Saturday, May 21, 2005

What the Bleep do we Know!?

Answer: We know how to make New-Age propaganda films that misappropriates the current findings of quantum physics by combining that complicated knowledge with surreptitious edits, suspicious commentators, non sequiturs, specious arguments and highly misleading graphics.

The movie “What the Bleep do we Know!?” is a pseudo-documentary about what quantum mechanics can tell us about our lives. For much of the movie, one finds oneself understanding or agreeing with an idea presented, but then the presenter says something which is either a) incoherent or b) untrue. The movie is aptly named because one can’t help but watch and think “What the #&*%?”

Often in documentaries, they will provide the name and affiliation of the individual speaking, and any related works. The movie only did this at the end; I believe the reason was tactical. Most of the people interviewed were physicists, some at very respectable universities (I address that issue later). But there were one or two that were not associated with universities, of which the most interesting (and revealing) one was:

Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment
Channelled by JZ Knight.

“Channelled?” “Channelled?!??!?!?!” This woman (either one) was given a prominent role in the film and she isn’t even herself? Wtf?!

I’m all for the presentation and discussion of ideas, but “What the Bleep” was not this. It was the thieving of science for non-scientific purposes. Having a PhD in Physics does not mean you know anything about philosophy or how science should or does impact our lives. It means (hopefully) that you know something about physics. Technically, that is all.

As for the complexity of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, one of the discoverers/founders of quantum theory, said, “Anybody who thinks they understand quantum physics is wrong.” This is from someone that engaged in multiple (i.e., nearly constant) debates with Einstein over many years. Einstein also helped create quantum theory, but he didn’t like it, so he would try to come up with ways to demonstrate its falsity. Every time Bohr was able to reject Einstein’s argument.
I’m not saying that all the research that has occurred in the past 50 years hasn’t brought a lot of information, or that the understanding of quantum mechanics has not increased; I provided the aforementioned information to indicate caution is appropriate. When one of the founders of quantum theory, consistently out-debates Einstein, and then says no one understands it, maybe it is more complex than is often presented to the public. (maybe *eye-roll*)

I do not recommend this movie. In fact, I ‘anti-recommend’ it. At best, it is something to watch in a critical thinking class for the purposes of analyzing fallacious statements and how information is often presented in a misleading manner.

(ps: upon looking at their web page to link the movie, I couldn't help but be concerned. Also, it sure is nice there is lots of stuff to buy. sigh )


Anonymous Mike said...

Thanks to Darren for posting this blog; if not for his well done review, I would have had more work to do here :P As it stands, I only have a few additions I’d like to make in that I’d like to highlight some particularly distressing moments from the movie.

First off, the movie has two themes: (1) quantum physics reveals that at a fundamental level, reality exists merely as possibility; and (2) Neuroscience shows that the brain doesn’t differentiate between reality and imagination. In a logically awkward combination of these two points, the movie asserts that the mind can manipulate its “reality” by “choosing” how to collapse the quantum wave-fronts of possibility.

With respect to quantum theory, while I make no claims of undergraduate level expertise, I feel that the following interpretive problems I see are very basic. If you know more, feel free to correct my misunderstanding.

My first qualm is the ubiquitous use of the word “possibility”, when I believe that quantum theory makes more important statements about PROBABILITY. Saying that “all things are possible” and stopping there has quite different implications than saying “all things are possible, but not all things are probable”.

My second qualm comes from use of the word “observer”. As far as I can decipher, when quantum physicists speak of the presence of an observer, they are simply indicating that a measurement (likely a mechanical and otherwise naturally occurring process) is being made. The interviewees in the movie, on the other hand, seem to interpret the word as indicating that a conscious being must somehow be involved in the process. These interpretations are quite different and it scares me that even physicists are missing this point. (As Darren implies, I feel this may reflect a lack of formal philosophical/logical education on the part of the physicists. Again, feel free to correct me if you feel you have a better understanding of the nature of the observer than I).

As for the neuroscience presented in the movie, I feel much more at home critiquing the neuroscience theme, and therefore became much more distressed at observing various falsehoods presenting in the movie. Although they had a neuroscientist (well, radiologist) as one of the interviewees, they chose to express the opinion of a chiropractor in their primary description of the brain’s function. Although he seemed well read (he certainly had fancy sounding technical terminology) and he was largely correct in his description of how memories/“ideas” are formed, associated and activated, he made a glaring error at the very outset of the program that is simply unforgivably suspicious: he claimed that the “exact” same neural networks fire no matter if you actually see or simply imagine a visual scene, and therefore the brain doesn’t make distinctions between “reality” and thoughts of it’s own creation.

This is patently WRONG. Although there is much overlap between the systems involved in processing real perceptions and those that generate mental imagery, the overlap is certainly not 100%. ( See the following reference for a review: G. Ganis, W.L. Thompson and S.M. Kosslyn, Brain areas underlying visual imagery and visual perception: An fMRI study, Cognitive Brain Research 20 (2004), pp. 226–241.)

They even attempt to aid this view that the reality is entirely determined by the imagination by suggesting an absolutely ludicrous story that when Columbus came to North America, the natives could not see the ships even as they came to shore, simply because the ships were outside their experience and imagination. I feel that the medical doctor responsible for telling this story, with the idiotically smiling claim that “we think it’s true”, should not be allowed to teach or practice medicine because her beliefs represents the ultimate rejection of the scientific method. Not only does it stand on naught but anecdotal evidence (passed down over the past 300 years), but it is directly contradicted by a massive literature in neuroscience that describes numerous systems for “bottom-up” (that is, innate and unchanged by experience) processing in the brain.

This is getting long, so I’ll simply list the rest of my issues with the movie, and let you think about why they’re so concerning:

(all paraphrased with my comments following in parenthesis)

“Science shows that all our previous knowledge about how the world works is wrong (the world is not flat, etc). Therefore, if we can extract any lessons from history, we must conclude that our current knowledge must be wrong as well.”

“The key to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery” (I have the feeling that you lead a very mystery filled life…)

“Quantum indeterminacy provides a link between human behaviour and moral responsibility that determinism cannot achieve”

“Physical laws do not discriminate time’s direction, therefore as conscious entities it’s a mystery why we can remember the past, but not the future” (hey fucko, WE”RE A PART OF THE PHYSICAL SYSTEM. While physics might be able to idealize reality and subsequently look at it equivalently backwards or forwards through time, as humans we cannot remove our consciousness from the stream of time and therefore the process of remembering as temporally defined is necessarily only going to have access to the past)

“Quantum physics has been so clear about this” (see Bohr’s quote in Darren’s post)

“Quantum physics is about possibility… all possibilities of consciousness” (they do this a lot, say something that is scientifically correct and then tag on something completely unrelated at the end that ruins the whole thing)

“Consciousness MUST be involved” (must eh? Well, I’m wholly convinced now…)

They make the error of interpreting determinism (fixed personal future) as meaning that we have a fixed personal nature.

“Each cell has billions and billions of receptor sites” (Actually, fuckwit, the size of a cell is about 10 micrometers [10^-6 metres]. For a cell to have billions and billions of receptor sites [10^9], the sites themselves would therefore have to be about the size of the nucleus of an atom [10^-15])

“…terpititions…” (this word doesn’t exist, idiot.)

“We are the only planet in the milky way with life” (Oh, you’ve been to all of them, huh?)

“Brains help us transcend ourselves” (Sorry, you lost me, what’s doing the transcending?)

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Mike (again) said...

I forgot to mention in my previous comment that there are two apparently amazing phenomena presented in the movie that I was first impressed, then concerned by: (1) the work by Masaru Emoto that attempts to show that the formation of water crystals is affected by meditation, prayer, and music; and (2) the study done in Washington D.C. showing a dramatic reduction in violent crime during a massive demonstration put on by transcendental meditators.

