Cold fusion. The validity of extrasensory perception. The existence of alien life forms.
When scientists make these assertions—that they have found a way to generate energy through a tabletop nuclear reaction, or they’ve shown that humans can predict future events, or they’ve proven that alien life exists—they must expect to encounter skepticism. They are, after all, making extraordinary claims. Controversy is bound to follow.
Other scientists rightly approach these startling claims with caution, starting with the premise that, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is (too good to be true).” At the heart of the scientific method is the careful truth-testing of any hypothesis through an evaluation of the data, and the replication of the results from any experiments or tests. The scientific peer-review process asks disciplinary experts to consider the validity of the findings—ideally these reviewers are independent, open-minded, and able to reach objective conclusions.
Cold fusion and ESP violate what we currently know about the way the physical world works, so any claims are, by definition, extraordinary. While a case can be made that it’s likely other life forms are extant somewhere in the universe (based solely on the odds), having proof of their existence is another matter.
Signs of alien life?
The Fox News headline earlier this month certainly caught people’s attention: “Exclusive: NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite.” Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, claimed that he had found fossil evidence of bacterial life within a rare class of meteorites (CI1 carbonaceous chondrites) that have fallen to Earth. In an article in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology, Hoover described fracturing meteorite stones, examining them with an electron microscope, and finding fossilized remains of micro-organisms. While many of the micro-organisms looked like those found on Earth, some were unrecognizable, according to Hoover.
Hoover told Fox News that he interpreted his findings “as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet Earth.”
As could be expected, Hoover’s paper faced a skeptical reception, with some scientists wondering if the meteorite samples had been contaminated after falling to Earth, and whether what Hoover had uncovered were actually chance shapes or random mineral formations. Dr. David Marais, an astrobiologist with NASA’s AMES Research Center, noted that similar discoveries of fossilized life in meteors had not stood up under closer scrutiny. “It’s an extraordinary claim, and thus I’ll need extraordinary evidence.”
Astronomer Seth Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) told Space.com that Hoover hadn’t made a conclusive case. “If you look at the microscope photos, they are certainly suggestive—looking like photos made of various terrestrial bacteria. But then again, while intriguing, that’s hardly proof. If similarity in appearance were all it took to prove similarity in kind, then it would be pretty easy for me to demonstrate that there are big animals living in the sky, because I see clouds that look like them.”
Shostak added: “Sometimes scientific results are ambiguous, and are greeted with the common (and rather uninspiring) refrain that ‘more research is needed.’ That’s the case here. We need evidence from other approaches and from other researchers.”
Predicting the future?
Whether deserved or not, a researcher’s Ivy League background will often trigger public interest in his or her claims. Harvard professor John Mack once attracted attention for his research on claims of alien abductions. Princeton engineering dean Robert G. Jahn established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, which explored paranormal phenomena (primarily telekinesis and ESP), and sparked considerable controversy before it was shut down in 2007 by the university.
Now Cornell psychology professor (emeritus) Daryl J. Bem’s research purporting to show people accurately predicting random events, has generated significant media attention while being panned by many in the field.
In an article published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bem reported that some of his 1,000 test subjects were able to predict future events with more than 50 percent accuracy, with the odds strongly against the combined results being “merely chance coincidences or statistical flukes.” One of the experiments asked participants to guess behind which of two curtains a photograph might be hidden. New York Magazine provides an online version of the Bem precognition experiment here.
Critics of Bem’s paper note that initial attempts to replicate his experimental results have been unsuccessful, and that his study didn’t employ Bayesian statistical analysis, which would have assessed his findings against known probabilities.
In an article in the March/April 2011 edition of Skeptical Inquirer (“Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair“) psychology professor James Alcock sharply critiqued Bem’s paper: “Careful scrutiny of his report reveals serious flaws in procedure and analysis, rendering [his] interpretation untenable.”
Reconsidering cold fusion?
Another controversial scientific topic, cold fusion, recently resurfaced in the news. In January, Sergio Focardi, an Italian physicist and Andrea Rossi, an inventor, demonstrated a device that they said produces 12,400 watts of heat power for every 400 watts of input.
Clay Dillow of Popsci.com provided an explanation of cold fusion in layman’s terms: “Hypothetically (and broadly) speaking, the process involves fusing two smaller atomic nuclei together into a larger nucleus, a process that releases massive amounts of energy. If harnessed, cold fusion could provide cheap and nearly limitless energy with no radioactive byproduct or massive carbon emissions.”
Dillow added: “The problem is, they [Rossi and Focardi] haven’t provided any details on how the process works. After their paper was rejected by several peer reviewed scientific journals, it was published in the Journal of Nuclear Physics—an online journal apparently founded by Rossi and Focardi. Further, they say they can’t account for how the cold fusion is triggered, fostering deep skepticism from others in the scientific community.”
The credibility of research into cold fusion had suffered what appeared to be a critical blow some two decades ago. In 1999, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed that they had produced nuclear fusion at room temperature with a tabletop setup using palladium, deterium and an electric current. But scientific researchers could not replicate the Fleischmann–Pons results and cold fusion was labeled junk science.
The Focardi-Rossi announcement followed a recent resurgence of scientific interest in Italy, Israel, and the U.S. in cold fusion—now renamed “low energy nuclear reactions” (LENR) or “chemically assisted nuclear reactions” (CANR). As 60 Minutes reported in 2009, “[a]t least 20 labs working independently have published reports of excess heat – heat up to 25 times greater than the electricity going in.”
Yet skepticism from mainstream scientists persists. “I’m still waiting for the water heaters. I’m still waiting for the thing that will produce heat on demand,” American physicist Richard Garwin told 60 Minutes. “I require that you be able to make one of these things, replicate it, put it here. It heats up the cup of tea. I’ll drink the tea. Then you make me another cup of tea. And I’ll drink that too. That’s not it.”
Keeping an open mind
The scientific process should separate the good from the bad, exposing the half-baked and fraudulent, and leave us with the truth about a theory or claim. The model should be that espoused by medieval theologian Peter Abelard: “By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.”
This truth, however, should be seen as provisional. Why? This encourages the scientist—or any clear thinker—to continue to question received wisdom and perhaps arrive at a further breakthrough. As astronomer Phil Plait commented in a Discover magazine blog post about the potential for alien life on meteorites (which he doubts): “As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct.”
Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders