Sunday, 24 May 2015

Lynne McTaggart's "The Field" - wrong, wrong and then wrong again

The Field (2001) is an attempt by the "investigative journalist" Lynne McTaggart to put a scientific shine on the turd that is pseudoscientific consciousness tosh, promulgated by a variety of sources but notably in the unscientific film What The Bleep Do We Know (2004).  There are some genuine, as opposed to gushing, fawning and sycophantic, reviews available online, most notably "The Non-Science Of Lynne McTaggart" by Dmitri Brant.  Most of the Amazon reviews haven't approached the book with anything like a critical mind.  I am guessing that most of those don't have a clue what quantum physics is.

For that there is no excuse.  There are a whole host of books available that one could refer to in order to check whether what McTaggart says about quantum physics is correct.  I list a selection that I have read in the further reading section at the end of this article.  I will also list some of the books that McTaggart refers to in her book. 

The Field came out when the Internet was already well established but before blogging had become commonplace.  Blogging has enabled much information to be disseminated, and much more disinformation in many areas, making checking somewhat more straightforward than it ever was.  But access to a decent library would have been more than enough for McTaggart not to get caught up in the disingenuous promotion of wild speculation as fact that she seems to have done. 

If a teacher somewhere needs a text to use as a basis for critical thinking exercises, here it is.  The Field is readable.  McTaggart's style is smooth but she also does what so many pseudoscientists do - they make up their own interpretations.  If you are not cued in to this, you will miss it.  It is the way Erich von Daniken worked all those years ago and it fooled millions then.  It fools millions now.

For instance, this list comes from a variety of websites and seems to be officially sanctioned by McTaggart or the blurb writers:

New Truths from The Field
What biology tells us
  • The human being is a survival machine largely powered by chemicals and genetic coding. 
  • The brain is a discreet organ and the home of consciousness, which is also largely driven by chemistry – the communication of cells and the coding of DNA. 
  • Man is essentially isolated from his world, and his mind is isolated from his body.
  • Time and space are finite, universal orders.
  • Nothing travels faster than the speed of light.
What biology tells us list is in some ways unarguable.  All living things, not just human beings, are survival machines powered by chemicals (and physics, let us not forget).   But this is also a statement that can be extended by adding a dig at Richard Dawkins in the pseudoscientific world.  McTaggart doesn't like Dawkins.  That is clear.

As for the brain being a discreet organ...   Like all discreet organs there is a slightly fuzzy edge - where does an organ actually end when you take into account the blood and nerve supplies?  But that is by the by.  The real thrust of point is the comment about consciousness.  I cannot think of reliable, repeatable evidence that sites consciousness anywhere other than the brain.  Injuries to the brain can, and do, result in temporary or permanent loss of consciousness. 

And is the mind isolated from the body?  Doubt it, mostly because, as I understand it, the mind and consciousness are totally linked.  Sounds a lot like a load of rubbish to state that man is essentially isolated from the world when clearly he is not.  His (apologies for the sexist language but I am continuing with the same gender non-neutral word used in the summary) sense ensure that he is not isolated from the world - he sees light that has travelled across vast distances, hears sounds, detects chemicals, senses thermal energy, etc.  Trivially and actually wrong, then.

As for time and space being infinite and nothing travelling faster than light, these are not the discoveries of biology.  They are the discoveries of physics and philosophy.  If space and time are not infinite, what are they?   I might be able to tell you once I have had the chance to read Lee Smolin's book Time Reborn and Sean M Carroll's From Eternity To Here, both of which deal with the nature and physics of time.  Other books on time are available.  Other books on the universe are available too.  I'll collect them together in the further reading section.

Then we get the list of what The Field has learnt:
What The Field has discovered:
  • The communication of the world does not occur in the visible realm of Newton, but in the subatomic world of Werner Heisenberg. 
  • Cells and DNA communicate through frequencies.
  • The brain perceives and makes its own record of the world in pulsating waves.
  • A substructure underpins the universe that is essentially a recording medium of everything, providing a means for everything to communicate with everything else.
  • People are indivisible from their environment.
  • Living consciousness is not an isolated entity. It increases order in the rest of the world.
  • The consciousness of human beings has incredible powers, to heal ourselves, to heal the world – in a sense, to make it as we wish it to be. 
It is pretty much meaningless.  Communication between organisms does occur in the visible realm of Newton, and is the invisible realm of electromagnetic radiation.  Cells and DNA do not, so far as anyone but Jacques Benveniste, communicate through frequencies (it does not state which medium or which manner but a little research tells us it is electromagnetic waves).  Such radiation appears to be very hard to detect.  I bet it doesn't exist.

The latter list becomes increasingly fantastic, in the old sense of the word, as we go down it.  In the end it is not a list of scientific discoveries so much as a wish list for ageing hippies.  It should not be forgotten that, for all the pretences to being a record and interpretation of scientific discovery, this book is nothing of the kind.  It has all the hallmarks of the a posteriori wish fulfilment that pseudoscience throws up again and again.  Nothing in the science actually insists that McTaggart's interpretation is the only valid one.  Rather, the science says something entirely different.

There are little clues dotted about McTaggart's text that give away her understanding of science and the nature of scientific evidence.   I quote in full one paragraph and give my readers a challenge.  Spot where the paragraph turns from science to non-science.
If all subatomic matter in the world is interacting constantly with this ambient ground-state energy field, the subatomic waves of The Field are constantly imprinting a record of the shape of everything.  As the harbinger and imprinter of all wavelengths and all frequencies, the Zero Point Field is a kind of shadow of the universe for all time, a mirror image and record of everything that ever was.  In a sense, the vacuum is the beginning and end of everything in the universe.[23] (1st paperback edition, page 32)

Did you spot it?  It was the word "If".  That assumption about the interaction leads, somehow, to the idea that subatomic waves [sic] are imprinting a record on the universe [sic] of everything and anything.  Many have said that McTaggart has no idea about quantum physics.  I disagree.  I think she has some idea, in the sense that an elephant has some idea about gravity, because she has read something about it or seen a documentary on the TV.  But she truly doesn't understand what she has written, or she has wilfully misinterpreted it, because this paragraph takes a piece of evidence and takes it to a place where it doesn't belong. 

The Zero Point Field is the idea that there is a minimum level of energy permeating the vacuum of space.  It is something that arose early in our understanding of quantum mechanics and is generally ignored because there is something important about it that McTaggart doesn't grasp.  It is a minimum energy state.  There cannot be any energy taken from it or given to it.  The fluctuations that happen, the popping in and out of existence of particles and so on, do not alter the minimum nature of this state. 

By the way, the [23] refers to a footnote that says the ideas came from interviews with Hal Puthoff, a genuine physicist with some unfortunate ideas, who was once described as one half of the Laurel and Hardy of PSI by James Randi.  Gullible might be a more kind term.  Uri Geller did manage to fool a lot of people.

The key to understanding that McTaggart really doesn't get this zero point field thing is that she misses the quantum nature of it.  These tiny particles are jiggling around and will always jiggle around.  They do not behave in an orderly fashion on their own but have a randomness that precludes any sort of imprinting.  How do you imprint anything on energy?  Or on particles whose existence is measured in trillionths of a second?  A good scientist will stop and consider whether their ideas are physically valid, if they are consistent with all the other bits of evidence and known science that they can think of.  McTaggart is not, of course, a scientist.

I haven't mentioned McTaggart's application of the zero point field idea to biology.  The relationship between the quantum world and the living world is uncertain.  I have little sympathy with Roger Penrose's ideas on consciousness, for example, and less with those that claim that non-living things have consciousness or that consciousness permeates everything.  I am old fashioned enough to want to see evidence, and I am afraid the evidence that does get offered up is mostly rubbish.  And just waving the word quantum around does not make anything more physically real. 

Perhaps she doesn't know that she does it.  Perhaps Lynne McTaggart does not know that she repeats the old fallacy that Erich von Daniken did all those years ago: if you say the word "if", then make a conclusion that is not validated by the evidence, your readers will remember the conclusion and not the uncertainty.  So a few sentences down the line, you can repeat the conclusion without the doubt and proceed as if the conclusion were true.  The premise of McTaggart's book is that the zero point field can, in some way, be tapped for meaningful "things" by humans in one way or another.  Assuming that Puthoff and Targ's remote viewing is anything other than a conjuring trick, it does not follow that there is anything quantum mechanical about it.  And, of course, the first assumption is a massive one for which the evidence is hardly strong enough to withstand a collision with a quark.

There is an entire industry of new age wishful thinkers, brought up with some esoteric ideas that do not withstand scrutiny, that are not supported by established science, but which makes money through the publication of books, magazines and movies that pander to those people who won't or cannot get the idea that things happen without reason.  They don't like science because it provides answers that they don't like, but they cling to science because it has the power to provide evidence and to persuade people.  Science is extremely powerful as a tool for understanding the universe.  It has enabled us to describe the most likely beginning our universe had.  It helps us to understand the very small, the very big, and everything in between.  It uses a language that most people do not, themselves, understand.

Popular science books often try to make the nearly incomprehensible comprehensible to the masses.  A Brief History Of Time was, for a while, almost trendy, because it did just that, even though it soon became fashionable to own but to confess that you also could not understand it.  The ideas in it were not easy, but they were far from incomprehensible.  It required a few moments' thought.  It also included a section in which the zero point field was explained.  I assume McTaggart missed that when she said that the zero point field was almost unknown.  It wasn't.

