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Mullumbimby’s plan to save the world peters out

E-cat meeting a fizzer, Reg hack bathes in the flames

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A reader has alerted The Register to the outcome of the Mullumbimby E-cat promotional meeting. It ended without issue after a planned Skype call from inventor Andrea Rossi failed to eventuate.

Both the citizens of the northern New South Wales town, and skeptic philanthropist Dick Smith (who had offered $AU200,000 for proof that the device works) will keep their wallets shut, reports the Sydney Morning Herald with nary a blush over its previous “save the world” headline.

The previous El Reg story about E-cat inspired spirited debate due to our own skepticism, some of which is worth further exposure.

“It’s not cold fusion”

A reader complained about my use of he expression “cold fusion”, presumably because that has ill connotations after it last featured in a scientific breakthrough/scam.

“LENR is not cold fusion - please don't confuse the two. Fusion can only take place in places like our Sun. Please read up on the ACTUAL science of LENR before attacking it and labelling it "Cold Fusion",” I was told.

The reader linked to the video below, which happily headlines LENR (low-energy nuclear reactions) as cold fusion.

“Be fair”

While this comment is already public, the author’s name is not, and I will respect that. However, the sentiment should be addressed:

“If even just a minute little thing can come of this it opens new paths that can be experimented on, And if it turns out to be a scam then his credibility is over and will be rideculed, Until it is proven either way grow up and give the man a chance, The applause or mocking can come afterwards.” (sic)

The applause / mocking can indeed come afterwards. However, when someone is trying to raise investment money from the idea, “afterwards” is too late: money, once lost, isn’t recoverable.

“Don’t invest in a scientific breakthrough without the science” is not somehow abusing the claimed breakthrough. If I miss out being on the ground floor, then I’ll miss out on the millions and you won’t. Feel free to sneer at me through a monocle, one day.

And I won’t apologize for my attitude towards journalists that help spruik unproven or, in some cases, sham technologies. The world is long past the day where a reporter can hide behind “I’m not trained to judge the science, I just report what people say”. Too many shysters rely on exactly that attitude.

What about NASA?

The afore-mentioned video really does, however, unrug my feet, doesn’t it? After all, it’s someone from NASA endorsing the E-cat, and I’m just a bum, right?

To put the argument simply, Rossi is right, and his E-cat works, because a NASA scientist described an observed phenomenon in a piece-de-camera.

Wrong: the NASA video doesn’t endorse the E-cat, it reports that a phenomenon exists that might one day be a usable energy source. The NASA scientist quoted in the video has a commercial product in mind, but only in vague terms: “a unit that would replace your water heater, and … some sort of cycle that would derive electrical energy from that … and it would dump its waste heat into the water”.

That looks more like research waiting for development waiting for commercialization – not a working, buy-it-now, commercial system as Rossi says he has.

The Register has approached NASA for further comment, but have yet to hear back.

“Rossi is not offering shares”

A reader who didn’t mind being named, Christopher Calder, e-mailed me to say that “Rossi is not selling shares in any company or taking advance payments for products he does not have to sell. He will only sell products when he has them ready to go, and they will be backed by warranties just like any other product you buy. He will make no money if the E-Cat does not work as promised. Rossi is backed by two very large American corporations who would never get involved in a silly scam that could not do anything but lose money.”

Rossi might not be soliciting investment. However, anybody seeking dollars for an E-cat project is, in my opinion, putting investors’ money at risk on an unproven “black box”, and investors should be warned.

Nor do I regard corporate backing as proof that the technology works. I doubt if any corporate backers of E-cat are betting their entire companies on the technology; and it’s not unprecedented for companies to make bad investment decisions.

More importantly, we need to avoid the “appeal to authority” implicit in regarding corporate backers as a substitute for public science. It’s akin to regarding the Royal Family’s attitude to homeopathy as scientific proof.

Once again, I will return to journalists: too often, we use the appeal to authority as an excuse to leave our brains in another room, as in “respected mining engineer debunks climate change”.

I’ll not only take the chance I’m wrong: if E-cat works, I’ll be delighted.

Until it does, it’s not something people should invest anything more than pin-money in. I don’t want to be reading stories in two years’ time about retirees complaining that ASIC (Australia’s lame investment watchdog, which spends most of its life scratching and barking on the porch) didn’t protect them. ®

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