Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion, by Bart Simon
ISBN 0-8135-3154-3, $22.00 Paperback, 252 pp.
Rutgers University Press, 2002
Review by Eugene F. Mallove
from Infinite Energy #50, July/August 2003

Unlike the handful of books that dissect the cold fusion controversy from a detailed historical or scientific perspective1-5—and which conclude whether cold fusion/LENR investigations represent evidence of a major new physical reality or are merely “pathological science”—sociologist of science Bart Simon’s Undead Science focuses primarily on the sociology of the cold fusion controversy. In that sense the book represents a kind of mid-ground between the advocates and antagonists in the cold fusion war. Some cold fusion proponents have welcomed this book as a good opening to the Science and Technology Studies (STS) academic community, and perhaps to a wider audience of scientists and laypersons. I think they have a very wrong idea. This book will gain few friends for cold fusion research. The book is simply a waste of time. It is junk sociology based on a poor understanding of science and its controversies.

Undead Science may cause a stir within the STS community, because most of these sociology of science folks appear to be blissfully unaware that there is a large body of cross-correlated experimental evidence that confirms the reality of large energy magnitude excess heat and nuclear effects in novel hydrogen systems. One might excuse this, since some of the sociologists of science I have encountered—including Simon, who extensively interviewed me and others for his book—evidently lack the scientific skills to begin to grasp this prospect. Their fall-back position is simply to study the dynamics of the controversy. Other science sociologists, such as the late Dr. Marcello Truzzi, had a clear understanding of the dynamics of scientific controversies in the context of acceptance of an approachable ultimate Truth about Nature. That is why Truzzi became an avid observer of the cold fusion war and a friend of Infinite Energy.

However, this particular book by sociologist Simon adds nothing but confusion to the understanding of what the process of science is about—or should be about. Nowhere in the book do we find a loud and clear statement that there is, indeed, one physical reality out there—whether or not communities of human beings are able to agree on what that reality is. This is a very important omission. It is the book’s central flaw, leaving it without a legitimate foundation. In his concluding chapter Simon writes, “. . .the central guiding assumption of this book has been the inherent interpretive flexibility of experimental data and the a priori undecidability of the fact of the matter in the case of cold fusion.”  Given that untenable remark, Simon still has no trouble throughout claiming that “closure” in the cold fusion controversy occurred in 1990! What then is the meaning of “interpretive flexibility” of experimental data—especially that gathered after 1990?

What we find instead of assessment of the relative significance or merit of data—pro and con—is Simon’s extended metaphorical discussion of what characterizes “undead science” in the instance of cold fusion. Some of his chapter titles give the general idea of the ghostly imagery that pervades the book: Chapter 4: The Pallor of Death; Chapter 5: The Afterlife of Cold Fusion; Chapter 6: Tales from the Crypt; and Chapter 7: A Hauntology for the Technoscientific Afterlife. Simon flaunts such imagery throughout, as though we should be impressed by this swinging trapeze artist’s linguistic gymnastics.

Perhaps others, taking up Simon’s metaphor, will later deem the “memory of water” controversy as undead science, or maybe challenges to Einsteinian relativity will be termed “undead science,” rather than attempts to do proper pioneering science or careful scientific criticism. This is simply to suggest the preposterous nature of Simon’s viewpoint, in which essentially no effort is made to assess where lies the preponderance of evidence. Is cold fusion research new science or the malformed specter of the critic’s invention, “pathological” science? It is as though a jury, charged with deciding the fate of an accused murderer based on mountains of evidence painstakingly collected over a decade by the prosecution, and on the other hand a small hill of glaringly defective defense counter-evidence gathered hastily in six months, could not bring itself to render a judgment.  What else is to be expected from an author who writes on page one with zero qualification, “The controversy over cold fusion had basically ended by 1990. . .”?

Simon writes elsewhere in a passage particularly revealing of his analytical confusion, “The force of my argument depends on my being able to demonstrate that closure has occurred in the case of cold fusion. . .Without a notion of closure, cold fusion is simply alive, and much of what has occurred in the case will not make any sense.” What?

Apart from these evident flaws, a very annoying—and unnecessary—aspect of Undead Science is Simon’s quotation from anonymous sources. One supposes that by this artifice Simon intended to milk frank commentary out of reluctant critics. A 1994 e-mail interview by Simon with an unidentified chemist begins thus: “The problem with cold fusion as a legitimate research goal is that so much of the phenomenological basis for the effect has been shown to be either mistaken, possibly fraudulent, or simply not reproducible in the hands of established authorities, that little or nothing remains of the original hypothesis.” Who is this “chemist” who in 1994 speaks glibly of fraud within cold fusion and who believes that “established authorities” can legitimately peer review frontier science? One would dearly like to know. He/she is one of the first anonymous creatures—let us call them “ghosts,” following Simon’s metaphor—interviewed in Undead Science.

Fourteen years into the cold fusion war, I am no longer  particularly put off by misdirected tracts such as Undead Science. It is just more background noise as science progresses, and it is not very attractive noise at that. At least, let us have a bit of good background music! There are many borderline unreadable passages, such as this gem of academic flourishing and puffery from page 200: “Truth does not therefore reside in the procedures of transcendental justification of the kind strived for by some rationalist philosophers, but is rather a consequence of the local achievements of actors in defining the boundaries of what counts as legitimate knowledge and who counts as a legitimate knower in a given cultural context. Further, that such achievements often transcend the local conditions of their origin is a matter of their contingent extension in time and space by specific actors, and not of any inherent property of the achievements themselves.”

This inept attempt at understanding the sociology of the cold fusion controversy will, I believe, mercifully go largely unnoticed. At least blatantly negative books such as Close’s, Huizenga’s, or Taubes’ clearly reveal the borderline criminal intent of cold fusion’s opponents, a transparent intent which Bart Simon is too dense to properly assess. In that sense those books stand as very valuable historical self-indictments of cold fusion’s antagonists. Simon’s book is not evil; it is simply irreducibly stupid. I am not particularly upset when I read, after one of my Infinite Energy editorials is quoted by Simon (elsewhere in the book I find myself anonymously quoted!): “Mallove and Infinite Energy are also ghostly figures. His editorial can be read at the same time as both the idiosyncratic ranting of a crazed lunatic and an important framing narrative for the organization of cold fusion research after the closure of the controversy.” After all, anyone who asserts that there has been some kind of “closure” to the cold fusion controversy neither understands science nor its process. He cannot judge the “rantings” of anyone.

Simon’s barely concealed true feelings about cold fusion occasionally slip out, such as on page 219 as he is winding down prose that has qualified for his doctoral dissertation: “Finally, it is important to point out that since CF research was for a brief time a form of legitimate science (reviewer’s italics), so it remains tied or bound to the norms and expectations of legitimate science. Like a spirit that is bound to the place where it died, CF researchers are tied to the normal expectations of science.” Need we cite any more evidence of how wrong minded and disingenuous Simon’s thesis is? Simon’s book, above all, is a very poor advertisement for so-called “STS” departments. Are academics really paid to write and—heaven forfend!—teach such confused gibberish? Simon ends with an apt summation of his book: “By now it should be clear that the argument of this book is an extended ghost story.” If one wants to find a real ghost story, may I suggest a visit to the horror and fantasy section of a bookstore, not the science section, where unfortunately Simon’s Undead Science is likely to be found for a time—until it dies its inevitable natural death.