Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thought vs. experiment

To a scientist, there's no more fundamental approach to knowledge than experimentation.  You want to find something out?  Design an experiment to see if your idea about how the world works is correct.  Good scientists are always testing, questioning, and trying to find new ways to tweak the system and see how it responds.

What's fascinating from a historical perspective is that this is a fairly new way to approach knowledge.  In general, the pre-Enlightenment attitude was that if you wanted to learn, you simply had to think about stuff.  Thought was considered to be the purest way to gain knowledge; no need to contaminate your brain with dirty, clunky, uncooperative matter.  Even Kepler started out from this standpoint -- when he first started to work on the problem of the shapes of planetary orbits, he began from the assumption that they were circles (because circles are "perfect") and that the relationship between one planet's orbit and the next had something to do with the "Five Perfect Solids" of Greek mathematical theory.  Fortunately, Kepler was (1) working with a rigorous experimentalist, Tycho Brahe, and (2) honest, because he found out pretty quickly that his ideas weren't working -- and was forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that planetary orbits were messy, lopsided ellipses.  Galileo, you might recall, faced persecution for church officials not because of heresy with regards to religious doctrine, per se -- his problems with the Vatican started because of three claims, one famous (his acceptance of the heliocentric model) and the other two less-known (his rejection of Aristotle's claims that an object's falling speed is dependent on its mass, and that objects float or sink in water depending upon their shape).  It's fascinating, and not a little horrifying, that church officials had demonstrated for them experiments supporting Galileo's conclusions -- and they still didn't believe the evidence of their eyes, preferring instead the "pure thought" of Aristotle and Plato, for whom experimentation was somehow intrinsically suspect.

Amazingly, that idea -- that you can arrive at the truth just by thinking about it -- lingers still.  Some of it is relatively innocent, the sort of thing I see in high school science classes -- misconceptions that stem from the thought, "Well, of course it works that way.  That seems logical."  More insidious, though, are the schools of thought that embrace that approach, that deliberately eschew experimentation in favor of contemplation.  And in the last couple of days, I found two excellent examples of just this way of thinking.

The first one was in the online version of Fate magazine, so I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised, considering the source.  Entitled, "Auric Energy Fields and Their Effects on Electronics," the article in question, written by "noted wisdom teacher" Kala Ambrose, looks at the alleged phenomenon of people whose presence can somehow interfere with electronic devices from computers to DVRs to streetlights.  And she makes the following statement:
As a psychic, I see the aura around people, which is a flexible field of energy around the body with many layers. The level closest to your body, is described as the etheric body and in a sense, it’s the battery of the body, receiving and emitting electrical impulses in and out from your body. You bring energy in and you release energy, all through the auric body. There are many layers extending outward from the etheric body including the mental layer and the emotional layer, both of which are also energy fields where we store and emit energy and we bring this energy into and down into the physical body from these layers... For some people, who also tend to have psi abilities, they release this pent up energy in a wave. I refer to it as an energy blast, which can affect the environment around them. One way that these people begin to notice this effect, is that they will find when walking or driving by street lights, that the lights will go off or turn on when they pass by. If this has happened to you, you are releasing this pent up energy or someone near you is releasing their energy... The over-abundance of energy that you described, can affect lights and other electronics when released in a quick blast. Think of it as an energy surge. Typically this indicates that the person is not aware of the energy they are releasing and so it comes as a surprise when an electronic device is affected. For many people, they emit this energy the strongest when they are agitated, stressed or in a high emotional state (positive or negative).
Now, let's assume for a moment, just for fun, that the phenomenon is real; i.e., that the people who claim to interfere with electronic devices are telling the truth.  What I find the most interesting about Kala Ambrose's claims is that never once does she seem to think, "Hey!  If some guy's body is emitting enough energy to interfere with a computer, that has to be measurable!  Maybe we should build a device to measure, test, and study this 'auric energy field.'"  No, she seems to believe that all you need to do to understand this is to think about it:
The next time this occurs, stop right away and ask yourself, How am I feeling, What’s on my mind right now? Also ask those present what they noticed when it occurred. Gather this information to discern what the triggers are that set off the energy spikes.
An even more striking example of this philosophical approach to science comes from Joseph Farrell's blog Giza Death Star, in which he responds to a press release from the world of physics in a post titled "Space-Time Crystals."  Farrell, to his credit, posts a link to the original press release, and from that press release we learn that Frank Wilczek of MIT and Xiang Zhang and Tongcang Li of UC Berkeley are working on trapping loops of ions inside crystals, creating an rotating charge signal that would "(break) temporal symmetry."  Wilczek is careful to specify that the "space-time crystal" thus created would span only extremely small distances (a tenth of a millimeter) and exist only at phenomenally low temperatures (one-billionth of a degree Kelvin), and that "being in their ground states, such systems could not be employed to produce useful work."

Farrell, on the other hand, begs to differ.

He says that he beat Wilczek, Zhang, and Li to the punch years ago, and did it without ever performing a single experiment:
Way back when, when I began writing my high speculations and sharing them with the public, I began by deciding to “take the plunge” and “high dive” off the deep end, and share my hypothesis that the Great Pyramid may have been a sophisticated kind of phase conjugate mirror manipulating the fabric of the physical medium itself. And at the end of my first book on the subject, I speculated on a kind of crystal that would somehow be able to trap and rotate EM waves. Not knowing what to call such bizarre things, I simply call them “phi” crystals, since they were suggested to me by the constant phi, and by the Fibonacci sequence. My reason for thinking that such crystals would be an integral component of any such machine was simply that there would have to be some sort of coupled oscillator able to interact with the “rotation moment” of the fabric and structure of the local medium, or local space-time.
Now, from my admittedly rather rudimentary understanding of physics, this sounds like a lot of horse waste right from the get-go, but what I find the most interesting about all of Farrell's blathering on about this is that he jumps right past Wilczek's cautions that since space-time crystals are in their ground state, the laws of thermodynamics would render it impossible for them to perform work -- and describes how these curiosities could become "sources of energy" that would "make our largest thermonuclear bombs look like firecrackers."

And how did he arrive at all of this?  Apparently, just by pondering the Fibonacci sequence and other such constructs:
But imagine, for a moment, the possibility that such a technology could be turned into, say, a source of energy...  (T)o my mind anyway, the possibility – long term to be sure – opens up that such things could eventually become sources of energy. We’re a long way from that, to be sure, and even a long way of any such verified understandings of these wildly speculative ideas, but nonetheless, the possibility should be mentioned.
I find it even more curious that Farrell is weighing in on subtle concepts in physics when his own Ph.D. is in patristics.  What is patristics, you might ask?  I had to ask, because I didn't know, and found out that patristics is "the study of early Christian writers, known as the Church Fathers."  Yup, that will certainly prepare you to comprehend abstruse concepts in solid-state physics.

So, anyway, the Platonic ideal of arriving at knowledge just by analyzing it with Pure Thought is with us still, apparently.  And just as it did in the case of Galileo's detractors, without the foundation of data, evidence, and experiment to support it, theoretical musings are just as likely to go wrong as right.  It is exactly this error in approach that science corrects -- even though there are people out there who still don't see why all that silly experimentation should be necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Plucked from the Wikipedia page "Crystal Oscillators":

    "Almost any object made of an elastic material could be used like a crystal, with appropriate transducers, since all objects have natural resonant frequencies of vibration. For example, steel is very elastic and has a high speed of sound. It was often used in mechanical filters before quartz. The resonant frequency depends on size, shape, elasticity, and the speed of sound in the material. High-frequency crystals are typically cut in the shape of a simple, rectangular plate. Low-frequency crystals, such as those used in digital watches, are typically cut in the shape of a tuning fork. For applications not needing very precise timing, a low-cost ceramic resonator is often used in place of a quartz crystal."

    Just because crystals look cool, that must mean they have amazing powers, confirmed by their use in crystal oscillator circuits!

    Or maybe, that crystal oscillator in your wrist watch is no more special than the integrated circuit chip next to it, or the LCD display that shows you the time.

    I'm surprised woo-woos aren't more interested in glass than crystal, since glass is technically a liquid/solid hybrid, existing halfway between both states. Way more cool factor, but what do I know? *shrug*