“Such indeed is the respect paid to science, that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase. If society is thus prepared to receive all kinds of scientific doctrines, it is our part to provide for the diffusion and cultivation, not only of true scientific principles, but of a spirit of sound criticism, founded on an examination of the evidences on which statements apparently scientific depend.”
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
Emphasis mine. Living the life scientific means applying that philosophy to all areas of your life, and admitting when you do not have enough information to make a judgment, something a lot of scientists have a problem with. But this is not a rant about the failings of scientists, this is a rant mostly about this part of the quote:
the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.
Not too long ago, I was on a train. A rant about Amtrak’s moveable hell* is a post for another day, this is a rant about a couple of passengers across the aisle. The woman was expostulating to her male companion on the virtues of the research of a “Japanese scientist” who takes pictures of water crystals through a microscope. It seems that if the water sample in question got messages of “you idiot” the crystals looked ugly, and if they got messages of love, they looked perfect. You, dear reader, just do not know how much control it took for me not to interject into this conversation. You. Just. Do. Not. Know. Hundreds of years of efforts by the Children of the Enlightenment to bring humans out of the demon-haunted world (including my own 20 years studying science), and people from ostensibly the same culture and civilization as I am willingly sink back into this kind of crap when cut loose from their historical religious superstitions. Freed slaves putting a new set of chains on each other. Un-freaking-believable.
Some dude in her reiki class showed her the book of crystal pictures. There were also pictures of spring versus tap water, and the effect of pollutants was the same as if someone had been thinking mean thoughts at the water. The difference in the ice from spring versus ice from polluted water was also “unbelievable”. Also unbelievable were the effects of heavy metal versus classical music**. Well, unbelievable to someone who’s never heard of colligative properties and the impact of water drop geometry and solutes on ice formation. (Are you imagining me in the seat across the aisle with my blood pressure going off the scale? You should be.) Since the body is 90% water, or 87% water, she corrected herself (I was typing at the time, so I wrote this crap down verbatim – doesn’t 87 sound so much more exact and scientific than 90?), “just think, if the words we say can affect the crystals in a glass, how could the words we say affect an individual’s consciousness, or the world’s consciousness? It’s really been fun, you know?” No, I don’t know. Unimaginative, third rate science fiction ideas that wouldn’t get past my “willing suspension of disbelief” filter in a novel, but are accepted in the real world by credulous cretins, don’t seem like much fun to me, but what do I know? I’m just a scientist.
Well, I just had to look this horsecrap up when I got home. The first thing I did was look up the percentage of water in the human body, because I didn’t really know what it was offhand, but 87% sounded suspiciously like the water content of a watermelon (actually, they are about 92% water), rather than the value for an organism containing bone and solid organs. And I was right – we are roughly 60% water.
Then I went off to look for our Japanese friend. Unfortunately, I found him, and his book, The Hidden Messages in Water, with ease. That movie in the last link is the subject for another rant, I’ve got my hands full right here with the “Japanese scientist”, “Dr.” Masaru Emoto (江本勝, if you want to play along in Japanese). I say “Dr.” because his medical “degree” was purchased from a diploma mill for roughly $500. Just look at the photos on Emoto’s Japanese website and marvel at the lost, lost people enthusiastically deluding themselves.
My thoughts when looking at all those people peering into microscopes, sporting Bluetooth earpieces linked to laptops, and buying Emoto’s BS, basically boiled down to the observation that you can take the savages out of the jungle and dress them up in suits, but they’ll still worship rocks on their days off. Here all these people surrounded by the fruits of the studies of scientists and engineers, and they understand none of it. Oh, sure, some of them, especially the Japanese, might be able to recite some facts at you, they might even be able to regurgitate the laws of motion and laws of thermodynamics at you. But they understand none of it, because, if they are employed by Hado, they don’t have a clue about how mankind arrived at any of those theories, unless they are total frauds. Maxwell’s “spirit of sound criticism” is too often drowned out by the memorization of facts in basic science classes all the way into the college freshman level. The result is that the majority of supposedly educated people might as well have been going to Sunday School instead of sitting in science class for all they have absorbed about the proper method of evaluating evidence. They memorized facts and figures for more than a decade of publicly funded education and called it science.
