An honest Review of “What the *bleep* do we know?” by Skeptico

What the (Bleep) Were They Thinking?

I decided to see “What The (Bleep) Do We Know!?” (sic!). I had avoided this film, as it looked like what Murray Gell-Mann callsquantum flapdoodle – distortions of quantum physics to support a mystical viewpoint. But the “what the bleep” meme is growing, so I decided I should see it for myself. Now I’ve seen it I can confirm that it does distort quantum physics to support a mystical viewpoint. But it is much more than that. Much worse. Hilariously so, in fact.

This post is rather long, but please read it to the end – there is a surprise there that will astonish you, I promise. But I should start with the science. Or, I should say:

The “science”

The premise of the film is that quantum mechanics proves a conscious observer is necessary to create reality. The conclusion is we literally create reality with our thoughts.

Unfortunately the theory of quantum mechanics does not say this. The film makers are confusing the theory of quantum mechanics with an interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is an explanation to help understand what might be going on, but it is not part of the theory because it is not falsifiable: it cannot be tested in such a way that, if it were false, it would fail the test (without falsifying the whole of quantum mechanics, and therefore all the other interpretations too).

To falsify this interpretation you would have to see what would happen without a conscious observer monitoring the experiment. But that’s Catch-22: you need a conscious observer monitoring the experiment to see what happens. You can’t look at the experiment without looking at it so no one can ever know if this interpretation is true. Even if it were true, extrapolating to “we literally create reality by out thoughts” is applying reductionism to an absurd level.

Don’t believe me? You don’t have to because David Albert, the professor from the Columbia University physics department who was featured in the film, is quoted in Salon.com saying:

I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film … Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.

(My bold.)

The ironic thing is that the film makers tell us quantum mechanics is oh-so-mysterious and can’t be explained – and then they explain it. I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s famous quote, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”. These film makers think they understand quantum mechanics. They don’t, but that doesn’t stop them from making a film explaining it. But it’s just a consciousness-of-the-gaps explanation: we can’t explain it so it must be consciousness.

Any one of the many interpretations could be correct. Or none of them might be correct, and the correct explanation is something not yet thought of. Quantum mechanics is not telling us this is the way the universe necessarily is.

Baaaad examples

So they have the theory wrong, but they must have some good examples, right? Wrong. They have three bad examples. Appallingly bad, actually.

The first was the claim that when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, the natives were literally unable to see his ships. Why? Because they had never seen ships before, so ships did not exist in their reality.

I had to rewind the film to make sure I hadn’t missed the part where they said this was just a fable. But they were stating it as fact. This idea is just too dumb to be considered seriously. Even if true, how could anyone verify it? I have searched the web for the source of this story to no avail, and conclude the film makers just made it up.

The second example was of the supposed “Maharishi Effect.” John Hagelin of the Maharishi University, described how in 1993, violent crime in Washington D.C. was reduced over a two month period, by 4000 people practicing transcendental meditation (TM).

There were many problems with this experiment. One was that the murder rate rose during the period in question. Another was that Hagelin’s report stated violent crime had been reduced by 18% (in the film he says 25%), but reduced compared with what? How did he know what the crime rate would have been without the TM? It was discovered later that all the members of the “independent scientific review board” that scrutinized the project were followers of the Maharishi. The study was pseudoscience: no double blinding, the reviewers were not independent, and the experiment has never been independently replicated. Hagelin deservedly won an Ig Nobel Prize in 1994 for this outstanding piece of work.

The third example was the work of Masura Emoto, who tapes words to bottles of water. The water is chilled and forms into crystals descriptive of the words used. For example, if the word “love” is taped to a bottle, beautiful crystals form; if the words “you make me sick” are used, ugly images appear.

What the film makers didn’t say is that Emoto knows the word used, and looks for a crystal that matches that word (biased data selection). To demonstrate a real effect, Emoto would need to be blind to the word used. James Randi has said that if Emoto could perform this experiment double-blinded, it would qualify for the million dollar prize. (He has never applied.) Such a protocol would show there is no correlation between the words taped to a bottle and the crystals formed within. These experiments have not been performed to a scientific protocol and have never been independently replicated.

