“Reputation Traps” in Philosophy

“Reputation Traps” in Philosophy

In an essay at Aeon, Huw Price (Cambridge) writes about “reputation traps.”

His example of this is scientific research on cold fusion, or low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR), “the controversial idea that nuclear reactions similar to those in the Sun could, under certain conditions, also occur close to room temperature.” Cold fusion held out the promise of clean and abundant energy source. But, Price writes, “most were highly skeptical, and the field subsequently gained, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘a reputation as pathological science’.” In popular media, it is often “dismissed as pseudoscience, the kind of thing that respectable scientists and science journalists simply don’t talk about.” As a result, recent interesting research on LENR has gone largely unnoticed.

Price argues that there isn’t a rational or scientific justification for this (see his essay for the arguments). But there is an explanation:

There’s a sociological explanation why few people are willing to look at the evidence. They put their reputations at risk by doing so. Cold fusion is tainted, and the taint is contagious—anyone seen to take it seriously risks contamination. So the subject is stuck in a place that is largely inaccessible to reason—a reputation trap, we might call it. People outside the trap won’t go near it, for fear of falling in. ‘If there is something scientists fear, it is to become like pariahs,’ as Lundin puts it. People inside the trap are already regarded as disreputable, an attitude that trumps any efforts that they might make to argue their way out, by reason and evidence.

Reputation traps are “a pathology in our present version of the scientific method,” Price says. When it comes to cold fusion,

The results are ignored because they concern cold fusion, which we ‘know’ to be pseudoscience—we know it because attempts to replicate these experiments failed 25 years ago! The reasoning is still entirely circular, but the reputation trap gives its conclusion a convincing mask of respectability. That’s how the trap works.

Reputation traps, then, are research topics the working on which jeopardize the professional reputation of their researchers, despite the absence of rational justifications for avoiding those topics.

Even worse, there’s the meta-reputation trap: people’s reluctance to even identify research topics as stuck in a reputation trap, for fear of having their reputation damaged by association with the topic.

Reputation traps aren’t just limited to physics. There are probably some in philosophy. What are they? Further, what can we do to reduce their number? Or the force of their effect?

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Peter Alward
8 years ago

Work on Ayn Rand probably falls into this category.

Shane Epting
Reply to  Peter Alward
8 years ago

Haha ( funny because it’s true).

David Wallace
David Wallace
8 years ago

I think work on the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (aka the “many worlds interpretation”) fell into this category in physics up to maybe 1990 or so, and in philosophy for perhaps a decade or so later.

Alan Richardson
Alan Richardson
8 years ago

Everything other than Kripke, Lewis, and subsequent analytic philosophy?

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

Price’s article is terrible, though, and if there is such a thing as a “reputation trap” Price has made the worst possible case for it.

I have no background in physics, but based on what I have seen in terms of discussions among physicists I am pretty sure physicists are not dismissive-out-of-hand of cold fusion. Of course, the original Fleischmann and Pons experiment could not be replicated, and given the absence of any good theoretical foundation or successful experimental strategies, there isn’t, as far as I know, much current, serious research on cold fusion (if there are any interesting new results I don’t know about them). But that doesn’t mean that scientists are dismissive of cold fusion in principle! Of course, you need to come up with a good research project with a solid theoretical foundation. Given the history of claims concerning cold fusion, and the consequences if the research should prove successful, a research project will of course be met with an initial healthy dose of skepticism and scrutiny. But that’s how things should be in science, isn’t it? I don’t see any evidence that the field is “tainted” and Price offers nothing at all but an anecdote or two.

And Andrea Rossi. Now, I think scientists are generally dismissive of Rossi. And for very good reasons. Some background: Rossi is not a scientist. He holds a laurea in philosophy from the University of Milan. Rossi claims a second laurea title in “Ingegneria Chimica” (chemical engineering) at Kensington University in California, a known diploma mill which was shut down by court order in 2003. He has a long history of fraud, and has previously been convicted of illegal trafficking of waste materials and was arrested for gold smuggling and money laundering.

Price doesn’t mention any of this. One would, however, think that such background information would be relevant when the topic is the *sociology* of science. Instead, Price tries to conjure up an image of a brave, maverick scientist. He even manages to rhetorically ask the question “why haven’t most of you heard about Rossi,” as if that indicates marginalization. The mind boggles. Rossi is a super-celebrity, for crying out loud! He’s been featured on the covers of virtually every international newspaper and has had documentaries devoted to him shown during primetime at internationally available tv channels. Indeed, I am pretty confident more people have heard of Rossi than have heard of any physicist Price can mention, perhaps with the exception of Stephen Hawking.

Rossi’s current fame rests on his e-cat (an intro article here: http://peswiki.com/…/Directory:Andrea_A._Rossi_Cold…). Most reasonable people are not particularly impressed, mostly because of Rossi’s refusal to allow independent scrutiny of his invention and his inability to explain the theoretical basis for the device (ostensibly because he’s afraid of people stealing his ideas). The whole thing carries all the red flags of charlatanry and fraud you could possibly dream of. No serious scientist would take Rossi’s claim seriously without further details, and at this point it is pretty clear that no such detail will be forthcoming.

