Monday, September 21, 2009

The cold fusion of charter studies

Boston Foundation Boston Foundation BOSTON FOUNDATION!!! Ask any charter booster, amateur or professional (of which there are many, considering charters' hefty advertising budgets), for proof that charters have a significant impact on student outcomes, and they will tell you about the Boston Foundation study. The study takes me back to the names Pons and Fleischman -- the two eminently credentialed scientists who claimed to have discovered cold fusion 10 years ago -- whose brethren seem to have found a home at the Boston Foundation.

A couple things about this product. It isn't a study. True, its authors have many letters after their names who work with lots of numbers (similar to the cold fusion experiment). However, at base this is some data worked up by a nonacademic nonprofit at the behest of a very pro-charter Secretary of Education, himself responding to a pro-charter zealot of a governor, both eying charters as a means to re-election. Studies aren't usually published in pamphlet form fronted by a photo of a doe-eyed youngster, with credit given to the pamphlet designer before it is given to the authors. Studies are refereed.

Yes, its listed authors of work at universities which I suppose is something. The idea, like the cold fusion study, started out with apparently good and smart intentions. The Boston Foundation did the smart thing by deciding to track outcomes only of students who applied to charter schools. The contention has long been that the act of researching and completing an application to a charter schools shows that the family is more dedicated to education. Thus, whether the students ends up in a charter or not, s/he is already enjoying an advantage over non-interested families. Previous studies were suspect, the story would go, because they compared unmotivated students in public schools with charter students who'd demonstrated motivation just by getting in.

Subsequently, the Boston Foundation methodology approach sought to level the playing field. All students in the study applied for a charter school, and the study's two groups were those who went on to the charter and those that did not. Motivation was roughly controlled, and the only variable was the type of education received. Apparently solid methodology.

The key point here -- the Boston Foundation made this change to neutralize an advantage that other studies gave to to charter schools. In a perfect research environment this study would be more pro-public school than its brethren because it neutralized a built-in advantage for charters in academic studies.

However, what happened is a result that was significantly more pro-charter than more rigorous and comprehensive studies.

Herein lies the puzzle. A change in how this "study" is conducted generated results outside the mainstream of scholarship. But that movement from scientific consensus took it in the opposite direction that the methodological change should have logically taken it.

In short: The Boston Foundation made a change that should have resulted in this; instead it resulted in that. This study should be less pro-charter than the mainstream, not more pro-charter. Regardless of results, this should have made the researchers, promoters, and allies pause. Unfortunately, it merely excited them more, just as Fleischman and Pons breathelssly announced their "discovery" of cold fusion without questioning how it could have occurred.

There are a host of possible explanations for this change:

  • We are so ignorant of how to study education that our grasp of methodology is completely wrong. The causal relationship between methodology and results is more complex then dreamed, and frankly the validity of all charter studies is in question.
  • The Boston Foundation stumbled upon a truth undiscovered by the body of scientific work (start here and here for rigorous study), which proves the only they have a valid understanding of how to study educational outcomes.
  • The Boston Foundation effort was so poorly cobbled together (due to incompetence and/or bias) that this charter study is invalid.
You'd think this methodological blow-up would make people stop and think. If a high school biology class did a lab that found that adding weight to an object increased its buoyancy, would the Globe be informed, or would the students be told to review their procedures?

If you're a high school biology student with a questionable result, you question it. If you're the Boston Foundation, you inform the media. Same if you're Pons and Fleischman. There's a lot in common -- both groups used questionable methods and rigor to get a surprising result that stands against scientific consensus and is irreplicable. They publicized it everywhere possible.

The difference, of course, is that there was no industry in place that is desperate to promote cold fusion as a received fact. Whereas today there are millions invested in convincing the government that privatizing education works in a way that privatizing agriculture, the military, transportation, and health care don't.

I will give credit to Deval Patrick, who in a conversation with me seemed rather unmoved by the Boston Foundation study. He may have noticed the rabbit already hiding in the magician's hat, and I hope people as similarly fanatical about charter promotion take his example. Because right now the only thing on offer from the Boston Foundation's "study" is educational cold fusion -- a risky purchase at best.


Jed Rothwell said...

You seem to be under the impression that Fleischmann and Pons were incorrect. I suggest you read something about cold fusion before commenting on it. See:

Quriltai said...

