More Options

‘Post-Materialist’ Science? A Smokescreen for Woo

Feature

Sadri Hassani

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.5, September/October 2015

Pseudoscience has been rapidly gaining ground in the past few decades. Dietary supplements and homeopathic preparations, advertised by the disgraced Dr. Oz and his ilk, now constitute a multi-billion-dollar industry. Major universities house centers of integrative health, which offer courses in acupuncture, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, qigong, and Vedic medicine, and are funded generously by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Mielczarek and Engler 2013). Elsevier, a reputable scientific publisher, is publishing journals devoted to pseudoscience (Beauregard et al. 2014). Pop culture icons such as Vani Hari (“the Food Babe”) have gathered armies of uninformed citizens, ready to sign petitions in hundreds of thousands to force their anti-scientific demands on the food industry (Godoy 2014; Alsip 2015).

The destructive strength of such misinformation stems from professionals in whom the public places its trust: medical doctors and scientists, some with impressive credentials. It is therefore imperative to lay bare the message of these professionals and show that, despite their credentials, their message contradicts the very science they once practiced.

Mavericks or Quacks?

David Pruett, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has posted a laudatory tribute to the “Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science” (Pruett 2014), a document purporting a new paradigm of science in which the study of spirituality, parapsychology, and near-death experiences are elevated to the rank of quantum mechanics (QM). The document is signed by four psychologists, one social anthropologist, one medical doctor, one neuroscientist, and one biologist, none belonging to the mainstream of their disciplines (Beauregard et al. 2014). They include names that will be familiar to longtime SI readers for their advocacy of fringe-science, including psychologist Gary Schwartz, Marilyn Schlitz of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, mind-body medicine proponent Dr. Larry Dossey, and Rupert Sheldrake.

Schwartz is one of the three preparers of the manifesto. He is a psychologist at the University of Arizona (UA), who in 2002 received a $1.8 million award from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the NIH to create the Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science (CFMBS) at UA. As the findings at the center were “too controversial for mainstream journals,” Schwartz compiled them in a trade book in 2007, the same year that CFMBS was closed down (Schwartz 2015)! Now Schwartz is the director of the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health (LACH, online at http://lach.web.arizona.edu/center_frontier_medicine_biofield_science_cfmbs), an alleged research lab in which mind-body and alternative medicines are investigated. LACH boasts its publications on its website. Clicking on the publications tab brings a page showing Schwartz’s trade books such as The G.O.D. Experiments. Curiously, under Published Articles (as of the writing of this article), there is only a promise: “List added soon …”! The websites of the other two preparers and the five remaining signers of the manifesto show similar out-of-the-mainstream accomplishments.

After extolling their credentials, Pruett writes: “The authors of the manifesto are all scientific mavericks whose viewpoints are not mainstream. . . . It’s worth noting, however, that neither were Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, or Einstein mainstream.” This is a typical degradation of “mainstream” deployed by pseudoscientists to promote woo. Those who follow mainstream science, they say, cannot produce any revolutionary ideas. Pseudoscientists argue that the real geniuses, the ones who change the course of our understanding of nature, are outside the mainstream. In fact nothing can be further from the truth.

There are three categories of scientists (MDs included):

  1. Those who do mainstream science.
  2. Those mainstreamers who bend the mainstream.

  3. Those who leave the mainstream and turn into crackpots.


The overwhelming majority of scientists belong to the first category. Scientists including Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Crick and Watson, Planck, and Einstein belong to the second category. People in the third category may once have been accomplished scientists in the first category; however, for various reasons, they left the mainstream science, and with it, science itself. People like Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Dr. Oz, Rupert Sheldrake, Fritjof Capra, and the authors of the “manifesto,” by their own admission, are no longer mainstream scientists. And certainly they don’t belong to the second category!

Since Pruett’s main argument for the extolment of the post-materialist “science” is his characterization of the authors of the manifesto as “mavericks” on par with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Einstein, it is crucial to debunk this characterization and to demonstrate that these four scientists, as well as all other giants of science, were in fact mainstreamers.

