Tag Archives: Skepticism

Does natural really = good?

Don’t you hate being taken advantage of?

You don’t have to look far in supermarkets to see scientifically dubious claims on product packaging. We already know about dubious health effects of certain foods and the arms race by advertisers to come up with fancy ways to pretend their products are good for us. Now the latest trend is to crow about how ‘natural’ a product is – the world natural, is however now officially anointed a weasel word.

What exactly does it mean? We all know what they want us to think: wholesome, pure, robust, healthy; but what does natural really mean?

As the provincial scientist, I will take a scientific view: natural originally meant ‘of nature’, that is to say, real, or not-supernatural. So technically humans are natural as is all we do. Of course, the term has now been somewhat perverted, and is commonly taken to mean: not man-made.

Any decent scientist is going to have trouble with this definition because it is far too open to interpretation and begs the question: how much human involvement is required to make something non-natural?

This is the vagueness has has been unconsciously used to create a definition that helps sell products: this definition suggests somewhat arbitrarily that ‘some’ degree of purification, or ‘some’ types of blend constitute something unnatural. In addition, if the substance is not found in nature at all it is considered even worse. Sometimes the product is cast as unnatural just for having a chemical sounding name, or because it’s produced by a drug company. On the other hand, some products are branded natural despite containing preservatives, colourants and so on. We simply cannot trust food marketing.

Modern diet sodas would meet most people’s definition of synthetic: but what about bread? Milk? Where do we draw the line?

One argument says if all the ingredients are natural, then the product is natural – so, for example, beer made without recourse to ‘chemicals’ may be considered natural.

Unfortunately, this argument simply displaces the vagueness: now the question is: what constitutes a ‘chemical’? We are all chemical, after all. So yet again, chemicals are arbitrarily divided into good and bad depending whether they occur in nature. Fruit flavoured sodas rarely contain actual fruit: we learned which chemicals were responsible for apple, strawberry and banana flavours and can now synthesize them perfectly – this is done in large quantities that make it far cheaper than actually farming the fruits themselves. It is fair to say that the supply chain for these flavours is often complex, so a little skepticism is warranted, but upon inspection, it turns out that most synthetic flavours are very well understood and are often far purer than the ‘natural’ alternatives. The idea that we eat barbecued meat, smoke tobacco and drink coffee, but are afraid of Acesulfame K is somewhat irrational.

So it leads us to ask – why? Why is the devil’s brew OK, and Acesulfame K not? Why is something man-made inferior to something natural? Why have we got it in for synthetic stuff?

In the study of ethics, there is an argument called the appeal to nature used to justify actions as moral: this is an argument that basically says natural=good.

However, there is no good reason to suppose this. I propose that this fallacy is behind our fears of the synthetic and is the driving force behind major societal trends such as the organic movement, and is a mainstay in the ongoing survival of many useless alternative medicines… so I thought it deserves to be unpacked a little.

The Moral Maze

Get this shirt, click the image!

It is worth reading up on the thought experiments done to try and understand morals. See for example the trolley problem: would you push someone in front of a train to save five lives? Or consider the scene in the last episode of M*A*S*H were a mother is given the choice to smother her own child to avoid a group of villagers from being detected by enemy soldiers.

By thinking through these scenarios, and unpicking our reactions, scientists have learned that different parts of us have different reactions – there are the more emotional reactions and the more logical, reasoned reactions. The logical reactions can seem immoral, and we would struggle with guilt if we made them, but why?

Emotions like fear, revulsion, guilt and love often seem illogical – and so they often are. They we not designed, but emerged as evolutionary advantageous, thus they often seem without purpose. Thus we can have emotions that do not make logical sense; on average they help, but they do malfunction, as in the trolley problem.

Will knowing this failure of the mind help us make these hard choices by reducing the guilt? I don’t think so – we cannot escape our emotions. However, the logical approach should still be used – for example by leaders who need to create policies for the greater good. This makes me think of the famous line in A Few Good Men “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”. I am suggesting that there are situations when the most moral act for a leader is immoral on the face of it and would be condemned if made public.

Thus, we see that the study of what is moral is a tricky field and we see that the systems used in society, while designed to be ethical, may often not be moral (such as a lawyer defending a suspect they know to be guilty).

So how does this tricky world apply to the question of naturalness? Well I would assert that our reaction to substances, like our reaction to the trolley car problem, is again a battle between deep evolutionary instincts and our power to reason.

Firstly, we have a natural (and wise) aversion to new things, especially foods: eating anything new increases the risk of poisoning, and so, eating things eaten for generations is safer. Synthetic foods are clearly ‘new’; they do not have grandma’s stamp of approval – we do not know if generations of people have thrived on this stuff. While this rule of thumb is a good starting point, it is obviously an emotional generalization that fails simple examination. What’s more, as our understanding of both nutrition and hygiene have massively improved health and lifespan in the last hundred years, we should actually favour the new – and fear the old!

