Baron Dr. Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach had a better name than you or me. And unless I have assembled supremely erudite readership, he was more intelligent as well, having won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. It was the most prestigious of his many honors received for numerous discoveries of chemical products with economic use.
Regrettably, he tarnished his good and distinctive name by spending his final 30 years researching his pet project. He was convinced of the existence of an unproven field of energy that emanated from all living things, similar to qi, prana, and other “life forces” of alternative medicine infamy. The baron called this mysterious phenomenon the Odic Force, a name almost as ridiculous as the idea attached to it.
Despite my dismissive nature, I must concede that his having initially pondered the notion might be understandable. At one time, somebody had to be the first person to contemplate Earth being round, to speculate on the existence of atoms, to ponder rocket travel, and to consider if diseases could be arrested through a process we came to call vaccination.
Further, Nobel Prizes are given to those who conceive of and then confirm an original idea. They are awarded to forward thinkers who either expand on or shatter existing knowledge. It requires sizable fortitude and the ability to endure ridicule to publicly put forth an unproven notion. Having sustained this ridicule to take home the most revered honor in science, it’s understandable why the recipient would again ignore derogatory comments and persevere through failed experiments.
But in rare cases, perseverance turns into denial and we see the Nobel Delusion, where an elite scientist grows fixated on his or her idea regardless of whether it can ever be validated. This unfortunate phenomenon has taken place about a dozen times. Examples include Pierre Curie championing the medium Eusapia Palldino, Linus Pauling touting Vitamin C as a panacea, Brian Josephson endorsing the concept of psi, and Kary Mullins expressing a belief in astrology, while throwing in climate change and HIV denials for good measure.
With the baron, his obsession centered on persons he called Sensitives, whom he was convinced were the only ones who could detect the Odic Force. Here, von Reichenbach committed the affirming the consequent fallacy. He declared that if someone said they can feel the force, that means it exists. But with no means of measuring the force, with no way to detect what type of energy it was, and with no explanation of what mechanism was transmitting it, his descriptions were merely unsubstantiated assertions. They also involved special pleading because he asserted that the force emanated from all living beings, yet any test subject who reported feeling nothing was dismissed as not being one of the Sensitives.
Yet another of the baron’s logical fallacies was ad hoc reasoning. In a controlled test not overseen by von Reichenbach, subjects were placed in a completely darkened room to see if they could detect the presence of a magnetic current, which was activated half the time. After the Sensitives performed no better than chance, von Reichenbach attributed the failures to the magnetic force reacting upon the Odic current and confusing the Sensitives.
The baron came up with the concept of Sensitives while doing unrelated research on sleepwalking. He came across the idea that those who take somnambulistic strolls are allergic (or sensitive) to something that rides in on the moonlight. Rather than examining this claim, perhaps starting with seeing if day sleepers also walk, he extrapolated this notion into being the Odic Force, a powerful omnipresent entity which controlled sleepwalking and much more.
Earlier, von Reichenbach was investigating how the human nervous system could be affected by various substances and he conceived of an undiscovered force that combined electricity, magnetism, and heat, and which radiated from most or all substances. He thought such a force, if it existed, might impact the nervous system.
So far, so good. Making an observation, then developing a hypothesis based on it are the first steps in the Scientific Method. But he failed to include adequate controls in his testing and instead assumed the existence of Sensitives who can harness this mystery power, which he also just assumed to exist.
The baron tried to establish a scientific tie by saying the Odic Force was associated with biological electromagnetic fields, as well as incorporating magnetism, electrify, heat, and light. These were pseudoscience ploys that might make the idea seem more plausible, but he failed to substantiate any of this through controlled studies or peer review.
While never explaining what type of energy it was, nor having no established a means of accessing it, nor inventing any machine to gauge it, von Reichenbach nevertheless thought the Odic force could explain dozens of phenomena, such as hypnotism, dowsing, the Northern Lights, and magnetism. He was even an early proponent of Feng Shui, cautioning churches to not place altars at the east end, lest worshippers be placed in an “an Odically unfavorable position.” I imagine this phrase was his Jump the Shark moment from which there was no chance of his returning to the application of rigorous scientific principles. Additionally, this was all Tooth Fairy Science, as he had yet to establish that the Odic Force existed.
His infatuation with the notion extended to associated personal habits, which would more accurately be called rituals rather than scientific protocols. On “research” days, the baron maintained a strict regimen of rest and diet and refrained from touching metals. For the experiment, he would hold a Sensitive’s hand and record the subject’s report of what was being transmitted. This included revelations that the mystery force was positive, negative, or neutral, or that the Sensitives saw glimmers of colored lights, which could have been a precursor of aura silliness.
As the Baron sadly demonstrated, expertise in one field does not confer authority in an unrelated area. Because they think it bolsters their cause, alt-med and anti-science types love to highlight iconoclastic Nobel winners who embrace unfounded ideas. But this is the appeal to authority fallacy since these Nobel Prize winners are not speaking to their area of expertise. Of course, it is possible to accurately speak about a field one is not an expert in, but such claims must be backed by credible evidence, and that’s not what’s happening here. There exists no empirical evidence for a life force which can be detected by select individuals, and an insistence from a Nobel Prize winner with a splendid name that it’s real doesn’t make it so.