Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mystic Energy

Today I'd like to talk about something that has been bothering me for a while - energy. Energy has a number of definitions, depending on who you talk to. The politician sees energy as something his opponent handles incorrectly, the scientist defines it as the ability to do work,1 my wife defines it as something my kids have too much of, and practitioners of pseudoscience have a wide variety of definitions. I'd like to focus on that last one. Practitioners of pseudoscience often talk about energy: call it chi, chakra, aura, energy field, energy balance, or any other number of names. I propose that improper use of the word energy is a red flag that something may be pseudoscience.2

But wait, science does that as well, right? After all energy is a key component to almost every scientific theory out there. Science and pseudoscience use the same word (and to the untrained observer they use it to mean the same thing). This is nothing new, of course. Practitioners of pseudoscience borrow terminology from science all the time. So how can you tell the difference? When is the term energy properly used? Here are a few important things to look for:
  • Real energy has a carrier
Energy is not just magically exchanged between two things. In every case we know of there is some sort of force carrying particle. Photons (light) are an excellent example of this. The energy travelling from a light bulb to your eye travels there by photons. Beyond having a carrier particle, real energy has physical manifestations. Things get hot, shine, make noise, etc when real energy is involved.
Pseudo energy rarely has a carrier. Instead energy is just "transferred" or "given" or "balanced". If you're not sure if someone is using the term energy correctly, ask them about the mechanism of energy transfer.
  • Real energy is finite
This is a subtle point that separates real energy from mystic energy. Real energy is finite. If I connect a light bulb to a battery and turn it on the light will slowly dim and eventually turn off. The energy is not some infinite source of power. 
Pseudo energy is seemingly infinite. If there is some energy field that each person has, then why aren't we running out of energy. Maybe you could argue that as a definition of death, but if we have the ability to balance energy fields why not just keep everyone alive forever?
  • Real energy cannot be transferred without some loss of energy
The 2nd law of thermodynamics can be understood as "No transfer of energy is 100% efficient". When you are transferring energy from one form to another there will be loss of some of the energy. For example, there is energy in gasoline. If I want to convert that energy into moving the wheels of my car I will lose some of the energy along the way. My car makes noise, there is friction on the ground, and (most importantly) my engine cannot perfectly extract all the energy from the gasoline. 
Pseudo energy is some free flowing power. Its transfer does not result in any loss, or at least not any physical manifestations of the loss. Instead it's something that magically floats between us giving us magical powers. 
  • Real energy has units
If you've ever taken a science class, you've probably lost some points on a test because you didn't write down the units. You may have put your answer as "2" instead of "2 feet". You may have even complained to your professor or TA that you shouldn't have lost points.3 It is this complaining that proves my point. Energy has units. A common one is the Joule. A chemical bond usually has the strength of somewhere on the order of 100 kJ/mol.  
Pseudo energy doesn't have units, because it's not quantifiable - you can't say how much of it there is. It even seems a little silly to imagine a psychic saying "I feel like your energy is off balance by 22 kJ/mol."
Some pseudosciences will pass the test on some of these points, but few will pass it for all of them. This is obviously not a rigorous test to differentiate between science and pseudoscience (I'll let Sam guest post about that later). If you're investigating something that doesn't pass these three tests, you might be dealing with mystic energy.

[1] This explanation has always been a little bothersome to me. Mostly because the logic seems a little circular. Energy is the ability to do work. What's work? Well it's the amount of energy expended, of course! You could be more specific in your definition of energy by the equation: 
  \overline E  = k{T^2}{\left( {\frac{{\partial \ln Q}}{{\partial T}}} \right)_{N,V}}
But even in this equation temperature, T, (which was used in the equation to describe energy) is often described as an energy distribution. You have the same problem even when you're being very rigorous in your definition.
[2] Some of these terms (chi and chakra, for example) also have religious meaning. Honestly, I have no problem with using the term energy within a religious belief system. What bothers me more is the modern western culture phenomenon of selling eastern philosophies as science based.
 [3] We love it when you do this. Keep it up, pre-med students. Keep it up.