Of course, this is not quite how Price views things. According to Price, Rossi “has been going from strength to strength”. On what grounds? Well, first:

“There were two reports (in 2013 and 2014) on tests of Rossi’s device by teams of Swedish and Italian physicists whose scientific credentials are not in doubt, and who had access to one of his devices for extended periods (a month for the second test). Both reports claimed levels of excess heat far beyond anything explicable in chemical terms, in the testers’ view.”

I don’t know the second report, but I have encountered the first (you can read about it here: http://scienceblogs.com/…/the-e-cat-is-back-and-people…/). It’s absolute garbage. No one with minimal knowledge of how to do science would or should take it seriously.

Then there is this:

“More recently, Rossi was granted a US patent for one of his devices”

Look: getting a patent is not evidence of scientific validity. That your claims are based on pseudoscience is no real barrier to getting your shit patented, as long as your claims are sufficiently precise (i.e. you can’t do “this time machine will somehow utilize tachyon energy to send people back in time,” but Royal Rife’s devices might pass muster).

Price can also tell us that:

“There are credible reports that a 1MW version of his device, producing many times the energy that it consumes, has been on trial in an industrial plant in North Carolina for months, with good results so far.”

We are not given any details about the results, however, nor are we told what, precisely, it is that makes the reports “credible”.

Finally, there is this:

“very recently, there’s a paper by two senior Swedish physicists, Rickard Lundin and Hans Lidgren, proposing a mechanism for Rossi’s results, inspired in part by the second of two test reports mentioned above. Lundin and Lidgren say that the ‘experimental results by Rossi and co-workers and their E-Cat reactor provide the best experimental verification’ of the process they propose.”

(Yeah, Rossi has managed to gain himself a fan or two among physicists. And Jason Lisle has a PhD in astrophysics.) Further down in the article, Price admits, however:

“Lundin and Lidgren reported that they had submitted their paper to the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, but that the editors declined to have it reviewed; and that even the non-reviewed preprint archive, arxiv.org, refused to accept it.”

Why is that, you think? Well, for Price the answer seems obvious; there is an effort to marginalize new ideas because of groupthink and the reputation trap. Some of us might, at least in the absence of further information about the paper and the rejections, suspect there may be more mundane reasons one should consider before yelling “oppression”.

The point is this: Rossi’s claims bear all the hallmarks of a scam, especially given his background; there are no details of how his devices are supposed to work, and no credible evidence to the effect that it does. Of course credible scientists will be reluctant to endorse it! Although Price’s headline seems to suggest that he intends to write a piece about cold fusion research in general, it really only concerns Rossi and his supporters, and how their claims are not being accepted on face value by scientists. Now, I guess the reason for dismissal is partially sociological: No serious scientist wants to be the one who fell for the claims of the crackpot charlatan. But that is a pretty mundane sociological explanation, and it doesn’t require any new explanation in terms of “reputation traps”. And Price offers no other evidence for his sociology claims than the fact that Andrea Rossi isn’t taken seriously!

As an aside: The whole piece is disconcertingly reminiscent of the kind of stuff we tend to hear from climate change denialists (try to read the article and replace references to Rossi with McKittrick or Lindzen, who are – as opposed to Rossi – even real scientists!) or from creationists and anti-vaccine loons: When they aren’t taken seriously, they revert to pseudo-sociological explanations or conspiracies to explain why and to avoid facing the rather more plausible possibility that their work isn’t *worth* taking seriously. I am not saying that this is quite parallel to what Price is up to, but he really needs a better grounding of his hypothesis than scientists failing to take a single crackpot and his fans seriously.

Price actually gets it right at one point:

“It is very hard to extract from this history any satisfactory justification for ignoring recent work on LENR. After all, the standard line is that the rejection of cold fusion in 1989 turned on the failure to replicate the claims of Fleischmann and Pons. Yet if that were the real reason, then the rejection would have to be provisional. Failure to replicate couldn’t possibly be more than provisional – empirical science is a fallible business, as any good scientist would acknowledge. In that case, well-performed experiments claiming to overturn the failure to replicate would certainly be of great interest.”

Exactly. And that is why, as far as I can tell, contemporary scientists don’t dismiss cold fusion out of hand. If you can develop a serious, theoretically well-founded hypothesis and serious research strategy, good for you: Go ahead. But they do tend to dismiss the claims of Andrea Rossi and similar fringe crackpots, as they bloody well should! (Of course, there is the faint possibility that Rossi or his associates will surprise us all, but that possibility is now so remote that we really cannot take it seriously.) And Price has offered no example of current work on LENR apart from work associated with Rossi’s device. Sounds like justification aplenty to me, in no need of further sociological conjectures.

So, to sum up:

The data (Price and I agree on this one): Scientists don’t take Andrea Rossi’s claims seriously.

That’s the *only* piece of data Price gives us, as far as I can see, apart from a convenient anecdote about an unnamed physicist friend at the beginning.

Price’s conclusion based on that observation: Scientists dismiss Rossi’s claim because they are *generally* dismissive of cold fusion due to the social dynamics among scientists. They have identified cold fusion as a topic-non-grata, and from this observation Price draws a more general conclusion about how scientists tend to marginalize new and revolutionary ideas out of fear for their reputation.

