The Intention Experiment(s?)

Unknown to me until now, Lynne McTaggart (author of The Field and The Intention Experiment, discussed in my previous post) has apparently been spearheading a series of actual “intention experiments” online. This is done by giving online readers a certain task to “intend” upon, and observing the results.

I found a very interesting discussion thread on the JREF Forum that details the various iterations of McTaggart’s website over the last several months. Apparently, every “intention experiment” promoted by the website is referred to as “the first intention experiment.” When that experiment fails or produces inconclusive data, the next experiment is called the “first,” and so on.

The “experiments” themselves appear to be completely nonsensical. For example, one of the experiments was to measure the emissions of “biophotons” from plants that were being intended to glow by distant observers. According to the website:

Our first experiments examined the alteration in the tiny light — called biophoton emissions — being emitted from living things. We chose to look at this tiny current of light, because it is infinitely more subtle than, say, cellular growth rate.

Of course! Why measure something tangible, when you can measure something “infinitely more subtle”!

The current incarnation of the Intention website doesn’t even brag about the results of the experiments anymore, but instead directs visitors to purchase McTaggart’s books and DVDs, and join an online community that’s reminiscent of some kind of sad, pathetic support group for people who are uncomfortable saying, “won’t you pray for me?”

Here’s an example of the Intention website’s community posts:

…In 2001 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I had a mastectomy & chemo (experimental) that just about killed me. I had a bad reaction that left me with nerve damage and constant bone/joint/muscle stiffness & pain. Last week I had my annual mammogram on the remaining breast. I rec. a letter saying there was a “suspicious” area, so I have to return on 8-8-07 for more films/sonogram. I would really appreciate as many members as possible to send the intent that all will be fine

Wait a minute… for some reason that has a very familiar ring to it. What if we replace the word “intent” with the word “prayer”? Isn’t this the exact same thing?!

Who are they trying to kid? Instead of praying to an invisible supernatural deity, they’re simply praying to an invisible supernatural “field”! Well, I’m afraid the old adage still applies: Nothing fails like prayer.

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.

More Tachyon Energy

A while ago I posted a couple of articles about Tachyon Energy, which is a relatively new development in the “field” of new-age self healing pseudoscience. I had hoped that this would be just a negative blip on an otherwise upward trend towards rationality and reason among the general population. Of course I was mistaken — interest in Tachyon products is strong as ever, and the Tachyon distributors are continuing to diversify their products in more shapes, sizes, and colors.

Recently I communicated with a gentleman from Germany by the name of Samvado Gunnar Kossatz, who is apparently a noted Tarot Card enthusiast, having published his own set of Tarot cards. Mr. Kossatz claims that Tachyon products helped to completely alleviate his back pain, as well as keep him free of back pain for almost ten years.

Mr. Kossatz has revealed to me that he will conduct a series of experiments to test the efficacy of various Tachyon products (using his own funds, no less)! This certainly piqued my curiosity; I invite everyone to keep track as these tests proceed. I hope that Mr. Kossatz performs the tests in an unbiased, scientific manner, in spite of his conviction that Tachyon products healed him many years ago.

His test protocols can be accessed here. Unfortunately, the protocols are in German, as I’m sure the test results will be. I will try to post translations of relevant portions as time permits. According to his page, the tests should be completed by September 12. This may prove to be quite interesting.

Does Faith Explain Anything?

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
— George Bernard Shaw

Adherents to religion, or generally most of those who claim to “have faith,” will often justify their faith by saying that there are certain things in the world that “science alone can’t explain.” In other words, they are comforted by the notion that “faith” has some sort of explanatory power where science fails. Let’s examine this notion and determine whether or not faith really explains anything at all.

To begin, science doesn’t fail. Science is nothing but a set of guidelines for testing the validity of theories that attempt to explain our world. As new evidence is discovered, an existing theory may be re-tested in light of the new evidence. The evidence will then either help support the theory, or help discredit the theory, in which case a new theory may be formulated to accommodate the new evidence (as well as all prior existing evidence). To this end, scientific theories may fail, and they sometimes do. No scientist will ever claim that any theory is “perfect” and capable of explaining everything.

Some scientific theories, however, are so well-established and well-supported, that they are simply accepted by scientists as “fact,” or as close to “fact” as can be achieved. An example of such a theory might be Newton’s laws of motion (for large objects), or the theory of evolution. From the perspective of a non-scientist, it may even appear as if scientists have a certain “faith” about the validity of their theories, but this is only because the theories are so rigorously tested and thoroughly proved.

When someone says, “Science can’t explain this,” whether “this” refers to human consciousness, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and so on, the correct statement is actually, “Science can’t explain this yet.” Throughout history, there has been a very clear trend where scientific discoveries explain phenomena that were formerly attributed to gods and the supernatural. This includes earthquakes, eclipses, thunderstorms, drought, diseases, and a whole host of other natural occurrences that are now very well-known and understood. It’s only a matter of time until science fills in the remaining gaps of knowledge that exist today.

Faith appears to offer nothing but non-explanations. For example, if I were to ask you how a microwave oven works, and you were to say, “It’s magic,” you will have given me a non-explanation. If I grew up believing in magic, then I would probably accept your answer with enthusiasm, but in reality, you’ll have given me no new information on how the microwave actually works.

