Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Vacuous Energy Invoking Gambit

Defenders of this or that kind of pseudoscience can often be heard saying things like ‘everything is made of energy’ or ‘it’s all energy’. Or, more specifically, that their preferred brand of tosh should be taken seriously because it involves ‘a different kind of energy’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this, whether about crystal healing, or chi, or acupuncture, or reflexology. This cloud of smoke is supposed, it seems, to help. The sceptical naturalist is apparently expected to stagger back going ‘Egad! That’s true – energy is everywhere and very, very important, and so whatever mystical crud anybody likes probably really happens!’

Let’s call the nebulous appeal to ‘energy’ the Vacuous Energy Invoking Gambit (‘VEIG’, pronounced like ‘vague’). It’s nonsense. There are lots of reasons for this, and in this post I want to review a few of the ones that seem important to me, and say what follows from them. I’m indebted to my mate Dave for discussion of some of the historical issues. This posting is rather long for this blog, even though in a sense I’ve been brief: there’s a whole pile of science stacked up against loose energy talk, and this is no more than a tour of some of the highlights.

What I’ll say here is intended to complement articles by, among others, David Colquhoun on DC Science, including this. It’s useful to ask anyone deploying the VEIG to define energy, or say what units it is measured in. (And ask them to explain what it means that it’s the same units as work, and to say what the difference between energy and power is.) They generally don’t mean energy in any remotely rigorous sense, but rather as a metaphor for ‘oomph’ or ‘making stuff happen-ness’ and these metaphors can survive only in a near vacuum of accurate science.

Here I’ll focus on some aspects of the history of science, especially the conservation of energy, and say something about how that history places a burden of proof on anyone making claims about energy, which are supposed to refer to anything except kinds of energy found in all physical systems and already known to mainstream science.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries various experiments attempted either to find vital or otherwise spooky forces at work, or to test the hypothesis that in living and non-living systems the same small set of forces were conserved.

Earlier scientists had postulated additional forces to explain various phenomena, including forces of attraction and repulsion for electrostatics, magnetism and the cohesion of bodies; forces of irritability and sensibility to account for perception and other responses of living things to changes around them; forces to explain fermentation, the origin of micro-organisms, and chemical bonding. Some of these forces were found, including the forces described by Coulomb’s laws relating to charge and magnetic polarity. None of the non-physical ones, or the ones supposed to occur only in living things, were. Electricity is an interesting case: Galvani had supposed electricity to be a distinctively animal phenomenon (he stimulated parts of frogs with metal instruments leading to muscle action). This idea was widely taken seriously until Volta generated it with combinations of metals in a humid environment, and in the absence of animal tissue.

Alongside this work finding that living and non-living systems were interestingly alike, even where scientists had often supposed they were not, was a body work beginning to unify the physical treatment of force, work and energy. Important pieces of the puzzle included:
  • Faraday’s researches on electromagnetic induction, which also showed the unity of apparently different sorts of electricity (whether electrostatic, induced or from batteries),
  • Joule’s on the quantitative equivalence between heat and mechanical work,
  • Helmholtz’s on deriving the principle of conservation of the sum of kinetic and potential energy from rational mechanics, and relating to this principle to the work of Joule.
Helmholtz also referred speculatively (but being himself medically trained) to the possibility that conservation of energy applied to living systems. A great deal of experimental effort was spent on this possibility. Much of it involved different forms of calorimetry. A calorimeter measures the heat given off by a process. Different forms of calorimeter are distinguished, among other things, by how they accomplish this, and what other sorts of measurement of the process (what it emits, for example) they also permit.

Boyle’s air-pump experiments had shown air to be essential to life and flame alike. Lavoisier and Laplace designed the ice calorimeter, which permitted measurements of heat produced against carbon dioxide emitted by a living creature. Comparison of the results for flames and life led Lavoisier to conclude that respiration was a form of combustion, obeying the same conservation constraints. It was also discovered that muscular action involved the consumption of oxygen and the emission of carbon dioxide, suggesting a further relation to respiration, and providing further evidence of conservation. Leibig, who did some of the key experimental work in this area, mistakenly expected that matter rather than energy is conserved in respiration. This view was not refuted until the work of Frankland, who performed detailed experiments establishing the energy gained from the consumption of specific foodstuffs. (See the image below, from Coleman 1987, page 136 - a figure from Frankland 1866. Click on the image for larger version.)


Further research required different tools. Regnault and Rieset introduced the respiratory calorimeter, which enabled accurate measurements of the consumption and emission of gases by the processes in the calorimeter, in 1849. Late in the century Rubner combined the ice and respiratory calorimeters further to investigate the applicability of the principle of conservation of energy (of known types) to biological systems. His emphatic conclusion (some individual experiments lasted over a month) was that:
Not a single isolated datum chosen at will out of all of these experimental results can leave us in any doubt that the exclusive source of heat in warm-blooded animals is to be sought in the liberation of forces from the energy supply of the nutritive materials (in Coleman 1977, 142).
Complementary enquiries refuted specific claims for peculiarly biological causal principles to explain this or that phenomenon. Among the highlights of this research are the following:
  • In 1828 Wöhler produced urea in the laboratory, a result that Shlick later suggested “refuted once and for all the doctrine that the synthesis of organic compounds requires a special force” (Shlick (1953, p. 524).
  • In 1897 Buchner successfully isolated an enzyme from yeast, and showed that it promoted fermentation in the absence of any cells. So Pasteur was wrong (about the requirement of living cells for fermentation) and the theory of the chemical catalyst had been vindicated.
Coleman notes that by 1897 Bernard was able to state confidently that:
…there are not two chemistries or two physics, the one applicable to living creatures and the other to inert bodies; rather there are general laws applicable to all substances[s], however [they] might be disposed, and these laws admit of no exception (in Coleman 1977, 126).
For a while chemistry was a striking exception to this trend. Although various chemical regularities had been discovered, there was no serious contender for an explanation of chemical bonding in terms of fundamental physical processes, and the possibility that there were as yet unknown chemical forces was taken seriously by leading scientists. The philosopher Broad referred to chemistry as the ‘most plausible’ candidate for an ‘example of emergent behaviour’ (Broad 1925, p. 65). Chemistry did not remain an exception, though. Following a series of important advances by Thomson, Rutherford and others, Bohr successfully constructed, first, a dynamical model of the hydrogen atom, then of heavier atoms, and finally aspects of the structure of the periodic table (see Pais 1991, pp. 146-152). A key measure of Bohr’s success was deriving good fits to the hitherto descriptive Balmer formula for the emission spectra of hydrogen and some other simple elements from his model. A physical theory of chemical bonding had been developed, and while it did not apply readily to all molecules, or indeed all atoms, it did dispose of the view that chemical phenomena involved distinct non-physical forces or forms of influence.

The upshot of all this work, and much more along the same lines, is to establish a very strong burden of argument on anyone wanting to make empirical claims about any kind of energy that isn’t one of the set recognised and measured by mainstream science. People who play the VEIG have some work to do. It’s not enough simply to say that the putative phenomenon relies on ‘energy’ or involves a ‘different kind’ of energy. There’s plenty of reason to think that there are very few kinds of energy, that they obey specific conservation principles, and there are no distinctively different ones (‘chi’) in living systems. There’s no direct evidence for the existence of any kinds of work and energy besides basic physical ones (mechanical, electrostatic) and much of the same evidence regarding conservation of known kinds of energy indicates clearly that there are no gaps where such woo-energy might hide.

So, woo-promoters, stop being VEIG, and let’s see some real measurements. Seriously, show that acupuncture in a calorimeter violates energy conservation assuming only established forces and forms of work, or explain how the known energy in food is converted into ‘chi’, and how fiddling about with needles has anything to do with it. Show us equations and non-bogus experiments. Or fuck off.

Selected references

Broad, C. D. 1925. The Mind and Its Place in Nature, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Coleman, W. 1977. Biology in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schlick, M. 1953. ‘Philosophy of Organic Life’, in H. Feigl and M. Brodbeck (eds.) Readings in the Philosophy of Science, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., pp. 523-536.

Pais, A. 1991. Neils Bohr’s Times, in Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, Oxford: Clarendon.