Cold Fusion’s Ignominious Return

(For whatever reason, this December 2011 interview with Mitt Romney is making the rounds of the internet this week.)

Romney sat down for a rare on-the-record interview with a panel of editors from The Washington Examiner. In the course of the interview, he was asked to comment on science policy. Among other statements is this nugget:

Mitt Romney: I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with — with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

What makes this comment so egregious is that it betrays Mitt Romney’s genuine lack of scientific litteracy.

The Science is Clear

This is what University of Maryland Professor Bob Parks wrote in his What’s New newsletter on March 24, 1989, the day after Cold Fusion was announced:

The remarkable report from the University of Utah that researchers had achieved deuterium fusion in an electrolysis cell was initially provided only to the Financial Times of London and the Wall Street Journal. From what little is known, the claim seems to be that deuterium ions from heavy water diffuse into the lattice of a palladium cathode at sufficient concentration to fuse. Palladium is well known for its ability to take up large quantities of hydrogen. Indeed, solid-state storage of deuterium in metals such as titanium and scandium is standard practice in nuclear weapons, where dihydrides and even trihydrides do not result in fusion. Whatever the technical merits of the Utah claim, however, serious questions of scientific accountability will certainly be raised. The press statement is devoid of any details that might enable other scientists to judge the strength of the evidence.

From day one, the skeptics were on to the scam. In the months and years that followed, numerous good faith efforts were made to duplicate the Utah results. None suceded. None even came close. In scientific circles, everyone moved on. The Romney campaign seems to have never received the news.

There’s really no excuse for any educated person to trot out cold fusion as a scientific breakthrough in 2011, when Romney made these comments.  Even if he was just riffing, there is no excuse for floating such claims. No excuse. None. Pons and Fleischmann have been so thoroughly and publicly discredited one would have to live in a bubble and be fed a steady diet of lies to think they accomplished anything other than a mid-range hoax. (I’ve seen more believable perpetual motion machines at antique machinery shows.)

Perhaps more inexcusable is that the editorial board of the Washington Examiner didn’t call him on his bogus claim.

How could this happen?

Unfortunately, Mitt Romney isn’t alone in his scientific illiteracy. In his 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan made reference to the American public’s scientific literacy. Presumably relying on the work of Jon Miller, he wrote that approximately 5% of Americans understand enough basic science to make sound policy decisions about it. Looking at Miller’s actual studies, it appears that Sagan was close. The actual percentage in 1988 was 10%. Today, wer’re only marginally better off.

As of 2008, Miller says we’ve managed to raise that number to 28%. An astounding feat, a nearly three-fold increase in less than a generation, but still woefully short of where we need to be.

I have no doubt that Romney meant well, and being able to tout the accomplishments of a couple of scientists from a state he holds near and dear had to have felt good, but he got it wrong. Somewhere along the way, Mitt Romney failed to pick up a basic education in science. This isn’t entirely unexpected. Our last president to be scientifically literate was Thomas Jefferson.

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