The Insanity Parade: Ram(th)a-Lama-Ding-Dong Edition
As you will recall, last time we discussed Mr. Greg Buell and his fascinating invention, the electric windmill car. Despite his claims that his invention will revolutionize transportation, and that it has been suppressed by an oil-dominated military-industrial complex, I'm fairly certain the adoption of the electric windmill car is being opposed by the basic laws of physics more than anything else. Regardless, I wish Mr. Buell well in his endeavours.
Today we're going to be tackling something a little more prominent than Mr. Buell. Indeed, we're going to be tackling something more prominent than anything else I've ever written about in The Insanity Parade. What is this monolithic foe, you ask? Simple: the surprise hit movie What the bleep do we know? If you haven't heard of this film before, let me just provide you with the synopsis that's available on the movie's website:
WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW?! is a new type of film. It is part documentary, part story, and part elaborate and inspiring visual effects and animations. The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.
She is literally plunged into a swirl of chaotic occurrences, while the characters she encounters on this odyssey reveal the deeper, hidden knowledge she doesn’t even realize she has asked for. Like every hero, Amanda is thrown into crisis, questioning the fundamental premises of her life – that the reality she has believed in about how men are, how relationships with others should be, and how her emotions are affecting her work isn’t reality at all!
As Amanda learns to relax into the experience, she conquers her fears, gains wisdom, and wins the keys to the great secrets of the ages, all in the most entertaining way. She is then no longer the victim of circumstances, but she is on the way to being the creative force in her life. Her life will never be the same.
The fourteen top scientists and mystics interviewed in documentary style serve as a modern day Greek Chorus. In an artful filmic dance, their ideas are woven together as a tapestry of truth. The thoughts and words of one member of the chorus blend into those of the next, adding further emphasis to the film’s underlying concept of the interconnectedness of all things.
The chorus members act as hosts who live outside of the story, and from this Olympian view, comment on the actions of the characters below. They are also there to introduce the Great Questions framed by both science and religion, which divides the film into a series of acts. Through the course of the film, the distinction between science and religion becomes increasingly blurred, since we realize that, in essence, both science and religion describe the same phenomena.
The film employs animation to realize the radical knowledge that modern science has unearthed in recent years. Powerful cinematic sequences explore the inner-workings of the human brain. Quirky animation introduces us to the smallest form of consciousness in the body – the cell. Dazzling visuals reinforce the film’s message in an exciting, powerful way. Done with humor, precision, and irreverence, these scenes are only part of what makes this film unique in the history of cinema, and a true box-office winner.
Now, at first glance, this seems like a movie that I would adore. Its title shares the same sort of irreverent humor that I like to indulge in, and it's liberally sprinkled with physics, neuroscience, biology, and sociology. What's not to like?
Well... in short... virtually everything. This movie has the singular distinction of being a work of cinema that I consider to be- simultaneously- brilliant and irredeemably stupid. So, how can it be both? Simple- you can appreciate it, and understand it, on two levels.
On the first level, it is a staggeringly brilliant movie- not for what it says, but for how it says it. What the bleep weaves science fact, half-truth, and outright fabrication together into a stunning pastiche that audiences will adore for the simple reason that it sounds quite good. The movie makes the assertion, repeatedly, that we are all gods, that we manufacture reality for ourselves, and that we can control everything that happens to us. I can certainly appreciate the appeal in such a message, and as a sociologist I am hardly unfamiliar with the notion that we participate in the creation of our own reality but this movie crosses vastly further beyond the pale than even the most radical sociologist- verging on solipsism. For Americans in particular, who have been taught essentially from birth to be islands unto themselves, the message of this film has a tremendous appeal. The problem, however, comes when we dismantle that pastiche and see what's inside of it.
And that's what brings us to the stupid part- this is a movie that plays so fast and loose with facts and fiction that it can make your head spin. What do I mean by that? I'm glad you asked, because that's what we're going to talk about right now.
The first thing we need to discuss as we explore this film is what amounts to a thousand-pound gorilla. What I mean is that we need to discuss the party who actually made this movie. Actually, if you've seen the film, you've already seen its driving force. Remember the older blonde woman with the weird accent (Sort of like Kevin Costner's accent in his Robin Hood movie) who kept speaking with such authority? That's the person we're looking for. You wanna know who she is? Oh, it's pretty mundane, really: She's Ramtha, a 35,000 year old spirit-warrior from Atlantis who communicates through the body of former Tacoma, Washington resident J.Z. Knight. Let me repeat that again for those of you who weren't paying attention:
The movie is the project of a woman who claims to be channeling a 35,000 year old spirit who, in turn, claims to be from a place that never existed.
