Monday, April 14, 2008

I don't understand it

It's not even "science," it's just common sense. Isn't it?

I have an aunt I dearly love (and I even like her, too!), so, in the interest of protecting the innocent, I won't use her name here; but, together with her husband, there's some mojo working there. 'nuff said for those who are au courant. Anyway, my poor, nameless aunt is constantly bombarded with e-mails of the spamish variety and she's gotten to the point where she sometimes uses me as her testbed of veracity for this crap when she can't find it herself on snopes. You know the stuff I'm talking about:

Microsoft will pay you $5 for every e-mail you send/forward/receive.

I am an important person in Gondwanaland and need *you* to help me move zillions of dollars and for your trouble you can keep a few-odd million.

A guy has invented a new way to combine hydrogen and oxygen and you can run your car 100 miles on one cup of water using his device attached to your engine.

Don't ever call the 809 area code; it's a trap.

The earth is less than 10,000 years old. Oh, wait. That one goes into my religious stupidities diatribe to be posted at some other time. Ignore it for now.

Anyway, you get the idea.

When she asks me about this sort of thing I usually send her some personal comments with a coupla links to a snopes article or a scientific refutation of the (idiotic) idea contained in the specific e-mail and then I forget about it. But I got to thinking about it the other day and the more I thought about it in general, the more it became for me an(other) indictment of our system of education. Kids are taught to listen, obey, memorize (seemingly random) facts, etc. and they are never taught to question or ask why. Or perhaps I should phrase that "they are taught to never question or ask why." There's a significant difference between those two phrases and I think the latter is, unfortunately, more accurate.

Kids certainly aren't taught logic, even in its basic forms, much less in any kind of rigorous way. Science is reduced to painful memorization of the aforementioned (seemingly random) factoids and the occasional lame-ass, meaningless, nonsensical lab experiment. Math… well, read my 3-part math rant on this blog or just take this guy's comments to heart:

I hope, in time, more emphasis will be put on the abstract side of mathematics. Drills contain no knowledge. At best, after sweating on multiple variations of the same basic exercise, we may come up with some general notion of what the exercise is about. At worst, the sweat and effort will be just lost while the fear of math will gain a stronger foothold in our consciousness. Moreover, if it's possible at all for a layman to acquire an appreciation of math, it's only possible through a consistent exposure to the beauty of math which, if anywhere, lies in the abstractedness and universality of mathematical concepts. Nonprofessionals may enjoy and appreciate both music and other arts without being apt to write music or paint a picture. There is no reason why more people couldn't be taught to enjoy and appreciate math beauty.

Math beauty, y'all. Believe it. It's true. I love the beauty of a fabulous work of fine art or a magnificent natural panorama or a dazzling, green-flash sunset; but the beauty of a scientific or math concept can be just as breathtaking. But I digress. How unusual.

Here's the thing. We have in the popular lexicon such concepts as:
TANSTAAFL. The wonderful pseudoGerman word which is actually an acronym - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see.
If you see the teeth of a lion, don't think he's smiling at you.
If it sounds too good to be true, [Completion of this sentence is left as an exercise for the student.]

So, why is it that we're soooooo ready to believe conmen who seek to fleece us with claims which are patently ridiculous? Are we really that greedy? Does greed trump common sense to such an extent that we're willing to throw dangerously large chunks of our income at these charlatans, despite our (hopefully) deep-seated knowledge that their concept is a complete scam? Or are we societally so deficit in knowledge, common sense, and logic that these claims actually do seem reasonable?

I hope that's not true but it certainly seems to be. Old time street conmen have always said that you can't cheat an honest man; they work with the greed in people. I can think of examples where that's not entirely true but it seems to be generally accurate.

Let's consider the $5/email spam. The spam says you'll get $5 from my delightful former boss billg for every email you send or forward. Really? Ya think? How is this *possibly* believable to anyone? Well, obviously it is because this stupid thing circulates with great regularity. Ok, so let's put aside the common sense that MS doesn't seem to have testers on the payroll and is willing to pay everybody in the freaking world $5 for each and every email as a test of something-or-other. Even if we accept that ridiculous premise, we then bump up against the second problem with this idea. I'm not asking for math geniuses here but, I mean, haven't people heard the parable of the grain and the chessboard? There's not enough money in the entire fucking world to make this kind of payout. Forget poor Bill and his mere billions.

That's blindingly obvious to me. Why isn't that the case for the unwashed proles who forward this crap? Well, again, that's how all those vile multi-level marketing things work and the con artists doing them rake in tons of cash on the backs of the math-ignorant savages beneath them in the pyramid. Sometimes they go to jail but they often simply melt away with their ill-gotten gains. Shameful. It's kinda like the old joke about the lottery: It's a tax on the math-impaired.

