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You Don’t Know Bleep-ing Anything [About Science]

This is definitely one of the topics that aggravates me the most. Like balance bracelets, movies like “The Secret” and “What the Bleep Do We Know?” utilize new age buzzwords like quantum, energy, and frequency to pervert good science. This aggravates me more than most pseudoscience because the new age movement uses science terminology, which they usually get totally wrong, and scientific theories, which they usually do not understand, to sucker people into believing their nonsense. They are the wolf in sheep’s clothing of the pseudoscience world; acting like legitimate science and then taking a sharp left turn into bogus-ville before you have time to turn around. Before we continue into why movies like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” are completely fatuous, let’s look at what the new age movement is based on (if anything).

It’s the Power of Crystals, Dude!

The New Age (referred to from here on out as NA) movement began as a subculture in the 1960’s and 70’s. NA promoted mysticism and a “re-awakening” of humanity. It is more of an existential way of living kind of movement, mainly dealing with metaphysical questions and the search for some kind of nirvana. This being a science blog however, we will be concerned with the scientific claims of NA philosophy. They include:

  • Parapsychology
  • The Gaia hypothesis
  • Quantum mysticism (to be thoroughly explained here)
  • The Law of Attraction

The following involve hypotheses and treatments that have not been accepted by the conventional, science-based medical community through the normal course of empirical testing. I have also discussed the linked terms in earlier posts.

What I will be discussing here will be the claims in the movie (referred from here on as WTBDWK), mainly the “law of attraction”, the “beautiful water” experiment, and quantum mysticism. I feel that these should be dissected because nobody really understands quantum mechanics (which they take advantage of), the water experiment was emotionally compelling (misleading), and because “The Secret” was huge a few years ago. Do the laws of quantum mechanics allow you to change your reality? Will thinking hopefully about receiving a new bike day after day make the universe give you a bike? Let’s discuss their major claims.

In the following sections, much explanation is first needed to understand each topic (because this pseudoscience is broad), and I will be summarizing the claims and criticisms in a straight-forward manner [thanks to various science blogs and journals]. I apologize for the lack of commentary, but as I said, understanding the topics is step one, looking at the criticisms is step two, and I believe this will lead us to determine the claims as fraudulent.

The Law of Selfishly Wanting Stuff

The phrase Law of Attraction, used widely by New Thought/ NA writers, is the idea that like begets like (does this sound like the same mantra that homeopathy uses, “like cures like”, which we know is pseudoscience?). The “law of attraction” argues that active thoughts attract to it likened experiences. The “law of attraction” also says, “that which is like unto itself is drawn”.This became more popular after the release of The Secret, a 2006 film by Australian television writer and producer Rhonda Byrne. Byrne followed up the film with a bestselling book of the same title and appeared on a series of talk shows in 2007.

The “law of attraction” is by no means a scientific law. It is unsupported by scientific evidence and violates scientific principles and understanding of the universe. As we saw in “What Does it Mean to be a Skeptic?”, when a claimant must create new laws of the universe to explain their assertions, their claims usually are unfounded because they do not agree with fundamental laws of nature. Instead, the law may be explained as an illusion created by the connection between self-confidence and success or one’s own perception, like the placebo effect (which we should know all about by now).

Skeptical Inquirer magazine criticized the lack of falsifiability and testability of these claims . Critics have asserted that the evidence provided is usually anecdotal and that, because of the self-selecting nature of the positive reports, as well as the subjective nature of any results, these reports are susceptible to confirmation bias and selection bias (see example: The Full Moon Fallacy). Physicist Ali Alousi, for instance, criticized it as unmeasurable and questioned the likelihood that thoughts can affect anything outside the head.

Writing for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford wrote that “neither the film nor the book has any basis in scientific reality” and that its premise contains “an ugly flip side: if you have an accident or disease, it’s your fault.” They asked, “If an airplane crashes, does that mean that one or more of the passengers brought that on himself? Do soldiers killed in Iraq simply not think enough positive thoughts?” Others have questioned the references to modern scientific theory, and have maintained, for example, that the “law of attraction” misrepresents the electrical activity of brainwaves.

Victor Stenger and Leon Lederman are critical of attempts to use quantum physics to bridge any unexplained or seemingly implausible effects, believing these to be traits of modern pseudoscience. Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan characterised The Secret as “a series of misquotations … and fraudulent maxims” that nonetheless “takes [Byrne] to a happy place.”

“Just Put Forth Thoughts of Wealth, and You Will Have It!”

Concerning Medicine

The “law of attraction” has some parallels with the placebo effect. In 1990, Bernie Siegel published a book, Love, Medicine and Miracles, which asserted that the threat of disease was related to a person’s imagination, will, and belief. Siegel primarily advocated “love” as the source of healing and longevity stating that “if you want to be immortal, love someone.” Siegel’s description has been rejected by most from within the medical community because he makes the argument that your emotions can cause cancer (or pretty much any other disease), and therefore cure cancer and if it doesn’t, you’re not trying hard enough.

Concerning Physics

NA thinkers have interpreted the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, quantum entanglement, wave function collapse, or the many-worlds interpretation to mean that all objects in the universe are one (monism), that possibility and existence are endless, and that the physical world is only what one believes it to be. Why can this not be so? The reasons will be discussed in the below section “Quantum Quackery”, but for now a rudimentary explanation will do.The main misconception here is with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which (in layman’s terms) states that in quantum mechanics a particle is described by a packet of waves (let’s call them sine waves). These particles can be anywhere/everywhere at once within that packet. Only once a measurement is attempted to determine the position of the particle, does the wave function collapse and a position is known. Believers then interpret this to mean that through changing your thoughts and emotions, you can effect this quantum system and create the reality that you want, since it is all realities until you make a decision (measurement).

Again, I will discuss this more below, but suffice to say that quantum effects do not scale up to the macroscopic world, and your brain (being a macroscopic manifestation) can not interact with the quantum world. This means that your reality (not a quantum system) can not be changed by positive thinking. This further assumes that reality as whole exists as a quantum system, and that brain waves can affect that. There are no studies or rebuttals here for me to mention because this argument really has no basis in science.

What does all this information mean? It seems that although the “law of attraction” may be spiritually satisfying for some, it is rejected by science. Ideas like this should usually stay away from scientific inquiry, but because “the secret” has made specific claims about how your brain waves will be responded to by the universe, science has reacted and consequently dismissed said claims as pseudoscience. It also seems rather egocentric and selfish.

The Beauty of Water?

Again I must first apologize for the lack of commentary, as the foundation and criticism must first be explained. [Thanks again to various science blogs and journals]. This is a now famous “study” by “Dr”. Emoto, shown as a main NA idea in WTBDWK. Proposed as “the connection between consciousness and water”, Emoto claimed that by putting forth thoughts focused into water, either good or bad thoughts, will produce crystalline water structures that are either “beautiful” (like snowflakes) or ugly (random) respectively.

WTBDWK presents this as fact and support for their NA thinking (like “the secret”). Commentators have criticized Emoto for insufficient experimental controls, and for not sharing enough details of his approach with the scientific community. In addition, Emoto has been criticized for designing his experiments in ways that leave them open to human error influencing his findings. In the day-to-day work of his group, the creativity of the photographers rather than the rigor of the experiment was an explicit policy of Emoto. Emoto freely acknowledges that he is not a scientist, and that photographers are instructed to select the most pleasing photographs.

This is clearly the selection and confirmation bias at work. Emoto is searching for data that agrees with his beliefs, and this is whole heartedly unscientific. This can not apply to the NA theory if it claims to be scientific proof, and is not scientific in the slightest. Real experiments are not biased as to what the results will be.