The same with faith and god-belief: suppose we ask how life originated on this planet, and we get the response, “God created it.” While this response may be emotionally powerful for lifelong believers or the newly-converted, in reality this answer is devoid of any real meaning, and does not give any new information on how life actually came to be. To a scientist, “God did it” is as vacuous as “It’s magic.”

No one denies that there are many mysteries in our world that are still unsolved. Atheists have an equally deep appreciation for mysteries as theists. However, to an atheist, a mystery remains a mystery until it is solved properly using the scientific method. To a theist, any mystery is automatically “solved” with “God did it.” There’s a very apparent danger in this kind of reasoning, because a person of deep faith may never get past his “goddidit” mindset, and never discover or accept the real explanation for an unsolved mystery. This is seen throughout history, from the Church’s rejection of the heliocentric nature of the solar system, to today’s creationists’ relentless unwillingness to accept Evolution or the Big Bang. This is all due to their faith in the infallibility of 2000 year-old folk tales.

To an outside observer, faith does not seem to explain much at all. So why do so many people “have” it? Moreover, why do they consider it “good” to have it? Is it because of indoctrination at an early enough age, or because of a profound life-changing event that leaves the mind in a vulnerable state? Or is it simply an excuse to feel “spiritually superior” to nonbelievers? Whatever the answer, I’m sure that it lies not with faith, but with neuroscience. 😉

Conservapedia

or What America is in Danger of Becoming

Apparently several disgruntled fundamentalist christians have set up their own “alternative” to Wikipedia that they’re calling Conservapedia (subtitled “A conservative encyclopedia you can trust“). Their biggest gripes with Wikipedia appear to be their perception of a “liberal bias” in Wikipedia, as well as Wikipedia’s use of C.E. (Common Era) in dates instead of A.D. (Anno Domini). In short, the authors of Conservapedia fear that Wikipedia is becoming “increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American.”

No doubt, Conservapedia was founded by a couple of angry guys whose edits on Wikipedia got deleted for being too preachy and uncomfortably fundamentalist. The guys may have even been cranky enough to get banned from Wikipedia altogether, which is what probably gave them the bright idea to start their own encyclopedia, so that subsequent generations of fundies can be as ignorant and hypocritical as they are.

After a few minutes of browsing Conservapedia, it becomes clear that 90% of its articles are one-liners (these are articles where the authors don’t care to make a political statement). All of Conservapedia’s articles on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are one sentence long, and appear to come from a series of textbooks by Jay L. Wile, a conservative christian author whose books urge their readers to study science, but only while wearing the dunce-cap of biblical inerrancy and basking in the glory of the lord-our-god.

In the articles where it does attempt to make a statement (that is, articles that are longer than one sentence), Conservapedia offers us nothing more than the usual regurgitations of creationist arguments that have long been discredited and put to rest. These include old-time favorites like “no transitional fossils,” “irreducible complexity,” and other arguments favored by creationist all-stars like Kent Hovind and Ken Ham.

What really disturbs me is the mind-boggling hypocrisy of Conservapedia. The authors complain that Wikipedia has a “liberal bias,” and that its editors regularly edit articles to have a decidedly “anti-christian” tone. This is certainly not true, but we’ll come back to that. The point is, even if Wikipedia displays some kind of bias, it’s blatantly obvious that the bias seen in Conservapedia is vastly greater! We can guess with some certainty what would happen when someone adds content to Conservapedia that doesn’t conform exactly to their infallible beliefs.

Conservapedia actually has a page that lists all of the purported “examples of bias in Wikipedia.” My first thought was, “What credible encyclopedia goes out of its way to show how it’s better than other encyclopedias?” My second thought was even better: “An article entitled ‘Examples of bias in Conservapedia’ would pretty much contain the entire website!”

Wikipedia is not anti-christian. It is, by definition, not biased at all. If a certain article appears to have an “anti-christian” tone, it is precisely because the editors removed a pro-christian bias from the article.

I agree that Truth is not a democracy. However, there is such a thing as scientific consensus. Many of the people who edit Wikipedia articles are experts in their respective fields, like biology, chemistry, physics, and history. These people are qualified to represent the current scientific consensus on various matters, including evolution, origins of the universe, abortion, gay marriage, Christianity’s influence in the Renaissance, etc. (These are all subjects that the Conservapedia authors have a hard-on for disputing).

Religious rants from fundamentalists belong in personal web pages and blogs (of which there’s no shortage, I assure you), or better yet, stored away safely in the minds of religious fanatics. They certainly don’t belong on websites that claim to be a source of actual information for the general public.

Looking at Conservapedia, I can see many disturbing parallels between it and the current state of affairs in the United States. It is exactly this kind of thinking, this kind of hypocrisy and ignorance, that will eventually revert this free and enlightened nation to a 15th-century theocracy where atheists and any other non-christians will be burned at the stake once more. Of course I’m exaggerating, and I’m by no means fearful for my life at this point, but I do get a chill down my spine when I see yet another website showing that such beliefs still exist in the 21st century.

… unless the whole thing is a hoax, in which case, well-played!