The next argument goes something like this. We have a vague feeling that as our bodies evolved in a natural world, and the highly purified chemicals will somehow put our wonderfully complex systems out of whack. It is true that when we eat natural foods, our bodies are very adept at ‘processing’ them; and many natural foods do contain a wide array of essential and complementary nutrients, but it is unsupported speculation to suggest that our bodies needs cannot be met by more processed ingredients. Modern nutrition science understands very well what the body needs in terms of fuel, salts, roughage and so on, and we also understand how diet effects the risks of disease. While modern nutritional science does conclude that natural foods have many benefits – it does not conclude that synthetic is bad. There is room for both!

Lastly, there is an argument straight from moral philosophy: does it makes sense, for example, so say that killing someone is morally worse than failing to save someone, even though a choice is made in both cases and the outcome is effectively the same? If so, then this reveals a built-in preference for ‘non-interference’. So perhaps in a similar way, nature may be considered a ‘default’ – it’s what happens when humans are absent, ‘it’s what would happen anyway’ – like animals hunting for food – and so has a moral free pass. Following this through, nature has no immorality, morality is something tied to us humans and our choices – and so everything we do as humans is therefore potentially immoral.

This argument is also a little weak – as humans have the power to do tremendous good – and the evidence that animals do things we find immoral is there – after all, we are animals. Animals, like us have complex societies, trade favours, shun freeloaders and much more. If you want to learn more, the writings of Marc Beckoff shine a spotlight onto this.

So is there a take home?

OK, now we know – the ‘nature card’ will take advantage of our irrationality, it will stoke our fears and play with our conscience. It will manipulate how we spend our money, and it will sometimes do us more harm than good.

But what makes it worse, is that most people who draw the nature card are good people.

This is one of the many small tragedies that make up our modern times.

Reality: a hard sell

I can’t help but wonder if doggedly debunking all spewings from the purveyors of woo is somewhat a fool’s errand.

There are a number of pseudo-scientific disciplines whose concepts are inherently highly attractive and contagious to the average Joe, saying things that make him feel good and making him want to pass on the good news. Think of how easy to sell these messages are:

  • organic food – frolicking chickens, steaming compost, happy farmers, healthy food – a return to basics, back to a purer time when humans actually had roots in the earth and cared for it; you too can go organic!
  • complimentary medicine – age-old wisdom, so long suppressed by big pharma is unlocked just for those open-minded enough to look. Are you open-minded! Yes? Here are your keys to healthy prosperity!
  • astrology – our fates, entwined with the universe, form a beautiful unity; enigmatic scholars have acted custodian to its cipher through the ages. Are you a spiritual soul? You too can share time’s secrets!
  • parapsychology – our minds are more powerful than science knows, and we all have potential beyond our wildest dreams! But hold on! Only those willing to break free from the trappings of conventional science will ever see the light…
  • and of course the big kahuna, religion – imagine for a minute the greatest most wonderful thing in all the world, and that is but nothing compared with the joys that await the believer, and for all eternity too!

It is little wonder the bible I had as a kid said “Good News” on the cover.

The issue is that the logical shredding of these pieces is often a sobering dose of reality that fills most people with instant sleepiness:

  • organic food is not always kinder to the planet and claimed health benefits are of the ‘hard to verify’ sort
  • alternative medicine actually does work, but only the level one would expect from getting time, care, attention and the placebo effect
  • the laws of physics do allow marvellous things (x-rays, computers, holograms) but it takes serious study to understand why they don’t allow for the positions of stars and planets to have predictable effects of the day-to-day ongoings in suburbia.
  • the mind is indeed fabulously clever and poorly understood, but those tedious laws of physics, and indeed dry, cold logic, are annoyingly sticky when it comes to clairvoyance, ESP, psychokinesis and precognition.

So YAWN! Boring!! Logic and analysis mean effort, work, thinking things through, totting up totals, cross-checking claims, testing, questioning and doubting. Pretty much the opposite of nice & easy. Accepting we are not all-powerful, we are not immortal and that we will all be forgotten someday is just no fun. These are not messages that will go viral, that will breed missionaries, that would generate a manic fervour. More like manic depression.


So the deck is stacked. Pseudo-scientific ideas persist because they are tenacious memes, and they are almost impossible to kill. They are contagious and sticky, and lovely and easy, and fighting them off requires not just the will, but also the ammunition.

And that is why it worthwhile to continue to fight the good fight – to keep trying to debunk poor thinking – to provide the ammunition to that small number, those that may be on their own, surrounded by superstition, but with that gift in their heart that is that first inkling of doubt.

I will do it for those that think they are alone as I once did.

We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity – people have better access than ever to the tools to arm themselves to achieve a new sort of ideal: to make life choices with full access to all the facts. We are after all free to choose to believe anything, the problem only comes when we are not given the choice. No information, no balance, no choice.

Will art, the talent for emotional manipulation, be overtaken by science?

There is something in our makeup that makes us appreciate hard work. When we admire the pyramids at Giza, or the fine chinese lacquerware, we can imagine the effort that must have been involved. Not just the muscle – but the discipline – lifetimes of work.