In 2003, the president of the JREF James Randi publicly offered Emoto one million dollars if his results could be reproduced in a double-blind study. If this “experiment” was so revolutionary and the NA believers tout it as proof of “higher consciousness”, why wouldn’t he accept the challenge and make an easy million bucks? Mainly because his results could not be replicated, by anyone, not even once. In science, if a result cannot be replicated, the phenomenon you claimed to be truth was purely some error or unrelated anomaly.

In 2005, Kristopher Setchfield from the Natural Science Department at Vermont published a paper that analyzed deeper motives regarding Emoto’s study. In his paper, Kristopher writes,

Unfortunately for his credibility with the scientific community, Dr. Emoto sells products based on his claims (isn’t that suspect?, remember back to our discussion about how to spot pseudoscience.). For example, the products page of Emoto’s Hado website is currently offering “geometrically perfect” “Indigo water” that is “highly charged hexagonally structured concentrate,” and supposedly creates “structured water” that is “more easily assimilated at the cellular level” for $35 for an eight-ounce bottle. Without providing scientific research references for the allegedly amazing qualities of his Indigo Water, Emoto’s commercial venture calls to mind ethical concerns regarding his intent and motivation—questions that would not be present if any scientist had published research supporting his claims.

Triple-blind study

A better-controlled “triple-blind” follow-up study published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration did not yield positive results. More than 1,900 of Mr. Emoto’s followers focused gratitude on water bottles in a vault over a period of three days. The water was then frozen and compared to two different sets of controls in a very elaborate protocol. The crystals, both “treated” and not, on average, were not considered to be particularly beautiful (scoring 1.7 on a scale of 0 to 6, where 6 was very beautiful). The treated crystals were also rated slightly less beautiful than a set of controls. An objective comparison of contrast did not reveal any significant differences among the samples.

Without explanation the result is indeed amazing, but because it is based within science’s reach, it has to be validated. because the results could not be replicated, the tests were conducted without blinds, and the experimenters were not actually scientists (and mostly photographers), Emoto’s study must be relegated to pseudoscience.

Quantum Quackery

For this section I defer to an interview with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. Not only is this area his specialty, he has much to say about the claims that we are discussing here. I will try to underline the excerpts that make my point about the claims of WTBDWK.

In the last of a series of columns written for Scientific American, Krauss says “no area of physics stimulates more nonsense in the public arena than quantum mechanics.” His list of “worst abusers” includes inspirational author Deepak Chopra, the best-selling book “The Secret” and the whole field of Transcendental Meditation. So what constitutes quantum quackery? Krauss discussed his criteria in an interview last week. Here’s an edited transcript:

Cosmic Log: Every once in a while, you’ll hear about something like “The Secret,” or some other reference to quantum mechanics as explaining how you can change your universe, or even perhaps why it’s in the realm of possibility that a globe-gobbling black hole could be created — because “anything can happen” in quantum mechanics. But I assume that’s not quite right, and that sometimes quantum mechanics’ name is taken in vain.

Lawrence Krauss: I think it’s probably one of the most abused concepts in physics among the public. You should be wary whenever you hear something like, “Quantum mechanics connects you with the universe” … or “quantum mechanics unifies you with everything else.” You can begin to be skeptical that the speaker is somehow trying to use quantum mechanics to argue fundamentally that you can change the world by thinking about it.

Q: But isn’t everything really connected? Doesn’t the quantum world pervade everything that we see around us?

A: Of course it does. So does classical physics. The quantum world does pervade everything around us, but as Richard Feynman liked to say, “Scientific creativity is imagination in a straitjacket.” Not everything is possible. That’s what makes the world so interesting. It is true that quantum mechanics is extremely strange, and on extremely small scales for short times, all sorts of weird things happen. And in fact we can make weird quantum phenomena happen. But what quantum mechanics doesn’t change about the universe is, if you want to change things, you still have to do something. You can’t change the world by thinking about it.

