Stop the bleeping pseudoscience

Quantum physics film drowns in its own bunk science

Even physicists agree that quantum mechanics is weird. Faced with its counterintuitive predictions, Albert Einstein famously complained that God does not throw dice.

What offended Einstein and others is quantum mechanics’ notion that at the subatomic scale the world is governed by probabilities, not certainties. An electron might be in this location but it could just as well be in that one. And the mere act of observing a particle alters the objective reality.

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Unfortunately for generations of physics undergraduates, the weirdness of quantum mechanics has so far proved the most dependable explanation for what happens in the subatomic realm.

It takes bold writers and directors to try to fashion a popular film from such material.

The people behind What The Bleep Do We Know?!, opening this weekend in Toronto at the Cumberland Theatre, should be saluted for trying to bring quantum weirdness to the big screen and to a popular audience. Their combination of documentary, drama and animation is an imaginative approach to an intellectually daunting subject.

But all the considerable cinematic skills on display are undermined by a credulity that allows the movie to be hijacked by pseudoscience and New Age mumbo jumbo. The result is what physicist Murray Gell-Mann, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his elucidation of quarks, would call “quantum flapdoodle.”

The film’s high point is a stunning animation sequence illustrating how neurotransmitters course through the brain and how hormones regulate bodily functions. Cutting between these animations and the randyness concealed just below the surface of a Polish wedding produces laugh-out-loud juxtapositions.

Also imaginative is having Marlee Matlin (Children Of A Lesser God) as a deaf photographer whose attempts to cope with mounting anxiety over a hollow life trace a dramatic path that almost manages to connect the film’s disparate themes of the quantum world, consciousness and spirituality.

All these brave efforts wind up producing a movie like the curate’s egg: good in parts, but decidedly off overall.

The good parts have undoubtedly contributed to the underground cult-hit status of the movie since it opened in February in one theatre in Washington state. It’s now in more than 120 venues in the U.S. and due on a few screens in Toronto this weekend, with wider release planned in the GTA.

Unfortunately, the good parts of the movie don’t include its keystone contention — that the macro world of our daily existence is subject to the influence of human observers, just like the subatomic quantum world.

It’s a comforting New Age thought: The world really isn’t based on deterministic forces utterly outside our control. We can shape not only our own destiny but also concrete things like the murder rate in Washington, D.C. or even the structure of ice crystals.

If these two examples strike you as absurd then What The Bleep is not for you. The movie tosses them off almost as asides in its rush toward arguing that everything is subjective, including reality.

“For many years I’ve known that my thoughts affect my reality,” says Mark Vicente, a director and screenwriter, in explaining his motivation for making the movie. In an interview, Vicente singled out the murder rate and the ice crystals as examples of how thoughts can shape reality.

Judged by even the most forgiving standards, however, the two instances prove nothing.

The ice crystals are the work of Masaru Emoto, a practitioner of alternative medicine, who became convinced that water has a consciousness that re-arranges its crystalline structure in reaction to human thoughts and emotions.

He supposedly showed that “imprinting” water with prayer or gratitude, or even taping positive words like “love” on a container, produced beautiful patterns. Hard rock music or names like Hitler yielded ugly mishmashes.

This “experiment” would be thrown out of a high-school science fair. For the findings to be taken seriously, those judging the beauty of the crystals can’t know the conditions applied. The experimenters must be “blind.”

The supposed “Maharishi effect” is an even more egregious example of pseudoscience. In 1993, several thousand meditators descended on Washington, D.C. to act as a “washing machine” for the city, which was plagued with violent crime.

Their meditation was deemed a success by organizers connected with the vedic science of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even though the murder rate rose.

Again, the experimental design simply doesn’t pass muster. It should be “double-blind” with both the experimenters and city residents unaware of when the meditation was taking place. Other potential influences on the rate of violent crime like soaring temperatures or a flood of street drugs would also have to be monitored and factored in.

But a moviegoer doesn’t have to be an expert in scientific protocols to spot the flapdoodle. The first third of the movie is a succession of sound bites from a dozen talking heads, none of whom are identified until the closing credits.

One of the most prominent is a Judy Z. Knight, who says she “channels” a 35,000-year-old god-warrior named Ramtha. Yet Knight has gone to court to prohibit others from “channelling” Ramtha, winning on the grounds that the supposed master teacher was actually her creation.

Quantum mechanics may indeed be weird, but treating seriously any scientific pronouncements from such a source would be far, far weirder.

http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Render&c=Page&cid=968867495754&ce=Columnist&colid=1039086182843

Source

(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Toronto Star, Canada
Oct. 9, 2004
Peter Calamai, Science Reporter
www.thestar.com
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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 9, 2004.
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