When I was a teenager, I spent many hours drawing – and I got pretty good but at some point, I think I was 19, I just stopped. Why? I think I looked at my creations and compared them with photographs and found them wanting. What was the point of photo-realistic drawing in a world full of cameras? It occurred to me that of course I was still impressed with work like that of Chuck Close, but I could not understand why. Not only does he bring realism to it’s logical extreme, but then he takes to tricks like using how our eyes merge small dots to compose images. Why is this trickery impressive? It goes beyond realism, it impresses us with it’s cleverness, rather than it content – the content becomes pretty much irrelevant.

So we are impressed not only by the evidence of labour, but of cleverness. However, when I think about what I achieve in life, I do not want to be known for simply being hard working, or clever, but rather for what I actually achieve. Simply drawing well demonstrates an ability, but unless that ability is then applied to important work: protecting the environment, mitigating injustice, that sort of thing, or at least to inspire others to do so, it could be considered pure vanity.

So I gave up on drawing. I am a bit older now and have come to re-evaluate this position with the benefit of a few more years.

One thing I have learnt (from my closest family who turned out, as luck would have it, to be talented artists) is that there is more to art than my painfully logical mind wants to admit. I can obviously not explain art in a nutshell – besides, like so many things worth knowing one really needs to find this out for oneself.

What I want to focus on here, as usual, is the scientific approach to art, and to start I will make a controversial claim…

Art taps into instincts, and does not understand itself.

Think of a beautiful singing voice. It is clearly possible to play the heartstrings with the right voice. Even if the song were written by someone else, one would struggle to argue that the songwriter or singer can explain why the song plays the heartstrings. I venture that this is similarly true for beauty.

On the other hand, the field of science progressing fastest of late is the study of the human mind. We are only just starting to understand its complex mechanisms, and if a good neuroscientist is happy to admit we are scratching the surface, then it is probably fair to say the poet is playing the instrument of the mind the way most people use a computer – without a full understanding of its workings.

Without insight into the workings of a system, the poet is reduced to trial and error, treating the mind like a black box, poking it and prodding it and seeing the response. While this type of analysis has revealed much about the mind, it is necessarily lacking and frequently runs into inconsistencies that cannot be explained.

As our ancestors have interacted for millennia, we have developed very strong insights for how the mind works and instincts about how to manipulate it; science is still playing catch-up to what every mother, every teenager or anyone with heartache already knows.

However, we are now rapidly approaching the stage when science will start to ‘have an opinion’ about the merit of Shakespeare or Puccini – observing in vivid detail how stories or melodies act to create virtuous cascades in the mind.

So if this analysis is fair, what are the implications? Does it render the arts any less valuable? No, let me explain.

The analysis suggests that the arts are the field of emotional manipulation, developed as an emergent* ability, a field that has been inaccessible to the sciences due to the complexity of the mind – but will not remain so. The arts pull on thousands of years of learning about the human mind, what impresses, what inspires, what angers and what calms. These learnings will not be rendered invalid, they will simply be explained.

Perhaps the artist in you is reviled by this possibility, perhaps the opposite – the emotions will still be real and we will be able to drive them all the better.

I personally suspect there is merit in the vagueness of art. Some of my favourite songs seem to lose their appeal when I finally learn all the lyrics and find them more mundane than I had imagined.

Perhaps the arts can just ignore the march of science?



*Emergence is the phenomena of complexity (such as the arts) developing as a side effect of simpler lower order phenomena (emotional stimulus & response). It implies the higher order phenomena was not designed, is not deliberate and therefore cannot credit anyone (or itself) for its merits.


It seems to me there are three elements to a good education:
1. A stimulating environment. In such an environment, everyone will learn furiously.
2. Selection. That is to say, the ratio of useful/constructive things learned, vs useless/wrong/just plain destructive things we learn in the abovementioned stimulating environment.
3. No sugar coating. Nobody who learns only wholesome, proven, positive things will be well educated. An essential aspect of a good education is learning by error and embarrassment, loss, sorrow, breakage, cheating, lying and heartbreak.

So because an education requires fault and deception, there cannot be a perfect education, only a more or less effective one for one’s environment…

Stuff I Wish I Had Read When I Was Younger

Over the years I have supervised and mentored several PhD students, and recently our firm started to award scholarships to undergrads, and I was asked to support one such scholar. These scholars are from the best and brightest and so I got to thinking…

Graduates today have it tough, competition is tough, people work longer and harder than ever and stress is hitting us earlier and earlier in life – or so it seems. I would argue that, to some real extent, things have always been getting worse, and therefore by induction, we can prove that they have haven’t really changed at all.

No, the graduates of today have unparalleled opportunity to learn, to travel and to experience. The brightest graduates have the world at their feet and will be its commanders when we are are all retired and done for.

So what could I do to support this scholar? In the end it was easy – I asked myself – what do I know now that I wish I had known sooner? Most of this is in attitudes and is deep in my psychology, and is the result of direct experience – but it turns out that a healthy chunk of my scientific learning experience can be re-lived – by reading some of the books I think steered my course.

So I made a point to summarize some of the best science related books I have read (and some of the most useful internet resources I have found), and dumped the list complete with hyper-links in an email to the scholar. I hope she goes on to be president!

Now having gone to the effort, it would be a crime to keep this email secret, so here it is, (almost) verbatim!


As promised, here is a list of useful resources I wish I had known about when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got round to this, it should be useful for several other students I work with, and has also led to me revisiting a few things! I think I may brush it up and pop in on my blog if you don’t mind…obviously I won’t mention you!
Anyway, back to the business. To me, science is not all about chemistry, molecules, atoms, valence electrons and so on. To me, is is the process of trying to understand the world, and this set of materials I have hand picked, should you get through even a part of it, will not only educate but inspire.

This may not be the very best list, and I am sure there are many great books I have not read, but I have stuck with ones that I have, so you will have to rely on other people for further recommendations.

Jarrod’s reading list: science/psychology/economics & so on

  • I’ll start with something really easy, relevant and engaging – an excellent (if quirky) summary of material science: The New Science of Strong Materials – Prof Gordon  has written another on Structures that is also worth reading.
  • Ok, this next one is not a book, but a paper; I like it because it shows that many stuffy professors are wrong when they prescribe boring scientific prose for papers. This paper uses the criminal “us” and “we” and discusses subjects as if with a friend. Shocking form, especially for a junior scientist. This paper by an unknown, changed the world.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel” – this is large-scale scientific thinking at its best- the book looks at how we can explain why the world is the way it is (especially the inequality) by looking at how technology spreads through societies.
  • Mistakes were made…but not by me” – this is required reading if you want to work with other people, so its basically for everyone then…
  • Then to take it to the next level – “How the mind works…” – Stephen Pinker‘s other books are also good if you like this one.
  • “Flatland”, (full text here) was written in 1884, and is essential reading because it defines the cliche “thinking outside of the box”.
  • To make your upcoming economics courses more interesting, first read this easy-to-read popular book: “The Undercover Economist“.
  • Also, Freakonomics– it’s shameless self promotion by egotistical authors, but hell they are smart, so put up with it.
  • The Tipping Point –  Malcolm Gladwell is a current thinker I really like; he’s not satisfied to focus on one thing for very long – his other books are on totally different stuff, but are equally thought provoking.
  • The selfish gene” – Obviously I would firstly recommend “On the Origin of Species”, (full text here) but if you are short of time (which you should be as an undergrad), you can learn most of the basics, and also get updated (well up to the 1970’s at any rate) by reading Dawkins’ classic.
  • I couldn’t ignore statistics, so I will include two – one classic, “How to Lie with Statistics”  and a more modern one “Reckoning with Risk“, they are quite different, but either will get the important points across.

Alas, books are perhaps becoming obsolete, so I better include some other media:-

  • The first one is so good I can’t believe its free – try watch at least one a week, but the odd binge is essential too. http://www.ted.com/
  • Next, an excellent physics recap (or primer) – but  you need lots of time (or a long commute!) to get through this lot – look on the left menu for Podacts/Webcasts on this webpage: http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/physics10/pffp.html – I cannot begin to praise the worthwhileness of this enough. It used to be called “Physics for future presidents” because it teaches you enough to understand the risks of nuclear energy, and the likelihood that we will all run our cars on water – and let you know when you are being duped or dazzled by big words.
  • When I was somewhat younger there was a TV show called Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, you may know of it. You could watch in now here, though obviously it is dated, so perhaps you shouldn’t; the reason I mention it, is because it was key in creating a generation of scientists, people who were inspired by Carl to be inspired by the universe. The previous generation had the space race and the moon landings to inspire them, but since then science has been on a downhill, with 3-mile island, global warming, etc, etc, and we have had no more Carl Sagans to cheer for us; Cosmos was a rare bit of resistance in the decline of the importance of science in society. You may also know that there have been battles in society (well in the circles on intelligentsia at any rate) about science – on the one had the ‘two cultures debate‘ and more recently, the ‘anti-science’ movement (suggested in books like “The Republican War on Science“. I do not wish to indoctrinate you, but rather make you aware that being a scientist used to be cooler and used to be more respected and something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.
  • Getting back on track, here is an excellent guide to critical thinking (something else sadly lacking in the world) – don’t read it, listen to the podcast versions (also on itunes):
    “A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies” – Part 1 and Part 2
    I think this should be taught in school. Brian Dunning’s other Skeptoid podcasts put these lessons into practice showing how a scientific approach can debunk an awful lot of the nonsense that is out there (alternative medicine, water dowsers, fortune tellers, ghost hunters, etc etc).
  • If you do happen to have any time left, which I doubt, there are several other podcasts on critical thinking – that use a scientific approach to look at the world and current affairs: –


Postscipt – Dear readers, please feel free to append your own recommendations to my letter in the comments section below. If there is one thing I know well, and that’s how little I know. I feel I only started to read ‘the good stuff’ far too late in life, and so those with more years than me (or better mentors), please do share. But bear in mind, this is principally a science oriented list, and is meant to be accessible to undergraduates – I left out books like Principia Mathematica (Newton) because it is really rather unreadable – and the Princeton Science Library (though awesome) is probably a bit too intense. Also, in the 30 minutes since I sent the email, I have already thought of several others I sort of, well, forgot:

That’s it for now…

Skeptics vs Deniers

There is a growing movement, grassroots in nature, but starting to connect, called the skeptics community.