Now, I like to be tolerant of the various religions of this Earth, so I'm not going to say that this is entirely impossible, but can we all agree that such an individual is probably not the best source for information on physics, neuroscience, biology, or sociology? Can we at least all get together on not getting our science from a spirit-guide?
You might wonder what motivation a channeler would have for making such a movie if she wasn't really in touch with a more powerful force. Moreover, where is she getting the money? Well, ironically, the answer to both questions derives from the same place- the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which in a handful of days can teach YOU TOO to manipulate the quantum froth for fun and profit. I am so not kidding here people: according to Ramtha's website, time with her will cost you anywhere from $50.00 to $1000.00 US, depending on what sort of event you attend. Sadly, the link to her biography seems to be broken, but for the curious there is an entry regarding her in the Skeptic's Dictionary. There is certainly the strong impression that Ramtha, or Knight, or whatever the hell this person calls herself, is little more than a swindler seeking to make a buck off of other people's credulity.
And what credulity it is, too. Some of the claims in this film are so extreme as to be totally laughable. There is, for example, the claim that Native Americans were initially unable to see the ships of Christopher Columbus until they had developed a concept of what a "ship" was. Actually, the movie identifies Columbus' vessels as "Clipper Ships" which is hardly reassuring since clipper ships weren't invented until the nineteenth century! For those who have a hard time with dates, that means sometime after 1801 AD. Since Columbus sailed, I am told, in 1492 AD, he was about 309 years, if we're being generous, too early for clipper ships. If the Native Americans couldn't see Columbus' clipper ships, perhaps that's because they (the ships) didn't exist, and Columbus was actually using a carrack and two caravels.
But I digress...
The movie claims that the Native Americans could see the ripples the ships made in the water but, at least for a time, were unable to see the ships themselves. That is, until a wise shaman finally realized the craft were there, and then told the others, at which point the ships appeared to one and all. This is unmitigated bullshit, and bullshit of the worst sort. What is happening here is the movie is deliberately conflating what we know as "sensation" with the related, but distinct, phenomenon of "perception."
When we sense something we register information about the world with our senses, or our data-input organs, such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. When we perceive something, however, we organize that input into a coherent understanding about what those signals mean. These are two distinct, but related, processes in the brain, and should not be confused. What the movie might have said, and maintained technical accuracy, was that initially the Native Americans were unable to perceive the ships. This would have been true since Native Americans wouldn't have had an understanding of what a "ship" was. They still would have been able to see it, but assigning it to a mental category would have been a tad more difficult. If I had to guess, they probably would have decided it was a huge canoe and built on things from there, but that's sheer speculation. Indeed, unlike what the movie claims, it is possible to see something without perceiving it. Such a situation is exemplified by the medical condition known as agnosia.
In agnosia an individual, as a consequence of brain damage, can see objects, can realize that they are present and even describe them, but is unable to recognize what they are. Thus, a pencil becomes an object of so much length, with such a shape, and other characteristics, but is no longer simply a pencil. What has been lost is not the ability to see something, but the ability to apply a percept to it.
You might argue that the case of the Native Americans is different- after all an agnosic (someone with agnosia) has probably been exposed to an object before and may still recognize it on some deep level. This sounds good, but is wrong. It is wrong because an inability to recognize something does not mean the stimulus vanishes. There is a condition known as anterograde amnesia in which the sufferer is unable to form new memories. This was depicted dramatically, if inaccurately, in the movie Memento. If What the bleep were correct, than sufferers of this disorder would be entirely unable to "see" anything that they did not know about prior to their injury. The movie would have us believe that, since these individuals cannot form new concepts, anterograde amnesiacs should simply be unable to see things they aren't already familiar with. To the best of my knowledge, sufferers from anterograde amnesia are entirely capable of observing the presence of novel stimuli.
Of course, even if we ignore all of these substantial problems with the movie's account there remains the whopper: where does this account derive from? I've never heard of such a sensational report about Columbus' encounter with Native Americans, and it seems like something that would have been spread far and wide. If I had to guess, I'd say this account comes to us from 35,000 year old Ramtha himself- which is to say, is probably made up.
In short, it appears that in this case the movie is guilty of nothing less than outright falsification. How charming in a "documentary."
