of parapsychology, I became the enemy, and when I was threatened with attack if I didn’t back off, and I did not back off, retaliation began, including what was, at least loosely, an organized attack, with a half-dozen complaints made privately, and with a clueless administrator and a clueless WMF Office — or were they clueless? — the academic freedom of Wikiversity was demolished. The study of “fringe science” was explicitly prohibited by that administrator, on the argument that it was disruptive when, in fact, and especially with cold fusion, there had been no disruption. With parapsychology, the disruption had been periodic but still rare attacks on the educational resource — which was neutral by design — and on the primary student, through impersonation of him on Wikipedia.

          This was beyond the pale.

          1. Abd – until not too long ago, phenomena such as ball lightning were regarded as superstition and non-scientific. Woo. Only crackpots would consider any investigation, given that it was against theory and couldn’t really exist. These days it’s one of the techniques we are trying in order to achieve fusion. As such, if a scientist thinks there may be something real in the old wives’ tales and superstition, and that may be useful or interesting, I’d say go for it and see what can be found out.

            Psi events may have such reality, and I suspect we’ve all had the odd experiences we can’t explain. Our brains are however very good at seeing a pattern in random events, and this is a survival characteristic. Better to think there’s a bear in that bush and run than to not see the bear that’s actually there. The difficulty with odd events is that probability means that something that is possible will happen somewhere to somebody. The odds against winning the lottery are very much against an individual, yet someone often does win one. Much the same for being struck by lightning, and sometimes lightning can strike from a clear sky AFAIK. No wonder people thought there was some divine disapproval of the person thus struck….

            Skinner’s pigeons developed superstitions (see ) when faced with random deliveries of food. Various sportspeople have “lucky hats” or similar, or rituals to get them prepared. Maybe if I do the right dance and a headstand at the auspicious time it’ll be me that wins the lottery this week….

            It come down to “what are the odds” when we’re talking about anomalies. Also, have the odds been correctly calculated? Can we establish a causal connection between what we are doing and the effect, such that we can beat the odds reliably? People make a lot of money selling systems to win the lottery or the football pools, yet somehow they don’t make their money from actually winning that lottery. Somebody who really could predict the future of the stock market would soon have a massive fortune, and of course some do make a lot of money from either inside knowledge of company data before it’s made public or they already have enough money to be able to force a particular stock to gain or lose in the way desired.

            You normally won’t go far wrong when following established thinking. We do know what works and what causal relationships exist. There are some things established thinking misses, and there are some things that seem so obvious that established thinking hasn’t considered the limits of the known theories. Reminds me of Lord Kelvin’s statement around the turn of the 20th Century that all of physics was now known and the job of future physicists would be to measure things to more decimal places. Actually, the better you can measure things, the more anomalies you will find and thus show that the theory needed an overhaul.

            In trying to banish parapsychology the sceptics are basically saying “the science is settled, so we’re not allowing you to go there”. That’s short-sighted. A bit like saying that living in a cave and using a stick to hunt animals was good enough for our ancestors, so don’t bother testing hardening the point of that stick in the fire to see if it will work better.

            I read recently that a computer can recreate a picture of what someone is thinking by analysis of the surface potentials of the head using a cap with multiple skin-conductance pads. Telepathy is thus not logically impossible. If someone wants to investigate, and can get the finance privately, then we can look at the data they produce and decide as to whether it is rigorous enough to pass the smell test.

            It’s sad that this closed-minded attitude to parapsychology has spread over into LENR. It is against academic freedom, and thus blocks advances in general. We can’t predict what will result from a breakthrough in either subject. Of course, if it turns out to be a null result then the investigators will appear to have wasted their time and money, but there may still be some spin-offs from the techniques and instruments developed where we can’t predict the utility in future. Knowledge is rarely worthless, even if it’s the knowledge that x can’t happen.

            1. We never have proof that x can’t happen. We can have knowledge that x did not happen. With wide experience, we may consider that x is unlikely, even very unlikely, but … if x is impossible, there is zero experience with it. Therefore our impossibility proof is based on assumptions, for it takes assumptions to create predictability. An obvious one is that there is no critical condition that has not existed before — or hasn’t been observed, and we must, for the impossibility proof, assume that there is no such condition, that the condition itself is impossible, leading us to a regression.

              Much simpler: we don’t know everything. Nevertheless, we routinely predict the future without complete knowledge. More sophisticated analysis uses a priori Bayesian probabilities. How are these estimated? In the matters we are discussing, too often, they are pulled out of the dark place where we sit. This is brilliant: Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data:The Case of Psi: Comment on Bem (2011), Wagenmakers et al (2011).

              To return to Laplace’s principle, we feel the above reasons motivate us to assign our prior belief in precognition a number
              very close to zero. For illustrative purposes, let us set P(H1) = 10^20.