Who exactly are they? Are they people who are starting to uncover the truth – that most world governments are a sham and that secret societies control our every move? Do they deny the holocaust and suspect 9/11 was a complex plot?


A skeptic is merely someone who needs to be convinced of things through reason, rather than one who accepts things on some-one’s say-so.


So what is a global warming ‘skeptic’?

Climate science is complex, and consensus opinion is that man’s activity has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions which are likely to reduce outgoing radiation and thus lead to a net shift upward in the temperature of the Earth’s delicate surface. Yes, there are other possible causes, yes, the models contain assumptions, and yes, some fools have fabricated data to look cool. It is also true that many respected scientists will not say it is a cast iron ‘fact’.

So that is the scene – and there seem to be a few types of stakeholders:

  • the ‘global warming denier’
  • the  ‘global warming skeptic’
  • the regular ‘skeptic’
  • and lastly, the gullible!

A ‘global warming denier’ has come to mean someone who does not think the evidence stacks up enough to warrant concern, or worse, thinks it is all a giant conspiracy.

A ‘global warming skeptic’ has come to be somewhat synonymous with a denier, but perhaps without the conspiracy angle. However, many are just people who are on the fence – they are often very smart, and don’t just believe what they are told, but on the other hand, they are easily misled, as there is just so much misinformation out there. They may be the ones who say “I heard the jury is out…” rather than actually looking at evidence.

Some legitimate scientists have foolishly allowed themselves to be given this label, just because they debate some small details (like the rate of heating, or the likely nature of socio-political impacts). These scientists are then lumped with deniers. Tough luck to them.

I found this is some random folder on the 'net. If it's yours, please let me know, I love it! Update: it looks like it may well be from thisisindexed.com - click it to link - nice one Jessica Hagy!

Now a true skeptic will weigh all evidence according to the following principles:

  • is it logical?
  • does it conflict with other strong theories? If so, is it strong enough warrant a change to your previous understanding?
  • is there independent corroboration?
  • do the proponents have a  proven track record (credibility)?
  • is there any incentive by stakeholders to twist the facts?

This describes most good scientists, so its not a bad thing.

In the case of global warming, most true skeptics who have looked closely at the evidence and weighed it appropriately, agree that there is real cause for concern.

But yes, we skeptics will always retain just a little doubt, because you just never know…

Energy Explained in One Page

Ok, so we all want to be good to the environment. The first step to doing this, as is often the case – is to understand the main characters in the story – and possibly the biggest character in the story in Energy.

However, energy is such a very vague concept, so where do you go to learn more? Do you have to do a physics course?

I don’t think so, and to test my theory, I have tried to explain energy as briefly as I can in this post.

Energy 101

Energy is what makes the world go round. Literally. Every neuron that sparks in your brain, every electron that fires down a wire, every molecule burning in a fire, carries with it a sort of momentum that it passes on like a baton in a complex relay race. The batons are flooding in all directions all around us and across the universe – they are energy and we have learned how to harness them.

The actual word “Energy” is a much abused term nowadays – because energy is used to represent such a disparate range of phenomena from heat to light to speed to weight, and because it seems to be able to change forms so readily, it is cannon fodder for pseudo-scientific and spiritual interpretation. However, you will be pleased to hear that it actually has a very clear (and consistent) nature.

I like to think of energy being a bit like money – it is a sort of currency that can be traded. It takes on various forms (dollars/pounds/swiss francs) and can be eventually cashed in to achieve something. However, just like money, once spent, it does not vanish. It simply moves on a new chapter in its life and may be reused indefinitely.

§Energy currencies:{1}Matter is energy(see footnotes) {2} Radiation {3} Chemical energy {4} Thermal (heat) energy {5} Compression energy {6} Kinetic (movement) energy {7} Electrical energy

To illustrate the point, let’s follow a ‘unit of energy’ through a visit to planet Earth to see what I mean. The [number] shows every time it changes currency (see the key on the right).

The energy starts off tied up in hydrogen atoms in the sun [1]. Suddenly, due to the immense pressure and heat, the nuclei of several atoms react to form a brand new helium atom, and a burst of radiation[2] is released. The radiation smashes into other nearby atoms heating them up so hot [4] that they glow, sending light [2] off into space. Several minutes pass in silence before the light bursts through the atmosphere and plunges down to the rainforest hitting a leaf. In the leaf the burst of power smashes a molecule of carbon dioxide and helps free the carbon to make food for the plant [3]. The plant may be eaten (giving food ‘Calories’), or may fall to the ground and settle and age for millions of years turning perhaps to coal. That coal may be dug up and burned to give heat [4] in a power station, boiling water to supply compressed steam [5] that may drive a turbine [6] which may be used to generate electricity [7] which we may then use in our homes to heat/light/move/cook or perhaps to recharge our mobile phone [3]. That energy will then be used to transmit microwaves when you make a call [2] which will mostly dissipate into the environment heating it (very) slightly [4]. Eventually the warmed earth radiates [2] this excess of heat off into the void where perhaps it will have another life…

This short story is testament to an enormous quantity of learning by our species, but there are some clear exclusions to be read into the story:

  • Energy fields (auras) or the energy lines in the body that conduct the “chi” (or life force) of Asian medical tradition
  • Energy lines on the Earth (aka Ley lines)
  • Negative or positive energy (as in positive or negative “vibes”)

These energy currencies relate to theories and beliefs that science has been unable to verify and thus they have no known “exchange rate”. Asking how many light bulbs can you power with your Chi is thus a nonsensical question, whereas it would not be for any scientifically supported form of energy. And since energy flows account for all actions in the universe, not being exchangeable would be rather limiting.

