Looking At Controversy Through The Eyes Of Britannica and Wikipedia

The argument about Wikipedia versus Britannica continues to rage in libraryland. The questions are about authority and the likelihood of outright deception, of course, and a recent round brought up the limitations of peer review as exemplified in the 1989 cold fusion controversy, where two scientists claimed to have achieved a nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature. Randy Souther, from the University of San Francisco, asked us to look more carefully:

FYI, cold fusion in 1989 was a media fiasco, but not a fraud. The research is still controversial, but continues today with publications in more than 50 peer-reviewed journals. But you would never realize this by reading Britannica’s one-paragraph article, which is stuck in 1989; Wikipedia’s gives a reasonable overview, and is up-to-date.

So I looked. Here’s the 175 words the Encyclopeadia Britannica Online used to cover the matter:

The fusion of two atomic nuclei at cool temperatures is referred to as cold fusion. Nuclear fusion has been an important area of study in nuclear physics since the 1940s, and from that time, researchers have pursued the possibility of harnessing fusion, which can produce huge amounts of energy from mere hydrogen with minimal radioactive waste, for the generation of electricity. The main obstacle to practical applications of nuclear fusion is that atoms must be heated to tens of millions of degrees Celsius in order to combine at sufficiently high rates. In 1989, however, chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have fused atoms of deuterium, which is also called heavy hydrogen because its mass is twice that of ordinary hydrogen, in a simple electric cell at room temperature. The experiment generated great excitement in the scientific community, but other scientists were unable to duplicate Pons and Fleischmann’s results, and their findings were ultimately discredited. Despite skepticism among most nuclear fusion experts, some researchers continue to study the possibility of cold fusion.

And here’s just the introduction to the Wikipedia article:

Cold fusion is the name for a nuclear fusion reaction that occurs well below the temperature required for thermonuclear reactions (millions of degrees Celsius). Such reactions may occur near room temperature and atmospheric pressure, and even in a relatively small (table top) experiment. In a narrower sense, “cold fusion” also refers to a particular type of fusion supposedly occurring in electrolytic cells.

The term “cold fusion” was coined by Dr Paul Palmer of Brigham Young University in 1986 in an investigation of “geo-fusion”, or the possible existence of fusion in a planetary core. It was brought into popular consciousness by the controversy surrounding the Fleischmann-Pons experiment in March of 1989. A number of other scientists have reported replication of their experimental observation of anomalous heat generation in electrolytic cells, but in a non-predictable way, and most scientists believe that there is no proof of cold fusion in these experiments. A majority of scientists consider this research to be pseudoscience, while proponents argue that they are conducting valid experiments in a protoscience that challenges mainstream thinking.

The subject has been of scientific interest since nuclear fusion was first understood. Hot nuclear fusion using deuterium yields large amounts of energy, uses an abundant fuel source, and produces only small amounts of manageable waste; thus a cheap and simple process of nuclear fusion would have great economic impact. Unfortunately, no “cold” fusion experiments that gave an otherwise unexplainable net release of energy have so far been reproducible.

Wordcounts don’t measure quality, but Wikipedia’s 247 word introduction seems much more useful than Britannica’s entire article. More importantly, I like this article as an example of how Wikipedia handles controversy. We’ve seen controversy in articles about charged political or social issues, but I think it’s much easier for most readers to look at this one without feeling for the issue at hand.

Separately… They’re both online, but which one is easier to read? Which one best takes advantage of the medium?

And for those who are interested in cold fusion, Randy (who’s Joyce Carol Oats website rocks) suggested two books on the matter for further reading: