Similarities Between ESP, Cold Fusion and Global Warming

There are Reasons to Celebrate!

By William M Briggs Published on January 11, 2018

At the climate website No Tricks Zone, there is a picture of various estimates of CO2 climate sensitivity estimates. These are the guesses of how much the temperature would increase if atmospheric carbon dioxide doubled from its pre-industrial levels.

This sensitivity is measured as a “transient climate response” (TCS), noting the near-terms effects, or by “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS), which are the long-term effects, assuming that CO2 stops increasing. The higher either of these numbers is, the more we have to worry about.

Each estimate is taken from a peer-reviewed scientific paper. The first comes in 2001 from the authors Andronova and Schlesinger, with the estimate of 3oC. The highest estimate (in this graph) is 6oC in 2002 from Gregory.

Not All Jokes are Funny

After 2002, something funny happens.

Frame puts the estimate at about 2.8oC by 2005. Skeje guessed 2.8oC in 2014. Not pictured is a paper I co-wrote in 2015, which put the estimate of ECS at 1.0oC. (This paper led to a witch hunt and hysterical accusations of “climate denial.”)

Finally, Reinhart brings it down to about 0.2oC in 2017.

From this picture we can infer at least three things. First, the debate about global warming was not over in 2000, nor in 2001, nor is it over now. The sensitivity estimates would not have changed if the debate were over. Second, the good news is that we clearly have less to worry about than we thought. This is something to celebrate, right? Right?

The third inference is that we have seen this same graph before. Not once, but many times!

You Can’t Read My Mind

The picture looks exactly like the graph of extrasensory perception (ESP) effect size through time. (I wrote a book on the subject, available free at the bottom of this page.)

J.B. Rhine in the 1930s showed the backsides of playing cards to some folks and asked them to use their ESP to “read” the frontsides. Rhine claimed to have demonstrated parapsychological abilities, as did Charles Honorton and Sharon Harper in the mid-1970s using the so-called ganzfeld. The 1970s were a time of high excitement in ESP research, with extraordinary claims coming from every direction.

But then came the 1980s and 1990s, a time when researchers had learnt from magicians and their own errors how to do proper tests. (I designed some of these tests.) The effect size dropped and dropped. It finally fell into the statistical mud, where it remains to this day, in spite of the efforts of a few die-hards to resurrect the glory days.

It’s Colder than You Think

The climate sensitivity graph is also like the amount of excess heat in cold fusion experiments. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989 claimed that by sticking some metal leads into a certain kind of water, “cold fusion” would take place, releasing heat. This heat in theory could be used to generate pollution-free electricity.

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There was initial skepticism from many physicists to Pons and Fleischmann’s claim, but not enough to stop a lot of money being thrown into cold fusion research. Some groups claimed to reproduce the fusion, but eventually even the most optimistic heat estimates fell off a cliff.

Steps to Failure

The climate graph also resembles many Exciting New Medical Cure effect sizes through time. Who remembers interferon? And according to Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science it’s not unlike many scientific claims.

Pomeroy wrote the article “The Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory.” We start with “The Flashy Finding” (high initial effect-size estimates), move to “The Fawning Replications” (high, but slightly lower estimates), and land at “Proper Replications Pour In” (near-zero or zero estimates).

Stage 6 is “The Theory Lives On as a Zombie.” There will always be true believers.

The End is Nigh

Pomeroy was echoing famed physicist Irving Langmuir, who identified five symptoms of “pathological science.

One of these is that the claimed “effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability.” The closer you look, the more the effect recedes into the distance.

The most notable symptom is the political. “Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.”

Few now remember cold fusion, and only specialists can recall how big parapsychological research was in the Twentieth Century. If it follows the same pattern, the gloomier predictions of global warming will soon be nothing but a bad memory.

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  • Bravo! I shared this on Facebook, with a recommendation to have kids read it. The historical points need to be part of their education in skepticism. Thank you, sir.

  • RonitaM

    Likewise shared on FB. Thank you William!

  • Global warming has NOTHING to do with ESP. Global warming is real. ESP is not.

    • NorrinRadd

      Congratulations on entirely missing the point. (Y)

      • GPS Daddy

        I think Chuck only reads the titles and responds to them without reading the article.

  • Eric

    Physicist RICHARD P. FEYNMAN made some very similar observations about what he called “Cargo Cult Science” in his famous Caltech 1974 commencement address.

    He gave this example:

    “Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.”

    And this:

    “Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms—and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments—they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear.”

    A main message of his:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”


    “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”

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