Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A scam, or self-delusion?

By now you've probably heard about Steorn, a company of dubious provenance (used to be an e-business of some kind back during the .com boom) with no clear technical expertise that placed a full-page ad in The Economist last week. They claim to have developed a device that produces more energy than it takes to run - essentially a perpetual motion machine of the first kind. They go further than that, anecdotally claiming that scientists and engineers at reputable places have tested this gadget and agree that it really does produce energy seemingly from nowhere, but none of those folks have been willing to speak on the record. So, Steorn is trying to put together a "jury" of 12 scientists to test their gizmo. This has many many of the hallmarks of a pseudoscientific scam, complete with an utter lack of technical detail, and the company wanting to decide who does the testing. In fact, they actually won't let the scientists do tests - just examine records of the tests and data. Presumably they'll also say something like "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." On the other hand, it's hard to see what they gain by spending close to $200K on an ad, if the net result is a huge pile of negative publicity - I suppose they're just hoping some gullible rich person will believe that The Scientific Orthodoxy is suppressing this incredible breakthrough, and that big investment will follow. Place your bets on whether we'll ever even hear from these folks again....

6 comments:

BhpG said...

You scientists and your "Laws", just trying to hold back progress! I suppose it's just a coincidence that all the so-called discoverers of these so-called "Laws" of "Thermodynamics" are all dead and so unavailable to be challenged...

:) Oh, how I miss Abian.

DanM said...

It is fun to make a joke like the one in the previous comment. But the truly scary fact is that there are quite a few people who actually feel this way. The Houston Chronicle science blog covered this Steorn story last week, and that sort of response (but with tongue not in cheek) was not uncommon. It is amazing how few people actually understand the meaning of the word "theory" as it is used in the scientific community. We are awash in ignorance.

Doug Natelson said...

Speak for yourself, Dan - I prefer to think of myself as "steeping" in ignorance.

Alison Chaiken said...

I'm old and jaded but it seems to me that the Steorn hype is on a continuum with facts at the other end and many scientific papers and proposals near the middle. We all sling a lot of bullshit to get money, although admittedly some are more guilty than others. The difference between Steorn and the usually proposal intro ("This obscure work on spintronics has important implications for future magnetic recording technology . . . ") is a matter of degree, not black and white. While it's true that Steorn's claims are actually impossible, a lot of the stuff that arrives in my mail is very unlikely.

Dan.M. said...

Alison, I'd have to agree, but even on a continuum it is legitimate to draw a line somewhere and say "beyond this lies madness." The only difficulty is where to draw your line, a matter of personal preference. But I think we can agree that Steorn is way off on the wrong side of everyone's line. What scares me most is the people who are (a) too ill-informed to select where to draw a line on their own, and (b) consider line-drawing to be an illegitimate activity (i.e., you scientists and your "Laws").

Richard says hi, by the way.

BhpG said...

"Just because we admit there are shades of gray doesn't mean black is white." While everyone might "sling a little BS" in their papers from time to time, usually the BS is not in opposition to literally centuries of verified results.

Look, I'm an optimist and iconclast as much as the next bloke. Part of me hopes these guys really did find something new and unexpected. But the trappins all scream "Pons and Fleischmann" to me, and I'm worried to see people start abandoning the scientific process in the hopes of a quick buck.