We are connected to the world by many things: by light and sound and heat. We do, at subatomic scale, behave quantum mechanically. But we behave like classical objects for a reason: We’re big, we have lots of particles, they interact. All the weirdness of quantum mechanics gets washed out on the scale that we can experience. That’s why we experience a classical world.

The weirdness of quantum mechanics is reserved for either very specially prepared configurations in the laboratory, or scales that are so small that quantum-mechanical effects are significant.

We’re also connected to the universe by gravity, and we’re connected to the planets by gravity. But that doesn’t mean that astrology is true. With quantum mechanics, there’s a notion that observers affect the things that they’re observing. That’s not always true, but it’s often true. That’s one of the very strange properties of quantum mechanics. Therefore people get the notion that there’s no objective reality, and that you can literally impact on the external world just by doing things internally. That’s not the case. If you want to affect something in the external world, you have to do something to it. You can’t just hope for the best. You can’t bring good things to you by thinking about them.

The quantum mechanical correlations, the spooky action at a distance that quantum mechanics brings up, is true only for very specially prepared systems that are isolated from the rest of the world, completely. And we are certainly not isolated from the rest of the world. We’re bombarded by many things every second of the day, and a result, we’re not specially prepared quantum mechanical systems, nor can we exert weird quantum powers over other objects.

Q: Some scientists, such as Sir Roger Penrose, have talked about neurons as quantum systems. And a lot of people talk about quantum consciousness … that even if the everyday world we see is not a system that can be changed, our consciousness about the world can be changed.

A: Well, Roger Penrose has given lots of new-age crackpots ammunition by suggesting that at some fundamental scale, quantum mechanics might be relevant for consciousness. When you hear the term “quantum consciousness,” you should be suspicious. The reason you should be suspicious is because we don’t even understand classical consciousness. If we don’t understand classical consciousness, how can we understand quantum consciousness? Many people are dubious that Penrose’s suggestions are reasonable, because the brain is not an isolated quantum-mechanical system. To some extent it could be, because memories and thoughts are stored at the molecular level, and at a molecular level quantum mechanics is significant. Quantum mechanics may play a role at some level in the way the brain works … just as it may play a role in photosynthesis.

But that still doesn’t mean that, at a global level, the weirdness of quantum mechanics is manifest. It’s certainly not. If it were manifest, you could run at a wall a lot of times, and every now and then you’d spontaneously appear on the other side of the wall.

Q: You do see that in some science-fiction shows — for example, last season on “Fringe.” And quantum mechanics is often used as the explanation for that.

A: Quantum mechanics is often quoted as the explanation for many things, because it’s so weird that people latch onto it as a hope, to explain everything that they would like to believe about the universe. Everything from the possibility of disappearing and reappearing, to the possibility of having strange new forms of communication. We’d like to be able to influence things just by thinking about them, we’d like to transport ourselves elsewhere without getting on an airplane. All those things can be attributed to quantum mechanics — first of all, because it’s so poorly understood by the public, and especially because it’s so verifiably weird. It’s used as an excuse to be even weirder. I think of what Niels Bohr said to Wolfgang Pauli about theories that are “not crazy enough to be true.” Quantum mechanics is crazy, but it’s just crazy enough to make the world still be sensible at a macroscopic level, the level that we experience.

It’s truly amazing that you can separate two elementary particles that were originally tied together, and often make a measurement of one particle that instantly affects the other, even if it’s on Alpha Centauri. That sounds like magic. There are lots of things in quantum mechanics that sound like magic. But sounding like magic and being magic are two different things.

Q: Obviously, quantum mechanics has lots of real-life applications, including in your television set and your microwave oven. But are there new, weird applications that people might see that have an impact on everyday life, beyond the woo-woo?

A: Absolutely. One has already been recognized: If we do carefully prepare quantum systems, and keep them isolated, we can perform quantum magic technologically — potentially on scales that we haven’t been able to do before. We might be able to create quantum computers, for example, that will simultaneously do many different calculations at once, because the quantum world is capable of doing many things at the same time. We may be able to use quantum communication in ways that we haven’t done before.

