“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
“Don’t be the boy who cried wolf!”
Those old proverbs and folksy sayings capture the idea of what Professor Huw Price referred to as the “reputation trap” in the article he published in Aeon in December: “The cold fusion horizon.” He thoughtfully walked us through the evidence of the viability of cold fusion (or LENR, low energy nuclear reaction) technology as a potential new energy source, but he also attempted to tackle why most scientists seem unwilling to touch the study of cold fusion with a ten-foot pole.
He called it a reputation trap, in that, previous “successful” experiments 25 years had been debunked, cold fusion had been tainted. It had been dropped into the column of psuedoscience and therefore, any serious scientists would not consider it.
However, Dr. Price does raise questions that should be taken into account:
- Has cold fusion been disproven at its fundamentals – has it been proven to be theroetically impossible? No.
- Just because something is highly unlikely or even particularly hard, does that also make it impossible? No.
- Is it an extraordinary claim (yes) but does that require extensive evidence (yes) but should it then be ignored if the evidence barrier is met? No.
Regardless, skepticism and disdain remain, and that is where Dr. Price calls out the reputation trap, because it is now not about the data or the logic, it is about being unwilling to risk pariah-hood. Ah, who knew, our great rationalists are still community-driven social creatures.
What Dr. Price highlights is not news, though. Thomas Kuhn, a science philosopher, called this behavior normal. Wherever there lay a paradigm-shifting idea there also lay a reputation trap. I would go further to say that this concept exists not just in science, but in most fields and with most people, because reputation traps are fundamentally about difference.
Things that flip the table, ideas that are extraordinary, ideas that “upend” closely held truths must often be held back. The protection of those closely held truths becomes paramount because the level of investment in those truths is often significant and identity-linked.
People and ideas that would change, fundamentally and unalterably, about how we see and deal with the world often strike at the heart of who we are. Scientists are no different, and cold fusion is no different, either.
That said, Dr. Price leaves us with one last thought: we all have skin in this game because we do have an energy crisis on our hands. We need a new, clean energy source. We need a paradigm-shifting energy source that will move us from an old world to a new one. It is not just a science experiment; it has real world implications.
Being caught in a reputation trap about this simply will not do.
+ Handling radical uncertainty