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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 4 — Disproof

August 6, 2013

Esther Hicks once said, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Law of Attraction doesn’t work.” And she’s right. In fact the Law of Attraction cannot be disproven.

But this is not a strength; it’s a weakness. And it’s why spiritual ideas and systems never advance or improve in any way beyond better marketing. 

It’s also why spiritual believers are so miffed and confused by criticism, and don’t know how to respond to it.

Scientific advancement is in fact driven by disproof. Disproof is the dark (but less complicated) brother of proof. It’s hard (and by some standards impossible) to completely prove something. But disproof can be much clearer. And once it has happened, an idea can be dropped and need not cause any further distractions. The more clearly an idea or theory is stated, the easier it is to disprove.

This post considers how world views or belief systems get constructed, and what they need in order to be useful on a practical level.

An Ancient Theory of gravity: Natural Place and Natural Motion

Aristotle, two and a half thousand years ago, wrote one of the first decent explanations for why things fall. It is in their very nature, he said, for them to move toward their “natural place”, which is at the center of the of the earth. In other words, if you let go of a stone you are holding, something within it — in its very nature — will drive it straight downwards.

ptolemaic

In the Aristotelian system, the earth is at the center of the universe. And the center of the universe is the Natural Place for all heavy things. The earth itself is the spherical coagulation of the all the heavy elements in the universe.

Here we meet the ancient Greek concept of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire. The elements Earth and Water are heavy and their natural motion is straight down. Air and Fire, the lighter elements, have a natural motion which impels them straight up. A tree will grow because it has enough Air and Fire mixed in with the heavy elements to enable a motion upwards, but when it decays, its elements will decay and move towards their natural place.

Aristotle saw “motion” not only in terms of changes of place. He also identified qualitative and quantitative changes as forms of “motion”. The growth (increase in size) of a tree or an animal he saw as “quantitative motion”. Even more strangely, he saw the ripening of an apple or the psychological maturing of a child as it grows, as “qualitative motion”.

In other words, it is in the nature of an apple to turn red, just as it is in the nature of a stone to fall to the ground !!!

A force within the apple makes it ripen. A force within the stone moves it towards its Natural Place.

… 

Disproof

A brilliant experiment carried out by Henry Cavendish in 1798 ultimately disproved this notion in the most direct and convincing manner.

Essentially, Cavendish placed two small lead weights of equal mass on each end of a wooden beam, and suspended the beam, perfectly balanced, on a wire. He then carefully maneuvered two larger lead weights into closer proximity with the two smaller weights, and saw the beam swing, as the smaller weights were attracted to the larger ones. He had canceled out the earth’s gravitational pull, and could then see and even exactly measure the gravitational force of the weights as he moved them. These measurements confirmed Newton’s formula for universal gravity.

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Graphic from The Physics Classroom website

The Value of Disproof

Aristotle was trying to discover and state universal laws of nature in an unequivocal manner. Had he been right, Cavendish’s experiment would have supported him. (That is, the smaller weights would not have moved.)

It would be easy (at least superficially) to think up ways of rescuing Aristotle’s system from this disproof. In fact one pope argued that as God is omnipotent, He could be responsible for causing all change in the universe in an infinitely varying number of ways and therefore be undetectable to science. Nice try, but it would have stopped scientific advancement in its tracks in 400 years ago had anyone taken it seriously.

Scientific advancement is based on the disproof and discarding of ideas. Each step forward is necessarily accompanied by a multitude of missteps and the minute refinement of ideas that partly work. Esoteric systems on the other hand (think of astrology, for example) are usually cut from one piece of cloth and will unravel when one tugs on the first loose thread. 

Adding on special rules, exceptions or obfuscations to evade disproof can give the appearance of strength. But if nothing can disprove it, nothing can support it either. Anyone believing a system of beliefs which evades all possibility of disproof should start recognizing this as a sign of weakness and learn to suspect a trap.

Concluding Thoughts: Aristotle’s Death

Aristotle died persecuted and isolated in self-imposed exile from Athens. After becoming increasingly entangled in political complications, he was accused of teaching that prayer and animal sacrifice don’t work. Certainly there is no place for such things in his system, but how ironic it is, that although the refutation of Aristotle’s cosmology is today calmly accepted, we are still arguing about prayer and various forms sacrifice and magic.

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Notes & References

* Esther Hicks claims to channel some kind of disembodied corporate entity that goes by the name Abraham. She was initially involved in making The Secret, but left after some kind of squabble. She tried to copyright the idea of the Law of Attraction, but failed For more information about this scam, see the Post-Abe blog,

* The term falsifiability is a more correct term than disproof, but I didn’t use it. My apologies to Karl Popper.

