Christmas and Chanukkah come together on the calendar this year so I take the liberty of using a Yiddish expression—meaning dismay, despair, woe is me or just plain holy you know what!—in the headline to describe what happened on the PBS NewsHour last night.
This is actually painful to describe because the NewsHour is a serious, intelligent offering of national and international news and analysis every night—well beyond what you get on network television—with what is normally, in my view, an informative collection of special segments on everything from books to the plight of millions of refugees. And what happened last night will undoubtedly provide fodder for those who use the term “fake news” these days to tarnish a news program that does not engage in such things. Also, the correspondent, Malcolm Brabant, has done excellent on-the-scene reporting for many months on the refugee crisis.
NewsHour co-host Hari Sreenivasan introduced the Tuesday evening segment and the reporter this way: “Imagine a mini power supply in your house or car that made it possible for you to be off the grid. What if that source of energy was totally clean and powered by simple tap water? Well, a Greek scientist claims to have created a machine that converts water into power. As part of our occasional innovation series, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant traveled to the inventor’s island home.”
The Missing Links
At this point in a column, I would normally include a link to the video of the segment and the transcript in case you missed it. But the presentation produced an immediate outpouring of critical mail to me and to the NewsHour and officials removed both the video and the transcript from the NewsHour website, which produced more criticism.
The NewsHour posted this note of explanation on its website: “The story about a Greek inventor and clean energy has been removed temporarily while it is being further reviewed by our staff.” However, an enterprising website reproduced the transcript before it was pulled.
I’m a liberal arts person with some basic, required science that one acquires in school. But I was also jolted and incredulous as I watched this segment on the original broadcast last night. It struck me as some combination of a Rube Goldberg contraption and a Saturday Night Live skit that didn’t make the cut.
To its credit, the NewsHour did include a brief, independent and contrary assessment by a staff member at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. But it was quite brief and did not, as I saw it, resolve the question of why do this segment in the first place. So I, as a viewer, didn’t know what to make of the segment, but then the email started pouring in. Some of the letters are posted below but they are relatively tame compared to some of those on the NewsHour website.
I asked the NewsHour for a response to the emails below and an explanation for why this was considered newsworthy and taken seriously. On Wednesday afternoon, the NewsHour posted the following Editor's Note on its website.
The NewHour's Editor's Note:
There have been questions raised concerning our report that aired on Dec. 27, 2016 about a Greek inventor who is developing a device that purports to turn water into power without requiring additional energy. Despite a team of Greek scientists praising the research, and the inclusion of an independent scientist dubious of the work, the NewsHour acknowledges that our reporting of this segment should have been more skeptical. Our reporting and research should always ask more questions and seek greater insight. We are examining each step in our process, and we apologize to our audience for the lapses in this report. The PBS NewsHour is dedicated to presenting clear and thorough reporting on developments in science and technology, and we will be following up with more reporting on the important subject of clean energy as soon as possible.
(The NewsHour also said, “The video came down while we were reviewing it and we are working on reprocessing.”)
Here Are Some of the Letters
This evening (December 27, 2016), I was astonished, dismayed, and deeply disappointed to witness PBS NewsHour lend credibility and stature to what is most certainly a hoax and a fraud. I refer to the “report” from Greece by Malcolm Brabant on an alleged technological accomplishment that produces substantial electrical power from tap water. Evidently, everyone at NewsHour senior enough to recall the “cold fusion” fiasco also was senior enough to take the holidays off. This segment simply gave the "inventor" an open mike and lens to peddle his fraud, without any skeptical questioning, without any detailed verification of the claimed energy transfer balance, without any investigative probing at all. I would also add, and without any mention of peer reviews, because there have been none – a very red flag. I am already finding multiple web sites quoting and citing the NewsHour report in promoting this scheme.
The simple fact is that the alleged technology requires violating the fundamental laws of thermodynamics and the conservation of energy. Had NewsHour simply vetted this story with anyone holding a degree in science or engineering, it never would have ran, as it should not have.
Really, I expect, as I always have, a much higher standard of reporting depth and integrity than I saw tonight. Please do not contribute to the dangerously increasing distrust of science. It's already going to be a rough four years for the discipline. As for me, I am a retired spacecraft engineer with degrees from Caltech (Electronic Engineering) and USC (Systems Management). My freshman chemistry instructor was Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the nature of the hydrogen bond; the very same bond that is at the heart of this "news" story.
Sam Suitt, Lyons, OR
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I am deeply disappointed in your coverage of the 'free energy' device in Greece. You don't have to be a physicist to understand that you can NOT extract energy from water. You can store it as Hydrogen... but it's not a source! In this post-fact era we're counting on your journalistic integrity. Last night you failed.
Chris Dizon, Eunice, NM
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I just watched tonight’s segment on getting energy from water from a researcher (?) in Greece. I am stunned that your science staff allowed such nonsense to air with no assessment or even the most simplistic review, and analysis. Absolutely no real information on the supposed process or mention of the fact that it violates the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry taught in high school. Has PBS really degenerated to the point it accepts nonsense without vetting. I guess fake-news is in. Is new age alchemy next? How disappointing!!!!