Here is the conclusion I draw: Scientists dismiss Andrea Rossi because he’s rather clearly a scam artist who makes grand claims that he refuses to back up or even explain in sufficient detail to make any real investigation possible. Scientists do that because they, in their role as scientists, tend to be dismissive of crackpottery and don’t accept grandiose claims without further evidence. No evidence of general dismissiveness of new and exciting ideas has been offered, and no interesting conclusions about the sociology of scientists can be drawn from the single case Price discusses.

In other words, the case of Andrea Rossi and cold fusion is a story of science working exactly as it should: Grandiose claims require evidence and accountability, and novel hypotheses are treated with skepticism until such evidence is offered, especially when the person making the claims clearly is actively trying to avoid being held accountable.

Maybe I am too dismissive. Please tell me if I have missed something.

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
Reply to  Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

To clarify: I am not rejecting or taking any stance on Price’s reputation trap hypothesis. It does, in fact, sound plausible.

I am taking issue with the case he uses to support it and the huge chunks of his article that reads like a piece of apologetics for someone who is most probably a scam artist and the standard pseudoscience gambits (appeal to sociology etc) invoked in those chunks

Dmitri Tymoczko
Dmitri Tymoczko
Reply to  Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

Holy shit, Frederik, that might be the greatest blog comment of all time! I thought about posting some of this earlier in the day, but I had nowhere near as much information as you do.

My question is: what does this do to Price’s reputation as a philosopher, and if (as I suspect) the answer is “nothing,” what does that say about the sociology of the discipline?

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
Reply to  Dmitri Tymoczko
8 years ago

I don’t know, and I am not sure to what extent it should have any such influence.

That said, I do wonder whether I have been too kind on Huw Price, however. You see, there is as far as I can tell nothing new about Price’s hypothesis. It’s, as far as I can tell, the same argument about “Big Science” that has been pushed by anti-scientists and pseudo-scientists for as long as pseudoscience and anti-science have existed: The fact pseudoscientific claims like HIV denialism and global warming denialism (and everything in between) are rejected by overwhelming scientific consensus forces defenders of such claim to come up with an explanation, and the idea that mainstream scientists fear for their reputations is a pretty obvious one. Here is the beginning of an article in something called “Science Frontiers” from 1990 (http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf072/sf072g12.htm) (I came across it on page 1 of google hits for the search phrase “scientists don’t dare”):

“Several hundred crop circles have afflicted English farmers’ fields already this year. The English newspapers haven’t neglected them, but where are Nature and Science? Here is a genuine mystery, and most scientists don’t dare touch it for fear of being labelled “kooks.”

Wait … isn’t that Price’s hypothesis? 25 years before he came up with it? Of course, Price might try to argue that this is entirely different, since crop circles are bogus and cold fusion cannot be dismissed as bogus (but, as I have pointed out, his article really only concerns – as far as I can see – Andrea Rossi and his fans, which we do have ample justification to treat exactly the way we treat crop circles). Well, the crop circle defenders at Science Frontiers probably didn’t think it was bogus any more than Price thinks cold fusion is. The Science Frontiers sociological hypothesis seems, in other words, to be the same – just put a little less eloquently.

Next hit: The connection between Alzheimers and EMF pollution (wi-fi and cell phones and suchlike – you are probably familiar with the “hypothesis”). A commenter suggests:

“Scientists don’t dare do the studies that show “cause” due to toxic, EMF pollution. They lose their funding and/or don’t receive funds in the first place.”

Yup. Sociological factors – presumably including reputation traps – prevent scientists from investigating these potential causes. The commenter seems pretty convinced that the fact that scientists dismiss EMF as a cause for Alzheimers cannot be rationally justified, and must thus be explained by sociological factors.

Creationists have been particularly fond of the appeal-to-sociology gambit. The idea that scientists don’t dare explore alternatives to evolution out of fear for their reputation and academic career was *the whole premise* for the 2008 “documentary” Expelled (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Expelled:_Leader%27s_Guide). And here is a passage from the introduction of creationist Jonathan Wells’s silly creationist book Icons of Evolution (I can probably find more striking examples if I had more time):

“If [biologists] believe in the fundamental correctness of Darwinian evolution, they may set aside their misgivings about the particular icon they know something about. On the other hand, if they voice their misgivings they may find it difficult to gain a hearing among their colleagues, because (as we shall see) criticizing Darwinian evolution is extremely unpopular among English-speaking biologists. This may be why the problems with the icons of evolution are not more widely known.”

I.e. biologists’s commitment to evolution has led to dogmatism, to the extent that biologists won’t dare challenge the theory or explore alternatives … out of fear for their reputation and standing within the scientific community.

Now, it is pretty plausible that what scientific questions are asked are governed, in part, by sociological factors (there even seems to be good evidence: I haven’t actually double-checked the quality of this one: http://www.nber.org/papers/w21788 but it looks interesting). That’s not new. But I cannot for the bare life of me see what Price adds to what is already known, and his article is based on a single, very questionable example. If I read it uncharitably, it comes dangerously close to looking like an attempt to defend Andrea Rossi dressed up to look like it makes a more general point about the sociology of science. That would be really bad.

