The non-science of Lynne McTaggart

A friend of mine recommended that I read a book called The Field by Lynne McTaggart, and referred to the subject matter as thought-provoking, if not life-changing. A cursory examination of the book on Amazon.com revealed overwhelmingly positive reviews and similar “life-changing” testimonials. So I obtained The Field for myself, as well as McTaggart’s more recent book, The Intention Experiment.

The moment I read the back cover of The Field, I knew what I was getting myself into:

Science has recently begun to prove what ancient myth and religion have always espoused: There may be such a thing as a life force.

Naturally, I become suspicious of a book that demeans and cheapens science by putting religion on a pedestal, and claiming that “ancient myth” knew something all along that science is just now discovering.

The idea of “uniting science and spirituality” is nothing new. Whenever a new buzzword gets coined in science (especially physics), within a month or so, someone will publish a book relating the buzzword with auras, spirits, energy fields, and how anyone can harness the new buzzword to improve their health, marriage, and credit rating. The hot topic in this case is the zero-point field, or more generally, quantum mechanics.

Essentially, both of McTaggart’s books are opinions on various studies and articles published over the years that, according to McTaggart, show a connection between the will (or “intention”) of the mind, and physical reality. With the logical agility of an acrobat, she concludes that, through the effects of quantum mechanics, it’s possible to influence the world around us using nothing but our intentions, hence the “life-changing” reviews associated with the books.

To begin, it doesn’t help that McTaggart is an “investigative journalist” (instead of, perhaps, a physicist), with no formal training in physics or biology, which are the very subjects she’s writing about.

Nevertheless, McTaggart digs up an impressive handful of studies whose results are certainly curious, as long as we interpret the results the way she wants us to. But then, like most other authors in the genre, she blatantly disregards the vast, overwhelming body of evidence that proves that people do not have psychic powers, that we cannot move objects with our minds, and that we cannot change the world through our intention alone.

Even if we suppose that the results cited by McTaggart are in some way anomalous, there’s no reason to assume that ESP or some other paranormal influence was involved. This kind of assumption would only be made by someone who is predisposed to believe in such things to begin with. A competent researcher would instead look for more plausible factors that may have skewed the results, and inevitably such a factor will eventually be found.

Appeal to Vanity

People like to feel smart. And books like this appeal to this desire. The average casual reader who is intrigued by quantum physics would love to understand the staggering complexity of the science surrounding it. If only there was a shortcut to understanding quantum physics at the same level as the researchers at Cambridge or MIT….

Unfortunately, there is no such shortcut. Anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics without any formal training is either misinformed, deluded, or has an agenda. Quantum physics is a maddeningly complex subject. It’s quite possibly the most hard-to-understand theory in all of science, ever. To even begin to grasp it, one would require intimate familiarity with graduate-level mathematics (linear algebra, complex analysis, etc), not to mention a very firm grasp of classical physics.

But then, a book like this comes along and suggests that it can make you understand quantum physics in a paragraph! And not just quantum physics, but how it relates to any number of completely unrelated topics. It makes the reader exclaim, “Wow, I can understand quantum physics in a day! Sucks to be the losers who spent so many years actually studying the subject!”

People also seem to like the fuzzy, addictive feeling of “understanding” or “enlightenment,” even if the feeling is completely false and unwarranted. Well, books like this do just that — provide the reader with a feeling of enlightenment without presenting any actual science or any useful information. The best analogy for this would be mental masturbation — tell the readers who are likely to believe this stuff exactly what they want to hear, and they’ll eat it up like candy.

But in the end, after reading this type of book, all the reader “understands” is just a cleverly-worded regurgitation of the same old pseudo-intellectual nonsense that has no bearing in reality. It is certainly not quantum mechanics.

Recall Richard Feynman’s famous quote, “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.” McTaggart (the investigative journalist) thinks she understands quantum theory.

Taking Analogies Too Far

Now, to be fair, a lot of scientific concepts, including aspects of quantum theory, can be easily explained to a layperson using analogies with commonplace objects and phenomena. But any analogy is liable to be taken a bit too literally.

For example, in electrical engineering it’s a highly useful analogy to compare an electrical circuit to a system of pipes with water. The flowing water is electrical current, a pump is a battery, a one-way valve is a diode, a very thin pipe is a resistor, and a rubber tank is a capacitor. However, if taken too literally, the analogy falls apart. If a pipe cracks, water will leak out of it; this does not happen in an electrical circuit. Also, the motion of water in a pipe is caused by the physical pressure of water molecules on each other; in an electrical circuit, the energy is propagated by fields produced by each electron.

Taking analogies too literally is dangerous, and ultimately paves the way towards pseudoscience and voodoo. As you may have guessed, McTaggart takes quantum analogies to the extreme, and beyond.

