When we last left off in this series, my mother had acceded to my requests that she let me voice criticisms of the film What the (Bleep) Do We Know!?, and I had ruthlessly eviscerated the piece and explained why, in her profession as a psychologist, it was dangerous to recommend the film.

Her response was as follows:

Hi honey,

I have no problem with you using this dialogue, so long as it is used in context and in an unbiased way (and anonymous).

With regard to your point about blaming people for getting cancer or being born with down’s syndrome, I suggest you listen to some of Dr. Dyer’s responses to that. The claim, in my view is not: think good thoughts=get everything you want & think bad thoughts=you’re to blame for your own misfortune. Instead, I believe that the implication is that individually as well as collectively we have the power to influence in a positive or negative way. It has absolutely nothing to do with blame. To me it’s as in “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankle, the ultimate, and possibly only, freedom we have is with our attitude.

I did not see that there was a claim to know any of this for certain, except that underneath it all we are all connected as a source of eternal energy. What form that energy takes who knows, it’s all conjecture. I know nothing about science and will certainly look into the skepticism about the film. For me I do believe we give off negative or positive energy (all you have to do is watch animals and children, or be in the presence of someone creepy). For me it’s more about possibilities and wondering. what if we focused on each of us being a source of positive energy, individually and collectively. How would that impact the world? Ourselves? Our relationships?

Anyway, gotta go.

Love ya,
Yo’ Mama

Note the disgustingly disproportionate lengths of the emails, which let you know which of us is working multiple jobs on a fixed budget and which of us is a lazy college student who has mastered the art of procrastination.

I decided to take her comments about not knowing science to heart, and knowing that she’s frequently said things like “Science used to say that ____ was a good idea, now they think that _____ is bad for us,” I sought to explain it as best I could. My attempt at Sagan emulation continues below the fold.

Dear Mom,

This response is a long one, but I promise that I’ve distilled and deleted a great deal of it, and that it’s all good reading, and important reading. To a newcomer, the science of the cosmos is pretty complex and hard to distill, and the process of science (as distinguished what we think of as science from our exposure through the media, governmental agencies, and corporations) do require some explaining. I’ve done my best to keep this writing entertaining, informative, and clear. Besides, if you get through to the end, I try to emulate Carl Sagan and the style gets rather poetical. You’ll like it. So, stick it through.

Dr. Dyer’s response may be all well and good, but unfortunately he’s not the director of the film. William Arntz directed the film, and he’s the one John Olmstead quoted as saying that a child with Down’s syndrome had probably done something in a past life to deserve that extra chromosome.

You say that our thoughts, both collectively and individually, are able to influence the world around us to a certain extent. If the theory is that your thoughts have the power to influence the world around you, then it would follow that “bad” thoughts would yield “bad” results and “good” thoughts would yield “good” results. There’s no getting around that logical end.

You seem to be confusing two important issues–there are two claims here. The first, which much research generally agrees with, is pretty sound: Our perception of events affects our happiness. People who look for opportunities tend to spot opportunities more readily, and people who look at the benefits of an unfortunate incident are more likely to recover. This is not to be confused with the use of personal mantras or “active thinking”—say, going about thinking “today I will make money, today I will make money” or “I’m going to find love, I’m going to find love.” In those respects, our thoughts have no impact on the world whatsoever. They amount to a sort of generalized prayer to the universe that expect that our thoughts are telepathically transmissible and have an influence on the outcome of events outside of our control. There is no respectable evidence available that our thoughts directly affect the universe, nor is there any known mechanism by which they could.

Now onto science and “energy.” I’d like to preface the following with a discussion of the nature of science.

It’s easy to lose confidence in science when you’re not used to the workings of science. One decade you’re being told to switch to artificial fats because they’re lower in cholesterol, and the next decade you’re being told that hydrogenated fats cause heart disease. One minute processed food is all the rage, then raw food is all the rage, and then we discover that many foods need cooking in order to release crucial nutrients and enzymes. Science seems disgustingly fickle and prone to fads. What the hell is up with science?

The thing is, nothing’s up with science. Corporations, government agencies, and the media (especially the media) don’t understand how science works, and they have their own interests in mind. Scientific reports tend to be ambiguous, they tend to avoid sweeping conclusions, and they tend to avoid saying such things as “flax seeds and omega-3s are the key to longevity!” The media, trained in binary thinking, reduces scientific findings to either/ors—x is bad for you, y is good for you. Governmental health recommendations must be taken with a grain of salt, since certain agricultural groups are big on lobbying and big on voting. Corporations seize on scientific findings and distort them—or just make them up—in order to sell products. Your perception of science is based not on science at all but on the appropriation and exaggeration of science (indeed, sometimes it’s based on purely bad science).