Once again, I suspect I must be missing something. This can’t be what Price is up to, can it?

AlainCo (@alain_co)
Reply to  Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

to be clear, you are misinformed, like most of the planet.
F&P was replicated by competent chemist after typically 1 year of complex work.
today there is hundreds of peer reviewed papers describing successful excess heat in LENr experiments… some from Navy, Nasa, …

Of course physicist, less competent in calorimetry, could not do anything serious in 40 days.
Lewis however was very good is seeding innuendo during Baltimore conference and insulting one of the most competent electrochemist (priced) of the time (with Bockris, author of textbook).

Most exact replication by George Longchapt of CEA have shown the smart designe of F&P calorimetry, to which many prefered simpler Seebeck and flow calorimetry.

Lewis paper survived because the editor refused to acknowkowledge errors
after they decided no LENR paper will be accepted , by fear of reputation damage.
Even the paper of Oriani which was peer reviewed positively, was rejeceted after review.
MIT paper was accused by no less then their own editor to be a fraud,
even if old LENr researchers simply sate that given the low loading and bad calorimetry nothing credible could be found.
http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/BiberianJPjcondensedg.pdf#page=138 (p138)

the 4 papers of lewis, Hansen, Morrison, and Wilson are refuted in their tentative to refyte F&P.
Wilson, the most competent correctly reject the others and propose a correction, that anyway cannot explain the huge burst observed. He anyway state the opposite, but his paper is in fact very supportive to F&P despite his will.

all failure to replicate today can be explained by basic violation of requirements now well identified, like current density, polarity, loading.

Bocris tritium was rejected after an innuendo campaign caused by a frabrication by a non scientific author, Gary taubes
Not only he had no evidence but the observation were incoherent with the fraud claim.
Only the ambiance of hate and impossibility to defend the devil make those incredible absurdities accepted,.

Once you accept that F&P were replicated, many times, very different way, with difficulties, in a context where metallurgy, cleanliness, and impurities is key, like it is in semiconductors or HTSC, you see that there is a problem.

Charles Beaudette, who started skeptic as you, did a deep research and wrote this synthetic book on Cold Fusion story
Really interesting as he explains the key problems in epistemology, calorimetry, and media.

The problem is what the author explains, a reputation trap.

I prefer the less philosophical but more economic vision of Roland Benabou about Groupthink.

Edmund Storms , however from his experience of replicating LENR in LANL have seen the ambiance move from enthusiasm to aggressivity, not because it did not work (it worked), not because it was unreliable (people were used with worse problems), but because it was menacing Hot Fusion budgets

I hesitate between the insider’s vision of Edmund Storms, and the more systematic vision of Benabou…
Probably the groupthink of physicist is mixed with vested interest.

Jed Rothwell, the librarian of LENR, who have talk to nearly all actors, have produced few paper making parallel between LENR and Titanic myth
and LENR and Wright Brothers

This is a great epistemology and group psychiatry subject for this century to come.

Dale Miller
8 years ago

Reputation traps can only be reliably identified in retrospect. There are any number of topics that it might be reputation-killing to work on, but there will also be a broad consensus that there are perfectly rational justifications for this. The only answer to the questions of how we can reduce their number or the force of their effect is to do better philosophy, so that positions are dismissed if and only if there rational justifications for doing so.

David Wallace
David Wallace
8 years ago

I think one thing missing from Price’s article is that there is a very good theoretical case against cold fusion. Specifically:

– fusion only occurs when atomic nuclei are extremely close to one another – “overlapping”, insofar as that term really makes sense in this context.
– nuclei are positively charged, so getting them that close requires two positive charges to be brought into extremely close proximity. Given the inverse-square law, that requires a lot of energy – way more than the typical energies of purely chemical processes. (So hot fusion, as in the Sun, requires a very hot medium, so that nuclei are going fast enough to overcome that repulsion.

This is not *watertight*: there might be some weird quantum-chemical way of bypassing the energy barrier in the right circumstances, which is why the original Fleichmann and Pons result wasn’t dismissed out of hand right away. But it’s a good reason to be more sceptical of purported cold fusion experiments than of (say) hot-fusion results. In the former case, but not the latter, we have no reason other than the experiments themselves to think the result is possible.

8 years ago

It may be just an unbalanced impression, an artefact of what I happen to read, but given the amount of serious attention they receive It sometimes seems that these reputation traps include religion and metaphysics . These particular traps are mostly feared by scientists, but philosophers quite often seem to shy away as well.

Not a huge fan of this font for longer posts.

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
8 years ago

I’d say that (Extreme) Modal Realism is bordering on being a reputation trap. Very few people can endorse it without having the philosophical community look askance at them. Unless you already have significant reputational currency it’s my impression that you’ll have a hard time getting away with being a Modal Realist. It seems most philosophers reason for Modal Realism’s rejection is the “incredulous stare” — and it doesn’t seem like “that seems weird” constitutes rational justification for avoiding a view.