The biggest error anyone can make in trying to understand quantum mechanics is to make the extrapolation that, since quantum effects occur on quantum scales, they must also occur on large scales. They don’t!

For example, in quantum mechanics, the position of a particle is defined by a complex wave function, the square of which represents a probability density — the “chance” of finding the particle in a given area of space. A naïve interpretation of this would be that “there’s always a slight chance of finding any particle at any point in the universe.”

As profound as that may seem, it only applies on a quantum scale. It does not mean that something as large as a watermelon, or a baseball, or a blood cell can suddenly blink out of existence and reappear somewhere else in the universe!

Similarly, the concept of quantum superposition refers to the idea that, before a particle is observed, it exists in a “superposition” of possible states, and only “collapses” to a certain state once it’s observed. From this, McTaggart makes the generous extrapolation that, since our mind is “the observer,” we can choose which state something will be in when we observe it, thereby creating our own reality!

And finally, the zero-point field refers to the nonzero energy of pure vacuum, the existence of which is a requirement of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. But just because the zero-point field isn’t fully understood doesn’t mean that it must be the unifying force of all things in the universe (whatever that means)! And it takes an even greater leap of logic to suggest that our intentions (patterns of tiny electrical impulses) can have an effect on the zero-point field anywhere outside of our brain.

Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Planck must all be spinning in their graves — I doubt that any of them intended for their theories to be so grossly misinterpreted and misapplied. There is nothing in quantum theory that states that any quantum effects occur on a macroscopic scale. To state otherwise would be intellectually dishonest.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Here’s where I get a little personal. To an actual scientist, this kind of book is more than just innocent fun and games — it’s actually insulting; it’s a slap in the face to anyone with the slightest scientific background. Some say that religion is the enemy of science — well I think this is way more dangerous than religion. At least religion doesn’t claim to be scientific in nature. But these “theories” go out of their way to show how they’re “backed up” by science!

So then, what should we tell the thousands of children in the war-torn countries of Africa who are dying of starvation and disease? Surely they “wish” for food and medicine every minute of their miserable day; surely they “intend” for a world of love, joy, and prosperity for themselves, so… where is it? Are they not intending hard enough? How can we, in good conscience, even entertain such a despicable idea? McTaggart apparently can. The message in her books is clear: you can intend your world into existence; and if it’s not working, you’re not intending hard enough.

But did McTaggart “intend” her own prosperity into existence? Of course not! She simply wrote a bestseller that happens to appeal to the wants, needs, and fears of suckers gullible enough to buy into it, of which we seem to have an infinitely-renewable supply.

All that The Field and The Intention Experiment boils down to is the age-old quest for the genie in a bottle, or rather the embodiment of human laziness: “you can get whatever you want by wishing for it.” Sadly, this is not how the world works.

Resources

The articles that McTaggart cites in her “amazing” exposition are either studies done by people who already believe in this stuff, or simply articles that talk about actual studies and reinterpret their results as they see fit, much like McTaggart has done, to a second degree.

It’s sufficient to examine just one of McTaggart’s sources to see the quality of data she’s working with:

F. Sicher, E. Targ et al., “A randomised double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS: report of a small scale study,” Western Journal of Medicine, 1998; 168(6): 356-63

This was a study where 40 patients with advanced AIDS were selected, some of them randomly chosen to receive “remote healing” treatments, while the rest continuing their course of regular treatment. According to the study, subjects who were “healed … acquired significantly fewer new AIDS-defining illnesses,” plus other positive effects, although there were “no significant differences in CD4+ counts” (darn).

Upon reading the abstract of this paper, numerous glaring red flags emerge. The most obvious of these, I think, is that the healers who performed the “psychic healing” were “located throughout the United States during the study,” meaning that the healing was completely uncontrolled.
Furthermore, if the healers and the subjects “never met,” how did the healers know where to direct their “intention for health and well-being”? Did they direct their intention at a photo of the subject? And if so, how does “The Field” know to redirect the intention from the photo to the real person? Wouldn’t this be a line of bullshit that’s even crazier than McTaggart is willing to push?

Curiously enough, there is a note from the editor of the Western Journal of Medicine (Linda Hawes Clever) at the top of the paper:

…Does the paper prove that prayer works? No. The authors call for more research, as do we and the reviewers, for a number of reasons. We note that the study was relatively short and analysed rather few patients. No treatment-related mechanisms for the effects were posited. The statistical methods can be criticized….

We can tell from the editor’s tone that she was being charitable by publishing this paper in her journal, and inserted her note to avoid embarrassment. If studies like this are the “definitive evidence” that McTaggart uses to support her claims, then her theories don’t have a leg to stand on.

Return to Reality

On the other end of the spectrum (the rational one), here is a brief list of studies that I have found that show conclusively that prayer, intentions, and “distant healing” do not work, as well as papers that show why studies attempting to measure effects from prayer are fundamentally suspect:

…but what do I know.

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