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What tHē βLєєP Dѳ ωΣ (k)πow!?
| Our Feature Presentation|
Films and TV
| Style over substance|
“”A documentary aimed at the totally gullible.
|—Jamie Russell, BBC|
"What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?" (commonly referred to by its spoken title What the Bleep Do We Know) is a 2004 pseudoscientific film that supports the idea that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow related. Though not marketed as such, those who have seen it note that it degenerates into an extended infomercial for channeler J. Z. Knight and her pet dead guy Ramtha. This is unsurprising, as the producers, directors, and screenwriters of this visual travesty were William Arntz, a graduate of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment and Betsy Chasse, who runs the New Age site Elora Media. The New Age types didn't seem to care; on the other hand, many others found it more insulting than profound. One scientist named David Albert was interviewed for the film and later claimed he was almost entirely misrepresented in the final product.
Incredibly (or maybe not), it was followed in 2006 by a direct-to-video sequel called What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole, which is really more of an "extended edition" of the original.
The best and most relevant plot summary from IMDB is thus:
“”Amanda, a divorced photographer, finds herself in a fantastic Alice-in-Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the cellular, molecular and even quantum worlds which lie beneath. Guided by a Greek Chorus of leading scientists and mystics, she finds that if reality itself is not questionable, her notion of it certainly is.
This is the essential premise of the film; using special effects and cutting in with interviews with scientists (importantly, their names and qualifications aren't revealed until the very end in the credits, although they are presented as if their ideas are 100% authoritative) the film attempts to show us, in the quackiest way possible, how the quantum world makes life much more interesting.
Representation of science
One of the key misrepresentations of quantum theory in the film is the line "quantum theory is the science of possibility," directly implying that the discovery and development of quantum mechanics somehow allows anything to happen, such as walking on water. More accurately, quantum theory is the science of probability; although the distinction is subtle to some, it is very important. Quantum phenomena, at least in the Copenhagen Interpretation, are all about the probability that a sub-atomic particle will be found at a particular position (in general: not only in a particular position but in a particular state, which includes for example spin or polarization etc.). It is crucial to note that this is only applicable in reality at the sub-atomic level.
The basic facts of neurology and quantum mechanics presented in the film are correct. Facts such as the uncertainty principle, where an object cannot have its exact position and momentum measured simultaneously (sometimes explained as the quantum effect that observing something fundamentally changes what is observed) is also real with real implications. However, the main mistake in the film is that it attempts to extrapolate these effects, which are only observed with atoms and electrons, to the macroscopic world. Thus, when the main character turns away from a basketball, the film depicts that it is now impossible to know its position because you're not observing it, such as in the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment. Of course, in reality, the ground is observing the ball every time it collides with it (there's nothing special about human eyes when it comes to observation in this sense), and the sound waves generated also let a person with their back turned know fairly precisely where it is. (Although the main character is deaf...)
Such extrapolations of very real quantum phenomena into unrealistic conclusions are often the cornerstone of the modern New Age movement, which seeks to prove itself with science. These effects are certainly not observed in the macroscopic world. Other points raised in the film and presented as fact include that water molecules are influenced by thought, or that the brain cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. All these points are either based on very unsound or fraudulent evidence, or distortions of real research.
- Fred Alan Wolf. "Independent Physicist" (in other words, does not deign to subject his own works to peer review). Writer of several spiritualist New Age books, including The Yoga of Time Travel: How the mind can defeat time. Features in the documentary (which followed the film) Spirit Space. He also featured in the spiritualist propaganda piece The Secret. As an "independent physicist" he does not have the relevant scientific background nor the relevant understanding required to conduct scientific testing and evaluation, nor the proper procedures that allow us to examine his work, and so we can safely dismiss his claims on the basis that we can never properly test them in the first place.
- Jeffrey Satinover. Psychiatrist for over 20 years. Completed a Master's Degree as a member of the Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics group. Until recently, a teaching fellow and doctoral student in the Dept. of Physics at Yale University, where he studied supersymmetric many-body "theory" as applied to quantum computation. Author of several books that speculate on quantum mechanics as he applies it to conscious thought. As a psychiatrist with only an MS in Physics, he has less expertise than a typical physicist, yet he feels he has a right to speculate on the application of quantum mechanics on the macroscopic scales in the universe.
