May 13, 2005 -
© 2005 by John Varley; all rights reserved
What tHe #$*! Dθ wΣ (k)πow!?
Come over here, dude. Yeah, you! You, looking up at all the tall buildings with a goofy smile on your face and the hayseeds in your hair. I got something for you ...
Hereís a movie that was shot in Portland, Oregon.
Lee and I lived in Portland for a number of years!
Thereís a guy, plays a bit part in this movie, also plays a Ferengi on one of the Star Trek series. Star Trek is science fiction.
I make my living writing science fiction!
Only a few weeks ago, I was on a panel with this guy! Lee was in the audience!
One of the talking heads is a guy who we both know, who used to be one of Leeís best friends!
Doesnít this sound cosmically significant to you? Could sheer chance account for all these coincidences? Are they coincidences at all, or the signs of a greater power guiding us toward ... what? If only we could peek below the quantum veil of uncertainty underlying the root structure of the universe, surely we could find out, and Iíll bet the answer would be stunning. Donít you?
If you do, have I got 108 minutes of
bullshit for you ...
I was looking forward to this film. Several people had recommended it to me, people I respect, and the buzz was good. Audiences were responding to it, it was a sleeper hit.
Then I began to hear more. None of the talking heads, of which there are maybe a dozen, are identified in the course of the movie. They all speak up for themselves at the end, which is the first time we learn that the spookiest chick of them all, the one who speaks with laughable, phony-baloney accent, is none other than Ramtha, as ďchanneledĒ by JZ Knight, a woman who has become very rich instructing such intellectual paragons as Shirley MacLaine. Ramtha is a 35,000-year-old warrior/philosopher from the lost continent of Atlantis. At last! Now we know what an Atlantan accent sounds like! And it ainít Scarlett OíHara!
Now, to me, there are only two possibilities re Ms. Knight. Pick one:
Oh, yeah, and ...
If you chose three ... you can feel free
to stop reading here.
A friend who liked the movie said he knew Knight was a cuckoo, but she seemed to be a remarkably benign one. He may be right, she may be doing no more than parting suckers from their cash, a time-honored profession. However, in an article in Willamette Week I found the following:
Yelm is the little town Ramthaís followers have virtually taken over.
My feeling is, a cult leader who can sell propositions like that is by definition dangerous. She may seem benign as hell for years and years, and the next thing you know sheís pouring the funny Kool-Aid and youíre gulping it down.
So by the time this thing came out on DVD, Iíll admit it, I was sharpening my critical knives, eagerly honing the sharp blades of skepticism. I sat down, alert and eager, to see what they had to sell me.
It starts well, with eye-opening visuals concerning quantum physics, and a lot of guys explaining various aspects of it. One of the guys is our ex-friend, and I can say without doubt that his credentials as a physicist are sterling. The man knows a #$*! of a lot more about quantum mechanics than I do. However, I also know for a fact that he became discouraged with the money to be made in physics, and wrote a book or two blending physics and Eastern mysticism. I havenít read them. They could very well be fascinating; quantum phenomena are weird and counter-intuitive and stranger than we imagine. Maybe stranger than we can imagine. There is no question that there are things going on in the universe that we donít understand, maybe things that we never will understand, and for all I know the closest answers we will ever get will come from Eastern philosophies and not from atom-smashers or X-ray telescopes. Iím not qualified to judge, but above all, speculating about the dualities, the paradoxes, the synchronicities of things like tunneling, quantum entanglement, SchrŲdinger's cat, Einsteinís ďspooky action at a distanceĒ and the like is fun. We need a little mystery in the universe. The ďanswersĒ could come from anywhere. The apparent fact that the observer affects the observed simply by the process of observation, that something can be one thing when nobodyís looking and another when somebody decides to look, that sub-atomic particles can be in two places at once ... well, that seems to have some implications for consciousness and its interface with the Universe, doesnít it?
I donít know. I think I understand that anything is possible, in the sense that sub-atomic particles behave that way, but I believe it is fallacious to go from there and say that, on the level we exist on, anything can be or do anything. A basketball (to use one of the filmís analogies), can be in any of a number of locations, it does have a quantum value ... but to actually find it in any place other than where you expected it to be would take 10 to the googleplex years, so whatís the use of that?
It is well to consider a few quotes from people who are as well-versed in this stuff as anyone is ever likely to be. First, one from Richard Feynman:
And one from Paul Davies:
The paradigm modern physics currently operates under is riddled with holes you could drive a Higgs boson through ... and physicists know this. They fiddle with things that may be ultimately unverifiable, mathematical constructs like strings and branes, and they use a ďStandard ModelĒ that they know is woefully incomplete because itís the best they can do right now, itís close enough for jazz, and it works most of the time. Back to Richard Feynman:
So the makers of this film are entitled to make some way-out-there suggestions, as they could hardly be any more way-out-there than many of the current speculations.
I understand that. The first half hour of this film does that, and I canít find anything to object to ... as if I were qualified!
And yes, I understand that people who havenít been exposed to this stuff might be impressed by it. The film uses good CGI graphics here and there (though we see the same shots way too many times), and sound bites from the talking heads point out that ďmatterĒ is mostly empty space and empty space is full of stuff. Ho-hum. This is ABC quantum physics, and if you havenít encountered these concepts presented in a frenetic, MTV-type way, it will probably blow your mind.
After that, the movie strays off into the well-known terrain of La-La-Land.
The first howler is put forth by John Hagelin, a proponent of something called the ďVedic Defense Shield.Ē This is something from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, of Transcendental Meditation renown. Remember transcendental levitation? Guys bouncing up and down on mattresses, claiming they were bouncing much higher than they could bounce without TM? Hagelin claims as fact that 5000 people meditating in 1993 lowered the crime rate in Washington, DC, by 25%, or something like that. He proposes that enough people meditating could ... I dunno, I didnít get to the end of the article, but I think he believes they could stop incoming nuclear missiles. That, or the good vibes would prevent people from launching them.
Remember the peace rally where we all tried to shut down the Pentagon by thought power? Too young to remember that? Count yourself lucky. I found this at Wikipedia:
(Disclaimer: Iím not a scientist, not a researcher. Iím reviewing a movie with the resources at hand, and I donít have the time nor the inclination to do exhaustive checks on the data presented in this movie, nor on the ďrefutationsĒ I find. Some regard Wikipedia as a massive pile of crap. Iíve found it useful and concise, and always take information found there as provisional, not proven. What Iím pointing out, I hope, is that much of the #$%! presented in What the #$%! is disputed, vehemently, by people who know more about it than I do, and that in fact there is a very, very, very strong probability that it is bullshit. Okay?)
Leeís bullshit meter went into the red during a segment claiming that Indians in the Americas were literally unable to see the ships of European explorers when they arrived, because they had no referents. Iíve heard this claim before, and I just donít believe it. Itís impossible to prove or disprove, being subjective. It does not seem reasonable to me that they could look out at the ships floating there and see nothing, as the film portrays it. They had seen things floating in the water before. I think itís likely that they couldnít see the ships properly, that what they saw made little sense.
On the other hand, because it is an objective phenomenon, I canít disprove it. I canít say that, for instance, thereís not some superior being sitting in the room with me right now that I canít see simply because my mind isnít prepared to see it. Some people explain the tiny percentage of mysterious UFOs that way. Weíre seeing a technology we arenít equipped to sense, possibly something from a higher dimension. Canít prove it, canít disprove it, until they land and show themselves. So whatís the big deal?
Next we get an awe-struck exhibition of
pictures of water that has been ďthought
at,Ē like you used to be advised to think at your plants to make
them grow better.
Now we move into body chemistry. As with quantum physics, we begin with amazing and demonstrably true things involving the brain, the hypothalamus, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, amino acids, and ... the next thing you know weíre discussing something called ďmolecules of emotion.Ē
Hey, I know weíre a set of chemical and electrical responses. I donít understand the mind/body interface, I donít think anybody does, and I donít even know if asking into the nature of it is a meaningful question, because we donít have much of a clue about what consciousness is. Iím willing to entertain theories. But everything here is presented as fact. So ... who are these guys?
Well, I googled them all, at least the ones with distinctive enough names that I was sure I had the right person. Hereís what I got:
William Tiller is a founding director of both The Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine, and The Institute of Noetic Sciences. Another big cheese at the INS is Edgar D. Mitchell, ScD, Captain USN (Ret), a former astronaut known for his support of research into ESP and other psychic abilities. I donít know what Noetic Science is. Apparently they look into odd things. More power to them, but Iím not aware of any good discoveries coming out of the Institute.
Candace Pert is a ďdoctorĒ of naturopathic medicine. Sheís the one with the molecules of emotion rap. Sheís into something called alphabiotics, and I donít even know what that is, because the word naturopathy already sets off alarm bells in my mind. Naturopaths can do some good, far as I know, but they are often closely associated with homeopaths, who are quacks and dangerous.
Jeffrey Satinover, MD, is beloved of the extreme right on Capital Hill and the White House, because he believes that homosexuality is an ďindulgenceĒ that can be easily cured. That it is a choice. He is also into ďcracking the Bible code,Ē a branch of numerology that believes there are coded messages in the Bible ... which I guess have survived the translations from Aramaic or whatever into Greek, Latin, and English.
Fred Alan Wolf is into UFOs. He runs something called The RetroPsychoKinesis Project, which is aimed at changing the past by thinking at it. See how this works? Early on in the film somebody points out that there is no obvious reason why time should run in only one direction. This is true, as far as I know, though I donít understand the math. The next thing you know, somebody is using a fact like that to say we can alter our own past.
I donít know who the rest of these dudes are, what sort of credentials they have or the quality of the institutions they came from. One went to chiropractic school. Hey, Iíve been to a chiropractor myself, for a sore shoulder, and he helped out ... with Aleve and heat and mild electro-stimulation. But some chiropractors are dangerous maniacs who believe they can cure cancer by adjusting your spine.
I do know that at least one of them, Dr. David Albert, a philosopher of physics and professor at Columbia University, has stated publicly that he was edited such that he ended up appearing to say exactly the opposite of what he truly believes. Heís really pissed, as he should be. They interviewed him for 4 hours, and did a whack job on him.
I do know that various crackpots and charlatans and wacko theories popped up at site after site I visited. Does the name Deepak Chopra ring a bell? Heís an associate of some of these folks, including our former friend. My feeling when it comes to someone trying to sell me something is that you shall know them by the company they keep. And itís been a while since Iíve seen such an assembly of #$*!ing bullshitters as we have here.
By the end the film has degenerated into ďalternative medicine.Ē One guy seems to be saying that aging can be avoided by positive thinking. And the whole thing is bracketed by an incredibly lame story starring Marlee Matlin that makes no sense at all to me. It made me long for the days of Our Friend Mister Atom, or Reddy Kilowatt explaining science to me. Reddy Kilowatt never came home to discover his lover in bed with another man to illustrate the production of molecules of emotion.
So, I said this film was bullshit ... and Iíll admit that it was a bit of an exaggeration. Obviously, parts of it arenít. And, I admit that I sure donít have the answers. It has been demonstrated that the mind does have some power over the body, that meditation and other techniques can help, at least psychologically and possibly physically. Even prayer can help those who believe in it ... but I donít buy for an instant that other people praying for you, en masse, at a distance, can do you any good, though there are those who will point you to ďstudiesĒ that ďproveĒ it. Sorry, youíre going to have to prove that one to me about a thousand more times. But show me some real, replicable, solid data and Iíll believe. Tentatively.
But in the end, this is a terrible film. It is dishonest, in the way a magician is dishonest, without the admission you get from a good magician that itís all an illusion. What you do is, you stun the audience with flash and fancy footworkóand this film can be slickerín snail snot ó and while the rube is looking at that you slip something in. Then dash off to the next trick, while his mind is reeling. And whatever you do, donít pay any attention to that 35,000-year-old warrior-philosopher behind the curtain ...
And please, please, if you find yourself
swallowing most of this stuff ... take two episodes of
Penn & Teller:
Bullshit! and call me in the morning. I have a doctorate
in bullshitology from a well-known mail-order university, youíve
probably seen it on matchbook covers. I can help!