              It’s only “for illustrative purposes,” but the upshot of this is that

              1. Parapsychologists do not claim that precognition is “reliable,” only that it has improved hit rate by a statistically significant percentage. Jessica Utts, in a talk that I will probably reference, indicates an improvement in extensive testing from 25% (expectation by chance) to 33% (experimental “success,” and she claimed this was repeatable). Utts is a notable statistician who was retained by the SRI paranormal investigation for the U.S. government.
              2. A skeptic like Wagenmaker may be utterly convinced (“dead certain”) that precognition is impossible. I don’t have that level of certainty (10^20), rationally, about anything. After all, my mental machinery is not perfect and I could be hallucinating and the possibility of that is higher than that astronomical level. This is not skepticism, it is rigid belief in a particular model of reality.
              3. The paper turns this “failure” to overcome that a priori probability into “no evidence for psi”, as a page header, or more reasonable “no compelling evidence for psi,” specifically from the Bem report.
              4. Circumstantial evidence is used to support the idea that psi is impossible “because X would happen if it were possible.” Casinos would go bankrupt. Would they? If someone were able to improve roulette performance, they could win, but (1) it is unknown if casino conditions would allow the facility to function and (2) someone who has this ability would not necessarily over-use it, and there is already a game (blackjack) where systematic observation gives a small advantage to the player, and casinos watch for these and exclude them. (In the BEM work, a binary guess was right 53% of the time.)

              Some of the Wagenmaker et al paper raises issues worthy of consideration. The significance of the Bem data is not very strong, (say p = 0.05) hence the importance of replications, and that is difficult (if the mechanism is unknown, replication may depend on unknown factors). What the high Bayesian prior shows, however, is the intensity of materialistic belief.

              1. Abd – interesting stuff, and why these conversations continue. Food for thought. I vaguely understand the idea of Bayesian analysis, but it appears to start with a priori assignations of probabilities and to progress to try to show that those assumptions are correct. To start with an assumption of the proposition being true of only 1 in 10^20 (if I understand that correctly) seems to be an overwhelming certainty that I don’t have about anything. I wouldn’t even offer those odds on whether Conservation of Energy is perfectly true.

                Casinos and betting shops block “lucky” people from betting. They employ cartoonists to draw pictures of such suspected cheats and pass them around between themselves so that such people are effectively barred from playing. Get banned from one casino and you’re effectively banned from all of them. Computer analysis of the speed of the wheel and the ball can predict where the ball will drop on a roulette wheel, and in the period between the roulette wheel and ball being set in motion and the croupier saying “Rien, ne va plus!”, a computer-assisted player can predict the slot the ball will fall into with far better accuracy. It’s thus reasonable to suppose that a person with advanced-enough skills can also do this (let’s say “Rain Man”) as well. Such a person would be banned from playing Roulette, and of course the little cameras and computer connections are also banned. Likewise, professional gamblers on horse-races, who spend their lives reading form-books to improve their chance of winning, have to make their bets through a third party.

                In sport, “unusual” bets get investigated, too. If you bet on a certain bowler bowling a no-ball in the 4th ball of his fifth over (and if there are such bets from all over the world on that match) then it would be suspected that the player has been bought. A pakistani cricketer was thus banned from competition. A lot of such strange bets have come to light in the news, from a footballer being booked for a foul or the goalie eating a meat pie during the match. Match-fixing (as well as timed infractions of the rules where the event can be betted on) is pretty rife.

                Basically, you can’t really use commercial games of chance as a measure of psi abilities, since anyone achieving significantly better than the standard chance will be excluded from them. It’s business.

                In investigations of psi, the outcomes for the subject are not important in a personal way. If the psi ability exists, it would be reasonable to think that it would only surface when the outcome is important to the participant. I can’t see anyone finding it important if a picture appears on the left or right of a screen, after all. If the participant had to choose between sitting in one chair or the other one, and one chair had a spring-loaded dagger in it and the other didn’t, we might see some differences in which chair was chosen. It might be difficult to get people to volunteer for that experiment, though…. A long time ago I read of a statistical analysis of plane crashes, where a significant number of people missed being onboard through being late to arrive at boarding. Planes that crashed had more empty seats than expected. This may or may not be true when analysed by someone else, of course – statistics can be fudged and mis-applied.

                The personal anecdote, which leads me to leave such things as possible: back in 1979 my wife and I were driving back home to Bristol on a dark winter’s evening. I felt there was danger up ahead, and though I’d normally dismiss intuition this was very strong and my wife felt it too. We thus stopped at a layby, and after somewhat less than a minute the feeling passed and we carried on. We shortly came to a roundabout and a cyclist passed in front of us riding fast with no lights and dark clothing. We figured that if we hadn’t delayed that half-minute or so it’s possible we’d have hit him. Pretty skinny evidence when it’s written out. Still, largely because of that I don’t write off precognition as impossible. Or would that be telepathy, where the cyclist was projecting his wish to get where he was going? These days, I note that occasionally there are days when more people than usual drive in a dangerous or unpredictable fashion, and at those times I’m a lot more careful in leaving space for those errors and drive somewhat more slowly.