* Anyone who thinks it is a little harsh to compare esoteric ideas like the LoA to the greatest ideas in natural science obviously hasn’t seen The Secret or read any statements by proponents themselves. The LoA is regularly compared to the law of gravity in terms of effects and certainty. It is regularly claimed that Isaac Newton and even Albert Einstein “knew” of and believed in it. When challenged in this, believers usually say “Prove they didn’t.” Rhonda Byrne’s book The Power (which I’ve reviewed here) claimed that the Law of Attraction is an established part of modern physics. In fact, the system she proposed was vastly more simplistic and far less plausible than the system Empedocles dreamt up in 450 BC! Unlike Byrne, Empedocles managed to notice that there were forces of repulsion as well as attraction. I doubt there has ever in human history been a theory as stupid and hubristic as the one Ms Byrne invented.

* The pope who made the claim about God causing events in an infinite number of ways was Pope Urban VIII. He agreed to allow Galilleo to publish his book about the heliocentric system in the condition that Galilleo include a fair hearing in it for this idea. Galilleo put it on the last page, in a dialogue where it was expressed by a character called Simplicius. I guess you know the rest!

* Newton in fact also claimed gravity was the activity of god, Newton was of course a devout Christian (in fact quite a fanatic and even a heretic by the standards of his time) and an alchemist. It appears he was deeply disturbed by the incipient atheism in the mechanistic clockwork systems of the universe that were current. It has been speculated that he drew on alchemical ideas when formulating his theory of gravity. Certainly the “action at a distance” implied by gravity is completely at odds with early mechanistic models.

* A fascinating and beautifully made documentary about Aristotle’s biological studies, called Aristotle’s Lagoon is at this link.

Anyone with any kind of background in science will have noticed that I don’t have a background in science. I’ve checked everything as well as I can, but any corrections or improvements are welcome.

...

Posted by Yakaru

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8 comments

  1. A couple weeks ago, I read a Rational Wiki article about some of the weirdness of Conservapedia’s attitude towards mathematics, and one of them was the rejection of “proof by contradiction” in math.

    It works something like this: Assume the hypothesis being tested is false and try to extrapolate conclusions from that premise. If your extrapolation leads to a contradiction, it means the hypothesis is true.

    It strikes me as much like science since it’s about falsifying a null hypothesis. If the predictions of the null hypothesis conflict with your actual results, something funny is going on. Of course, there’s the added necessity that the test hypothesis be more accurate, since, unlike math, we’re working from ignorance about the rules of the system.


  2. The Wikipedia entry on the Law (sic) of Attraction.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_attraction

    As far as human willpower or desire is concerned, to call it a law is a misnomer, it is not a law because most of the time wishing for change does not work. It sometimes works for me or for others to think positively, but those cases are coincidences. Normally to achieve something or to change something some action is required, just thinking about it is not going to have any effect of itself.

    I see from the Wikipedia entry that one of Neale Donald Walsch´s books and the book The Secret have something in common, both evidently appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List. Do bestsellers attract each other ? Are there any books about the Law (sic) of Attraction that were not bestsellers ?

    I wonder what other classics (sic) of the New Age made it into the list, and I wonder what that tells us about the predispositions and intelligence of the book reading public (in the US and elsewhere) ?

    I don´t think I understand why the Law (sic) of Attraction cannot be disproved. It seems vague to begin with. North poles of magnets do not attract each other. Electrons do not attract each other. Oil in oil slicks on sea water does not attract itself. Entropy

    What would be an experiment to test it ?


  3. @DT,

    The LoA can’t be disproven in the same way that the efficacy of the elephant repellent my brother told me was using when I was 5 couldn’t be disproven.

    Of course, it can be disproven beyond all reasonable doubt by the fact that if it works then gravitational theory must be wrong. Byrne believes that if you think of a Ferrari and really love it, that love will draw the Ferrari to you like magnetism. She thinks that “like attracts like” explains magnetism…. Einstein knew it too.


  4. One big problem I have with the way they implement it, it’s trying to break the complexity of human interactions into the simplicity of physics.

    Gravity attracts any two masses to each other, regardless of various details humans would consider significant: To gravity, pretty much all that matters is their mass and distance from each other.

    With the law of attraction, the law “knows” the difference between being able to touch a Ferrari in the showroom versus having the papers that represent the ownership of that Ferrari even though it’s farther away from you, in your garage. And somehow, despite the complexity that would be necessary to handle our human abstractions, the law boils down to one sentence platitudes?