Pert scam

The next segment was about neuro-peptides, how they are created in the brain, and regulate other cells in the body. This was presented as another example of how the human brain (consciousness), creates reality. None of this would be new to anyone who has read Candace Pert’s “Molecules of Emotion”. Pert is a talented scientist who went woo woo many years ago for reasons I don’t have time to go into here. (Edited to add: see my May 2005 review of Molecules of Emotion.)  Suffice to say she has made many dubious claims, including this in the film:

Each cell has a consciousness, particularly if we define consciousness as the point of view of an observer.

I think what she saying is that when one cell interacts with another, it fulfills the role of the “observer” in quantum mechanics. Well OK, but by that definition my toaster is conscious. It’s such a general definition of consciousness as to be meaningless: consciousness has to include some degree of self-awareness.  There is no evidence I’ve heard of that individual cells are conscious.

This was followed by someone claiming he literally creates his day with his thoughts, plus some feel-good drivel about god and self that almost put me to sleep. At the end, the main character in the film throws away her prescription meds because, since she creates her own reality, she doesn’t need them. (Don’t try this at home.) And that was it.

Channel No. 5

One thing that puzzled me was who were all the talking heads? I recognized a couple, but who was the bizarre guy who claimed he creates his day just by thinking about it, and who was the heavy-set blonde woman in the boxy red suit making the weird pronouncements in a funny accent? Normally in a documentary, the experts are introduced when they first appear. But here they introduced themafter the end of the film. I was amused to see the guy who creates his own day, was a chiropractor. But when I found out the identity of the blonde woman, my eyes nearly popped out. I figured you wouldn’t believe me if I just told you, so I took a screenshot of it:

Ramthawebpic_2

In case you can’t read the text, it says:

Ramtha

Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment

Channeled by JZ Knight

They are stating as a fact, that one of the people you have been listening to for the previous 90 minutes, a main authority for the information being presented, is a 35,000 year old warrior spirit from Atlantis, being channeled by this Tacoma housewife turned cult leader. The woman pictured is JZ Knight, but you are not listening to JZ Knight. You are literally listening to Ramtha. There were people who saw this film and didn’t say, “That’s just a woman putting on a funny accent”. Scary, huh?

At this point the film lost any remaining pretence of being based on any kind of science or facts.

I did a little digging on Ramtha:

Ramtha is a 35,000 year-old spirit-warrior who appeared in J.Z. Knight’s kitchen in Tacoma, Washington in 1977.  Knight claims that she is Ramtha’s channel. She also owns the copyright to Ramtha and conducts sessions in which she pretends to go into a trance and speaks Hollywood’s version of Elizabethan English in a guttural, husky voice.  She has thousands of followers and has made millions of dollars performing as Ramtha at seminars ($1,000 a crack) and at her Ramtha School of Enlightenment, and from the sales of tapes, books, and accessories (Clark and Gallo 1993). She must have hypnotic powers. Searching for self-fulfillment, otherwise normal people obey her command to spend hours blindfolded in a cold, muddy, doorless maze.

Upon further investigation I find the films’ producers, writers, directors, and a number of the featured “experts” are members of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. The film is a propaganda piece for a cult.

What the (Bleep) Were They Thinking?

I can answer that now. They were thinking that if they made a film using the word “quantum” a lot, plus plenty of feel-good drivel they would (a) make a ton of money (not that they are short of the stuff), and (b) gain more recruits to their loony-tunes cult. This is probably one of the few things they got right.

References

Some further reading if you’re interested.  First a good expose of the film as infomercial for Ramtha, by Salon.com.

A site with masses of information about Ramtha.

A blog with information about some of the talking heads.

A blog with some comments about Hagelin. Read the comments section.

An amusing review of the movie by Orkut Media.

CSICOP’s review of the film.

Skeptic Magazine’s review of the film.

A really good explanation of the real science involved, as opposed to the fanciful “what The Bleep” version of it.

Bloggingheads interview with David Albert about his role in the film and how they edited his piece to distort his views.

And for the other side of the story, read the film makers’ reply to their critics. If you have any remaining doubt about the criticisms of this movie, read this. It is an (unintentionally) hilarious martyr piece where they blame the media for “publicly crucify(ing) people with new ideas”, and where they say the US government and way of life, not Ramtha, is a cult. All the usual fallacies are in evidence: scientists were wrong before so they are wrong now, we only use 10% of our brain, the film’s critics feel discomfort in their mindset (ie it is not the film makers’ fault the film makes no sense, it is ourfault).  Plenty of fallacies and playing victim. Nothing to refute the criticisms.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Tez for reviewing and making suggestions about the quantum mechanics section.

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