I was initially impressed by these phenomena because they were presented in the movie as truly remarkable scientific discoveries. After researching the actual science behind each, I became concerned because they were presented in the movie as truly remarkable scientific discoveries. That is, after investigation I concluded that the phenomena (at least the research presenting them) were not that remarkable at all and I was concerned that most people would not do the work I did in trying to assess the validity of the presented research. In hopes that I can save others a little work and thereby increase their willingness to actually engage in this sort of validity assessment exercise, here is what I’ve concluded:

With regards to the Emoto work, it is quite clearly bunk. The gist of his method seems to be that he either “blesses” or “curses” (note: these terms are used as shorthand descriptors of a variety of methods) a bottle of water, then freezes it and looks at the resulting crystals under a microscope. He then takes pretty pictures showing that blessed water forms nice symmetric crystals while cursed water doesn’t. The glaring problem with this method is the lack of measurement control. In order to validly compare the effect of the blessing or cursing, one would need to take at least dozens (preferably hundreds) of samples from each type of water, both before and after blessing/cursing, and then develop a quantitative assessment (either empirical measurement or multiple raters) of the symmetry/clarity of crystal formation. In this way, one could compare the effect of blessing versus cursing in a experimentally reliable manner. This method would be demanded by any peer-reviewed science journal. Instead, Emoto has opted to publish his “research” in a variety of books (which are typically not peer-reviewed with similar rigor as journals, if at all), and although he may claim to have published in a peer reviewed journal (Masaru E., 2004 "Healing with Water". Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10 (1), 19-21), the actual article was published as a “PhotoEssay” and therefore received no peer-review at all. Until this research is validated via the methods above, the claims by Emoto cannot be scientifically supported.

Now, with regards to the Washington D.C. study, it seems that this research has indeed been published in a peer reviewed journal (Hagelin, J.S., Rainforth, M.V., Orme-Johnson, D.W., Cavanaugh, K. L., Alexander, C.N., Shatkin, S.F., Davies, J.L, Hughes, A.O, and Ross, E. 1999. “Effects of group practice of the Transcendental Meditation program on preventing violent crime in Washington D.C.: Results of the National Demonstration Project, June-July, 1993.” Social Indicators Research, 47(2): 153-201.) From the description provided at , the study seems to be well done from a statistical point of view; that is, they controlled for a variety of alternative hypotheses (temperature changes, police staffing, etc). I do have two points of contention with this research however.

First, they performed an analysis of crime data of the 5 years previous to the demonstration showing that the observed decrease was not part of an overall decrease or noise pattern. However, even though the data was published 6 years after collection there was no analysis of the years after the demonstration. This violates the standard “pre-test, post-test, follow-up” form of intervention research and I find it quite dubious.

My second qualm with the study is that even if the data are valid (i.e. the reduction in crime during the demonstration represented an anomalous event when looking at the controlled trends in the years before AND afterwards), the stated conclusion that the effects were due to the pacifying effect of a concentrated group meditative effort does not necessarily stand without alternative hypotheses. How about this one: the concentrated influx of happy/non-violent people into a city for 2 months evoked a spread of equanimity by model as the participants interacted with the regular city-dwellers. Sound a little far-fetched? How about this one: news reports during the demonstrations describing its purpose evoke a Hawthorne effect, a well known phenomenon whereby the subjects of an experimental observation (in this case, the inhabitants of Washington D.C.) change their behaviour when they know those behaviours are being recorded. These alternatives are arguably just as plausible as the hypothesis promoted by the demonstrators.

Final message: think critically. Evidence is certainly the ultimate arbiter, but one must assess the experimental validity of a given set of evidence before claiming it as such.

4:08 AM  
Anonymous osearth said...

Great post and Comments.
I liked the movie but couldn't remember why really. Also some of the 'facts' on effect of observers i basically assumed where fabricated.
There are other interesting examples of passively affecting random large number sets mostly pretty flimsy.
Personally I like to believe the question is the answer. The journey is part of the destination and for me comprises most of the outcome.

1:07 PM  

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