Monday, January 15, 2007

Why we should all be Googling every Goddamn thing these days...

So the other day, a friend was telling me that science has proved that anyone can do anything. He'd seen a documentary, you see, and read some books where eminent scientists were saying that quantum theory had proved that our ability to walk on water was merely an imagined limitation. Schrodinger's Cat and all that.

I thought this was weird. I asked for the names of the scientists involved and whether the studies had been peer reviewed.

My friend was kind of shaky on the details, but lent me a book by one of the guys quoted in the film.

A bit of judicious Googling later, I had found out his "documentary" was 2004 movie What the Bleep do we know? This is an apparently slicky produced, convincing movie that was funded by a devotee of a mystic named JZ Knight, who makes her living channelling a spirit named Ramtha*

Of the scientists quoted in the movie, the most reliable-sounding is Columbia University Philosophy Profesor Dave Alpert who writes actual peer-reviewed papers. But it turns out that he gave a four-hour interview about how wrong the filmmakers were about everything, which the filmmakers edited down to make it appear that Alpert agreed with them.

There's a truly amusing Salon article on the controversy called "Bleep" of Faith

I don't know about y'all, but I blame Michael Moore.

Ok, not really, but it does disturb me that the slicky-produced documentary that lies through editing is so prevalent these days. How easy that medium makes it to present one side of the story, edited to look seamless, while leaving out such inconvenient concepts as peer review and fact checking.

Indeed, the Wikipedia article debunks the science in the movie thusly:
Most importantly, a most essential point about quantum mechanics is bypassed in this movie. Quantum mechanics deals with small systems, and quantum effects (especially Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) are applicable only to matter on the scale of the de Broglie Wavelength. The movie exploits these effects by falsely implying that they (especially a wavefunction associated with an object and probability calculations concerning this object) are applicable to everyday objects, e.g. basketballs, humans, or fountains.

As the purported experts speak throughout the movie, they make several references to concepts, ideas, and alleged facts about quantum physics and other specific items. However, few of the scientists involved are actually professional physicists doing research in quantum mechanics, and one of those that do do such research, David Albert, has complained that his views were deliberately misrepresented.[1]

The movie also fails to explain precisely how the theory of quantum mechanics actually proves any of the mystical or religious teachings found in the film. Statements from physicists are made which are then intercut with statements from medical doctors, people who have created their own religion, and others. No logical argument connecting the findings of quantum mechanics with the movie's core message is offered.

Most of the film's claims about quantum mechanics are wildly inconsistent with what physicists have discovered from quantum mechanics. The idea that the measurement (observing capacities) of conscious observers creates reality is implied to be a widely held position in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. However, the movie's interpretation of this position is far from what most physicists actually believe.

Some of the film's experts, particularly Amit Goswami, repeatedly refer to the process of measurement and observation in quantum mechanics and speculate about the relation between consciousness and the material world. They claim, for example, that human beings have the capability to create their own reality; Dr. Miceal Ledwith even asserts that human beings have the capability of walking on water. Evidence is not offered.

In contrast, physicists do not believe this ability to freely choose the future to be true in anything other than a metaphorical sense. The facts of measurement and observation are far more prosaic. Specifically, if a system is in a state described by a wave function, the measurement process affects the state in a non-deterministic, but statistically predictable way. In particular, after a measurement is applied, the state description by a single wave function may be destroyed, being replaced by a statistical ensemble of wave functions. The nature of measurement operations in quantum physics can be described using various mathematical formalisms such as the relative state formulation or its equivalent form the many-worlds interpretation. Noted physicists such as David Deutsch do take this interpretation quite literally.


Critical thinking grows more important every day.


*Incidentally, JZ Knight has been sued for telling people with AIDS to abandon their medications and be cured by her. I hate that. Why do fake mystics have to go there? Can't they steal people's money any other way without killing them?


Elizabeth said...

I saw this movie with my constructivist partner who studies constructivism in the context of political science (a la Niklas Luhmann, a German social scientist). anyway, after we saw the movie I looked up a lot of the stuff afterward. It was disappointing that they had so much junk science in there because there were actually was some GOOD ideas that touch on the way that how we understand our world shapes our world. Not like "hey you can walk on water" but like "hey if you think about things differently over time, you can actually change the way your brain perceives the world and yourself." i didn't have time to research the legit stuff from the absurd parts, but there are some good points if you can try to separate the weird/crazy ideas from the helpful/legit ideas.

Joel Monka said...

This movie is only slightly worse than Al Gore's movie. I blame not Michael Moore specifically, but what might be called Michael Moore Syndrome- the willingness to tolerate, even exalt any crap that furthers your cause, even when you know it's crap. Had Michael Moore been a conservative, Hollywood would have denounced/ignored him, and Sean Hannity would have honored his movies.

Robin Edgar said...

Needless to say I love Google. I have even been thinking of making a picket sign slogan that could have a very broad impact not only on the Uncommon Denomination aka the U*U community but on other denominations -




Anonymous said...

"So the other day, a friend was telling me that science has proved that anyone can do anything. He'd seen a documentary, you see, and read some books where eminent scientists were saying that quantum theory had proved that our ability to walk on water was merely an imagined limitation."

This seems to require common sense more than Google. That is, if science had proved something so extraordinary and *certain*, wouldn't we have heard about it? Or did you friend think there was a massive government coverup of our water-walking abilities?

Incidentally, that would distinguish it from global warming, which has evidence going both ways (though enough that the peer reviewers at the National Academy of Sciences felt safe saying that governments should take action) and has been supported and eventually-supported by different administrations. Unfortunate that Joel would lump the two together, but he's right about the willingness to tolerate and exalt untruth that furthers one's own cause.

PeaceBang said...

I KNEW it!! I KNEW it!! I HATED that film. All these people I know and love were all ga ga over it and I just sat there thinking it was the cheesiest most new age garbage I had ever seen. And I don't even know anything about science! Not that I'm proud of that, but still it's nice to be validated.

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie with my partner, who is a neurologist. She went ballistic at the images of the brain having little electrical sparks between neurons (along with other parts having to do with biology).

The electricity runs within the neuron itself; chemical packets run between them (as far as I understand it). If the film couldn't get basic biology correct, I was pretty concerned about the rest of it.

(And the jump from the level of quantum mechanics to the macroscopic world was *completely* egregious.)

Although, this isn't to say that there aren't legitimate philosophers who use quantum mechanics as a way of solving the mind-body problem... but they don't claim we can walk on water.