Further reading:

John D Barrow The Book Of Nothing (2000)
Brian Cox & Geoff Forshaw  The Quantum Universe (2012)
John Gribbin  In Search Of Schrodinger's Cat
John Gribbin  In Search Of Schrodinger's Kittens
Manjit Kumar Quantum (2008)
Chad Orzel  How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog
James Randi Flim Flam (1982)
Simon Singh The Big Bang (2004)
Roberto Mangabeira Unger & Lee Smolin The Singular Universe And The Reality Of Time (2014)
Stephen Wilson (ed) The Bloomsbury Book Of The Mind (2003)
Robert Winston The Human Mind (2003)

and many, many more.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Tombstone Blues

Sou has the full story but there is still fun to be had.  Chrissy Boy Monckton is throwing another snit.  He got his name inscribed on a mock memorial of deniers that won an art prize.  Hence the snit.

And so is James Delingpole.  Well, who'da thought it?  Delingpole and Monckton seem to be on one continuous, never ending, snit.  Nanny must be chucking toys in their prams at an immense rate because the pair of them chuck them back out constantly. 
Calm down, he's not a scientist

Jimmy's best writing is reserved for those moments when his bile runneth over, as it does in this Shakespearean paragraph (I realise it would have been better in Iambic pentameter but the blessed Jim was probably a bit pushed for time and the editor of the Spectator was tapping his watch):

I wonder what deep background research led him to form this considered view. Actually, no I don’t, because it’s obvious. He’ll have got it from his science and geography teachers at school; from BBC nature documentaries and news reports; from comedians like Dara Ó Briain and Marcus Brigstocke; from celebrity mathematician Simon Singh, whispery-voiced gorilla-hugger David Attenborough and pouty-mouthed astronomer Brian Cox; from every other article in the Guardian; from the Science Museum in London; from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; from his fellow students and university professors; from the ‘97 per cent’ of scientists who, so legend has it, say the science on global warming is settled… .
So let's just examine this paragraph shall we.  First, Delingpole's credentials: English Literature, Christchurch College, Oxford.

Ian Wolter, the art student in question, may have got his climate science from those people.  His science and geography teachers will all have had relevant degrees.  And of the others...
This man can do more complicated sums than James Delingpole can, and he can read posh books by dead, white, male writers

 Dara O Briain has a degree in mathematics and theoretical physics.

 Marcus Brigstocke studied drama but did not complete his degree (he's in the list not so much for his climate science claims but for his left wing comedy).
This man has proper science qualifications

Simon Singh has a PhD in particle physics.  He's here because he helped to change the libel laws which were being used to threaten scientific criticism of quacks and frauds.

David Attenborough has a degree in natural sciences (including geology) from Clare College, Cambridge.
This man is a scientist as well

Professor Brian Cox has a PhD in high energy particle physics from the University of Manchester.  He's in the list because Delingpole once sat and watched a programme Prof Cox made.

There is some hefty science learning here.  Perhaps an Eng Lit graduate could learn something.  But, alas, Delingpole, famously an interpreter of interpretations, prefers to go to see a bunch of, well, non-experts with some out of date qualifications at the Heartland Institute on their jolly to Rome to persuade the Pope that he is, after all, infallible:

At the Heartland event, on the other hand, a series of fascinating, erudite mini-lectures was delivered by a team including a meteorologist, a physicist, an ex-Nasa man who’d helped devise the landing gear for the Apollo project, and a theologian.

Wow, just wow.  Here's a list of the participants:
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation
Hal Doiron, former NASA Skylab and Space Shuttle engineer
Richard Keen, Ph.D., meteorology instructor at the University of Colorado
Christopher Monckton, chief policy advisor to the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI)
Marc Morano, executive editor and chief correspondent,
Tom Sheahen, Ph.D., vice chairman of the Science and Environmental Policy Project Board of Directors
Elizabeth Yore, J.D., former General Counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia
I leave it to you to work out the weatherman, the physicist, the man who worked on the landing gear for the Apollo project (note, Skylab didn't land and the Space Shuttle wasn't Apollo but you can't expect Delingpole to get everything anything right), and I think we can be certain that the theologian is of the distinctly unsophisticated kind (TM Jerry Coyne).  You can't be surprised that journalists had better things to do.

I'm guessing Delingpole will be attending the Heartland non-science event in June.  Here is the schedule.  Spot the non-denier competition has been cancelled.

Other people interested in real science will, of course, find something better to do.  Here's an example:

And this:

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne for alerting me to Philomena.

And if you think the title is familiar: