Thursday, October 14, 2010

WTF do they know?

"As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason."
-- Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth

My fiancee and I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? Why? Because it was there. By reputation it is a terrible new-age movie that claims to be about science. The film makers attempt to explain quantum mechanics and neurochemistry, in the service of a general squishy feel-good message similar to "The Secret" implying that if you send positive energy to the universe, good things will happen to you.

Some of the movie kind of, sort of, almost conveys some important ideas of science successfully. They describe the double slit experiment; they take a stab at chaos theory, in which small random interactions affect macroscopic objects. They also, unfortunately, attempt to have a plot. I want to focus in on that, since it doesn't seem to be discussed in many reviews.

Early in the movie they introduce a lady who is a deaf magazine photographer. She is portrayed as a severe grouch, so I pegged what this character was for right away. "Aha," I said. "I'll bet this character is going to be initially skeptical of whatever claims the movie is trying to make, and then she will be won over in the end."

It's a lazy technique that yields a required character in many styles of evangelistic tract: the converted skeptic proxy. It operates under the same principle as the old "I used to be an atheist" claim. The message is: "This character is you, skeptic. She has been where you've been, and she was convinced. If you are reasonable like her, you will be convinced too."

I say it's a lazy technique because the writers are not attempting to win you over through the legitimate strength of their arguments; instead, they want to lower your defenses by getting you to identify with their position. Last week on the show I mentioned that it's like a car salesman telling you "I've driven every car, and this one's the best." Oh, okay! No need for me to do my own comparison shopping then. This salesman seems like a reasonable and completely unbiased chap. (Analogy gratefully borrowed from Slacktivist -- Thanks, Fred!)

So yes, this lady does not believe in quantum mechanics or love or happiness, and sure enough, her life suffers for it. And when I say "suffers" I mean she appears to be experiencing a buffet table's worth of unintentionally hilarious mental disorders. She screams "I hate you!!!" at herself in the mirror. She suffers Vietnam-like flashbacks to her past bad relationship when a guy starts coming on to her. Later, while drunk, she starts to hallucinate her mental hangups as tiny computer animated blobby monsters. You see, reasonable people don't disagree with the movie's thesis. Only sad, sad individuals with massive emotional baggage. You aren't that kind of person, are you? I sure hope not! Now, about that car I'd like to sell you...

The first sign that this movie was going to infuriate me came when one of the Very Serious Narrators explained with a straight face how the minds of Native Americans operated when the Europeans arrived to conquer them. It turns out that they couldn't see the ships coming. I don't mean they were distracted and didn't happen to notice them. In a dramatic reenactment, the tribe's shaman was staring directly at the approaching ships, and he literally could not see anything. You see, explains the Very Serious Narrator, these massive ships were so far outside the normal day to day experience for these natives, that their minds refused to process them. Eventually, the shaman points out the ripples on the water, and as everyone tries to figure out what's causing them, POOF -- suddenly there is the ship, plainly visible to all, thanks to the magic of camera tricks.

This is, of course, straight out of Douglas Adams.

"Can you see," said Ford patiently, "the SEP?"

"I thought you said that was somebody else's problem."

"That's right."

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

"And I want to know," said Ford, "if you can see it."

"You do?"


"What," said Arthur, "does it look like?"

"Well, how should I know, you fool?" shouted Ford. "If you can see it, you tell me."

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

There is, of course, a subtle difference between that scene and this one: Douglas Adams was deliberately writing comedy.

So naturally, while we were heckling this movie, the question that immediately came to mind was: "How The Bleep™ do they know that?" I mean, it's not like you can go back and question the natives about their experiences. They didn't leave a lot of written material about it either; and even if they did, how would you really know that the ships were actually invisible to them, and the shaman wasn't just covering his ass out of embarrassment?

This is a place where we can ask the film makers, because the question is right there on the official What The Bleep™ web site. You're going to think I'm making this up but I'm not, so prepare to be astounded.

My mother is stuck on the question of where the information on Columbus and the Native Americans came from. She can't seem to get past the part where the shaman 'showed' them the ships, and then they were able to see them. Where did this story come from?
Amy Proctor

[Good question, exactly what I was thinking. Thanks, Amy!]

The story of the Native American’s inability to see the clipper ships from Europe has two aspects to it: physiological and anecdotal.

[Ummm... evasive. Bad start.]

Any journalist is familiar with the phenomenon of asking three different people to relate the "facts" at an accident scene, only to receive three different versions of the "facts."...

[Yeah, people have bad memories. So... you're saying that the cars are invisible to some of them? Let's skip past this, seems pretty empty.]

Pattern recognition depends on familiarity. An example of this is experiments done by Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper in the 1960s...

[Blah, blah, blah, not answering the question. Skipping...]

I have personally experienced this as a truth, raising two wolves from 6 week-old pups. Frankly, I thought the male had brain damage. For months he never looked at me directly...


Now for the more anecdotal origins of the story,

[Oh good, FINALLY they're going to answer the damn question.]

which Candace Pert refers to as "A wonderful story I believe is true..."

[Aw, crap.]

Co-writer and producer Betsy Chasse says, “Other scientists related the same story to us.” And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

So now you know as much as we do about the origins of the tale!

[Are you bleeping kidding me?]

So that's it, right there, in their own words. The story is made up. They have a flimsy tale, told twelfth hand, and they have no source for it whatsoever. But they decided to treat it as fact in the movie in service of their point.

Elsewhere in the movie, they use more Very Serious Narrators to great effect, in one case citing the works of one Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments in the exciting field of writing words on glasses of water have revealed that water can read and respond to English phrases by forming crystals that are "beautiful" or "ugly," depending on the sentiment behind the words. This is explained via an intellectual sounding museum tour guide, while soft classical music plays. That's how you know it's gotta be true.

In case you haven't got the point, someone bonks you over the head with it: "Makes you wonder, doesn't it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what they can do to us." And then that phrase returns through echoey aural flashbacks about five more times throughout the movie, as our deaf photographer skeptic proxy is sitting around wallowing in her own inadequacy and thinking about what a shallow, emotionless bitch she's been.

One of the worst scientific atrocities the movie commits is constantly confusing "subatomic particles" with "mental processes." Heck, they both involve little tiny things, and all little tiny things are the basically same, right? So they'll say something true ("The state of an electron changes when you observe it!") and something else true but completely unrelated ("Your brain is made of neurons!") and then they'll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify ("Therefore, if you imagine something existing, on some level it really does exist!")

The woman's story has a happy ending, of course: She scribbles little hearts all over her body with a sharpie, causing an instant attitude adjustment. People who knew her when she was one of those horrible skeptics come away reeling in shock because she was nice to them for a change. Or perhaps, based on her newly acquired facial expression of pure bliss, she is just intensely stoned.

The Very Serious People who explain things throughout the movie are a mish-mash of folks who are often bearded and are never identified until the credits are rolling. Some of them appear to be actual experts in real scientific fields, which explains why the movie occasionally manages to briefly make sense before cutting away from those people. Of course, the most sensible of the scientists is David Albert, who publicly disassociated himself from the film, saying:

"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."

And then, of course, there's Ramtha.

Apparently this is common knowledge among aficionados of crackpottery, but I honestly had no idea that there was a sixty-something year old middle American lady who, since the late seventies, has been going around claiming to channel a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis. I found this out on the internet in between my first and second sittings (what, you think I could watch this drivel in one go??). Before I knew who she was, all I could think about her was: "Who is this ridiculous lady and why are they expecting me to take the stuff that's coming out of her mouth seriously?" After I learned more about her, my reaction was more like "OH GOD, OH GOD, THAT STUPID ACCENT, MAKE IT STOP." I guess my brain filtered out the crummy accent that she was putting on before, because it was outside of my normal experience and so I could not hear it. ("I thought you said that was somebody else's problem!")

Anyway, like Stephen Colbert, apparently Ramtha only speaks to the cameras "in character," which is why she is credited at the last minute, not as "JZ Knight," but as: "Ramtha, Master Teacher - Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Channeled by JZ Knight". Woohoo! Who needs scientific credibility when you have a Master Teacher at your disposal?

It was a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible like a hilarious Mystery Science Theater target. Terrible like "If you locked prisoners in a room and forced them to watch this movie, you would be violating the 'cruel and unusual' clause."


  1. Thanks for the review. A friend "loaned a copy" of the movie to me. I am now considering not even watching it, but if I do, I'll be better prepared for it!

  2. I think I caught some Conversational Troping in here.

  3. I used to work with a retailer who sold this title and I bought it from them with my employee discount spending about fifty cents on it. At the time, I thought I was going to see something about quantum physics, albeit on a layman's level.

    So I sit down to watch it. At first it's kind of interesting - I actually enjoyed the bit with the basket-ball (I think they were using it to discuss waveforms and sums over history.)

    Then there is the water bit, and I'm just shocked that no one points out that the water has no idea what you are writing on it, in fact that was the point they were making!

    By the time we get to the cartoon neurons that live in your brain I'm watching the movie through a facepalm.

  4. You hadn't heard of Ramtha?

    Wow - she (HE, I should say!) was remarkably popular in the 70s. JZ Knight made a lot of money being Ramtha. I think she was one of the major sponsors of the movie too?

    Anyway, we studied Ramtha in my Sociology of Religion class AND my Sociology of Religious Cults and Sects. CRAZY stuff.

  5. I can't believe you're just now getting around to watching it, but I applaud your tenacity. :)

    One other reason she was credited as Ramtha instead of JZ Knight is because the project was funded and directed by some of her followers.

    There's so much wrong with this, I'm glad to read your take on there were things I missed.

    I remember noting that the entire nonsense about the Shaman who couldn't see the ships was self-refuting. First of all, if it has to be explained and understood before you can perceive it, how did the Shaman get around to perceiving it? Yes, I know...they used a shaman to show he was 'tuned in', but the fact is that if this paradigm is true, no one could have ever learned anything.

  6. Wow, I haven't seen this... thing yet, but maybe one very sad day I'll watch it. Instead of some bad horror. If it's just half as bad as you described it, it will be enough for a month.

  7. "but the fact is that if this paradigm is true, no one could have ever learned anything."

    I think what they're claiming is that you have to be open to believing in magic (like the shaman) in order to learn anything.

  8. I once tried to watch it. I didn't got further than half an hour. There is a limit to the amount of bullshit I can take.

  9. @Dave
    You have to be open to magic, like the shaman, who didn't see the ship, to be able to see things, like ships, which shamans can't see.

    Boy, quantum physics is so confusing.

  10. YOUR FIANCEE?!?!?!

    So I've been watching the archives, but in memento-order, so right now I'm at the end of 2005, going on 2004. That's about the time that you became the host, and so you've mentioned your girlfriend somewhat.

    Now, I've also subscribed to the blog RSS, so I'm reading it in order. So when I started reading this post, I'm like "doesn't he mean his girlfri-OOOHHH."

    So, I do believe some congratulations are in order (sorry if I'm woefully behind the times here). Congratulations!

  11. “...then they'll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify...”

    It’s underpants gnome thinking - Step 1. Present facts. Step 2. ??? Step 3. Thinking makes things real!

    Watching What the Bleep Do We Know, more aptly titled What the Bleep Did I Just Waste Two Hours Watching?, or What the Bleep are They Bleeping Talking About?, was an annoying experience made worse at the end, when the identities of the interviewees were revealed. I would have liked to avoid wasting any time listening to even one thing from J.Z. Knight’s mouth. Amusingly, she actually successfully sued another woman who claimed to channel Ramtha - apparently the court agreed that he’s a one woman kinda spirit.

  12. There's a great expose of this at Freethoughtpedia:

    Also, info on the underlying scheme, the "Secret"

  13. "The state of an electron changes when you observe it!"

    I know a physics professor who insists on changing "observe" to "measure" every time a sentence like this appears. What matters is not that you observe it, but that in order to "see" an object, you have to hit it with something (light, a screen, another electron, whatever). That makes quantum measurement just a specific case of the obvious statement "Things move when you hit them."

    Which makes the whole "consciousness" connection that much more silly, really.

  14. This is one of the best reviews of this movie I've read, thanks for the lulz.

  15. i actually posted it to my facebook after watching the first 3 youtube episodes...

    only later when i discover bad reviews about it that i went to finish watching it.

    this is a bad, bad way to abuse science to sway more to their side. low. dirty. despicable. and expectable.

  16. I know this might be a pedantic point, but the bit from the website that mentioned "clipper ships" really jarred for me.

    Clippers were 19th century fast ships. Usually three masted and square rigged.

    It probably isn't important or really relevant. However, it is obvious that their knowlege of naval history is about as accurate as their knowledge of physics.

    BTW, the captcha for me is "mormonov". Soviet Mormons? :)

  17. ---
    And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

    This made me laugh so much. :D

    On a (slightly) more serious note: The ships were big piles of wood floating on water. What the heck is supposed to have been so incomprehensible about them? The natives even had canoes, didn't they? The abstraction from small boats to big ones shouldn't be that hard.

    "WTF do they know?", really.

  18. The usual atheist thinking: There are some stupid people who believe in theism, therefore it must be wrong. Let's ridicule them and make ourselves feel smarter. Boring.

  19. Okay then, Stan old boy, present your evidence for the existence of God. Because you know, from where we're sitting, there's really nothing more boring than adolescent snark without anything of substance to back it up.

  20. @Stan:

    Is your comment supposed to be completely unrelated to the original post?

    1) Religion isn't even mentioned once in the article (aside from the "I used to be an atheist" analogy), it's just about pseudoscience. I haven't seen the movie, but from Russel's description, it might as well have been produced by atheists.
    The theists out there can stop feeling persecuted, they aren't [this time ;) ].

    2) Noone is saying "belief X is wrong because it is believed by stupid people". (I bet there are plenty of 'stupid' people who believe the earth orbits around the sun.)
    In this case, it is more the opposite. The makers of the movie appear stupid because they have wrong beliefs that are based on completely terrible standards of evidence.

  21. I was living in a group house in the '80's and someone brought home a video that was put out by the Ramtha folks. It told of how she was drinking at a party and AS A JOKE she decided to pretend she was channeling an old soul (very popular just then). Everyone laughed and said how good she was at it and this was somehow supposed to make you believe Ramtha was real! Stupid is as stupid does.

  22. @stan
    Do you often insert complete non sequiturs into conversations? Even if your statement was correct, why would you chime in and interject it into the one random thread that was specifically not about stupid religious people? Good job though tiger, keep it up. You'll get 'em next time!

  23. Stan left a handful of taunty little comments spread out over a few threads tonight. So far he appears to be your average hit-n-run troll.

  24. Dear God,

    Please enable stan to present a cogent argument that can be discussed.


    Am I doing it right? Maybe I need to reverse the polarity.

  25. Two things

    Firstly, the ship might make sense as an exaggeration of something that did happen, such as the ships being tiny little spots on the horizon while no one was watching. Though why that would be an interesting anecdote, I don't know.

    Secondly, why, if I truly am creating the world with my consciousness, are these people telling me that I am and that they are too?

    To answer that question I can think of two hypothesis:
    The first one I shall name
    The Infinite (Time and Space are created by Consciousness) Regress of new Age Propaganda, ITSCRAP for short. What this means is that I am creating my reality, in which I create them, to a level of such detail that they are able to create me, creating them, creating me, creating them.......

    The second one is, there is a bloody objective reality.

  26. This was indeed a terrible movie and your takedown was delightfully thorough. I am actually reminded of this drivel by a lot of the Pseudosciency quackery posted on HuffPo.

    They also butcher Portland's geography worse than Free Willy, but that is just griping from a local.

  27. Speaking of not knowing anything about what you're talking about, please please please stop letting Ceaser ramble on and on. His butchering of basic chemistry, biology and bio-chemistry is PAINFUL.

    "Amino acids make proteins" that s the ONLY thing he got right. Every single other statement was worse than wrong.

    for example energy is the ability to do work. A rock about to fall off a cliff is a type of energy

  28. Oh and btw what's more complicated than a cell? How about TWO cells. The mind is made of the interaction of bridges between countless cells. Billions of ion channels, chemo receptors and support proteins in constant balance to create a system that works every other system in the body is less complex than a single salt filled balloons made of fat? Next to the brain a cell is a tinker toy. Hell next to mold a cell is pointless.

  29. My favorite part is at the end when, after learning all these fascinating and totally true things, she discards her useless medication. It's nice to see people finally freeing themselves of the shackles of verifiable, evidence based medical science.

    I'm glad they base their message in good, hard science or else this movie could have serious and dangerous implications.

  30. Good post! I like your dissection of the evidence against the Columbus/Shaman/Ship story.

    There is some psychological research that supports the idea of people failing to see the ships, a concept called "Inattentional Blindness." There's a famous study where subjects were asked to count something on a video of people doing something mundane like passing a basketball and, in the middle of the video, a man in a gorilla suit walks through the shot. Not in the background, right through the middle. Most of the study subjects doing the counting don't see the gorilla. At the end, they have no recollection of it at all.

    So there actually is a modicum of evidence for the story about the Native Americans and the ships. Doesn't mean it's true, but interesting, yes. It also doesn't mean you can make happy water.

  31. Don't be ashamed of not knowing about JZ Knight/Ramtha. She's kind of old news. I only know of her because I grew up in a neighboring town to her gigantic compound in Yelm, WA. These days, you don't hear much from or about her, but if you want to buy some really ugly tchotchkes you can visit her retail store, JZ Rose, or the associated web store.

  32. I really want to repeat that water experiment in a scientifically valid way. Unfortunately, the whole thing is riddled with so many holes I'm not sure where I would even start. What's the unit of beauty?

  33. funny. Just when you post this about "what the bleep do we know", Kazim, i stumble upon this hidious trailer

    Getto physics
    "From the makers/director of what the bleep do we know"
    It looks like a unintentionially racist version of wtbdwk.

  34. The water experiment should be fairly marketable, if you think about it.

    Just write the word 'happy' on bottled water, and sell it as "Happy Juice".

    I mean, if homeopathy is so lucrative, this should be easy.

  35. JT, somebody seems to have beaten you to the punch.


  36. Me and my friend tried the water bottle labeling we prayed for one bottle (when I was christian of course) then we wrote cursed and poison I will kill you on the other bottle and sure enough the next day 300 or more small bubbles were all over the inside of the cursed bottle me and my friends flipped out the bottle that had been prayed for had only two bubbles in it try it sometime it will flip u out to.


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