Where exactly is Energy kept?

This may sound like s strange question, we know Energy is kept in batteries, petrol tanks and chocolate chip cookies. But the question is, where exactly is it stored in those things?

Energy is stored in several ways:

  • as movement – any mass moving has energy by virtue of the movement, which is called Kinetic Energy
  • as matter – Einstein figured out that matter is just a form of energy, and the exchange rate is amazing – 1g = 90,000,000,000,000,000 joules (from E=mc^2)
  • as tension in force fields

That last one sounds a bit cryptic, but actually most of the energy we use is in this form –  petrol, food, batteries and even a raised hammer all store energy in what are essentially compressed (or stretched springs).

What is a force field? Why on earth did I have to bring that up?

All of space (even the interstellar vacuum) is permeated by force fields. The one we all know best is gravity – we know that if we lift a weight, we have to exert effort and that effort is then stored in that weight and can be recovered later by dropping it on your foot.

Gravity is only one of several force fields known to science. Magnetic fields are very similar – it takes energy to pull a magnet off the fridge , and so it is actually an energy store when kept away from the fridge.

The next force field is that created by electric charge (the electric field). For many years this was though to be a field all on its own, but a chap called Maxwell realised that electric fields and magnetic fields are in some senses two sides of the same coin, so physicists now talk of ‘electromagnetic’ fields. It turns out that electric energy (such as that stored in a capacitor) consists of tensions in this field, much like a raised weight is a tension in a gravity field. Perhaps surprisingly, light (as well as radio waves, microwaves and x-rays) are also energy stored in fluctuations of an energy field.

Much chemical energy is also stored in electric fields – for example, most atoms consist of positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons, and the further apart they are kept, the more energy they hold, just liked raised weights. As an electron is allowed to get closer to the nucleus, energy is released (generally as radiation, such as light – thus hot things glow).

The least well known force field is the strong ‘nuclear’ force. This is the forces that holds the subatomic particles (protons) together in the nucleus of atoms. Since the protons are all positively charged, they should want to repel each other, but something is keeping them at bay, and so physicists have inferred this force field must exist. It turns out their theory holds water, because if you can drag these protons a little bit apart, they will suddenly fly off with gusto. The strong nuclear force turns out to be bloody strong, but only works over a tiny distance. It rarely affects us as we rarely store energy with this energy field.

Now we understand force fields we can look at how molecules (petrol, oxygen, chocolate) store energy. All molecules are made of atoms connected to one other via various ‘bonds’ and these bonds are like springs. Different types of molecules have different amount of tension in these bonds – it turns out coal molecules, created millions of years ago with energy from the sun, are crammed full of tense bonds that are dying to re-arrnage to more relaxed configurations, which is exactly what happens when we apply oxygen and the little heat to start the reaction.

The complexity of the tensions in molecules are perhaps the most amazing in nature, as it is their re-arrangements that fuel life as we know it.

What exactly is Heat then?

You may have noticed that I did not include heat as a form of energy store above. But surely hot things are an energy store?

Yes, they are, but heat is actually just a sort of illusion. We use heat as a catch all term to describe the kinetic energy of the molecules and atoms. If you have a bottle of air, the temperature of the air is a direct consequence of the average speed of the molecules of gas jetting around bashing into one another.

As you heat the air, you are actually just increasing the speed of particles. If you compress the air, you may not increase their speed, but you will have more particles in the same volume, which also ‘feels’ hotter.

Solids are a little different – the atoms and molecules in solids do not have the freedom to fly around, so instead, they vibrate. It is like each molecule is constrained by elastic bands pulling in all directions. If the molecule is still, it is cold, but if it is bouncing around like a pinball, then it has kinetic energy, and feels hotter.

You can see from this viewpoint, that to talk of the temperature of an atom, or of a vacuum, is meaningless, because temperature is a macroscopic property of matter. On the other hand, you could technically argue that a flying bullet is red hot because it has so much kinetic energy…

Is Energy Reusable?

We as a species, have learned how to tap into flows of energy to get them to do our bidding. So big question: Will we use it all up?

Scientists have found that energy is pretty much indestructable – it is never “used-up”, it merely flows from one form into another. The problem is thus not that we will run out, but that we might foolishly convert it all into some unusable form.

Electricity is an example of really useful energy – we have machines that convert electricity into almost anything, whereas heat is only useful if you are cold, and light is only useful if you are in the dark.