  5. Copied and pasted from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (I do not have a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to hand with me in Danmark):

    Law: a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions

    There are numerous other definitions from M-W in 6 or so distinct usages of the word. But I think the definition I have chosen is the only one relevant to the use of the word law in the expression: Law of Attraction.

    I would tackle the issue by examining the meaning of the word “law” with an antagonist. Subsequently, if we agreed on the meaning I would ask an advocate of the Law of Attraction to prove that in every case of a person wishing for a Ferrari (or something simpler) the person obtained the Ferrari or whatever. If they cannot prove that it always happens, the law of attraction does not appear by definition to be a law. I would then ask them to come up with their alternative definition and justify their alternative definition (if they have one). I think this might stump them, as coming up with a more amenable definition of a word like “law” on the fly (off the cuff) is something one usually has to be relatively intelligent to master. I doubt that believers in the Law of Attraction are sufficiently intelligent.


  6. It’s really important to examine these blind spots and logical fallacies. They often support irrational beliefs. Most people have very poor understanding of logic, and so don’t exercise their reason in judging something. That leaves their emotional response to rule the day.

    I just had someone quote the well-known deductive rule from Sherlock Holmes at me, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, apparently believing it to be valid. It isn’t, except in some very limited circumstances. One big problem is that “whatever remains” is assumed to be a single, easily identifiable, condition, when it may be various and include conditions not even thought of. But it’s fair enough to say that if something is impossible, it’s not the answer!

    Falsification of a hypothesis or theory establishes its impossibility, but relies on demonstration. That isn’t always clear cut, as you say, Yakaru. Alternative explanations can interfere with it, such as Pope Urban VIII’s catch-all “God can do anything, STFU”. Another simple rebuff would be that in addition to Aristotle’s intrinsic natural attraction of everything to the Earth, /something else/ has been demonstrated in the experiment, which makes masses seek each other’s company.

    Was Cavendish’s experiment what put Aristotle’s idea to bed? I’m not saying I know otherwise, but it seems late. Cavendish used Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation from about 100 years earlier to work out the density of the Earth, and Galileo had been dead 150 years, so the heliocentric universe was pretty well established.

    My discussions with people about the LoA were rife with that kind of goal-post moving, since it’s supposed to be psychological, so if the phenomenon predicted by the theory (someone getting rich quick, usually!) is not observed, the person’s skill is immediately questioned, or it is suggested that they had unconscious desires to remain poor or sabotage the experiment in some way. Another lovely example was that one person would say it’s easy to test, just wish for money and measure your bank balance; another would argue that the LoA wasn’t about money, it was about happiness, and money can make you unhappy. Another would remind everyone that it’s not about anything, or a positive thing necessarily, you just get more of what you think about.

    The real problem for scientific testing is that it proposes effects by some magical means, and those would be impossible to separate from the usual way our thoughts affect reality, by changing our behaviour. And a lot of the followers say that’s all there is to it, nothing magical at all. Just change your thoughts, and it affects your life, and not enough people know or practise that. It’s all far too vague to be a falsifiable hypothesis.


  7. @LS,
    As far as I know Cavendish probably didn’t even think about Aristotle when he was doing that experiment. I cut out a LOT of history (even of my minimal understanding) just to try and keep the post as short as possible and reduce the number of different ideas presented. Hence a rather distorted impression of the actual history. I should have made it clearer in the post that I was imagining two ideas encountering each other in a way that they never did in actual history.

    In the strictest sense, Aristotelian cosmology as a whole must have been intellectually untenable at least from the time of Copernicus (early 1500s). And come to think of it Aristarchus (shortly after Aristotle’s death) also had a heliocentric model so one might argue it was already untenable back then.

    I could imagine that by the time Newton worked out the formula for the gravitational constant the Aristotelian system was already out the window. But as I say, I really don’t know anything about this stuff.


  8. I just had someone quote the well-known deductive rule from Sherlock Holmes at me, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, apparently believing it to be valid. It isn’t, except in some very limited circumstances. One big problem is that “whatever remains” is assumed to be a single, easily identifiable, condition, when it may be various and include conditions not even thought of.

    Yeah, definitely a pet peeve of mine, though it rarely comes up in my circles. It’s more or less applicable to pure mathematics, where we know the possibilities, but not to the frontiers of science where the problem is often our ignorance of the possibilities.

    Process of elimination is still useful in the original context of criminal investigations since we do have a pretty good grasp of the middle world. The investigator’s imagination can still be a major limiting factor. Things will get tricky if the perp is a skilled magician.



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