Saturday, August 18, 2007

What the $&@^&*#???

This article was written by Adina Lederhendler:

Over the years several people have asked me for my opinion on the film "what the bleep do we know". I hadn`t seen it and assumed it was another popular-science film trying to explain quantum mechanics. I saw the film today and really feel like I have to set the record straight. The film is not, as it seems, a scientific documentary, but is actually a promotional film for a spiritual movement based upon the teachings of JZ Knight (who appears herself in the film as one of the interviewees), a woman who founded "Ramtha`s School of Enlightenment", Ramtha being the spirit who Knight claims to channel.

My objection to the film does not stem from the ideas that are portrayed in it. In fact I agree to some extent with the claims that our emotions and past experience effect our reality and that there are psycological effects on biological phenomena (the placebo effect, for instance, is an example which is widely accepted as valid). Even the more radical ideas that the universe is actually created by our thoughts and that our behavior is dictated solely by our bodies "addiction" to certain emotions didn`t bother me. I think people should be free both to believe whatever they want and be able to present their beliefs to whatever public agrees to hear them.

What I did find disturbing, however, was the presentation of these ideas as scientific fact. This was done so cleverly that it took me about half an hour to realize that what I was watching wasn`t just another pop-science film. We tend to regard an expert presented as a "scientist" to be both objective and trust-worthy. While many (but not

all) of the interviewees in the film were in fact scientists, they were far from objective. The most impressively credential-ed scientist in the film is John Hagelin, who tells us about both his Harvard degree and his work at CERN. What he fails to mention, however, is that since 1984 he has been the head of the physics department at the Maharishi University of Management, founded by an Indian guru. His research concentrates on trying to link particle physics to Transcendental Meditation. (He has also run for President three times as the leader of the Natural Law Party).

The ideas presented in the film rely heavily on "facts" taken from quantum mechanics, specifically that the state of a system is not determined untill it is measured by an "observer". While the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics can be "translated" into words in that way, like in any translation something of the substance is lost. In any case, attributing literal meaning to this formulation even with regard the sub-atomic world which it describes is controversial within the scientific community, and certainly no one would claim it applies to the world of people and basketballs and such.

But all this is just a manifestation of a much bigger problem. Our society relies heavily on science and technology. However, informed knowledge of these fields is held only by a small minority. The fact that scientific theories cannot be fully explained without the use of mathematics leaves many people in awe of science and they tend to credit it with disproportionate authority.

Another factor is a general misconception of what science is all about. The goal of science is to find the best way to describe nature, not to find an ultimate truth as to "what it is". For example, gravity is the best way we have found to describe how things fall to the ground, but even the most advanced theories of gravity will not tell you what it is! Most importantly, scientists don`t care. They might ponder philosophical implications of various theories as they look up at the stars on their way home from the lab, but it is very clear that these are purely the realm of metaphysics and not scientific research.

Finally (yes finally...) there is a dangerous lack of understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method can perhaps be summed up

as: "When I see it, I still won`t believe it". In fact, a true scientific theory cannot be proven, and a good scientist spends most of his time trying to disprove his theory. As silly as that sounds, it is the only way to ensure that only the best ideas survive. A scientific theory is only accepted if it can accurately predict the results of many different experiments and the results of an experiment are only accepted if they can be replicated. Even then, scientists continue to come up with ideas to test the theory, to find the cracks.

Otherwise there is no progress.

So here`s where you come in. Do not (ever!) accept ideas or facts simply because they were presented by someone claiming to be a scientist or using scientific-sounding terminology. Approach these ideas or facts with caution: Is this person objective? Is he basing spiritual or philosophical claims on science? Are his methods scientific? Google it!!!!

I know I sound a bit dramatic here, but there are many people out there who abuse the standing of science in our society to promote their own agendas, and people are many times taken in on false pretenses.

But don`t take my word for it, check it out for yourselves

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