Free Energy and the Press

Science journalism is in trouble at a time that needs it the most. Over the last few years, budget crunches have forced the media has to scale back their coverage of science news across the spectrum. The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Columbus Dispatch to name just a few, have had to drastically reduce or eliminate their science sections.

This tragedy of timing comes at a time when knowledge about energy technology is most critical. The hunt for new sources of abundant and clean energy has opened up a veritable gold rush for new methods and processes to produce energy on a grand scale. Many scientists and researchers have attacked this with aplomb, looking at refining old techniques, or tapping a previously unused source of energy. But there are always those who are either misguided or only looking to make a quick buck and cash in on this expanding field of renewable energy research. It is normally the job of the press to weed through and prevent such people from cheating the public.

Take for example this piece from CNN last December. In a report for CNN, reporter Poppy Harlow highlights a company out to create a new energy source using water, salt and a few simple household chemicals. As with anything that sounds too good to be true, it is. Harlow mentions in passing that “Many scientists say the technology violates the basic laws of quantum physics.”

Really, such a sentence is tantamount to saying “It doesn’t work.” Unfortunately, that was lost on Harlow, who continued reporting as if the laws of physics could be changed with a simple majority vote in the local town council. Simply put the Universe doesn’t work that way. The problem here was this report aired at the same time that CNN announced it was closing down its entire science bureau.

When something sounds like it’s too good to be true it usually is. Limitless sources of free energy clearly fall into that category. Last night’s 60 Minutes had a long report on cold fusion, and again had scientist Michael McKubre tell reporter Scott Pelley “We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man.”

Again, this sounds way too good to be true, especially considering cold fusion was debunked 20 years ago. Both reporters Harlow and Pelley, neither of whom have a strong background in science reporting, need to attack their respective stories with much more skepticism.

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