I sometimes cruelly feel that if you're so greedy as to fall for such a scheme, you deserve to lose your shirt. And home. And everything else of monetary value. Speaking of homes, a slightly parenthetical comment: If you're losing your home because you can't make your mortgage payment because you got one of those "fabulous" sub-prime deals and now your buzzards are coming home to roost, don't whine to me. Fuck you. You, too, *deserve* to lose everything. I do not want my tax dollars going to dig you out of your greed-driven jam.

The "important person in Gondwanaland needing to move lotsa money" is the online version of the pigeon drop. Again, greed trumps common sense but at least there's no bad science involved.

Ahhhh, and that brings me to the "scientific breakthrough" scams which violate basic laws of science but people still buy into them. Here's a hint: you CANNOT violate scientific law. It ain't like a speed limit law which you can break at will and simply pay a fine when caught. Not even the mighty and powerful state legislature of Indiana can square the circle or redefine pi.

Let's talk specifically about the laws of thermodynamics. They're always on the job. No excuses, no exceptions, no holidays, no workarounds. Yes, I include Maxwell's demon in that injunction, mischievous boy that he is! So, when somebody claims to have invented a new way of extracting/producing energy which gets more out of the system than is put in, he's full of shit. Period. If he tries to sell you a perpetual motion machine or a cheap device which changes water into seemingly-limitless power using your car battery, run! If you're too old or tired to run, well, at the very least, do NOT give him any of your hard-earned money.

It's not something which has been suppressed by "big oil" or the Illuminati and I'm pretty sure that the trilateral commission has clean hands when it comes to this one. These types of "scientific breakthroughs" are "suppressed" (NEGATED) by actual scientific laws. Sorry. Can water be used as a fuel or power source? Sure; but let's be precise about our use of terms here. Water injection into Otto cycle engines has been around for decades as an adjunct/assist to the "normal" gas/air combustion process. Water can even be the source material for a fuel cell. Remember, however, that we can NEVER violate the laws of thermodynamics. Any/all processes cost energy. And you can never get more energy out of a system than you put in. Never.

Even the chimera of cold fusion would not violate the laws of thermodynamics, although it would be a source of very efficient energy production. However, so far cold fusion efforts have done nothing but gain a reputation as pathological science. Remember the famous Mormon duo back around 1990? They fled to France in the early 90s after that debacle. Just like the water-as-cheap-fuel cons, they were not suppressed by "big oil," the Illuminati, or the jealous hot fusion hooligans. (Plasma! It's the actual fourth state of matter as opposed to pseudoscientific claims made by many conmen.) And I think the trilateral commission was on a break for that one. They were cons, perhaps self-deluded cons, who should have published in The Journal of Nonreproducible Results and who were "suppressed" (NEGATED) by actual scientific law. Sorry, Charlie. Or, in this case, sorry, Martin and Stanley.

Moral of this post? Jeeze! Do I gotta have a MORAL? Remember who you're talking to. Ok, hmmmmn, howzabout:

Think once in a while, fer Christ's sake!
Don't fuck with Science. You'll lose.
Fact-check before you reach for your checkbook.
Greed is bad.
Or maybe just: TANSTAAFL!

7 comments:

  1. Your statements about cold fusion are completely incorrect. It was replicated by hundreds of world-class laboratories, and published in about 1000 peer-reviewed journal papers. Also, Fleischmann and Pons are not Mormons and they did not flee. I suggest you learn something about cold fusion before commenting on it. See:

    http://www.lenr-canr.org

    - Jed Rothwell
    Librarian, LENR-CANR.org

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  2. Hello, Jed,

    Thanks for stopping by. Is it your job to scan the net, looking for comments about cold fusion? Being a cold fusion librarian probably doesn't exactly fill your day, huh?

    I certainly admit that I'm not a scientist; but in the context of this very post, do we need to be scientists or can we simply employ plain old common sense?

    So Fleischman and Pons are not personally Mormons. Ok, fine. They were working at the University of Utah, weren't they? You know, the university where archaeologists are still searching Mesoamerican tombs for a star of David? And they didn't "flee" to France, they just sought a better opportunity there, after making fools of themselves in the polygamous paradise by announcing "success" to the press without peer review of any kind. Ok, fine. You say their results are repeatable. After the UU announcement, there were a number of teams which sought to reproduce their results. They had no success. Not one of them. But you say cold fusion works and their, or someone's, experiments can be replicated.

    Great. I'd love to see cold fusion as a reality. When I can plug my microwave into the device from one of your hundreds of labs, lemme know. Ok?

    Hey, those experimenters you're talking about with those repeatable results aren't using polywater by any chance, are they? I believe there were hundreds of papers published in peer-reviewed journals about that fabulous stuff, too.

    Everybody sing along now with me and DJ-Junior Vanilla Vonnegut:

    Ice-9, baby! Ding-ding-ding-da-da-ding-ding.