The debate here is that we’ll be able to use quantum mechanics to break codes, in particular to determine the big prime numbers that are at the basis of the security of your credit cards and your bank cards. Right now they use a key that’s based on the products of large prime numbers, and no computer could determine the prime factors in a time shorter than the age of the universe. But quantum-mechanical computers might be able to, and then of course we’d have to start thinking about how to make things more secure.

The flip side of that is that you can use quantum mechanics, again in specially prepared systems, to communicate in a way that will allow us to know when someone is eavesdropping. So on one hand you have a threat to security, and on the other you have a possible boon for security. We don’t know which way it’s going to go.

One other area where quantum mechanics works on a macroscopic scale is in superconductivity and superfluidity. Those are two places where the quantum world leaks into the classical world. We’re not using either superconductivity or superfluidity yet on the scale that I think people thought we might. But we’re certainly using them at the Large Hadron Collider, which we couldn’t even operate if we didn’t have superconducting magnets.

So when you hear about quantum mechanics and devices, you can say, “OK, that sounds reasonable.” But when you hear about quantum mechanics and consciousness, you should assume the author is a crackpot unless proven otherwise. Moreover, assume that they want your money.

Q: Why do you think that people have seized upon this? I guess it’s a sign that quantum physics is entering the mainstream…

A: Well, yeah, the point is that there have been these new-age desires for lots of things to make the world better: crystals, energy vortices. … People latch onto their dreams, and they always try to match them to reality. Quantum mechanics is a replacement for the phrase “anything goes.” Once anything goes, you can have anything you want. So what better thing to have than something that gives you everything you want? The point is, with quantum mechanics, everything doesn’t go. On certain scales, for certain times, in certain regions, everything goes and strange things happen. But it’s not true for the universe at large.

Often, people who are trying to sell whatever it is they’re trying to sell try to justify it on the basis of science. Everyone knows quantum mechanics is weird, so why not use that to justify it? … I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I love quantum mechanics because I’m really into meditation, or I love the spiritual benefits that it brings me.” But quantum mechanics, for better or worse, doesn’t bring any more spiritual benefits than gravity does.

Intelligence Entanglement

So where does that long list of information and criticism leave us? We can see how the “beauty of water” tests by Emoto were simply not scientific, and not sufficient to explain any sort of new phenomena. We have also seen how the “law of attraction” and quantum mysticism claims made by the New Age movement are based upon misconceptions of scientific theories; as Dr. Krauss said, “…that still doesn’t mean that, at a global level, the weirdness of quantum mechanics is manifest. It’s certainly not.” This common misunderstanding of an admittedly confusing theory has developed into a whole movement, capable of converting millions with their bogus. But, like it or not, everything that the New Age movement is based on, namely our connection with the quantum world, is just not true. It is based upon a faulty premise, and gets more nonsensical from there.

Surely we are all connected in a way, composed of similar energy and dust strewn about by stars perhaps billions of years ago, but that does not mean our biological brains can interact with and change that connection. The assertion that our remote connectedness changes the “consciousness” of the world is an unsupported, un-rational, pipe dream. Again we humans tend to make everything about us, like we are the most important part of the universe. How ignorant and arrogant it is to think that something as fundamental and integral as quantum mechanics is there for the benefit of the mindset of a creature that is not only microscopic on the universe’s timescale, but irrelevant in the vast wilderness of space and time.

Remember, these people sell a lot of books, videos, and other merchandise. Do you think they care about the falsehood of their claims when they are making millions hand over fist? New Age proponents assert that they comprehend the complexity and vastness of the universe, using it to their advantage, something which should be considered ridiculous by definition.

We the SBL Jury Find the Defendants, “What the Bleep do We Know” and “The Secret”, Guilty of Pseudoscience in the First Degree.