Prof. Antony Clarke, Pahoa, HI
Univ. of Hawaii
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The NewsHour tonight, 12/27/16, ran a segment about an “inventor” who had a device to get energy from water. The segment ran for six to eight minutes, one of which was a comment from a scientist from Denmark saying in basic terms that such machines can't and don't work. My complaint is that, since it's not April first, the balance of the program should have been reversed i.e., one minute on the invention and seven minutes on the tricks that people use to try and make them believable. Without a thorough debunking many people go around thinking that the solution to the energy crisis is being held back so “they” can get rich. Maybe Bill the Science Guy could help out.
Steve Carter, Gloucester
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The story about the Greek inventor who can produce electrical power from a glass of water is appalling in its ignorance of scientific laws, and the scientific method. Some heads need to be educated at the NewsHour. Not only is what the Greek inventor claims clearly impossible, there was also the canard that "big power companies" will not like the success of the inventor in producing power from water. This is clearly an attempt to blunt valid criticism by claiming that the power industry establishment has an agenda to protect itself from the brilliant “little guy.”
David Robertson, Rolla, MO
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PBS needs to explain the appearance of the article about Zografos water to energy. Fake news at PBS? Was this a test?
New York, NY
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The McNeil Lehrer News Hour and its successors for decades have influenced my whole family to look to this program as the source for news. The most likely font of “true facts.” But what do I find on tonight's broadcast but an absurd “science news” story (fairy tale) about creating energy from water! SHAME SHAME. Probably 12 minutes of filler – I guess for entertainment? I know it is the holiday season, slow news, but there was NO excusable basis for putting this on the NewsHour – especially in this era of “fake news” (euphemism for lies). I am very disappointed.
Dan Watson, Easton, MD
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FAKE NEWS Promo on PBS? Your December 27th Story on a new source of hydrogen based energy from water has got to be the most flagrant promotion of Imaginary Machines ever broadcast on PBS. Please investigate the Producer/Reporter for conflict of interest. Really.
San Diego, CA
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The article about the Greek scientist with a method to turn water into electricity is clearly FAKE NEWS. Although scientists might delay judgment until investigating an unanticipated possibility, this article should never have been aired. Please do a better job of verifying the veracity of such claims, or at least the possibility.
Menlo Park, CA
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Here you go again - PBS tonight talking about energy from water - This is 100% junk science. Get off this…and deal with real science.
Jeremy Jordan, Lincoln
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PBS ran a story giving credence to a story about producing power from water. This is simply nonsense and violates the laws of thermodynamics.
Lionel Levinson, St. Petersburg
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Many problems with your science report 12-27-2016 on cheap energy from water...Do you have a science correspondence on staff? Does your science unit actually have someone who has an understanding of basic thermodynamics laws, like the conservation of energy? You must know that this “resonance conversion of water to hydrogen” cannot release more energy than it absorbs to convert the H2O into H2. Furthermore there was no discussion of what happened to the oxygen. Also in the segment, you claimed that U.S. households use 30,000 watts per hour. I don't believe that this claim can be substantiated, and the actual value should be something like 1200 watts per hour. You are promoting pseudoscience, and further confusing and misleading an already poorly educated populace. Meanwhile, there are so many real science advances ignored, and so many energy industry funded deceptions to debunk, like the completely impractical capture and sequester for clean coal, or the grievously wasteful and economically dubious hydrogen economy. Shame on you. Please get a real science correspondent. If the public needs more deception and pseudo science we can get our fill at YouTube.
Logan Rhythm, Janesville, WI
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NewsHour report on water as energy source. Serious failure on your part. It takes more energy to extract hydrogen from water than you get when you recombine the hydrogen with oxygen to make water again. Second law of thermodynamics, check it out. The only excuse for your report is that PBS has embraced the post-fact world and is now content to promote junk science. Shame on you.
Howard Morland, Arlington
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The scandalous publicity offered the fraud of water to power is especially damaging at a time when infantilization and credulousness are spreading throughout society. Your job is to impose minimal standards on this, and the water piece utterly fails.
Chris Hamlin, San Jose, CA
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Malcolm Brabant's story last night was truly offensive. As the Danish physicist said in the story, this claim of free energy violates the second law of thermodynamics. It would be immediately dismissed by any competent scientist. It does such a disservice to the thousands of good scientists working on problems like this. As a Ph.D. chemist and retired professor, I hereby offer to consult with your producers at no charge to prevent such ridiculous stories from airing in the future.
Robert Richman, Beltsville, MD
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Please tell me if there was a retraction of the following story? Why was it broadcast, but not included in the final internet recording of the entire show?
Homer Fogle Jr., Mesa, AZ
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Re: Electricity from Water, News Hour, Tues 12/27/2016
I was shocked to see this story presented on the News Hour. To your credit, you included an independent dissenting opinion from a physicist. The proposition in the story, that a machine, using resonant vibrations (or anything else), can produce a net gain of energy from water is impossible. This is the classic perpetual motion machine, and as such, violates the basic laws of physics.
The persons interviewed for the story appear to be part of an elaborate fraud. How such frauds are enacted, and occasionally get the attention of investors or the news media, is a topic worthy of investigation. I hope the New Hour reporters will investigate this story as a potential hoax and report the results of their investigation to your viewers.
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I am deeply disappointed in your coverage of the 'free energy' device in Greece. A high school student could discern that this is obvious quackery. I expect more from the PBS News Hour.
G Leeson, Colfax, CA
Posted on Dec. 28, 2016 at 3:42 p.m.