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From the Editor: Summary Judgment

From the Editor: Summary Judgment

In this issue’s Letters column, reader Barney Vincelette laments the tendency of some audio companies to invent apparently fantastical explanations of how their products work. I must agree with Mr. Vincelette that some of the technical descriptions stretch credulity. 

But it would be a mistake to brand these products as shams. First, to summarily label a product as snake oil we must make an a priori determination of what phenomena can and cannot be perceived by the human brain when listening to music. Mr. Vincelette cites the example of lifters that elevate a cable above a carpeted floor. Cable lifters reportedly reduce the effect of the carpet’s electrostatic field on the signal traveling down the cable. The electrical field must be so weak that it couldn’t possibly affect the signal, Mr. Vincelette reasons.

However, there are myriad examples of ostensibly insignificant phenomena that later were proved to render audible differences. For one, who would have thought that 100 picoseconds of timing variations in the clock that reconstructs a digital audio signal would be grossly audible? One hundred picoseconds (100 trillionths of a second) is the time it takes light to travel an inch. It sounds absurd on the face of it, but that cause-and-effect is now well established. 

The second reason not to summarily dismiss a particular product is that although the explanation may be wrong, the effect is very real. The product may be efficacious, but the product’s designers simply stumbled upon the technique and don’t really understand the mechanism by which it operates. The inventor, in good faith, often assigns a “false interpretation” to why the product works. In less benign cases, the company’s marketing department cynically invents the explanation from whole cloth.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to audio. The following is an excerpt from my 1991 Audio Engineering Society Paper “The Role of Critical Listening in Evaluating Audio Equipment Quality.” The reference to Polanyi is to scientific philosopher Michael Polanyi, and the two quotes (in italics) are taken from his landmark 1958 book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. The terms “false interpretation” and “destructive analysis” are Polanyi’s. 

The case of hypnotism illustrates the cycle of false interpretation followed by destructive analysis. Franz Mesmer’s dissertation at the University of Vienna in 1766 suggested that the gravitational attraction of the planets influenced human health by affecting an invisible fluid found in the human body and throughout nature. This theory evolved into “animal magnetism,” wherein the invisible fluid in the body acted according to the laws of magnetism. According to Mesmer, “animal magnetism” could be activated by any magnetic object and manipulated by a trained person. Mesmer was accused of fraud and fled to Paris, where he enjoyed a lucrative practice fueled by patient testimonials.

Physician John Elliotson later expounded a whole system of laws governing animal magnetism. “He claimed that the magnetism in a glass of water could be graded by dipping one finger into it, or two fingers, or the whole hand. Another ëlawí declared that mucous surfaces of the subject, like those of the tongue or eyeball, were capable of receiving a greater mesmeric stimulus than the skin. All this was nonsense and proved to be nonsense. And since the assumption had not yet dawned on anyone that hypnotic suggestion was the effective agent of Mesmerism, the conclusion seemed inevitable that Elliotsonís subjects were impostors, who were either deluding him or colluding with him.” Elliotson appealed to his attackers to consider the practical evidence of his technique: “I have given the details of 76 painless operations. In the name of common sense and humanity, what more is wanted?” The fact remained that Elliotson’s technique did indeed allow him to perform painless surgery.

Polanyi interprets:

“Not until the concept of hypnosis was established as a framework for the facts could those facts be eventually admitted as true. Indeed, whenever truth and error are amalgamated in a coherent system of conception, the destructive analysis of the system can lead to correct conclusions only when supplemented by new discoveries. But there exists no rule for making fresh discoveries or inventing truer conceptions, and hence there can be no rule, either, for avoiding the uncertainty of destructive analysis.”

Similarly, today’s false interpretations of audible phenomenon are subject to the same form of destructive analysis as was applied to hypnotism. Because an effect has no rational explanation, it doesn’t automatically follow that the effect is nonexistent. Just as hypnotism was a very real effect—yet denounced as fraud—many audio devices can change the character of the reproduced sound. They too are denounced as fraud because the underlying causes are misrepresented, which opens the door to destructive analysis and even ridicule.

As with everything in audio, there’s no substitute for listening and forming your own conclusions—no matter whether the explanation for a product’s efficacy conforms to one’s preconceptions or doesn’t. 

Tags: FROM THE EDITOR

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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