I have been reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius lately (a free edition I got on my beloved Kindle), the Roman emperor from 161-180 a.d. who very much earned the reputation of “philosopher king.” I stumbled across a passage that struck a chord within me because it so resonated with events in my life that happened a dozen years ago this month. I will quote the passage later, but first, some preliminary discussion.
A proxy is a substitute, a stand-in, something you use when the real thing isn’t available. Not everything used as a substitute is a proxy, though. If you use an artificial sweetener in your coffee because the sugar bowl is empty, that is a substitute but not a proxy for sugar. But if you use tree ring measurements to figure out what global temperature trends were like hundreds of years ago, either before thermometers were invented or because no one recorded temperatures in the region of interest with a thermometer at the time, then the tree ring data is a proxy for thermometer temperature measurements.
Before you use a substitute for what you actually wish you could use, you have to figure out just how sufficient a substitute your proxy is. This is not going to be another column about climate change, but I do want to use tree rings as an example for just a few more sentences. When you measure tree rings and calculate your averages, ideally the rings would yield the same set of average temperatures that a thermometer would have given you. You couldn’t hope to have the uncertainties in the measurements be as good, of course, but in the end it is hoped that the proxy will accurately reflect reality. For instance, if the tree ring data shows a quantitatively degree-resolvable increase in temperatures over a hundred-year-long period, you want that to reflect what thermometers would have shown.
Now, I brought up tree ring proxies because they are both easy to understand and easy to misuse. Indeed, when used in producing the “hockey stick” global warming graph, that particular set of data negatively correlated with the mid-twentieth century instrument record. This led to the use of the programming “trick” that became the “hide the decline” controversy of the Climategate e-mails. Nevertheless, there is a rational scientific basis behind trying to use tree ring data as a temperature proxy, and tree rings are an adequate proxy for determining qualitative climate variations over time. One can follow the argument for why such data should work, and then it’s just a matter of demonstrating, via hard work, that it, in fact, does. Unfortunately, in the hockey-stick case, wishful thinking was substituted for hard work and the rest is history.
In ordinary life it is also necessary to use proxies, and I call them intellectual proxies if they’re being used as a stand-in for our own knowledge and expertise. This usually means relying on experts of one kind or another, but then, we also use the opinions of others as proxies for personal knowledge about said experts’ expertise.
What follows is a story from my Infinite Energy Magazine days in which unreasonable reliance on intellectual proxies ran amuck.
In 1998, while I was being courted by Eugene Mallove to work for Infinite Energy Magazine, he told me of several potentially lucrative irons already in the fire. By lucrative I mean rich in opportunity to demonstrate new physics, and hopefully financially lucrative in the long haul. IE, like many of the fringe researchers in those days, was supported by one major patron and several minor ones. In addition, revenue came in from sales of the magazine and assorted products. But we always hoped that we could be a conduit to help some inventor bring a game-changer technology to market, and thus be in line for the “inevitable” huge flow of incoming dollars certain to follow (not necessarily from the product itself but from bringing in additional investors—the dot.com bubble of the late nineties had made a lot of new millionaires overnight and optimism was everywhere).
The most exciting of those irons involved a fellow named Dave Cappelletti who was the patron of a mysterious Italian scientist. By Dave’s account, this scientist had a brilliant, “obviously real,” intuitive means for producing energy, a kind of “warm fusion” approach. It was essentially a beam tube that shot deuterium ions into a metal target loaded with deuterium. None of us knew this yet when I was hired, for the mysterious Italian inventor played his cards very close to the vest, having been, in his opinion, screwed out of something or other “by the Americans” decades before.
Gene Mallove was extremely enthusiastic and optimistic about our future prospects with Dave. Around the time I arrived on the scene in New Hampshire, the magazine had secured the factory space next to our editorial offices in expectation that soon new energy units would be produced there. I think Gene and Dave even took a drive around the area looking for land where Dave might want to build a home. Though we had secured the space, there was nothing in the unit except a desk and a fax machine. Our patron wasn’t going to invest in any major way until Gene actually paid a visit to Italy and saw this miracle device.
I met Dave a few times at a number of events and conventions, and I liked him. He seemed genuinely interested in the science of what we, and others on the fringe, were pursuing, entirely apart from the chance any of them would ultimately make money. He was always well dressed, but comfortable in his clothes—you never got the impression he was dressing for anyone or to set himself apart; it was just the way he dressed. I never asked, but got the impression that his finger nails were clipped and buffed professionally with the same kind of disinterest the rest of us take in getting haircuts. Always in good spirits and easy to talk to, he was, in a word, charming. I remember telling mutual friends that if I ever found myself a wealthy man, I wanted to be like Dave Cappelletti.
