Dear Michael Shermer: Physics Matters

Dear Gentle Reader: if you have discovered this post by searching for a phrase like “positive thoughts more powerful than negative thoughts,” it is my duty to tell you that no, they aren’t.

I just spotted (via Mind Hacks and my spiffy new RSS reader) Michael Shermer’s article in the June 2007 Scientific American,The (Other) Secret.” While I appreciate anything which applies the cluestick to pseudoscientific bunk, I’m afraid Shermer needs a bit of a refresher course himself. I quote from a little way into the column:

A pantheon of shiny, happy people assures viewers that The Secret is grounded in science: “It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.” No, it hasn’t. “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.” Those ungrateful cancer patients.

So far, pretty good. We continue:

“You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.” Sure, if you convert your body’s hydrogen into energy through nuclear fission. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you.” But in magnets, opposites attract—positive is attracted to negative.

Aaagh! Double aaagh!

First, you can’t fission a hydrogen atom. You can split one apart, sure — that means separating the electron from the proton, a process called ionization — but that requires an energy input, and it isn’t in the same category of processes as nuclear reactions. I wrote a bit of a primer on this here; the short version is that Shermer should have said “nuclear fusion.” It’s not just a different word; it’s a different phenomenon, and anybody with a basic science education should know why. Perhaps it’s a small and silly gaffe, akin to writing “male” when one means to write “female,” but somebody along the line should have caught it.

Second, merely two sentences later, Shermer confuses magnetic poles with electrical charges. The latter are denoted “positive” and “negative,” but the former are termed “north” and “south.” This difference in terminology reflects a very important difference in physics: isolated plus and minus charges can exist without trouble, but the Universe doesn’t appear to be stocked with individual north or south ends of magnets. Chop a magnet in half, and you get two little magnets, each with its own north and south poles.

Again, this almost appears like a silly terminology error. Couldn’t we just call north poles “positive” and south poles “negative” (or the other way around)? We could, but the fact is, people generally don’t, and with good reason: poles and charges are different kinds of thing. (The phrases “positive magnetic pole” and “negative magnetic pole” occur only rarely in the scientific literature, much less frequently than “north magnetic pole” and “south magnetic pole.” On the general Internet, using “positive magnetic pole” is pretty strongly concentrated in the “magnetic therapy” woo community. They generate healing energy and pull the toxins out of you, or some such nonsense.)

What would Oscar Wilde say? “Making one physics mistake is a misfortune. Making another a moment later seems like carelessness.” (Yes, I learned that template from Hugo Drax in Moonraker.)

What I find truly fascinating is that this very mistake has appeared before in another article debunking The Secret! Shermer, set the WABAC Machine to 5 March 2007 and Peter Birkinhead’s “The Ugly Secret” in Salon. I quote:

Worse than “The Secret’s” blame-the-victim idiocy is its baldfaced bullshitting. The titular “secret” of the book is something the authors call the Law of Attraction. They maintain that the universe is governed by the principle that “like attracts like” and that our thoughts are like magnets: Positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract negative events. Of course, magnets do exactly the opposite — positively charged magnets attract negatively charged particles — and the rest of “The Secret” has a similar relationship to the truth.

I noticed this the last time, and it hasn’t become less problematic since. In fact, because it mingles charge and magnetism, this description is even worse. The correct statement is that positive electric charges attract negative electric charges; magnets themselves are usually not electrically charged at all. Magnetism comes from electric charges in motion: say, from electrons flowing down a wire. The electrons are negatively charged, but they move against a background of positive metal ions, so the wire overall is electrically neutral.

The rest of Shermer’s article is pretty darn good. I just hope you’ll forgive me for getting riled over elementary physics mistakes in an article by a science advocate printed in Scientific American.

(Tip o’ the tinfoil chapeau to Mind Hacks, and mad propz to Deborah in their comment section for independently noticing the first mistake.)

5 thoughts on “Dear Michael Shermer: Physics Matters”

  1. Man, that is a really weird mistake for either of them to make.

    More signs that science education in our country is a joke! Even the defenders of science don’t know the difference between fission and fusion or electric charge an magnetism!

    Michael Shermer says, “Me fail physics? That’s unpossible!”

  2. actually, the “charge model” is often quite useful for solving magnetics problems and is used quite a bit in the magnetic recording industry. There we do speak of positive and negative magnetic charge.

  3. I’ve also seen “positive poles” and “negative poles” a few places in astrophysics (finding the poles on a pulsar, or something like that). This is why I said “we generally don’t” in my original post; it’s possible, and sometimes even justifiable, but in my experience, it’s restricted to certain fields. (You should see the way those rascally mechanical engineers talk about physics. . . .)

    I’m pretty sure that Shermer and Birkinhead’s usage stems not from a close familiarity with magnetic recording technology or astrophysics, but from a slipshod understanding and lackluster error-correction with regard to introductory electromagnetism. Of those two hypotheses, I tend to favor the latter, particularly when the same writer mangles fission and fusion.

  4. It’s not just physics. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer claimed:

    “from an evolutionary viewpoint, 25 percent of a child’s genes come from each parent”

  5. Mustafa Mond, FCD:

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

    If you’re gear for some Shermer-bashing, stick around for my review of Hector Avalos’s Fighting Words (2005), which should be arriving at a blag near you in a few days. According to Avalos, Shermer is about fifty years behind the times in biblical studies.

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