There is a huge difference between introducing revolutionary ideas within the confines of the mainstream science and irresponsibly throwing in nonsense and calling it “revolutionary” simply because the mainstream scientists don’t accept it. The mainstreamers’ opposition to both types of ideas is a healthy reaction to the subversion of cherished and experimentally tested prevailing theories. The same mainstreamers who oppose a new idea eventually become its supporters once evidence verifies its validity. That is how the mainstream bends! On the contrary, a pseudoscientist’s ad hoc gibberish gets thrown out of the mainstream—along with its proposer, if the latter insists on the unproven, untested, and unsubstantiated idea.

Mavericks of 
the Mainstream

Heliocentrism was discovered by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos, who calculated the sizes of the Moon and Sun and their distances from Earth using data from the observation of the eclipses and phases of the Moon. By carefully examining the arc of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon in a lunar eclipse, Aristarchus determined that the Moon’s diameter is about one-third of the Earth’s; from the observed angular size of a full moon, he found that the Earth-Moon distance was about thirty times Earth’s diameter.

Aristarchus’s (grossly underestimated) solar measurements showed that the Earth-Sun distance was about twenty times the Earth-Moon distance. And since both have approximately the same angular size in the sky, the Sun, being twenty times farther, must be twenty times bigger than the moon, or about seven times bigger than the Earth. Aristarchus concluded that the Earth, being smaller, must be going around the Sun! This conclusion was based entirely on the observations done by mainstream astronomers (Hassani 2010, 8).

Whether Copernicus knew of Aristarchus’s calculations is a matter of controversy (Evans 2014). What is not controversial is that the data on the lunar eclipse and Earth-Moon distance were available to Copernicus in the mainstream astronomical books of his time, most notably Ptolemy’s Almagest. And he used those data to invent his heliocentric model.

Like all other scientific activities, Western observational astronomy lay dormant after the Greeks until Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe made observations with unprecedented accuracy. He continued in the tradition of the Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy and was essentially the mainstream, as he was one of the very few who observed the stars.

Brahe’s precise observations of the planets showed disagreement with the two prevailing theoretical models: neither Ptolemy’s geocentric model nor Copernicus’s heliocentric model agreed with his data. As in all good science—and contrary to pseudoscience, which is based dogmatically on beliefs—if a theory does not agree with accurate observations, it needs to be modified. Brahe, not well-versed in mathematics, was not in a position to make the modification. So he invited Johannes Kepler, a well-known mainstream mathematician and physicist at the time, to his observatory in Prague to analyze the data he had collected.

The decision of which theory to choose for modification was clear to Kepler. Ptolemy’s geocentric model had already gone through myriad fine tunings over many centuries. Copernicus’s heliocentric model, on the other hand, was much simpler: the Sun is at the center and all planets move around it in circular orbits. It took Kepler almost twenty years to revise the heliocentric model to make it agree with Brahe’s data. Kepler replaced the circular orbits with elliptical ones. His work was an improvement on an existing theoretical framework to accommodate Brahe’s mainstream observations (Hassani 2010, 40).

Galileo’s greatest contribution to science was his emphasis on—and results obtained from—experiments. But he was by no means outside the mainstream as Pruett claims. There was no mainstream science in Galileo’s time, because there was no stream! The stream of Greek science began to dry up when a Roman soldier murdered one of the greatest scientists of all time, Archimedes.

Archimedes was well known not only as a great mathematician but also as an equally great inventor. While all of his finished works were of a theoretical nature, his investigations in mechanics and liquids deeply influenced his mathematical thinking (Heath 2002). Archimedes’s use of “mechanical” methods to arrive at some of his key theoretical discoveries comes very close to the modern scientific process of designing theories based on observational measurements.

Sixteenth-century Europe saw the revival of science after a 1,800-year hiatus. There emerged two schools of thought. One school followed Plato and Aristotle and advocated the primacy of the mind. The other emphasized the importance of observation, and in this respect followed Archimedes, whose works had been translated into Latin and made available to the scientists of post-Renaissance Europe, including Francis Bacon, who promoted empiricism; Galileo Galilei, who applied the method to motion; and William Gilbert, who applied it to electricity and magnetism. Bacon, Galileo, Gilbert, and others restarted Archimedes’s mainstream.

There is arguably no idea more revolutionary in science than the notion of quantum. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw an upheaval in mainstream physics as physicists tried to understand how a heated object produced electromagnetic (EM) radiation. Such an object was idealized to a black-body radiator (BBR). A brief history of Max Planck’s discovery of quanta from a careful analysis of a black-body radiator helps to see the mainstream character of the discovery.