Engineers also talk about the quality (or grade) of energy. An engineer would always prefer 1 litre of water 70 degrees warmer than room temperature, than 70 litres of water 1 degree warmer, even though these contain roughly the same embodied energy. You can use the hot water to boil an egg, or make tea, or you could mix it with 69 litres of room temperature water to heat it all by 1 degree. It is more flexible.

Unfortunately, most of the machines we use, turn good energy (electricity, petrol, light) into bad energy (usually “low grade heat”).

Why is low grade heat so bad? It turns out we have no decent machine to convert low grade heat into other forms of energy. In fact we cannot technically convert any forms of heat into energy unless we have something cold to hand which we are also willing to warm up; our machines can thus only extract energy by using hot an cold things together. A steam engine relies just as much on the environment that cools and condenses water vapour as it does on the coal its belly. Power stations rely on their cooling towers as much as their furnaces. It turns out that all our heat machines are stuck in this trap.

So, in summary, heat itself is not useful – it is temperature differences that we know how to harness, and the bigger the better.

This picture of energy lets us think differently about how we interact with energy. We have learned a few key facts:

  1. Energy is not destroyed, and cannot be totally used up – this should give us hope
  2. Energy is harnessed to do our dirty work, but tends to end up stuck in some ‘hard to use’ form

So all we need to do to save ourselves is:

  1. Re-use the same energy over and over
  2. by finding some way to extract energy from low grade heat

Alas, this is a harder nut to crack than fission power, so I am not holding my breath. It turns out that there is another annoying universal law that says that every time energy flows, it will somehow become less useful, like water running downhill. This is because energy can only flow one way: from something hot to something cold – thus once something hot and something cold meet and the temperature evens out, you have forever lost the useful energy you had.

It is as if we had a mountain range and were using avalanches to drive our engines. Not only will our mountains get shorter over time but our valleys will fill up too, and soon we will live on a flat plane and our engines will be silent.

The Big Picture

So the useful energy in the universe is being used up. Should we worry?

Yes and no.

Yes, you should worry because locally we are running out of easy sources of energy and will now have to start using sustainable ones. If we do not ramp up fast enough we will have catastrophic shortages.

No, should should no worry that we will run out, because there are sustainable sources – the sun pumps out so much more than we use, it is virtually limitless.

Oh, and yes again – because burning everything is messing up the chemistry of the atmosphere, which is also likely to cause catastrophe. Good news is that the solution to this is the same – most renewable energy sources do not have this unhappy side effect.

Oh, and in the really long term, yes we should worry again. All the energy in the universe will eventually convert to heat, and the heat will probably spread evenly throughout the universe, and even though all the energy will still be present and accounted for, it would be impossible to use and the universe would basically stop. Pretty dismal, but this is what many physicists believe: we all exist in the eddy currents of heat flows as the universe gradually heads for a luke-warm, and dead, equilibrium.


Ok, so it was longer than a page, so sue me. If you liked this article, my first in a series on energy conservation, you might like my series on efficient motoring.

Please leave a comment, I seem to have very clued-up readers and always love know what you think!


§ Footnotes:

[1] Matter is energy according the Einstein and the quantity relates to mass according to E=mc^2 (c is a constant equal to the speed of light).

[2] Radiation (like sunlight) is a flow of energy, and energy content relates the frequency according to E=hf (h is the Planck constant).

[3] Chemical energy – the most complex energy, a mixture of different tensions in nuclear and electromagnetic force fields.

[4] Thermal (heat) energy- this is really just a sneaky form of kinetic energy [6 below] – small particles moving and vibrating fast are sensed by us as heat.

[5] Compression (or tension) energy – while compressed air is again a sneaky form of kinetic energy [6], a compressed spring is different – it’s energy is more like chemical energy and is stored by creating tension in the force fields present in nature (gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces).

[6] Kinetic (movement) energy

[7] Electrical energy – this energy, like a compressed spring, is stored as stress in force fields, in this case electromagnetic force-fields.

Confessions of Scientific Atheist

The Evolutionary theory of Natural Selection makes extraordinary claims. It explains the ability of creatures to convert sunlight to useful energy, to spin silk, to metabolise sulfurous rock – and much more besides.

Such amazing feats in nature require an amazing explanation. The existence of a God is very helpful in this regard; after all, humans have designed diesel cars and digital computers, so why couldn’t an entity with God’s power and talent create all the nature we see?

The trouble many people have with Natural Selection, is that while it can clearly explain some biology, using it to explain away practically all biology (and psychology, language, culture, etc.)  is an extrapolation – and a big one at that.

Why do scientists allow such an extrapolation? Surely this is arrogance?


Thinking about this, I have an proposition…

If you come from the premise that there is nothing outside of nature (see my recent post), then it comes easily. If the God option is written off a priori, we have no other logical option than to expect that the gaps in our knowledge of evolution will be filled in eventually. This allows us to sleep at night with the extraordinary.

If you start from the premise that there is a God, then this will strike you are arrogant.


The constant supply of greater details, filling in the gaps, gives encouragement to those who feel the theory is right (see God of the Gaps). It’s a bit like looking for Nessy – we can’t do a Star-Trek style ‘scan for lifeforms’ to be sure she does not exist, but the more we search the less likely she is to exist.