In our daily encounters with what we are told is “science,” we are inundated with oversimplifications, misunderstandings, false dichotomies, misleading use of figures…I could go on. And as such, we lose our faith in science, even though we hadn’t even met science face-to-face.

So what is science? Science is our tool to understanding the universe, everything from the origins of the cosmos and terrestrial life to why boobies and marijuana are fun. Correction: it’s not a tool, it’s a toolbox, and it is the only reliable toolbox we have in understanding the universe, with such tools as variable isolation, double blinding, rigorous testing, and an unwillingness to ever rely on common sense or assumptions without rigorously testing them first. Any legitimate claim can be tested with the toolbox: the claim that time moves slower as objects approach the speed of light, the claim that our personal lives are influenced by our star sings, the claim that God answers prayers, the claim that without touch and affection, children wither and die.

The scope and power of science, once you learn about it, is breathtaking to behold, and once it is understood, the appropriation (or, conversely, the stigmatization) of science by pseudoscientists, advertising agencies, and new age cults becomes that much more insidious and offensive. Once you learn all of the things that science has detected—wavelengths of light that humans can’t see, completely invisible matter that is only detectable because of its gravitational effects on other bodies, microwave residue from the Big Bang, the innerworkings of a single cell, the complexity of a double helix, the path of our origins that takes us from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in solar bodies to carbon-based lifeforms (Joni Mitchell was right—we are stardust), the claims of pseudoscience become pathetically vague, trite, ignorant, and false.

As for the claim that we all give off negative and positive energy, and that observation of animals, children, and the heebie-jeebies can back this up, I have two rebuttals. The first is that we have evolved complex social signals and the ability to discern many characteristics about people based on signals they give off of which they are not even aware, and many of these social signals are shared with other animals (we do have a common ancestor, after all). Secondly, there is the case of the creepy person who bypasses our sensors. Pedophiles manage to do this all of the time, gaining the trust of communities, parents, and children. And frequently, people don’t know what pedophiles are up to.

You also talk about some kind of “energy.” You are able to hold this belief in energy only because you’re not clear exactly on what energy is. Yes, our thoughts rely upon electrical currents inside our nervous systems, but these are closed circuits—our thoughts and feelings cannot travel through the air on their own. They rely on the careful coordination between electrical currents, complex chains of chemical reactions, and the movements of an enormous amount of muscles, ligaments, and other bodily components. These are then perceived by other people through the sensation of visible light waves, sound waves, pressure exerted by electromagnetic force, and whatever the hell noses do, and these signals are converted again into electrical energy. Humans can not, without machines, generate and perceive radio waves. They can not generate and perceive micro-waves.

There is no evidence whatsoever for any permeating eternal energy that binds us all to a “source.” At best, this is a powerful metaphor that allows us to understand our own emotional lives and live our lives well. At worst, it’s a pseudo-scientific sham that appropriates the language of science for profit and superstitious nonsense. I would think that Dr. Dyer’s work is mostly of the former category, and that What the Bleep’s teachings are mostly in the latter category.

Finally, consider this. The universe is massive, more massive than we can ever hope to comprehend (Richard Dawkins has remarked that the universe is so great that we are more able to calculate than to imagine its size). The history of the universe is tumultuous, filled with explosive supernovas, enormous nuclear reactions, galaxies pulled into black holes. The history of life on earth, miraculous as it is, has required an almost incalculable number of extinctions. We as humans and mammals have evolved emotions and morals because they were beneficial to the survival of our genes, and while we may have an intrinsic sense of “good” and “evil,” the universe is largely indifferent. Good and evil are small potatoes to the universe, and to claim that there is a universal medium or arbiter of goodness and badness is to misunderstand and demean the universe. The universe is far too great to ever need to worry about the petty concerns of human happiness or morality.

That being said, we are humans, and we’ve evolved morals and a sense of goodness and badness, and your committment to leaving a positive imprint is admirable. Just because we wish to live good lives does not mean we need to evoke the cosmos or some universal energy of goodness to do so, and just because the universe doesn’t give a darn about us doesn’t mean that we ought not to lead good lives.

We don’t need ridiculously false, pseudo-scientific claims to justify the good life. We don’t need the evocation of mystical energies to explain our moral inclinations and our emotions. Science has done rather well enough explaining them without the help of new age fraudulence, and science or no science, leading a good life and helping others is still an admirable human goal and I commend you for it. But evoking a universal, eternal energy to cause human happiness is like calling on the powers of the god Yahweh to sell girl scout cookies. It’s a simultaneously meaningless and disproportionate use of unnecessary force.

That’s as far as the dialogue has progressed so far. Stay tuned for more adventures from the battle between SexySecularist and She Who Bore Him In the Womb.