The study of BBR started with Gustav Kirchhoff—the same Kirchhoff whose laws of electric circuitry are taught in introductory (mainstream) physics courses; it was continued by Joseph Stefan and Ludwig Boltzmann, who discovered an equation for the brightness of a BBR; and it was further advanced by Wilhelm Wien, who came up with a formula describing detailed behavior of a BBR. Planck discovered a new derivation of Wien’s formula and published his result in the mainstream journal Annalen der Physik in November 1899. In the same month, two experimentalists reported discrepancies between the formula and their observations to the meeting of the German Physical Society (GPS) in Berlin. When Wien scrutinized his formula, he concluded that it was valid only for short wavelengths.

In the meantime, one of Planck’s experimental colleagues reported to him a recent observational finding concerning the long-wavelength behavior of BBR and its agreement with a formula derived by the British physicist Lord Rayleigh. Upon receiving this news, Planck, whose re-derivation of Wien’s formula gave him advantage over other theorists, succeeded in finding a new equation that agreed with both ends of the BBR spectrum, and presented his result under the modest title An Improvement of Wien’s Spectral Law to the GPS in October 1900 (ter Haar 1967, 79). For Planck, the urgent question now was why the new equation worked.

Planck had used purely thermodynamic reasoning to reach the new formula. However, there was another mechanistic and materialistic school of thought, which used statistical techniques in thermodynamics. Planck did not belong to this group, and, in fact, was opposed to such a line of thinking. However, after the success of his new formula, he started to lean more and more toward statistical mechanics. In his Nobel lecture, Planck recalled this proselytism and how it led to the principle of the quantization of electromagnetic radiation (Planck 1920).

Einstein came to prominence in 1905 for publishing three articles in the same journal that Planck had published his, Annalen der Physik (Einstein 1905a, 1905b, 1905c).

One area of research, in which many experimental and theoretical physicists were engaged, focused on the behavior of electromagnetic waves in moving media. In order to explain this phenomenon, Einstein invented the special theory of relativity.
Pruett is therefore utterly wrong in saying that Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Einstein were not mainstream scientists!

Without going into as much detail, I list the mainstream contributions of the five principal founders of quantum mechanics because of their importance in the “manifesto”:

It is important to keep in mind the role of the hydrogen atom in the development of QM.

Quantum Mechanics: 
A Materialistic Theory

Quantum mechanics is a favorite subject of all varieties of pseudoscience. It is portrayed with a halo of mysticism that bears the signatures of Qi, Taoism, Ayurveda, Karma, and many of the other Eastern mystical concepts that the promoters of woo can concoct.

Pruett, echoing the manifesto, says, “Quantum mechanics, however, supersedes Newtonian mechanics and undermines the classical assumption of materialism.” This is a complete distortion of truth! The fact that quantum theory was developed around the behavior of the hydrogen atom is a testimony to its materialistic nature and a falsification of the claim of post-materialist scientists that “QM has questioned the material foundations of the world by showing that atoms and subatomic particles are not really solid objects” [my emphasis] (Beauregard et al. 2014). What does this statement even mean? That only solid objects are material? That as soon as ice melts its materiality evaporates? Solidity, liquidity, and gaseousness—the three temperature-dependent states of matter—are all bulk properties of a large aggregate of atoms or molecules, themselves having none of the properties of the bulk material. The statement is similar to saying that human cells are not human because they cannot laugh and cry.

The deeper question of “what exactly is a (material) particle” was answered in Eugene Wigner’s Nobel Prize–winning paper of 1939, published in yet another mainstream journal (Wigner 1939). Wigner proved mathematically that anything with energy and momentum, whether a subatomic particle or a truck, can be described by two numbers: its mass and its spin, either of which could be zero. Therefore, with mathematical precision, we can conclude that all particles—including atoms, subatomic particles, and (massless) photons—are material, and any science that studies them is, by its very nature, materialistic.

The quantum mechanics that “undermines the classical assumption of materialism” is fabricated by fringe and paranormal “scientists” who have been thrown out of the mainstream and find satisfaction in writing a “manifesto” to attract “comrades!”


References


Topics: dietary supplements, Dr. Oz, homeopathy, pseudoscience
Subjects: Alternative Medicine, Pseudoscience