Am I an expert on this? No. Does a simple quick search turn up words such as "controversial", "condemned or "dismissed". Granted, some people are starting to re-investigate this approach, but F&P have simply not been replicated, despite numerous attempts.

Jed Rothwell said...

You wrote:

"Am I an expert on this? No."

Then I suggest you read original, peer-reviewed sources written by experts.

". . . but F&P have simply not been replicated, despite numerous attempts."

That is incorrect. The effect has been replicated at well over 200 major laboratories (E. Storms, Los Alamos), in roughly 14,700 experimental runs (J. He, Chines Ac. of Sciences). Most replications that I have observed or read about were successful.

Jed Rothwell said...

You are correct that cold fusion is controversial and that some have condemned it, but that has no bearing on the actual experimental results, which -- as I said -- you will find in the peer-reviewed literature.

Quriltai said...

You seem to be much more comfortable with cold fusion, so can you tell me what the time horizon for replicable cold fusion as a power source?

Perhaps I should have chosen another ridiculous attempt at science (something from the Discovery Institute) to compare with this abominable study...which after all, was the main point of the post.

Jed Rothwell said...

I do not want to hijack your discussion. You can't be expected to know about papers in obscure electrochemistry journals. This has nothing to do with your main thesis.

The time horizon is difficult to judge. It is not certain that cold fusion can be made into a practical source of energy, although great progress has been made and on a small scale, power density and temperatures have reached the level of a fission reactor core. The main impediment to progress is academic politics. There is no telling if or when this can be overcome.

Quriltai said...

Could you expand upon your mention of "academic politics"? Are you saying this could be done but for people saying it can't be done?

Jed Rothwell said...

The academic politics are complicated and difficult to sum up in a way that treats both sides fairly. I recommend Beaudette's book, which you can get from, or you can read the whole thing at

If I had to summarize it in a few paragraphs, I would say it is a generational divide. On one side you have the cold fusion scientists. Most of them are over 70. Most are, in fact, dead. Many were famous people who cut their teeth at Los Alamos during WWII: Schwinger, Teller, and people like the head of the Atomic Energy Commission India, and the AEC commissioner of France who designed their fission plants, and Jalbert, the world's top expert in tritium. These people were there at the creation of the atomic age. One of them was the guy who actually armed and first the first fission bomb (he literally pressed the button). They saw the emergence of modern theory. Many of them wrote modern theory. So they were all acutely aware that theory is incomplete and there is a great deal that science cannot explain. Most were trained by hands-on experimental techniques that nowadays seem almost laughably primitive. I have met with many of these people and watched them perform experiments. It is like traveling back 50 years in time to an analog world in which direct observations and first principles dominated. You measure heat release by measuring a macroscopic amount of water that boils away from a deep test tube, for example.

On the other side, the people who oppose cold fusion are mostly under 50 or 60, and they were 30 or 40 when it began. They got their education in science in world where all questions were answered. There were supposedly no surprises left: it was just a matter filling in another decimal place. They cannot imagine that theory might be incomplete or wrong. Their training has been theoretical and often based on computers and computer simulations, whereas many of the older scientists do not own or know how to use a computer. So they discount the methodology used by the older scientists as "primitive" (which it is). They insist that only a highly expensive and precise instrument can reveal the truth, whereas the older guys say that if you want measure a 100 W source that continues for a half-hour, why not simply boil away some water? The younger generation insists that no result can be accepted until it is first explained by theory, whereas people such as Schwinger said that science works the other way around: first you discover a phenomenon; then you confirm it by replication; then in the last stage you explain it. Schwinger said: "never forget that physics is empirical." When I quoted that a younger scientist he said that's ludicrous; cooking is empirical, science is based on theory. There is a tremendous gap in the thought processes between these two groups, and very little communication or meeting of the mind.

I agree with the older group, since I am closer to them in age and I got a strict, old fashioned education in experimentally based science (in Japan). The absolute bedrock principle that I learned at a very early age and had re-enforced again and again is that when theory conflicts with experiment, the experiment always wins. Nature and experiment are indisputable sources of truth and the arbiters. But unfortunately, younger scientists disagree, and the older ones who think like Schwinger and I are dying off.

Jed Rothwell said...

The actual content of the debate, with books and articles referenced on both sides, can be found here: has some papers from leading skeptics such as Morrison, Maddox, Jones and Lewis. We have more than any other web site as far as I know. But the skeptics have not written much, and most of them do not wish to contribute to, so they are under-represented.