Rational Skepticism Without Condescension

On one of the discussion lists I subscribe to, there are frequent questions about "fringe science" — particularly involving energy, since the topic of discussion is "alternative energy". I have yet to receive a message that contained something both revolutionary in scale and backed by science (and likewise, seldom is a topic banal and poorly explained). An example is "eloptic energy" which describes some kind of field around all objects that can theoretically be tapped.

I have trouble describing it in any serious way. Its science begins by neglecting well-explored and well-understood properties of fields — basically that to get energy using a field, you have to put energy in. It's the way generators work (it's the combination of a magnet and a wire moving past one another). Another example might be to use the force of a river to do work by presenting resistance (like in the case of a water wheel). I guess the buzz around eloptic energy is that you don't need to add energy to get the energy out — analogous to working a water wheel while moving with the current of the river … a boat-mounted water wheel, if you will.

But even there, I take a condescending attitude that I can't seem to avoid. I shake my head and roll my eyes, frustrated that I must defend myself against lunacy with rational argument. This feeling of aggravation seems to come from two factors.

First is the misunderstanding or misapplication of science. The basics of the scientific method are to conceive a theory, develop an experiment with measurable, repeatable results, and ascertain whether the experiment supports the theory; then repeat ad infinitum. Everything we claim to know in science is based on a chain of everything we figured out before. It seems that people who entertain pseudo-science theories believe that science is a bureaucratic ivory tower of knowledge sanctioned by self-proclaimed experts. Sometimes bureaucratic, ivory-tower, self-proclaimed experts try to sanction knowledge, but that is not science.

The other is the appropriation of words that have an established meaning to give the illusion of credibility. Words like "energy" have a specific, well-defined meaning, so to use them in relation to something else is nothing less than lying. One example was during a discussion of essential oils (not on the discussion list) where they used "megahertz" as a unit to quantify the relative power of the oils. It was frustrating that nobody else in the room wanted to ask what part of the oil was vibrating (as "megahertz" exclusively means "millions of times per second"), and if it was in the radio-frequency range like the speaker implied, could we tune in a radio to hear it?

Of course, as I wrote before, there is no way to discern an expert from a non-expert in a field that you are not familiar with. In the end, it comes down to whether you believe one person or another. And when it comes to belief, well, there's really no point in arguing.

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