Daniel Munoz
Daniel Munoz
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
8 years ago

Modal realism is unpopular, but I wouldn’t say it’s in a reputation trap! Part of being trapped is being “rationally inaccessible,” and modal realism is one of the most rationally accessible views in metaphysics — it’s not like On the Plurality of Worlds is a forbidden arcane tome.

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
8 years ago

Sad to say: philosophy of education.

Huw Price
8 years ago

Thanks to all for these comments. I have a couple of quick responses, and some recommendations for further reading.

Fredrik Haraldsen favours the ‘Rossi’s just a crook’ hypothesis. I have a couple of follow up queries for him.

First, what does Fredrik think about Robert Godes, whom I also mention? Is he a crook, too?

Second, how does Fredrik feel about Tom Darden, or the Swedish physicists such as Hanno Essén (former chair of the Swedish Skeptics Society) who take Rossi seriously, or the British hedge fund who report that they invested in Rossi after ‘a rigorous due-diligence process that has taken two and half years’? In particular, how does he think that these folk will react when they read his comment? Will they be, like, “Doh, thanks, Fredrik, that hadn’t occurred to us!”? Or like, “Fredrik, you’ve never met Rossi, or been within 100 miles of an e-cat. What makes you think you know better than us? (Armchairs, epistemic humility, etc.!)” My guess is that it’s much more likely to be the latter. How will Fredrik respond? (As an exercise, I invite him also to consider how these folk will respond to his response.)

More generally, I think it is important to keep in mind that whatever the truth about these matters, it now needs to explain various data, some consisting in things that people such as these folk are known to have said or done. (The main change in the past four years, from my point of view, has been the arrival of many of these new data points.) It is not sufficient to cherrypick, with proposals to explain one or two of these things. Whatever the truth, it needs to account for all of them. It’s easy to see how the hypothesis that Rossi, Godes, et al have what they claim does so. What’s so far missing, in my view, is any well developed alternative.

Aeon left out some of the links I had included in my piece, which makes it harder to use it as a basis for further reading, and gives insufficient credit to some things I found helpful. I’ve put up an extract of the opening paragraphs, with these links restored, on my own blog: http://mediumofexpression.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/my-dinner-with-andrea.html

Some of the links are to a blog post by the Swedish journalist Mats Lewan, who has been following this story for several years. I also recommend his book, easily accessible from armchairs everywhere: http://animpossibleinvention.com/

Many thanks to Dmitri Tymoczko, for his kind concerns about my own reputation. Fortunately it seems to be counter suggestible – the wackier my philosophical views become, the happier my reputation seems to be! 🙂

Thanks also to David Wallace for his comments. In hindsight, David, perhaps I could have done a bit more to stress the usual theoretical objections to LENR, but I had my eye on the contrast with the superluminal neutrinos. Do you agree that they were even more implausible, from a theoretical point of view? I was interested in your suggestion that the Everett view was caught in a reputation trap. If so, then it seems to be an example of what I think of as the ordinary, “safe” kind, where there’s no big cost to the delay the trap produces (if the view turns out to be correct). I’ve been interested in the suggestion that there may be an “unsafe” kind, too, where the delay has more serious consequences, e.g., in obscuring some catastrophic risk. Hence my interest in the thought that cold fusion may turn out to be in this category.

Reply to  Huw Price
8 years ago

“What’s so far missing, in my view, is any well developed alternative.”

The alternative seems to be clearly articulated as “it’s a scam and Rossi is feeding energy into the device surreptitiously,” with Rossi’s actions very much consistent with that theory. The idea that a non-physicist with a history of pseudoscientific technofraud happens to also be the person who both designs and creates a device beyond the theoretical understanding of the world’s physics community (including the tiny number of physicists who take him seriously) seems epistemically unsound compared to the theory that it’s just pseudoscientific technofraud.

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
Reply to  Huw Price
8 years ago

Wait … what was the point you were trying to make in your Aeon article, again?

You see, the people at Dailynous evidently took it to be a piece about the sociology of science, where cold fusion was used as evidence for (or at least an example of) the claim that reputation traps are a general obstacle for scientific progress. And that’s how you presented it, wasn’t it? My response was that the case of Andrea Rossi is horrible evidence for that claim: The fact that Andrea Rossi isn’t taken seriously by scientists isn’t evidence for any such sociological generalization. Scientists tend to avoid Rossi because he waves all the red flags of being a scam artist, and good scientists tend not to have time for scam artists – that’s a pretty mundane fact that doesn’t warrant any general claims about sociological barriers to scientific progress (and wouldn’t do so even if Rossi, against all evidence, should turn out to be right). “We can’t take too seriously the claims of a crackpot who is refusing to offer any details or evidence” is a pretty legitimate attitude (and would still be so if the apparent crackpot against all odds turned out not to be a crackpot). I also pointed out that you have provided no evidence that scientists will avoid investigating cold fusion if someone came up with a good, theoretically well-supported research hypothesis, which no one to my knowledge has. That is, you have offered no evidence that cold fusion is a reputation trap in physics; just evidence that Andrea Rossi is viewed as a kook. On those grounds, I concluded that the argument you offered for the *general claim* that reputation traps is an obstacle to scientific progress in the Aeon article is bad. No evidence has been provided for the hypothesis that “Reputation traps associated with cold fusion exist”, and “reputation traps associated with cold fusion” is a shitty explanation of why Andrea Rossi isn’t taken seriously by physicists.

