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On the Question of Scientific Proof
By Charles G. Beaudette

Back to Science Philosophy and Science Journalism


Excerpt from Excess Heat & Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed (2nd Edition)

Proof (Chapter 1, p. 14)

Scientists on all sides desire a final resolution of this matter. The wish for proof is universally enticing. (By proof, I mean measurements that to a chemist or physicist are irrefutable.)

Consider for a moment that atomic and subatomic particles are intrinsically perfect. Experiments with them were often done in a high-vacuum chamber where the environment was also quite simple and even perfect. This level of perfection in the experimental system enabled the devising of definitive experiments that forced nature to reveal some of her innermost secrets. Nuclear physicists became accustomed to achieving proof. In fact, they demanded much more than proof, as is shown in the strict criterion of Chapter 11, p. 155. Mathematicians working with perfect numbers, perfect geometry, and perfect logic likewise learned to routinely require proof.

Most scientists, however, made progress with mere experimental outcomes, devoid of clear-cut proof. For much of science, proof appeared over time as an overwhelming aggregation of evidence. In this narrative, the question to be answered was whether anomalous power existed in the Fleischmann anomalous power and Pons experiment. The answer was sought after, even though it may not have been available then through an absolute proof. If no method of proof was accessible at the time, an insistence on proof would serve only to force a false-negative result. (“False negative” means a negative answer that is at the same time a wrong answer.) That possibility needed to be limited in the same way that the likelihood of reaching a false-positive conclusion was also deliberately limited. Mere evidence would have to do if the possibility of a false-negative outcome were to be constrained.

I examined the body of research papers on anomalous power. Surprisingly, the presentation of it to the public was uncharted territory considering the books that had been written on the cold fusion episode. The well-charted part consisted of nuclear physics as expressed in several critical books that were devoted almost entirely to that subject. They included no examples of excess heat data, and, astonishingly enough, no bibliography leading to such examples. A principal theme of this narrative is that the several arguments offered against the significance of anomalous power measurements were either unsupported by data, contained mistaken assumptions, or involved a corruption of protocol.

The Strict Criterion (Chapter 11, p. 155)

Taken as a group, the American nuclear physicists during the second half of the twentieth century looked upon the discipline of nuclear science as the epitome of American science. That attitude was derived not only from decades of magnificent discovery, but from its successful application to weapons and energy generation, all of which resulted in the ascendancy of the nuclear physicist in the ranks of government as described in the opening of Chapter 5. From that high place, the nuclear physicist came to realize that he was congenitally ordained to lord over American science. While, at the knee of his mentor, he had learned that the definition of science for nuclear science was the definition for all the disciplines. Woe unto the innocent who imagined that the many disciplines of science stood on equal footing with one another. That definition of what constitutes science was specified in the following protocol. I refer to it as the “strict criterion.”

"Science is concerned with the results of experiments. For a result to be of interest to science, it must be reproducible. Furthermore, its reproducibility is only of interest if it is the result of identical experiments. Both the result and the experiment causing it must be identical as well as reproducible. The experiment must be precisely defined by an instruction set. The set must come from the source that claims the discovery."

The demand for proof that was discussed in the first chapter (p. 14) appears now in this strict format. Interestingly enough, it demands a great deal more than proof. It requires that the proof be acquired in accordance with a strict procedure. Thus, within this protocol there existed science; outside of it there was only the void. (There is also a concern that this protocol might have a propensity to propagate error. If there is embedded in the instruction set an original error, then each laboratory that supposedly was corroborating the result would do so by reproducing that original error.)

Some astronomical observations, because they are not the result of an experiment, may be given a sliver of scientific existence just short of oblivion, but nothing more. The protocol, as expressed, was not meant to be limited to the field of nuclear physics. It was applied, when provoked, to any discipline of science. The strict criterion was clearly the product of a mature discipline in which the criteria have been notched up tighter and tighter over many decades.

Imagine that an astronomer spots a large asteroid and computes that it will soon collide with the Earth. Other astronomers are alerted who also see it and they too compute that it is scheduled to hit the Earth. A nuclear scientist is consulted about the possible use of a nuclear explosive to ward the asteroid off its trajectory. Not to worry, comes the reply, because science does not know of any asteroid threatening the Earth. A search has determined that no experiment was performed which resulted in an asteroid coming towards the Earth. Even if there were such an experiment, it has not been shown to be reproducible. Nor has the asteroid been shown to follow an instruction set prepared by the discoverer. Therefore, science does not know of any asteroid menace to the Earth. Such is the logic of the strict criterion: much if not most of reality resides outside its circumference.