A rational reaction to Steorn’s free energy claim requires skepticism. Not only have centuries of attempts to engineer a perpetual motion machine been fruitless, but the very concept of free energy flies in the face of the most basic laws of nature. In the words of Carl Sagan (after Marcello Truzzi), “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. And Steorn’s is perhaps the most extraordinary claim of all.
While the notion of skepticism historically refers to an attitude of doubt, critical thinking and the suspension of judgment until sufficient evidence is available, the modern flag bearers for the skeptical movement often err on the side of rash judgment, smirkingly dismissing any claims that contradict their own belief systems, with little interest in evaluating evidence. Chief among this movement of dogmatic pseudo-skeptics is James “The Amazing” Randi.
While Randi’s self righteous bluster is built more on biting sarcasm than on critical thinking, what might irritate his targets and please his allies most is that his conclusions are rarely found to be incorrect. His arguments against extraordinary claims boil down to the simple fact that no similar claim has panned out in the past. If centuries of searching for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster haven’t produced a single specimen, these creatures probably don’t exist. This type of argument doesn’t rely on the specific evidence of a particular case, it relies on statistics and intuition: flawed but powerful tools. So, despite the unscientific nature of Randi’s approach and the hot headed combativeness of his rhetoric, Randi’s done us all the service of cutting through jungles of baloney, exposing countless frauds and cheats along the way.
What’s more, Randi’s got abundant proof of just how right he is — one million dollars of it. He offers a $1 million prize to any person who can succeed in demonstrating their extraordinary claim under the conditions of a controlled scientific experiment. Hundreds of dowsers, energy healers, psychics, etc., have applied for this prize. Thus far, no one has succeeded in claiming it, and Randi doesn’t expect to lose those million dollars anytime soon.
Free energy is one of the extraordinary claims that fall squarely within the range of eligibility for Randi’s prize. Free energy — like Bigfoot, remote viewing, and spoon bending — has not been successfully demonstrated under controlled, replicable conditions despite many attempts. But unlike those other exotic claims, free energy is also in direct violation of the most fundamental laws of science. So, where Sasquatch and miraculous powers may be extraordinarily unlikely, free energy is more than that: it’s virtually impossible.
Thus far, Randi has published two articles concerning Steorn. In these he dismisses their claim out of hand, and he also states clearly that if true, Steorn’s claim would surely earn his million dollar prize.
Sean McCarthy and the other Steorn employees have put a lot at risk by making as bold a claim as they have. If they’re wrong, they lose their company and their reputations.
But now Randi has put a lot at risk as well. If it turns out that he’s wrong, he will lose more than his million dollar prize. He will lose credibility, not only for himself, but for his whole approach of dismissing unlikely claims reflexively rather than examining them critically. That could change the world as much as free energy itself. But if Randi’s right — and statistics are on his side — it’s another point for the skeptics, another scam or delusion vanquished.
Either way, it’s going to be quite a spectacle.
For posterity, I’m excerpting below from what Randi has so far had to say about Steorn. His first mention of Steorn is from his August 25th 2006 article:
YET ANOTHER FREE-ENERGY FARCE
Reader David O’Callaghan, of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, brings us this news: the Dublin-based company Steorn has announced their development of
…a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy… the convenience of never having to refuel your car or recharge your mobile phone.
Hallelujah! It’s Friday, and we’d gone a full six hours into the day without hearing of another new, exciting, pollution-free, magnetic-based, infinite supply, over-100%-efficient, system. We were getting worried that the international crackpot community was failing our expectations. Steorn has now relieved us of that concern. They’ve come up with free-energy plan #12,255,740! (That’s only a rough estimate…) They claim the word “steorn” is Norse. Who knows?
True to class, they’ve issued a challenge to the experimental physicists of the world to examine their claims. The company admits that during the past few years some ninety per cent of those scientists they’d asked to examine the technology, refused. However, as we’d expect, those few who did agree to investigate the idea came to the conclusion that the Steorn system can really create energy. This is the principle of looking around until you find someone – anyone with any sort of academic qualification – who will agree with a stupid idea. However, I find the phrasing used by Steorn to describe this reluctance of the scientists, very interesting. They state:
The vast majority of these institutions refused to even look at the technology, however several did. Those who were prepared to complete testing have all confirmed our claims; however none will publicly go on record.
