New Age Energy
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Fads, General Science, Paranormal
October 3, 2006
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I'm feeling a little low today, so let's tap into a source of energy
from a neighboring dimension as a quick upper.
Faith in pseudoscience is rampant. Everywhere you turn, intelligent
people fully accept the existence of anything from psychic phenomena,
to angels, to new age healing techniques, to ancient health schemes
based on mysterious energy fields not understood by science. Most
of these paranormal phenomena rely on
"energy," and when the performers are asked to explain, they'll gladly
lecture about the body's energy fields, the universe's energy fields, Chi,
Prana, Orgone, negative energy, positive energy, and just about anything else
that needs a familiar sounding word to explain and justify it. Clearly, there
are too many loose interpretations of the word energy, to the point where most
people probably have no idea exactly what energy really is.
I believe that if more people had a clear understanding of energy — and
it's not complicated — there would be less susceptibility to
pseudoscience, and more attention paid to actual technologies and
methods that are truly constructive and useful.
A friend told me of her ability to perform minor healings, and
her best explanation was that she drew energy from another dimension.
She had recently rented What the Bleep Do We Know, so she was well
prepared to explain that alternate dimensions and realities should
be taken for granted, since science doesn't really know anything,
and thus those things cannot be disproven. That's fine, I'll concede
that she can make contact with another dimension: after all, the
latest M theories posit that there are probably ten or eleven of
them floating around, and I'll just hope that my friend's is not
one of those that are collapsed into impossibly small spaces. What
I was really interested in was the nature of this vaguely defined
energy that she could contact.
I asked what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Is it
heat? Is it a spinning flywheel? Is it an explosive compound? Is
it food? These are examples of actual ways that energy can be stored.
In popular New Age culture, "energy" has somehow become
a noun unto itself.
"Energy" is considered to be literally like a glowing, hovering,
shimmering cloud, from which adepts can draw power, and feel rejuvenated. Imagine
a vaporous creature from the original Star Trek series, and you'll have a good
idea of what New Agers think energy is.
In fact, energy is not really a noun at all. Energy is a measurement
of something's ability to perform work. Given this context, when
spiritualists talk about your body's energy fields, they're really
saying nothing that's even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of
talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority
of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force,
floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist
adepts to do just about anything.
There is well known authority for the simple, concrete, scientific
definition of energy. Take Einstein's equation, E=mc2,
that every schoolchild knows but so few spend the 30 seconds it takes
to understand. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.
Simplify it. Mass can be expressed in grams, and speed can be expressed
in meters per second. Thus, an object's energy equals the amount
of work it takes to move a few grams a few meters in a few seconds.
Energy is a measurement of work. If I lift a rock, I'm inputting
enough potential energy to dent the surface of the table one centimeter
when I drop it. The calories of chemical potential energy that my
bloodstream absorbs when I eat a Power Bar charge up my muscles enough
to dig two hundred pounds of dirt in my garden. Nowhere did Einstein
discuss hovering glowing clouds, or fields of mystical power generated
by human spirits.
When spiritualists discuss energy, don't blindly accept what they're
saying simply because energy is a word you're familiar with, and
that sounds scientific. In many cases, their usage of the word is
meaningless. When you hear the word
"energy" casually used to explain a mystical force or capability,
require clarification. Require that the energy be defined. Is it heat? Is it
a spinning flywheel?
Here's a good test. When you hear the word "energy" used
in a spiritual or paranormal sense, substitute the phrase "measurable
work capability." Does the usage still make sense? Are you actually
being given any information that supports the claim being made? Remember,
energy itself is not the thing being measured: energy is the measurement
of work performed or of potential.
Take the following claim of Kundalini Yoga as an example: "The
release and ascent of the dormant spiritual energy enables the aspirant
to transcend the effects of the elements and achieve consciousness." This
would be a great thing if energy was indeed that shimmering cloud
that can go wherever it's needed and perform miracles. But it's not,
so in this case, we substitute the phrase
"measurable work capability" and find that the sentence is not attempting
to measure or quantify anything other than the word "energy" itself.
We have a
"dormant spiritual measurable work capability," and no further information.
That's pretty vague, isn't it? For this claim to have any merit, they must
at least describe how this energy is being stored or manifested. Is it potential
energy stored in the chemistry of fat cells? Is it heat that can spread through
the body? Is it a measurable amount of electromagnetism, and if so, where's
the magnet? In any event, it must be measurable and precisely quantifiable,
or it can't be called energy, by definition.
There's a good reason why you don't hear medical doctors or pharmacists
talking about energy fields: it's meaningless. I think it's generally
good policy to remain open minded and be ready to hear claims that
involve energy, but approach them skeptically, and scientifically.
The next time you hear such a claim, substitute the phrase "measurable
work capability" and you'll be well equipped to separate the
silly from the solid.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "New Age Energy." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Oct 2006. Web.
28 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4002>
References & Further Reading
Castro, J. "What Is Energy?" LiveScience. Purch, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Sep. 2015. <http://www.livescience.com/42881-what-is-energy.html>
CEC. "Energy Story. Chapter 1. What is Energy?" Energy Quest. California Energy Commission, 22 Apr. 2002. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.energyquest.ca.gov/story/chapter01.html>
Duff, M. The world in eleven dimensions: supergravity, supermembranes and M-theory. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. 1-4.
Hoffman, F., Bailey, W. Mind and Society Fads. Binghamton: The Haworth Press, 1992. 198-201.
Kurtz, P., Stenger, V. Skeptical Odysseys: Personal accounts by the world's leading paranormal inquirers. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2001. 363-374.
Sanatan Society. "Raising Kundalini energy with Kundalini Yoga through the chakras." Kundalini Yoga. Sanatan Society, 8 Apr. 2004. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://www.sanatansociety.org/chakras/kundalini_yoga.htm>
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