Despite the reluctance of the inventor, Gene was finally able to schedule a trip to Italy to see this wonderful machine. He had managed to get the inventor to publish some material in the magazine about the theory behind his process, so the name of Renzo Boscoli was finally out in the open. Gene went to Italy loaded for bear, with measurement devices of assorted kinds and expertise back home to help him ask the right questions. He fully expected a triumphant return home.
Alas, as Gene described in great detail in the magazine (“The Tragedies of Renzo Boscoli and ‘Warm Fusion,’” by Eugene Mallove, Infinite Energy Magazine, No. 28, Nov/Dec 1999), the trip to Italy was an unmitigated disaster. Boscoli pulled a bait-and-switch, would show Gene nothing that produced unusual amounts of heat, and claimed he had now moved on to a process for extracting electricity directly from neutron emissions. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Dave himself had never even seen Boscoli’s notebooks, which were supposedly written in code and hidden someplace. In short, it was impossible to know whether or not there had ever been a process that did anything other than mundane physics, if that.
As he boarded the plane, Gene and those of us back home concluded it wasn’t a case of deliberate fraud (we’d been through that before), but of a sincerely deluded and secretive scientist who’d found himself a patron who’d wanted to believe as much as he did. Like people who find themselves caught up in scam investment schemes, after they’d put in a lot of time and money, it became psychologically difficult for either to admit it was all a mistake. And even though Gene Mallove had not invested very much of our patron’s money into this useless machine, he had invested a tremendous amount of hope, and an even greater amount of his personal credibility, for the collapse of this opportunity hit him very hard.
Nevertheless, Mallove did produce a remarkably thorough, even-handed, and unvarnished report about the whole affair, even apologizing for getting the readerships’ hopes up. He then spent months trying to sort out exactly what went wrong, how he could have let himself become so mistaken and enthusiastic about what Dave Cappelletti had told him. As he told me, he really thought a wealthy man like Dave would not have invested so much of his own money into anything without having had it “thoroughly checked out.”
But there lies the problem. To Mallove, having spent much of his life around the scientists of MIT, getting the process checked out would naturally imply bringing in people who could at least validate the measurements that the inventor claimed to have made. Even if Boscoli refused to discuss exactly what made the process work, at minimum what the process did could have been demonstrated. Unwittingly, Mallove allowed Cappelletti’s charm and money to serve as his intellectual proxy for unavailable real data.
As for Cappelletti, he also made poor use of intellectual proxies. He had come upon Renzo Boscoli at a time when cold fusion was deeply debated, and it was no problem at all to find physicists with PhDs who would take seriously Dave’s claims of a mysterious scientist with a secret energy-producing process. He likely would not have appreciated the nuance that “taking seriously” applied to a possibility and might not apply to what his inventor had at all. That Eugene Mallove, with his PhD from MIT, believed him, even without having seen the machine, fueled Cappelletti’s certainty that his guy was the real deal. Mix in what Boscoli showed him with the sorts of energy wonders Dave might have read about in the pages of IE or seen at conventions, couple it to some wishful thinking, and he proved to himself that he had a sure thing.
I promised you some words from Marcus Aurelius. This is from Book 8, chapter XLVII: “Keep thyself to the first bare and naked apprehensions of things, as they present themselves unto thee, and add not unto them.” This is what caught my attention because intellectual proxies are those things he cautions us not to add.
He continues, “. . . I see that my child is sick, I see, but that he is in danger of his life also, I see it not. Thus thou must use to keep thyself to the first motions and apprehensions of things, as they present themselves outwardly; and add not unto them from within thyself through mere conceit and opinion.” Leave it to the ancients to not mince words. What reasons other than untested trust in their own powers of discernment and arrogant faith in their own “expertise” did either Dave Cappelletti or Gene Mallove have to go on? They both relied upon intellectual proxies that had no basis in reality and that did little more than make them feel good and affirm what they wanted to believe. Marcus Aurelius understood that this is a fault people are all too prone to demonstrate.
And I’m no exception since that’s all I was relying on when I accepted the job with Infinite Energy Magazine, the biggest fiasco I ever put my family through.
Copyright © 2011 Jeffery D. Kooistra