So we’re back at the starting gate again. What possible reason could there be for any scientist or organization to shy away from a public endorsement? If the thing works, they’re up front, leading the revolution that the fuddie-duddies refused to admit could ever occur! Ah, but look back at the qualification made: “Those who were prepared to complete testing,” it reads. Does this mean that even those who thought Steorn had a winner, never actually completed the testing procedure? That’s the way it looks, and an almost-test is no test at all. How can a scientist confirm a claim when the tests were not actually done? Steorn might be – to put it gently – over-enthusiastic in their claims. For those unfamiliar with the terminology and the phrasing used by these flakes, such questions would naturally arise, but investors adore this…
Steorn, in order to gain major exposure, announced this major scientific breakthrough by placing a paid announcement in that well-known journal of physics, The Economist. The cost of such an ad is in the range of US$100,000. Hark! I hear a warning klaxon!
Just why did the majority of those scientists who were asked to examine the Steorn claim, decline to be part of this major discovery, and why have no academic journals seized upon this breakthrough? Well, the company says that its technology challenges the fundamental scientific principle that you cannot destroy or create energy. This, as any child in high school is aware, is known as the Law of Conservation of Energy, a finding that has probably been tested, proven, looked into, held up to close examination, and thoroughly established again and again, more than any other basic law of the universe. Consider: if just one exception to this law were ever found, it would turn the scientific world upside down, and would reverse the millennia of discoveries about how things work.[…]
Folks, this is very easy, simple, straightforward, undemanding, and uncomplicated, to prove! Just perform step number one, showing that the device or system puts out more energy than it takes in, and the whole world will sit up in rapt admiration, and will invest! Hey, I’ll invest! And of course the JREF will immediately award its million-dollar prize. Steorn will scoff at that, since I’m not a scientist, but I sure know a machine that runs itself will get the prize! And we’ve got the million dollars! (emphasis added) And, if I may be presumptuous, I assume that Steorn is prepared to pay the costs of doing the real research. Well, if there are any real scientists out there who want some incoming supporting funds for their schools, this appears to be a great opportunity, and Steorn has, after all, requested such input – and agreed to publish the results, negative or positive. That calls for an answer. Hello…?
This European scam naturally reminds us of the Dennis Lee matter that we here in the USA still have going. […] As Eric points out, Dennis Lee and Steorn are only two in a long line of scam artists who have been selling these free-energy devices for more than a hundred years. Lee himself has been doing this for more than two decades, and though he’s been convicted of fraud in several states, he still manages to sell franchises and dealerships in the USA for a product that doesn’t exist – as Steorn is poised to do in Europe.
Randi’s second reference to Steorn was in his September 22nd 2006 article:
BACK TO STEORN
Reader Ian MacMillan brings us up to date on the item to be found at www.randi.org/jr/2006-08/082506yet.html#i1 involving another one of those “free energy” farces. Ian had suggested to the company, Steorn, that since they had a free-energy device, they should pursue the JREF million-dollar prize.[…]
Nothing much here, although Steorn joins the long list of people who do not need or want $1 million.
We’re told that literally thousands of responses were received by Steorn after their hundred-thousand-dollar ad in The Economist newspaper appeared. It seems to me that this will give them a lot of choice, and they’ll be able to find a sufficient number of scientists in there – they only need 12! – who will provide them with some sort of endorsement. This is exactly the sort of fact-dodging and evasive maneuvering that we might expect from someone who doesn’t really have anything to offer, but would very much like to start selling stock to the naïve. I’ll bet that they’ll soon be prepared to issue a statement saying that some previously unheard-of “scientists” are convinced that they’ve got a real working machine to offer, and that they’re now ready to issue a call for investors.
But let’s see…
There is also a thread devoted to Steorn on the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) forum:
There are several threads in the Steorn forum dealing with Randi and his million dollar prize, including one where Sean McCarthy states his reasons for not applying for the prize, and then suggests that the Steorn developer club may apply for it in the future:
The JREF thing is more complicated than if the guy is honest and capable (both of which I doubt). First the simple fact that there is a debate in here about the matter underlines how much doubt would remain if JREF ever part with thier $1 million. Who would believe afterwards?
Second you should understand the concept of co-branding, for a mere $1 million JREF get to jump on and attempt to control the media bandwagan and indeed they would become defacto the ‘OU’ guys in the eyes of many.
Steorn does not need the $1 million, attempting to get it from the hands of JREF is fraught with danger and indeed getting it carries its own risks. It is a lose/lose/lose situation for us. Even if we needed the money I would prefer to starve.
lol, I hope that someone from the DC, or indeed the DC together go and get the money….. In fact perhaps we should make this a key objective of the DC.
The more I think about this the better I like it, lol the DC group wins $1 million from JREF!!!! Now that would be just too funny not to do.
Steorn vs. the Skeptics: with reputations, credibility, the meaning of modern skepticism and one million dollars on the line, this is bound to be an interesting rivalry.