- David Albert. Physicist, Philosopher of Physics and Professor, Columbia University. Initially interviewed for this movie under the guise of giving a discussion on quantum mechanics. Has been vocal in his criticism of the film for taking his discussion out of context and misleading their viewers into believing he supported the position given in the movie when he completely disagrees with it. (Just on this basis, any errors attributed to the remarks made by Dr. Albert are not necessarily his own, but may be the result of deceptive editing practices and quote mining of the statements he has made.)
- Stuart Hameroff. Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Psychology. Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. 150 "peer reviewed" papers including three co-authored with Roger Penrose. Believes all his academic achievements give him the authority to violate the philosophy of science (the scientific method is not in a position to comment on the supernatural).
- Lynne McTaggart. Author of the book "The Field" and "What Doctors Don't Tell You". Founder and Editor of the publishing house of newsletters and books of "alternative" health and spirituality, including the newsletter titled "What Doctors Don't Tell You." Speaks on consciousness, what she calls "new physics," and alternative medicine. "Pored through" scientific papers on quantum physics in order to peddle her crap.
- Candace Pert. Doctorate and Post-Doctorate of Pharmacology. Educated at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Published over 250 peer-reviewed articles on peptides and their receptors and their role in the immune system. Seems to portray the idea that her background gives her the authority to speculate on unrelated subjects, as per most of the guests on this production.
- Joseph Dispenza. Studied and failed first year Biochemistry at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Has a "Doctor of Chiropractic degree" from Life University. Member of the International Chiropractic Honor Society and follower of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment (popularly seen as a cult). Has released a DD series, Your Immortal Brain, which "looks at the ways in which the human brain can be used to create reality through the mastery of thought." He does not hold any qualifications relevant to the field of quantum mechanics.
- Andrew B. Newberg. Assistant professor of Radiology at University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Physician in Nuclear Medicine. Co-author of the book "Why God won't go away: Brain Science and Biology of Belief". Has argued that the integration of science and religion is critical for a better understanding of how human beings think and behave in a global context. Trained in medical sciences as opposed to physical sciences, Dr. Newberg is not in a position to make predictions and speculation on how QM works.
- Dean Radin. Senior Scientist at the "Institute of Noetic Sciences" (listed by Quackwatch as "untrustworthy" and one of "the 729 organizations that viewed with considerable distrust"). Serves as adjunct faculty at Sonoma State University and on the Distinguished Consulting Faculty at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. BSEE (hons) in electrical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, MS in electric engineering and PhD in Psychology from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Has an extensive list of "qualifications" in Parapsychology and "Psi" research. He is not formally qualified in quantum mechanics, despite his resume in engineering fields.
- John Hagelin. Lecturer and "Professor of Physics" at Maharishi University of Management (which was founded by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). "Minister of Science and Technology" of the "Global Country of World Peace." Is cited in the movie's website as holding an AB, and MA, and a PhD although strangely the site does not list what those degrees are in. Is specified as a "World-reknowned Quantum Physicist" on the site. In actuality, his scientific credits and work continued in 1984 at the Maharishi University of Management. Began "research" in 1987, published two papers in '87 and '89, published in the "Journal of Modern Science and Vedic Science" on the "relationship between physics and consciousness." He has been criticized for implying that the unified field theory and consciousness "as a field" are inter-related, without providing a shred of evidence.
The critics agree!
What the Bleep Do We Know is:
A fantasy docudrama.- James Randi
A hodgepodge of all kinds of crackpot nonsense.- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Ridiculous balderdash.- Simon Singh
[It's] partially a ponderous documentary featuring interviews with what's described as "14 top scientists and mystics," none of whom are identified until the end, so you don't know whether the talking head spouting off about the meaning of life has an advanced degree in physics or mysticism.- Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle
An attempt to use the physics of the subatomic to prove that big macroscopic objects such as you, me and that woman out of Children of a Lesser God interact with one another in ways outlined by Dr Bonkers of the Mumbo Jumbo University.- Donald Clarke, The Irish Times
[The movie] tackles quantum physics in the style of a movie used to brainwash inductees to a new age cult.- Wendy Ide, The Times of London
- What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? at IMDb.com and What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole at IMDb.com
- What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? and What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole at Rotten Tomatoes
- Forgetmori video collection of hilarious spoofs
- Critical Analysis of What The Bleep Do We Know Parts 1, 2, 3, 4