Listen, (doo dah doo) do you want to know a Secret (doo dah doo)? (Part 2)

This book was great until the Christian Science crap at the end.In the previous post, I laid some of the groundwork for a discussion of what’s wrong with “The Secret,” specifically including the contradictions and inconsistencies reported by its supporters. They really should have consulted one another before making a movie and at least got their story straight.

Anyway, I only touched on the blatant and frequent scientific inaccuracies in the piece, and I’m going to try to address all of the major ones here. Pull up a chair and grab a drink, this is going to take awhile.

First, the absurd. Despite the protestations of Bob Proctor, we do in fact know what electricity is and how it works. Different subatomic particles have different electrical charges; electrons have a negative charge, protons have a positive charge. Charged particles exert attractive or repulsive forces on one another through electric fields. When these particles are in motion in a conductor, they produce oscillations in the electric field, which we call current. And so on, and so on. I’ll admit that Electricity & Magnetism is pretty much my weakest subject when it comes to Physics, but even I can direct you to Maxwell’s Equations.

Now, the expected: the Quantum Bullshit. I understand that Quantum Mechanics is a very difficult, very weird, very counterintuitive subject. It doesn’t follow, however, that QM justifies everything which is weird and counterintuitive. QM, like all science, consists of fairly rigid laws and theories and mathematical models derived from observation and time-tested theories, and while the concepts may be difficult for the laity and the pre-med majors to wrap their heads around, it doesn’t mean we don’t know how they work. Much though I love Richard Feynman, I wish he’d never said “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” It’s true that we don’t typically think in quantum terms, because it’s simply not something we regularly encounter. You have to do a lot of mental stretching in order to grasp the more advanced (and wacky) concepts in Quantum Mechanics, like superposition and entanglement and decoherence and uncertainty. There is a degree to which we cannot understand these concepts, because they are indeed so foreign and so counterintuitive to us. Science, especially physics, is characterized by the use of conceptual models to imperfectly approximate various phenomena, and there is a large degree to which the quantum models just don’t cut it. Poor Erwin’s zombie cat is meant to illustrate a point about superposition, not to suggest a real situation in which consciousness creates reality.

But there is a larger degree to which we do understand the quantum realm, and that’s mostly thanks to the mathematical models. I may not understand all the conceptual stuff, but give me a bra and a ket and an operator or an infinite square well or a Schrödinger Equation, and I can give you a valid quantum mechanical answer.

I’m not saying that I’m any kind of expert in Quantum Mechanics; throughout these debates I’ve been consulting various Physics textbooks, the occasional helpful website, and my undergraduate Quantum professor, to clarify some concepts and refresh my memory on others. Quantum Mechanics is difficult, doubly so when you haven’t done it actively for eight months. But I know where to find the answers, I understand the concepts when they’re explained to me (because I know the terminology and the basics, and some of the more advanced basics), and moreover, I have a decent bullshit meter. I know Quantum well enough to recognize when it’s being flagrantly misused.

That, and I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts that the woos promote as scientific fact. I thought, like Fred Alan Wolf apparently, that “observer” implied “consciousness.” I wrote a short paper Freshman year (before I had any formal quantum training) about how you could reconcile omniscience, omnipotence, and free will by suggesting that God influences the universe through a divine “uncertainty principle.” The difference between me and the woos, though, is that I didn’t assume I was an expert in quantum physics or that my kooky ideas represented scientific fact. So when I did get that formal training, I recognized that “observer” meant “measuring device” and not “mind,” that quantum effects don’t generally manifest macroscopically, and that you really can’t create a device to deconstructively interfere with your roommate’s de Broglie wavelength.

So, these abuses of Quantum Mechanics represent to me a mindset of baseless arrogance, on two counts. First, these people, with little or no training, assume that they have some deep understanding of a subject which even the experts in the field have difficulty wrapping their heads around. And second, they assume that no one will bother to check their claims against the facts, either because no one understands the science well enough to check it, or because of an assumption of the ignorance of their credulous customers.

And while the latter may be based in reality, it is no less sleazy. They’re basically saying “we know you’re too stupid to actually figure out that we’re pulling the wool over your eyes.”

As far as John Hagelin and Fred Alan Wolf go, I really can’t explain them. Both have apparently good Ph.D.s from good universities, both have been published in the peer reviewed journals, and neither is far outside of his sphere of expertise on matters of Quantum Mechanics. Yet both are purveyors of this quantum mysticism garbage in a variety of places, and I can’t quite fathom how you could achieve a Ph.D. in the field and not recognize the bullshit for what it is. I guess it just goes to show that not even all the people in the field can wrap their heads around the concepts, and that being able to do the math doesn’t necessarily entail knowing what the real-world implications are. That’s one of the problems with models; sometimes we get so wrapped up in the model that we forget it isn’t a perfect representation of the actual world.

The rest of the pseudoscience is pretty simple. There may be a magnetic component to thinking, due perhaps to electric charges in motion in the brain (thereby producing a magnetic field), but it’s absurd to suggest that every thought emits a magnetic signal, which can be ‘picked up’ by the universe. I guarantee a refrigerator magnet would put out a more intense signal. We have no way of measuring the “power” of a thought, if there is such a quantity, so saying that some thoughts are “more powerful” than others is totally baseless. In most cases, whether it’s electric charges, magnetic poles, or Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, opposites attract, not likes. While it’s true that measuring things has a quantum effect on them, we learned that fact by studying the objective external universe, not because we each create an individual personal universe. There are rules to the universe, though I sincerely doubt that the Law of Attraction is one of them. While the LoA’s caveats and exceptions render it pretty much unfalsifiable, there is one rule which tends to suggest that “The Secret” is impossible. You may be familiar with this rule, it’s called the Law of Conservation of Mass. It states fairly unequivocally that mass is neither created nor destroyed in any reaction (except where converted to energy, which is also never created or destroyed in any reaction). Which means that thoughts do not become things.

Except, of course, through hard work and determination. But for all the exceptions provided by the Law of Attraction’s supporters, they neglect to mention this one.

If there’s anything obvious I’ve missed or gotten wrong, feel free to point out my omissions and mistakes in the comments.

Next time, I’ll go over the various types of Law of Attraction supporters who I encountered on Skeptico and the other blogs. Maybe we’ll learn something about the pathology of woo-belief. Or maybe we’ll just drag this madness out for another week.

5 Responses to Listen, (doo dah doo) do you want to know a Secret (doo dah doo)? (Part 2)

  1. Berlzbub says:

    Great post, Tom. When I think of The Secret, I remember something told to me when I was young.You can sit on your butt and wish for something, or you can go out and find a way to get it. One way, you’ll get a big butt. The other, you’ll either get what you wanted, or learn a lesson.-Berlzebub

  2. Infophile says:

    Yet both are purveyors of this quantum mysticism garbage in a variety of places, and I can’t quite fathom how you could achieve a Ph.D. in the field and not recognize the bullshit for what it is.It’s actually not that uncommon; I even had a professor at school who was positive that observations only occured when a human observed it (rather than just any measuring device). I tried to convince him that this was ridiculous, and proposed my little test for it, but he waved it away saying he was sure of how things worked so it wasn’t worth testing it. Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you’re above arrogant ignorance.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Infophile: The standard “Copenhagen Interpretation” is that any macroscopic, irreversible process can collapse the wavefunction – no human consciousness required. Niels Bohr didn’t say much that was clear, but this he said outright in plain English.On the other hand, observations are consistent with other interpretations (but not any old wacky interpretation you want to make up, mind you!) One can certainly claim that the wavefunction does not collapse until a human consciousness observes it, because, of course, you personally don’t ever know it has collapsed until you observe it. In my opinion, this is the equivalent of people who say, “I don’t believe that you exist. The only knowledge I have that you exist is in my brain, so only my brain exists.”Actually, the only knowledge I have that you exist is in my computer, so maybe you are something programmed into my computer by the IT people – if they exist.-CJV

  4. Alexander says:

    "It states fairly unequivocally that mass is neither created nor destroyed in any reaction (except where converted to energy, which is also never created or destroyed in any reaction). Which means that thoughts do not become things." Why would thought have to become "things"? I'm sure your intention here was to say that thoughts' "mass"(thing = mass) cannot be created but how do you measure a thought? Especially with the fact that thoughts don't have mass neither does the magnetic field being projected. Therefore, the statement in quotations above is rendered untrue.

  5. Bronze Dog says:

    I'd more describe a thought as a process of matter and energy inside a brain, which triggers other processes (action based on the thought, for example) through standard electrical and chemical reactions.Anyway, magnetic fields are much more easily measured than anything claimed by woos about thought manipulating the universe. Not that it matters, since when we ask for rigorous experiments to detect these sorts of effects, the parapsychologists start making excuses as to why they're supposedly immune to normal human biases or about it being so incredibly weak.

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