                If precognition exists, it’s likely to be a survival characteristic, and thus the outcomes of the test have to actually matter. It’s thus likely that the standard tests (will I flash up a square or a circle on the next card?) won’t find a result anyway. The record of lottery-winners (where the results are as near random as technically possible) shows that prediction of a random number is most likely not possible. Other things in life are however not actually random. The bear in the woods may project some evidence of his presence if you have the right ways of measurement. The earthquake or tsunami may have precursors that could be measured. Are we subliminally aware of more than we think? Is there some environmental change we are not measuring affecting the attitudes of a large number of people, such that people are less careful some days rather than others?

                It seems likely that paranormal investigators will tend to confirm their initial leanings, whether those are for or against the proposition that such abilities exist. Setting up the experimental conditions, or what data you collect and analyse, is not a random process. It’s hard to avoid the biases. One interesting experiment maybe still in progress (despite being 2008-2011) is on the “near-death” experience, where people who flatline during an operation claim to be looking down on their bodies on the operating table. In order to find out whether this is real, some operating theatres have placed pictures on top of the cupboards in those theatres, which cannot be seen by a standing person. If the people who recover from flatlining can describe what’s on the pictures, then you have some real evidence. AFAIK there have been no successes with that, since it would be headline news. I’ve just searched this, and it looks like the data is in: . Good idea, didn’t pan out…. On the other hand, there’s from someone who says that although the experience is real the test will fail, since it’s testing the wrong things. Again, there are people who believe and people who disbelieve, and any available evidence will be accepted or rejected on that basis.

                Based on Randi’s million dollars remaining unclaimed, I’d suspect that spoon-bending and telekinesis are likely fraudulent. There may however be situations where the unexplained happens in uncontrolled circumstances, where the only thing we can really say is that in an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen sometime. How can we precisely and logically specify the odds on something happening where in truth we expect it to not happen at all given our standard theory?

                1. I prefer a model of the universe where it is what it is, neither “physical” nor “nonphysical.” Two separate universes only interacting in some weird way seems unlikely to me. My stand in general is to avoid fixed interpretations and keep my eyes open, because I know that when we observe with less interpretation, our ability to understand rises. This is simply a life skill.

                  The high Bayesian prior against psi creates a situation where no evidence would suffice. Wagenmaker seems to think that with more trials, the statistical evidence could rise above the 10^20 prior, and it could. However, the problem is “what is the probability of some unknown systematic artifact.” Someone who believes that psi is impossible will simply fall back on that possibility. Or, say, fraud. I’d think the possibility of fraud with even a reputable scientist would be better than one in a billion. That’s far lower than 10^20.

                  This was an abuse of Bayesian statistics. I intend to look more at the work of Jessica Utts, the prominent statistician, who became convinced that there is some anomaly, not just mistakes. Anomalies indicate something missing in our understanding. I don’t think that understanding is created by giving something a name, like “psi.” (That is little better than “Goddidit” as an explanation for anything. The finger pointing at the Moon, which is what words are, does not explain anything, but it does have an effect on how we think. It opens observation which is where real understanding (beyond words) can arise. Sometimes, that is, when observation becomes verifiable prediction, confirmed when verified.

                  1. Abd – that is a very Zen attitude. I try to do the same and examine my basic assumptions and axioms to see if they are reasonable, defensible and correct. This has led to some surprising (for me) ideas.

                    The probability of some unknown systematic artifact cannot be reasonably estimated. If such a number is plucked out of thin air, then the rest of the calculations are based on an unverified assumption and are necessarily invalid. For psi, there are a lot of examples of fraud, and the way the brain builds an impression of reality from insufficient data can be utilised to fool people into seeing (or not seeing) what the practitioner desires. Proceeding from “there’s a lot of fraud” to “it’s all fraud” is however dumping the baby with the bathwater. I’ve seen that Derren Brown does things that appear supernormal, yet he explains it by precise observation and manipulation of peoples’ perceptions – someone with his skills could pretend to genuine supernormal abilities and not be found out. Faced with something that seems to be anomalous or supernormal, it probably helps to have a skilled stage magician available.

                    Quantum physics tells us that the whole universe is connected. It’s thus not unreasonable to speculate that action in one place can affect action in another place. There’s been speculation that the brain is some sort of quantum computer, too, since given the available clock-rate it seems to be far beyond a Silicon computer’s capabilities. If those two ideas are correct, then telepathy should be possible, and can’t be given a priori a very low probability. Much the same for telekinesis, on a logical basis, maybe especially since we can now use laser-beams to push and pull items. Spoon-bending would imply control of the movement of crystal dislocations, which are often moving anyway and require little energy to move, so again if we specify that telekinesis is not impossible, then spoon-bending may be possible too even though AFAIK all extant examples have been fraud. A few decades ago, cast steel beams were subjected to prolonged hammering to relieve stress by moving the dislocations around to where they didn’t cause a problem; these days it’s done with ultrasonics. The physics of materials is far more complex than it looks.

                    I’m looking forward to your article on anomalies. Though this isn’t an area I’m going to work in, it’s still fascinating to see other possibilities.

Leave a Reply