If we move beyond this issue, there are still more problems to deal with. Sadly, there are far too many issues to discuss here, so I will limit myself to two. The first has to do with what an "observer" is in quantum mechanical terms. The movie repeatedly claims that, according to quantum mechanics, humans can alter the state of reality. We can "observe" reality however we choose and reality will conform to our wishes. Such claims are not new, they have been staples of science fiction for decades, and they are most commonly rooted in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
There is a tendency to interpret the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as meaning that an observer can change reality. This is both true and untrue. It is true in the sense that measuring something is observing it, and measurement often changes the state of a thing, but in quantum mechanics this has nothing to do with consciousness. As the movie states in passing observation can be something as simple as one object bumping into another. Specifically, the movie claims that reality is constructed by the action of this bumping, or this interaction. Think about that for a moment. Let's say that there's a particle that doesn't interact with anything else. It has no mass, exerts no gravity, is non-magnetic, does not possess a strong or weak nuclear force, and passes through all other matter, energy, and spacetime fields. With me? Okay, now, is that particle real? While you're pondering that, consider something else: if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around, does it make a sound? How about: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
The problem here is that whether or not such a particle could exist is irrelevant. Such a particle would exert no influence on our reality. For all intents and purposes it wouldn't exist, or would simply be imaginary. So, in a quantum mechanical sense, yes, reality is created by observation, but observation simply means interaction and has nothing whatsoever the fuck to do with intentionality or sentience. Moreover, the level at which quantum fluctuations (that are susceptible to this "observer effect") occur is very, very, very, very small. At the level at which we all live, quantum fluctuations average out- which is why Newtonian physics worked so well for so long.
Now, the movie does make this point in a single remark, in passing, but this doesn't really give it much credit. The film spends most of its time confusing interaction with consciousness, and claiming that quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is built into the structure of the universe. Quantum mechanics says no such thing, and by emphasizing this "interpretation," the movie is deliberately misleading its viewers.
This observer effect "logic" sounds good, however, because many of us are familiar with something else: the Hawthorne effect and the Placebo effect. In both cases human perceptions and behaviors can be altered in certain limited ways by belief, but these macroscopic psychological and sociological phenomena are entirely unrelated to the sub-microscopic physical events of quantum mechanics. They sound related, and indeed the expectations and beliefs of humans can powerfully alter their perception of the world, but at the end of the day there remains a distinction between what is sensed, and what is perceived.
Some of you may wonder why I feel comfortable contradicting the bevy of scientists who appear in the film. This is a fair question, and it has several answers. The first answer is that I find the presentation of their opinions to be suspicious. In most documentaries, a caption explaining the identity of a talking head appears at the bottom of the screen when they are speaking. This affords the viewer the opportunity to judge, for themselves, the extent to which this person may know what they are talking about. What the Bleep by contrast saves this information until the end, providing it in a series of captions one must be very quick-of-eye to read. This unfortunately, and in all likelihood deliberately, prevents one from actively judging their speech during the film. I find this tactic, in and of itself, to be highly disturbing. If the movie is truly presenting established, mainstream science from reputable scholars, why the deceptive presentation? I am not reassured by the content of those end-captions either, since at one point a chiropractor is holding forth on molecular biology, and one of the physicists in the film is also, and this is a quote from the website: "...Minister of Science and Technology of the Global Country of World Peace."
This does, however, bring us to my second point on the "authority" of these scientists. If you want information on science, asking a scientist is a good way to start, but that doesn't mean all scientists are equal. Look at this another way: if you are a conductor, and you need a new piano player, you're probably going to have better luck in your search if you limit it to those who have been taught to play the piano, rather than just grabbing random people off the street. Does that, however, mean that all piano players are concert-level? Of course not. The same thing is true of scientists- the presence of a degree in a scientific field will, ideally, guarantee some minimum level of competence (how minimum, of course, being a subject for another post) but it says nothing about the integrity, dedication, and overall knowledge of the holder beyond that minimum. Scientists can be crackpots just as priests can also be pedophiles. In short, authority should derive from actions and knowledge, rather than from a sheet of paper in a frame. Whether these individuals are scientists or not, if their ideas contradict a wide area of established, validated scientific knowledge, it is perfectly reasonable to challenge them. If I am ultimately shown to be in error- great! That's the way it should be, a battle of wits and evidence, rather than of authority and image.
But, once again, I digress...
For our last criticism, we come to the work of one Masaru Emoto who claims to be able to effect the formation of ice crystals by taping Japanese characters for various emotions to their containers, or by thinking about them really hard. Once more, I am so not kidding here. I really, really wish I were. It's hard, really, to criticize this work- mostly because I can't find much detail about it. Despite the claims of the movie that Emoto was doing controlled scientific research, I find no reference to this "work" on Emoto's site. Speaking as a grad student in a scientific field I feel qualified to say that you usually don't have to work too hard to get a scientist to tell you about their research. Getting them to stop is usually the trick.
Unless, of course, that research is total horseshit.
It goes without saying that this odd silence makes me nervous about this research, but not nearly so much as the fact that the movie identified water as "one of the four elements." Yeah, you read that right- one of the four elements. I can only assume that the other three are Earth, Air, and Fire. Doubtless when all four elements are combined with the power of heart it unleashes the might of Captain Planet. Now, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I like to think that any movie that claims to be discussing actual science will recognize that, at last count, the periodic table of the elements contains vastly more than four elements, and none of them are "air," "earth," "fire," or "water." Water, as it happens, is composed of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and earth, air, and fire are composed of such heterogeneous combinations of elements that they defy easy categorization.
Perhaps Emoto's research is solid, and perhaps he is on to something (though I doubt it) but the reference to a mere four elements, a giant leap backwards to Empedoclesian "chemistry," is a powerful signal to the contrary.
As I said before, I could go on and discuss the movie's other fantastical claims, such as that cells are conscious, that humans currently possess the technology for anti-gravity magnets, a combination of terms that makes my brain melt, and zero-point energy, but even I only know so many synonyms for bullshit. This is a movie so rife with incorrect information the mind boggles.
So what lesson are we to draw from all this? Well, in dicussing this movie with others it was suggested that, perhaps, we should forgive some of its faults because it did say some worthwhile things. This was in reference to the movie's urgings that we love ourselves. Now, I'm a fan of self esteem so I can see the logic here, but unfortunately I don't think this is a strong argument. This movie does give good advice about not hating oneself, but it embeds it in a ridiculous meta-philosophy that vastly over-emphasizes the healing power of "positive thinking." What do I mean by that? Well, at two points the movie implies that proper attitudes will arrest, or even prevent, aging (remember the scene where the protaganist is an old woman?) and depicts the main character throwing away her now-unneeded prescription medication. The movie's message is clear- all manner of physical infirmity and disease is susceptible to, and curable via, the power of Ramtha's positive thinking. Of course, the corollary to this assertion is that if you are sick in any way it is your own fault. What a devastating, and dangerous, message to be broadcasting. The movie is simultaneously encouraging people who may have very real problems to dispense with proven, demonstrated treatment in favor of positive thinking, and then blaming them when their conditions persist, or worsen.
More insulting, Ramtha's "philosophy" insulates her from criticism in the same manner as tried and (un)true faith healers: if you're still sick, it's because your faith is weak. Or, as Ramtha might say, it's because you don't believe enough that you are a god. So, cases where her followers worsen as a result of her teachings are explained away as examples of failings in them while "successes," brought about by the Hawthorne and Placebo effects, are touted as demonstrating the correctness of her philosophy. And all the while she continues collecting a thousand dollars a head for her "retreats," to teach others the same "skills." Heads, she wins, tails, you lose. Finally, this entire logic of "the movie is okay if it tells you to do the right thing for the wrong reason," is problematic in itself. If advice is good, then it is good for reasons that are also correct. To justify good advice with bad logic and bogus information devalues both the advice and the worth of fact itself. Perhaps it is worth telling people that hating themselves is unlikely to help them, but doing so in the manner of this movie will likely cause vastly more harm than good.
What it all comes down to is that sometimes falsehood comes at you blunt and obvious, but all too frequently it comes dressed up nicely. Just because something sounds good, it doesn't mean it is, and you shouldn't be so open-minded that your brains fall out. In the final analysis, we could answer the eponymous question What the bleep do we know by saying, "Rather a lot, actually." Unfortunately, the movie asks us to ignore centuries of painstaking scientific advancement in favor of new-age handwaving covered in a thin lacquer of science. It is true that sometimes science decides that it was wrong, but such a decision only comes with the accumulation of evidence. As the late Carl Sagan was fond of pointing out, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What the bleep and, indeed, Ramtha herself, make extraordinary claims, but no matter how good it looks, slick computer animation and an expressive leading lady do not constitute evidence of any kind. At best this movie is a two-hour infomercial for Ramtha's philosophy and teachings which, I suspect, is exactly what it was meant to be in the first place.
So, that wraps up another episode of The Insanity Parade. What will be up next time? Well, stay tuned and find out. I don't know myself, but I do know one thing:
Tom Cruise has gotten me thinking lately.