This kind of thing irritates me, but I used to keep moving (far away) and just let it roll off of my back. As the wife says, everyone is entitled to be an idiot, just not around me. However, lately I’ve begun to wonder about what things such as Dr. Emoto’s “research” might portend for the future. Ignorant opinion spreads like cancer through our society. Many, if not most, economic, social and biological phenomena follow a non-linear development curve described by an exponential function. In the beginning, things look linear, and a phenomenon slowly builds. But at some point a critical mass is reached – trend setters are now populous enough to see and feed off of each other, or organisms create a substrate upon which others of their kind can build. Then you hit the dogleg in that curve, and it looks as if the phenomenon burst into prominence out of nowhere, when it fact the trend simply hit the dogleg.
Stupidity works this way, too. You just can not imagine my disgust when I Googled “water crystal formation”, and the number 2 and 3 hits were this and this from Dr. Emoto. Oh well, at least the number one hit was this. As we do a poorer and poorer job of educating our youth in math and science, ignorance will grow until it reaches a critical mass.
We are pretty darn close to critical mass right now, if you ask me. I’m continually surprised at the ignorance of people with college educations who have no idea where the frontiers of knowledge for the human race now lie. “If we can put a man on the moon…”. What a stupid, ignorant remark. Putting a man on the moon was an intricate but conceptually simple feat of engineering and Classical Physics. It has nothing to do with understanding the far more complex series of feedback and feed-forward loops in a living organism that must be tinkered with in order to cure cancer, not to mention that you can actually see most of the parts that go into a spaceship with the naked eye. But the misconceptions about the exact capabilities of science have already entered politics at the fringes. Derek Lowe had a great quote for the PETA crazies who think that we (the human race) have the biological knowledge to replace animal testing with computer models, and how ludicrous that idea is to anyone who gives the economics of the issue the slightest rational thought:
It’s true: I don’t actually like the fact that every successful modern drug has risen to its place on top of a small mountain of dead animals. But not liking doesn’t keep it from being true, and not liking it doesn’t mean that I have an alternative, either. I don’t. What the animal rights campaigners – the more rational ones, anyway – don’t seem to realize is that tens of millions of dollars are waiting for the person who can come up with a way of not using so many mice, rats, and dogs. (The less rational ones wouldn’t care even if they knew).
They’re expensive, you know, animals are. We don’t just have them running around in rooms with a bunch of straw on the floor. They live in facilities that are expensive to build and expensive to maintain, and you have to hire a lot of people whose only job is to take care of them. The anti-testing people seem to have visions of drug company employees cackling at the thought of getting to use more animals, when the truth is that we’d dump them in a minute if we could.
But here’s the hard part: we can’t. Not for now, and not for some time to come. We don’t know enough biology to do it. As it stands, if you were able to model every relevant system in a rat, well enough to use your model for predictive screening, you’d have basically built a rat yourself. We get surprised all the time when our compounds go into animals, and every time it happens, it shows how little we really know.
As ignorance about how the world works and how one goes about uncovering new knowledge gets more widespread, it begins to affect the body politic. Al Gore touting a “consensus” of scientists is only the tip of the iceberg, but no scientist, no matter which way you stand on the Global Warming debate, should let that one pass. Same goes for “Intelligent Design” arguments.
But the Democratic experiment in America worked long before higher education was so widespread didn’t it? So what am I worrying about? I guess that I feel that in a large part people are spending so much time reading and so little time doing during their educations, that higher education is actually corroding most people’s BS meters. In most of the softer disciplines, it is possible to obtain a degree purely out of books, with little or no practical experience: without building something concrete, or trying to run a business, or do anything that most people actually do in the real world – making education less useful than it could be, leaving young minds open to silly ideas. *** It’s usually those educated beyond their intelligence who fall for the Emotos of this world – most working class people are either too busy, have too much common sense, or both, to get involved in determining the “hidden messages in water”.
Since fewer and fewer people work with their hands anymore, the traditional common sense that formed the backbone of the democratic system that allows a universal franchise is being eroded. And so I’m left to wonder: how many Emotos can we absorb into the body politic before democracy is undermined by medieval credulity?
Cross-posted on TPwithpagenumbers.
* Not my phrase, although I wish it was.
** Actually, I can believe this one, if they were playing heavy metal at its normal volume, assuming that the classical piece did not include the cannon shots from the 1812 overture. Vibrations do affect ice formation.
*** Yes, I am one of those people, who believe that education for education’s sake is a waste of time and resources. Want to learn to appreciate literature (and yes, I do)? Do so on your own dime.