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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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The Liars at CBS's "60 Minutes"

April/May 2009. The online video on the CBS site of the program on cold fusion is gone. The online article promoting the program makes no mention of their calling Rob Duncan as an expert on the advice of the American Physical Society. I watched the program and remember Scott Pelley claiming that "60 Minutes" knew the topic was controversial, so they contacted the American Physical Society to get the name of a skeptical expert. Pelley claimed that the APS gave him Duncan's name. Here is what the CBS promotional article on the show says:

With so many open questions, 60 Minutes wanted to find out whether cold fusion is more than a tempest in a teapot. So 60 Minutes turned to an independent scientist, Rob Duncan, vice chancellor of research at the University of Missouri and an expert in measuring energy.

No mention is made of Duncan being recommended by the APS. Why? According to physicist Bob Park, the APS isn't mentioned because they were never consulted. CBS is doing damage control. The APS issued a press release (22 April 2009) that reads, in part:

On April 19, CBS aired a “60 Minutes” segment on “cold fusion,” a process that proponents claim could solve the world’s energy problems. The script stated that “... [‘60 Minutes’] asked the American Physical Society, the top physics organization in America, to recommend an independent scientist. They gave us Rob Duncan, vice chancellor of research at the University of Missouri and an expert in measuring energy.” That statement is false.

None of the American Physical Society’s (APS) authorized spokespersons, including the president, president-elect, executive officer, director of public affairs, head of media relations and press secretary, provided CBS with the names of any experts. APS has learned that “60 Minutes” did receive a long list of names - that included Rob Duncan’s - from University of Minnesota Professor Allen Goldman, who states unequivocally that he never claimed to be acting in the name of APS.

Scott Pelley practically handed over his "60 Minutes" segment on cold fusion last Sunday to Michael McKubre, an electro-chemist with a vivid imagination and a colorful cartoon illustration of his vision of what's happening at the molecular level when he sometimes gets small but measurable amounts of heat from his experiments. (He doesn't know why it doesn't always work, though.) "At the atomic level, palladium looks like a lattice and the electricity drives the deuterium to the palladium. They sit on the surface and they pop inside the lattice," said McKubre with a straight face and no evidence.

But the clincher for many viewers, I'm sure, was the interview with Rob Duncan, who is portrayed as having started out a skeptic but was converted to being a true believer once he saw what was going on in some labs where cold fusion work is being done. After all, Duncan represented the APS, the most prestigious physics organization in America. If that group of hard-nosed scientists sent their best man to investigate and he came back a believer, then how could the armchair skeptic have the hubris to question the reality of the work of such geniuses as Pons and Fleishmann?

Bob Park notes:

Rob Duncan, vice chancellor of research at the University of Missouri, went to Israel with 60 Minutes to visit Energetics Technologies, which claims SuperWave Fusion will solve the energy problem. It shouldn’t be necessary to remind scientists that neither visiting a laboratory, nor peer reviewing a manuscript, is enough. There must be independent replication of the ET claims. Without replication, the claims are nothing. The genius behind ET is the CVO, Chief Visionary Officer, Irving Dardik, MD. Dardik got into cold fusion after losing his license to practice medicine in New York. It puts us in mind of Randy Mills of BlackLight Power, another MD who says he can solve the energy problem. Is SuperWave Fusion another scam?

Those who bothered to follow the SuperWave Fusion link saw the face of Scott Pelley staring back at them and the large-letter pronouncement: Energetics Technologies profiled on the CBS News Magazine “60 Minutes” in a report on the breakthroughs in Cold Fusion.

Pelley did interview one skeptic, however. Richard Garwin helped design the most successful fusion experiment of all time: the hydrogen bomb. He told Pelley the reason McKubre and others don't get measurable heat all the time is that they're deluding themselves. Their results are due to their equipment, not cold fusion (or to low energy nuclear reaction, as defenders call it these days). In short, the cold fusion work isn't more than junk science (the title of the segment), despite the efforts of "60 Minutes" to make it so. Revising their work promotes their error and lack of integrity.

The most pathetic segment of the piece, however, was the one where Pelley visits Martin Fleishmann and tries to cheer up the apparently defeated and destroyed old man by convincing him that he was right after all and is being vindicated. And, isn't it great that Scott Pelley was there to help bring this great moment about? Pelley and "60 Minutes" have lost a lot of credibility by this sloppy piece of propaganda. Rather than publicly admit that they misled their viewers by claiming to have the endorsement of the APS and converted a hard-nosed skeptic into a true believer, they tried to erase the evidence. How stupid is that in an era of TiVo? Are they banking on the fact that most people don't know that they've been duped and are unlikely to find out?

Listen to Pelley defend cold fusion. He sounds like Dean Radin defending psi: top scientists have shown in hundreds of experiments around the world ... even in the Pentagon! ... that something interesting is going on!

reader comments

17 Sept 2009
The report you put on your website regarding the 60 minutes segment is factually incorrect. 60 minutes did claim that they contacted APS to get an expert on calorimetry, and this claim was inaccurate. What they did is to contact a high ranking member of the APS to get the name, they did not [contact] the organization as a whole directly. They changed the article to reflect APS's position that the organization was not involved.

reply: I reported everything you say except for the bit about why they changed the article. I say they changed it because they were challenged on the claim Pelley made on national television that CBS contacted the APS for the name of a skeptical physicist. I don't see how your version differs from mine in any significant way or why you would say mine is factually inaccurate.

You make an embarassing [sic] claim that the absorption of Hydrogen isotopes into Palladium is a fantasy, but this is a well known fact. Palladium absorbs any H isotope up to a 1-1 ratio of Pd/H atoms.

reply: You're making an embarrassing accusation, since I don't make any such claim.

In addition, the topic of cold fusion itself is completely inappropriate for a skeptical website, since the phenomenon does not involve any supernatural events, nor is it fundamentally at odds with any conservation law or fundamental principle. It is, at worst, in conflict with back-of-the-envelope estimates of the rate of nuclear processes made by incompetent nuclear experts.

Ron Maimon

reply: Really? I wasn't aware of this rule of appropriateness. Thanks for informing me. Where can I find out more about it? On the other hand, cold fusion appears to be a kind of pathological science or free-energy scheme, which is certainly appropriate for a skeptical website. In any case, Skeptimedia is devoted to how the media covers scientific, pseudoscientific, paranormal, and supernatural claims. I think 60 Minutes and Scott Pelley in particular dropped the ball on this one.

Ron replies:

[Your claim that the APS was never consulted is] dubious. The 60 minutes team did contact a high ranking APS member, Allen Goldman, and asked for a skeptical calorimetry expert. While Goldman was not acting on behalf of APS, he did do the job requested of him. You do not mention this anywhere, and this is grossly misleading. Duncan's conversion to cold-fusion believer looks sincere.

Bob's reply to Ron: You must have skipped over the quote from Bob Park that I use. It says exactly what you say I don't mention. You're missing the point. Pelley said on national television that 60 Minutes contacted the APS to get the name of a skeptical physicist. That claim is false. Contacting a member of a group who has no authority to represent the group is not even close to contacting the group. Worse, the guy CBS ended up with as the skeptical physicist was not a skeptic.

More from Ron:

The statement that electricity drives the deuterium into the Pd lattice is a well known fact, and you are making it sound like McKubre made it up. He does not need evidence for this, since it is 19th century science. This is not responsible commentary. You might say that McKubre's claim of nuclear reactions is not well supported, but the claim that deuterium is uploaded into Pd definitely is.

reply: Once again you're missing the point. Like 99.99% of the viewers of 60 Minutes I have no idea what it means for electricity to drive deuterium to palladium or how this supports cold fusion. McKubre used a cartoon to illustrate his point. I found this quite amusing, as if a few colored graphics is all one needs to defend a controversial claim (about cold fusion, not about what electricity can do).

Ron again:

Cold fusion is not a "free energy scheme"--- it consumes deuterium and according to the papers I have seen, it produces radioactive waste. It does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, and it does not violate conservation of energy. It is not ruled out by any fundamental principles, nor is there any convincing theoretical argument that rules it out definitively. It's an area of ignorance where there are weird effects that nobody understands. There is no justifiable reason for putting that side by side with claims of perpetual motion, or with poltergeists and ESP.

reply: Maybe you've forgotten the part of the 60 Minutes program where Rob Duncan went to Israel with 60 Minutes to visit Energetics Technologies, which claims SuperWave Fusion will solve the energy problem. Did you skip over the quote from Bob Park above: "the genius behind ET is the CVO, Chief Visionary Officer, Irving Dardik, MD. Dardik got into cold fusion after losing his license to practice medicine in New York. It puts us in mind of Randy Mills of BlackLight Power, another MD who says he can solve the energy problem. Is SuperWave Fusion another scam?"

Of course cold fusion itself is not a free-energy scheme, but it is being promoted as one by an Israeli lab.

Your attempt to get this skeptic to shut up about cold fusion is off base. There are many topics that skeptics are concerned with that don't involve ESP or ghosts.


2 Oct 2009
he electrochemical uptake of deuterium into palladium is standard electrochemistry. Pons and Fleischmann claimed that if this is carried out at a sufficiently high overvoltage, the effective concentration of deuterium is increased to the point at which fusion occurs. They were taken very seriously for a few days, until Argonne Natl Lab showed that the excess heat attributed to fusion actually arose from some ordinary chemical side-reactions that had not been taken into account.

So Cold Fusion is not unscientific; it is refuted science, which is rather different. Fusion, of course, is the process that powers the Sun, and I believe that hot fusion has been achieved albeit briefly and messily in high temperature plasmas in the laboratory (see Wikipedia Fusion Power; I am very sceptical as to whether this will ever be any use)

Paul Braterman,
Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry, University of Glasgow

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