Of course, while evolution explaining away the wondrous variety in life does not prove there is no God, it sure makes God less necessary, and less necessarily capable.

Overlapping Magisteria

Those who say science and religion are mutually exclusive are working from the philosophical premise that there can be something outside of nature.

Those who claim that religion can be scientifically investigated, come from the philosophical premise that there is nothing outside of nature.

As neither position is superior one cannot use logic to assign greater truth.

However, the claim that there is anything beyond nature (i.e. supernatural) is the more extraordinary claim, and thus carries with it the onus to justify and explain how to reach this conclusion.

The futility of being outside of nature:

If religion is truly outside of nature it can have no measurable effect on it. If it has no measurable effect then, even if existant, it would be fair to say it couldn’t be detected by science – but then neither could it be detected by the clergy.

Thus in a non-overlapping model, the benefits of a benevolent God, such as good crops, good weather, good luck, healing or charity are impossible, as they are generally detectable.

I guess you could argue that God goes to the trouble to disguise the causes for His blessings, but why is he so afraid to show it was the result of your good faith? This argument gets a little stretched once the solutions to that are proposed. It is similar to the argument that God planted the fossils in the order of their evolutionary development to fool us into thinking that life evolved…

The ref’s word is the law: pragmatism in science and the legal system

The Silent Contract

If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is good chance you have experienced a blatant error by the referee. If you are anything like me, and if the game is balanced on a knife edge, there is a good chance your blood pressure shot right up and you had some kind words to say about the ref’s eyesight and quite possibly the ref’s mother too.

And if you are like me you would look back later and realise you were somewhat out of order. It was, after all, at worst an error, and no ref is perfect.

However, in those moments of blind frustration,  that rule: “the ref’s word is final” seems so wrong. In big-brother/1984 style, once the ref says it was a foul, it was a foul and unless he changes his mind within a few seconds it will be forever recorded in history as a foul. The real true events become an irrelevant fantasy.

This policy clearly does not serve the ‘truth’, so why has it developed in so many sports?

Most footballers understand why – and most judges understand why.

Let us consider what would happen if the ref’s word were not final.

Imagine a system of democratic debate and judgement over all close-calls at a sports event. Recall that all contenders and most of the audience are highly partisan. It would not be football, it would be a debate. It is obvious you need someone impartial, and you need something quick.

So what actually happens is that all stakeholders enter a silent contract to accept the ref’s errors in order to keep the game lively.

Implications in Law

So we have an example where we in society are willing to accept that the truth is not the priority. I am OK with this on the football field, but this type of pragmatism is actually used every day in the legal system, which is rather scary to me.

There is a lot in common between a ref and a judge, or indeed a jury. It falls on them to decide the official version of truth based upon the available evidence.

However, because the consequences of legal judgement are routinely more extreme than a free-kick, a more considered system usually develops. In most western courts, there is now a ‘threshold’ (called ‘reasonable doubt’ in the US) beyond which ‘the probable” becomes ‘the fact’. If this sounds rather crude, its because it is – they are saying that after they look at the evidence, and place the judgement on a scale of probability (0-100%) that they will set a number, above which the person is guilty and below which they are not – giving our grey world a little more contrast.

If they set the threshold at 100%, to ensure that no innocent man is ever convicted, you would convict no one. If they lower it to get more practical conviction rates, they will soon start to convict the innocent. Thus a compromise needs to be reached – the exact level will be a moving feast, but will generally reflect the culture and the Zeitgeist.

The Alternative…

Who else has has to make a call about truth?

Scientists are also trying to discern ‘truth’ – about magnetism, about cellular function, about  black holes, well about most everything really.

Yes, they do use pragmatism – we, for example, continue to use Newton’s Laws in most calculations because we know they work well enough for most practical purposes. We also continue to build on theories that have inherent contradictions (meaning that are probably flawed), because history has shown that such pragmatism still  moves us forward and is better than getting ‘stuck’. Yes, it does lead to some waste, some researcher’s entire lives are built on earlier mistakes that were ‘pragmatically’ ignored (think of homeopathy).

However, in the end, the scientist has to keep record of all pragmatism and return to it and root it out, because in science, the truth is the target, and no compromise can be left on the books.

This raises an interesting tension when a scientist is brought into legal proceedings to provide ‘opinion’. Judges (and politicians) mistakenly think that science deals in facts (not probabilities), and would also ask a scientist to make a pragmatic call ‘yes, this is the suspect’s DNA’. A good scientist would leave judgement to the judge and sprinkle their statements liberally with the word ‘probability’.

But can a legal system make judgements with probabilities? Without thresholds and verdicts? Could we dole out punishment in proportion to the probability of guilt? Could we punish several people for one crime if we know one of them did it? I don’t know if we could.

Has such a system cropped up anywhere? I don’t know if it has.

Open Verdict

So science can leave matters undecided on the basis that more evidence may come, but science too, from time to time, may benefit from a little pragmatism – because just as in the law-courts, we have the power to set potential killers loose with our inability to be decisive. Think of  two words: ‘global’ and ‘warming’.