Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Message Justifies the Metaphor

An all-too-frequent pattern of argument starts by mischaracterizing a physical phenomenon, raises it to a grand mystical principle, and then applies it to the human condition.  Robert Latham does this in the February 2013 issue of the Pacific Central District newsletter, moving from supposed natural phenomena to how churches should function.  The reasoning is so egregiously specious that I must comment.

Here is a quick summary of Latham's argument.
  • The early scientist Christiaan Huygens observed pendulums synchronizing their motion [1].
  • There is a grand principle of synchronization, also supported by the (pseudo-scientist) Itzhak Bentov [A] with a "room of grandfather clocks."
  • Latham asserts the principle that everything that exists is a force field that has a rhythmic beat; the force field with the strongest power brings those around it into its beat.
  • Human organizations have walls that prevent them from coming into time with the dominant beat.
  • You should get rid of the walls and join the dominant beat.
 There are two different problems with the article:  logic and conclusion.

Bad Logic
First, the argument is a logical fallacy. 

Let's be boring and non-metaphysical and understand what Huygens really discovered.
  • The pendulums affect each other because they have been linked together.  Latham's description is wrong.  Huygen's pendulums were not simply "sat side by side", but mounted together in a single frame in a design for a ship-going clock.  The pendulums move the frame, which transmits motion to the other pendulum.  Huygens, as a careful scientist, also performed experiments to see if was air motion that cause the synchronization, and ruled out that as a cause.  All reproductions of this result have a mechanical linkage between the two pendulums, not some mysterious force field.
  • The outcome (synchronization) depends on the relative mass of the pendulums and the frame.
  • If the frame is very heavy, the pendulums do not move it (much) and they do not synchronize.
  • Under some conditions, the linkage can result in a "death" state where one pendulum totally stops.
  • The effect that Huygens observed was actually anti-synchronization:  the pendulums are swinging in opposite directions, where they exert a zero net force on the frame.
  • Finally, under some conditions, you can get two metronomes or pendulums to synchronize.
 So what are the mundane physics characterizations?
  1. There is a non-mystical explanation:  there must be a mechanical linkage between the two pendulums for any effect to occur.
  2. The outcome isn't simple:  depending on the pendulums and the linkage, the outcome can be nothing, synchronization, anti-synchronization, or a death state for one pendulum.
  3. Nothing in these observations suggests a rhythmic force field that connects everything.
So much for the grand principle that applies to everything.

Next, his  conclusion doesn't really follow from his grand principle.  We're supposed to break down walls so we can synchronize.  But Robert, if "everything is in a force field … that has a rhythmic beat, " - it's not much of a grand force field if it can be walled off or if we need to make a choice to join it.  If rhythmic entrapment always happens - then why do we need to get on board?  Isn't it just going to happen anyway?

Latham's article is an argument by analogy.  Such arguments can be very thin ice:  false analogy is one of the standard rhetorical fallacies.  As the Wikipedia [3] article on "Analogy" notes,
(in rhetoric) analogies are sometimes used to persuade those that cannot detect the flawed or non-existent arguments.
Consider a different argument by physical analogy.  A large group marching in step across a bridge can destroy the bridge - this is why soldiers marching across a bridge are supposed to break step with each other.  We could draw an equally logically-invalid conclusions from this analogy:  we should all make sure we march to a different rhythm.

So find a better analogy not dressed up in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, or better yet skip reasoning by analogy entirely.

Bad Conclusion
Second, the argument he wants to make is thinly-disguised religious authoritarianism.  In a literal etymological sense, it is a call for fascism:  "fascism" from the Latin fasces, a bundle of sticks tied together, the sticks suggesting strength through unity.  Sounds good, right?  Latham calls us to come into line with the dominant rhythm.  But his argument assumes that the dominant rhythm is the good one.  Those of us who see the call to come into line with the will to power are simply misguided.  If we just get on board, all will be well.

This aligns with the broad message from the UUA hierarchy that we all need to grant more authority to ministers and the central UUA in order to achieve, uh, um, something wonderful.  All this focus on getting on board and figuring out the hierarchy is just another sign of how lost UUism is.

[A] Latham's reference says Benton, not Bentov.
Latham's article is at