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  3. One hint about why some people are more susceptible:

    http://health.msn.com/health-topics/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100200211

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  4. You wrote:

    "Thanks for stopping by. Is it your job to scan the net, looking for comments about cold fusion?"

    More a hobby.


    "Being a cold fusion librarian probably doesn't exactly fill your day, huh?"

    Well, I have uploaded 500 papers and I have a backlog of 1,200 others, plus a few hundred in Japanese. And I am getting ready to deal with ~100 boxes of papers and data that have recently become available in a special collection at U. Utah (mainly NCFI stuff), and the upcoming August conference in Washington DC, and the papers from the recent APS and ACS cold fusion sessions, plus I am renovating my back porch, so I have altogether too much to do, just now. It is nice to take a break from it.


    ". . . do we need to be scientists or can we simply employ plain old common sense?"

    To understand anything about cold fusion, you must read scientific papers. Common sense is never a useful guide to a scientific breakthrough. Common sense could not have predicted x-rays, radio, fission, special relativity or high temperature superconductivity, for example.


    "So Fleischman and Pons are not personally Mormons. Ok, fine. They were working at the University of Utah, weren't they?"

    No, Fleischmann was working at U. Southamton. He visited U. Utah from time to time.


    ". . .after making fools of themselves in the polygamous paradise by announcing 'success' to the press without peer review of any kind."

    Their paper was peer-reviewed and in print before the press conference. As I mentioned, the results were subsequently replicated thousands of times in hundreds of other labs, often at high signal to noise ratios. Replication is the only standard of truth in science.


    "Ok, fine. You say their results are repeatable. After the UU announcement, there were a number of teams which sought to reproduce their results. They had no success. Not one of them."

    That is incorrect, as I said. It is a matter of fact that ~3,000 researchers replicated. You can confirm this in any university library that carries journals of electrochemistry and nuclear physics. You repeatedly deny this, but facts are facts and you cannot change them by pretending they do not exist, or by refusing to read scientific papers.

    In point of fact, cold fusion was observed and published by other groups in the late 1920s and in the early 1980s. In that sense the effect was "reproduced" before F&P began. They were the first to do definitive, high-sigma experiments proving beyond doubt that it exists.


    "Great. I'd love to see cold fusion as a reality. When I can plug my microwave into the device from one of your hundreds of labs, lemme know. Ok?"

    Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) recently told me they expect cold fusion can be controlled and made into a practical source of energy for roughly $300 million. So you will have to wait until that kind of money is allocated.


    "Hey, those experimenters you're talking about with those repeatable results aren't using polywater by any chance, are they? I believe there were hundreds of papers published in peer-reviewed journals about that fabulous stuff, too."

    That is incorrect. I suggest you review the book F. Franks, "Polywater" (MIT Press). One lab tentatively reported one replication of polywater, but soon retracted. There were many papers reporting a failure to replicate, and many other discussing possible theories. As I recall there were around 200 papers in all. There are well over 3,000 papers on cold fusion, most of them describing successful replications.

    I suggest you learn something about polywater instead of blindly assuming that it somehow resembles cold fusion. In science, a person must read original sources and take care to get the facts right before reaching a conclusion. Also, I suggest you refrain from ridicule and ad hominem attacks on researchers such as Fleischmann and Pons. You only make yourself look bad. Also, you violate academic traditions and the spirit of open minded scientific research, which has brought more benefits to mankind than any other activity in history.

    - Jed Rothwell
    Librarian, LENR-CANR.org

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  5. Jed, I was impressed that you found me in the first place and actually took the time to write a comment. The fact that you came back a second time with a pointed and lengthy followup is amazing and definitely unprecedented for my little personal blog with an approximate readership of 101-110 people, if you're counting in binary.

    My first inclination was to continue to debate with you but then I thought of two significant things. First, I was indeed making fun of Fleischman, Pons, cold fusion researchers in general, and even you; and that wasn't very nice of me. Second, I don't really care about cold fusion. I merely mentioned it in a coupla lines as a throwaway joke in a lengthy post about spam, scams, and the gullibility of the American public.

    So, I'm not gonna rebut your comments; I'll just let you have the last word on this. Meanwhile, I'll continue with my regular activities and I'll keep half-an-eye on the Seattle paper for an ad from my local appliance store offering a great price on the all-new "Mr. Fusion."

    Good luck with that!

    Frank (I wonder if there's as much room for special equipment in my MR-2 engine bay as there is in a DeLorean?)

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  6. Ooh, that is a great math site. Do you remember where the quote came from specifically?

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  7. Hey, Linda,

    It's probably from the manifesto part of that site but I can't remember specifically.

    Did you see my reply to your comments about absolute zero et al. in a previous post?

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