That was, as I think I made clear by repeating it several times, my point. How does your comment address that point?

I even audaciously suggested that it was possible to read your article less charitably. You see, a very common gambit among pseudoscientists and denialists is the ad hominem tactic of, instead of actually defending their controversial claims or explain why they should be taking seriously, claiming that the scientific establishment is refusing to take their claims seriously because of money/corruption/narrowmindedness or fear for their reputation. Of course, the sociology of science is a legitimate object of study, and your Aeon article *looked like* it was trying to make and back up a general sociological claim. But if read uncharitably, it could be read as being a covert defense of Andrea Rossi by making a general swipe at the narrow-mindedness of physicists in general.

Your recent comment, confusingly, suggests that this was precisely how the article was intended, however: That the conclusion you *really* wanted to establish was not that “reputation traps are an obstacle to scientific progress” but that “by appealing to the sociology of science we can explain away the inconvenient fact that scientists don’t accept Rossi’s claims without actually having to justify those claims” – that your article wasn’t about how cold fusion is a topic-non-grata among physicists (a claim you at least provide no evidence for); it wasn’t about reputation traps (at least you provide no evidence for them but just assume them to explain why Andrea Rossi isn’t taken seriously); it was a defense of the claim that Andrea Rossi should be taken seriously. Please tell me I have misunderstood your comment. I tend to think, in all naivety, that being clear rather than rhetorically deceptive about what you aim to show in an article is something of a virtue.

As for the people you mention in the article and comment: most of them are Rossi converts. And yes, plenty of people take Rossi seriously Some of them are physicists. Defense of Rossi is surely a radical fringe position among physicists (we agree on that: otherwise your argument, which rests on the claim that LENR research *isn’t* taken seriously by physicists, falls apart completely). But this it has in common with most of pseudoscience. There are – I mentioned Jason Lisle – also astrophysicists who defend young earth creationists, and there are climate researchers (Lindzen) who are climate change denialists. If you look hard enough you’ll probably find people with legitimate credentials defending almost any fringe claim (though you really have to look hard). I don’t know how to respond to their claims, nor do I have any idea how to effectively engage with them. I leave it to the experts in the fields – as I should – to evaluate their claims. I am not a physicist. As such, the only legitimate thing I can do regarding details of physics is to leave it to expert consensus, and – like young earth creationism and climate change denialism – I cannot let the mere existence of a handful of dissenters with legitimate credentials affect my position on that score. If you want to convince me otherwise, you better *convince the experts*. If you can make the experts in the field change their mind, I will change my mind, too. That is, I think, a good rule for good critical thinking. (And remember, my point in my original comment wasn’t to show that cold fusion is silly, but to call bullshit on the idea that scientists don’t take it seriously because sociological factors – reputation traps – prevent them from doing taking it seriously.)

I don’t know who Robert Godes is. Is he a scientist? (I searched him up but could find no scientific publications – maybe I didn’t search well enough). But I will concede this: Andrea Rossi is not alone. Just like creationists has their own cargo cult scientific practices – complete with “scientific” conferences, journals and jargons – and plenty of support among various CEOs and hedge fund managers and organizations like the Discovery Institute and what have you, so does cold fusion. There have been plenty of people with various backgrounds (some presumably physicists) “working on” and “studying” cold fusion over the last thirty years, and they have their own conferences, journals, websites and youtube channels. One reason why the comparison with creationists (think in particular the Intelligent Design crowd) seems to hold is that, just like the creationists, they have failed to produce anything: no results, no or very few serious publications, and very few “mainstream” scientists have been impressed (and that is not for lack of people claiming they’ve caught the black cat). Andrea Rossi is just the most famous of them. In light of that I am also confused about what point you were making by rattling off those names in your comment.

But ok: You gesture toward the existence of some interesting new developments but leave out the details. Fine. Defending Rossi and/or his fans or the free energy crowd or Tom Bearden (or Tom Darden, who is apparently a different one) or whoever is your business. But you really need to aim the defense at the experts, not at me. I promise I’ll follow suit when the results have convinced them. I have called bullshit on your claim that physicists don’t want to look at cold fusion because of the reputation trap (that, once again – apparently I need to repeat this – was my whole point and is a claim you have failed to back up). Since we have no reason to believe, as opposed to what you suggest in the article, that the reputation trap is a genuine obstacle here, the way forward is simple: Give the scientists the results, or even just a decent research hypothesis – presumably it won’t need to mention Rossi by name – and off we go. The Intelligent Design crowd is still screaming “persecution” and ‘reputation trap’ [perhaps not using that exact phrase] in lieu of offering precisely that, but evidently you think that cold fusion research is on far better grounds.

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
Reply to  Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

Aw, heck. This can be made much simpler than that longwinded post:

Price: Scientists aren’t taking Andrea Rossi seriously because cold fusion is associated with a reputation trap.

Me: You have offered no evidence to believe that cold fusion isn’t taken seriously or associated with a reputation trap.

Price: But they don’t take Andrea Rossi and his allies seriously.

Me: That’s because they view *Andrea Rossi* as a crank, and there is plenty of evidence that he is. That doesn’t mean that they won’t take legitimately good research seriously, and is no evidence of a reputation trap.

Price: But Rossi has some really fancy new research out.

Me: He really doesn’t.

Price (recent comment): Yes, he really does. And his supporters are excited.

Me: Look: If there really are some fancy scientific results there, *just show them to the scientists* – don’t show them to *me*. If they are good, the scientists will listen. You really haven’t provided any evidence whatsoever that there is any reputation trap that prevents scientists from taking good cold research claims seriously if they are, in fact, any good (at least not if they don’t ineliminably mention Rossi, which they don’t if they are, in fact, any good). And btw don’t try to argue, at this point, that “the scientists aren’t going to listen even if the results are good since they are narrow-minded and afraid of their reputations.” Without any further evidence for that (Andrea Rossi is not evidence) this will now look like just a very sad and very standard conspiracy gambit.

(What if the claims themselves are good but still not taken seriously? Well, keep in mind that, as non-experts, if experts are not taking claim p seriously this is good reason to think that we shouldn’t take p seriously either; it’s not a good reason to think that the experts are too narrow-minded to see the truth).

Fredrik Haraldsen
Fredrik Haraldsen
Reply to  Fredrik Haraldsen
8 years ago

(The longer comment, of which this comment was a short version, apparently did not get published, and this one got published in a weird place, not as a response to (my response to) Price). That’s why it doesn’t *quite* make sense. But I really cannot be bothered to rewrite the long comment.

Dmitri Tymoczko
Dmitri Tymoczko
Reply to  Huw Price
8 years ago

“Many thanks to Dmitri Tymoczko, for his kind concerns about my own reputation. Fortunately it seems to be counter suggestible – the wackier my philosophical views become, the happier my reputation seems to be! :)”

Actually, this was pretty much the motivation for my comment. The field of philosophy is filled with luminaries who have outrageous, implausible, and manifestly contra-scientific beliefs: folks like Fodor or Nagel who deny evolution, folks like Lewis who endorse bizarre ontologies, philosophers of science who buy into cold fusion, etc. It is also, curiously enough, filled with a lot of hand-wringing and concern about philosophy’s status in the broader intellectual world. Perhaps these two facts are not entirely independent, with the dynamics that drive philosophical fame also impeding its ability to provide value to the outside world.

Interestingly, this suggests the very opposite dynamic to the “reputation trap” proposed by Price: the drive to enhance one’s celebrity by taking outrageous positions. It is easy to think of continental philosophers who pursue this approach (Zizek, Fish), but perhaps there are analytic philosophers who follow the same path in their own carefully argued fashion.

Personally I suspect this conflict between “fame within the speciality” and “utility to the broader world” is hugely important, much more important than the reputation-trap issue Price identifies.

Reply to  Huw Price
8 years ago

@ Huw Price,
you suggested the reading of “An Impossible Invention”, the book on the ecat’s story. The Chapter 1 describes the start of this unlikely journey with the “presentation of [t]his invention in Bologna on January 14, 2011”. The entire public part of this saga was started from that demonstration. The experimantal results were reported by the same researcher who subsequently signed the two so called independent reports on which all the others meta-facts you mentioned are based.

Everybody who knows the elementary basics of physics can judge by himself which kind of invented data are those on which this story begun, just giving a look to these 3 slides:
http://i.imgur.com/YC4W0Ax.jpg (steam dryness measured by a phantom probe)
http://i.imgur.com/2GanyYO.jpg (water flow much greater than the pump capacity)
http://i.imgur.com/kaHK3GV.jpg (boiling time doubled with respect to the real one)

You can ask your friend, the physicist, for helping you in evaluating the above inconsistencies, unless he is Brian Josephson. He was already informed long time ago: http://www.physicsforums.com/showpost.php?p=3219628&postcount=83

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
8 years ago

Perhaps part of the reputation trap idea in philosophy happens as a result of wanting to avoid getting spotted being wrong just generally despite specific any particular trappy topics. One way to think about good inquiry is to produce a completely perfect manuscript or body of work. According to that view, being wrong would be a serious blow and it would make practical sense to dismiss evidence to hold onto it come what may. But another way to think about inquiry is that by learning from mistaken theories we grow and move understanding as a field forward. On that view it would be less of a reputation trap to admit being wrong about something sometimes.

Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
8 years ago

You’re right. For instance, the controversy sparked by Brian Bruya’s recent paper, where he raises alleged criticisms of the PGR. David Wallace raised some reasonable suspicions against the legitimacy of Bruya’s thesis, and Leiter made use of those suspicions to substantiate his criticism of Bruya. In my opinion, many people believe that Wallace’s criticisms are damning, and that Bruya’s paper is misguided.

The worst part of the controversy was the adolescent mentality of some professional philosophers who voiced their opinions about the debate. For example, Leiter dubbed the controversy the “Bruyhaha,” which makes light of Brian’s last name. This reminds me of when, in middle-school, my peers would make light of my non-Anglosaxon name because it sounded a lot like a funny English word.

Anyways, there are really good reasons to stay out of philosophy. There are also good reasons why I will probably ever avoid calling out or risking an instigation with an influential white male professor in my field. There’s the moral of the story: not only be careful about being wrong, but also being wrong about a subject that lots of people think is right.

8 years ago

I must say, not sure why anyone’s arguing with Huw Price when he believes that truth is the convenient friction which gives us the ability to argue… he’s certainly not worried whether his claims correspond to reality.

8 years ago

Let me make a few remarks as a theoretical physicist…

Cold fusion would involve some mixture of atomic physics and nuclear physics. The mathematical formulation of these two subjects was mastered by about 1930 for the first (quantum mechanics) and 1940 for the second (for instance Bethe’s 1939 paper on energy production in stars). The professional physicist thus looks at the subject through a strong history of interpretation. Physics is a quantitative subject, the results of many experiments can be –calculated–; at some point experiments can be understood as wrong purely through mathematical considerations. Surprises do pop up, Berry phases come to mind in the formulation of quantum mechanics — but they are corner cases. There are really very few “corners” where something like this could hide given what we know about matter and quantum mechanics.

When the original work came out there was quite a flurry of effort. I remember talking an afternoon with a (future) Nobel prize winner — known for (mathematical) predictions of subtle and obscure effects in quantum mechanics. He was thinking a lot about the problem. He had really redone all the corner cases. Many other top mathematical physicists had done the same. They concluded that it just could not work. None of this is published, but there was a real theoretical effort.

It is interesting to note that cold fusion almost does work. There is “muon catalysis” for cold fusion — invented by the famous Sakharov. This is within a very small factor of being a possible energy source, however this was shown to be slightly on the wrong side of useful in the 1950’s.

AlainCo (@alain_co)
Reply to  augustm
8 years ago

In fact your answer explains the problem with Cold Fusion and with modern science.

Cold Fusion, is not more than experimental observation without any working theory.
As such it involves mostly calorimetry, chemistry, electrochemistry, hydrodynamics, thermal engineering, material science and nanotechnology, metallurgy, radiochemistry.
The only reference to particle physics is about detection and isotopic measures.

This is the key problem.

LENR scientists, try to fulfill the demand for theory using theory du jour (as explains Abd Ul Rahman Lomax), but we simply lack data.

As Abd explains, science if it was working here would have concluded Helium and heat are the outcome of the reaction, and that it have no relation with plasma physics, particle physics, with thermonuclear branching ratio of DD fusion.
In no other domain would people question such a massive volume of experiments. Of course it can be reversed by an illuminating experiment, but today’s data let no doubt Cold Fusion with PdD produce heat and He4.
Rest seems to be static noise.

The rejection of Cold Fusion is done not on any experimental reason, all excuses are absurd, starting with Caltech/Lewis and Hansen theories (Charles Beaudette in Excess Heat explain it in details, and there is references to documents to support his reasoning, starting with Wilson pretending to be critical paper).
The rejection is based on theory.

The motivation is however not so clear.

I support personally the modelisation by Groupthink phenomenon as Roland Benabou explains. This is not far from the Reputation trap concept, but adding the fact that the victims of groupthink harassment become quickly the executor and the mindguards of that groupthink.

Edmund Storms who experienced the change in LANL support rather simply vested interest of physicist afraid to lose hot physics mega-budgets, facing a subject which concern… chemists, and worst of all…
Hopefully LENR electrochemistry seems an engineering dead-end, and as academically it is a reputation trap, the danger is mitigated.

Both explanation, of people defending their budgets, or their illusions of superiority, match some facts, and I estimate that both are partially true.

The LENR community is also not innocent, reacting to that situation either by proposing pet-theories satisfying mainstream demand at the expense of experiments, or working too much in isolation , ignoring others experiments and results, helped by the high-impact journal blocus on LENR papers (not enforced in specialized journals).

Finally the solution as often will came from free market, from engineers, who abandoned electrochemistry to develop technology supporting higher temperature, based on pressurized nanostructured material like powders, wires, foam.

As Jean-Francois Geneste of Airbus have said in Milan LENRG, engineers need theory. They need theory to have engineering directions to improve the technology, or else there cannot be an industry.
However that theory may be phenomenological (Some formula like observed Dennis Letts are interesting), and they must match the experimental and engineering observations. No need to be full-physics model, it can be cooking recipe, and grandma tricks, but in a coherent model.

The tragedy , the fiasco, come probably from an irrational love of theory following the success of Manhattan projects and decades of theory-driven inventions.
With LENR, Emdrive, dark-matter epicycles, I expect we see a blooming of new science like we have seen around 1905, refounding physics on the shoulders of QFT and GR.

I expect, not an improvement of LENR research, but a total reboot.
Today I see that, discreetly, some material science physicist, experts in nanotechnology, in energy, try to enter the game, and be funded by the emerging consortiums.

Tad Zawidzki
Tad Zawidzki
8 years ago

This is a pretty devastating indictment of Rossi’s paradigm (thanks to Bart Pindor for the link): http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/12/05/the-nuclear-physics-of-why-we/