Have you seen or heard of the movie What the #$*! Do We Know!? Here’s a summary of the movie’s plot from the Internet Movie Database:
Amanda [Marlee Matlin, above left], 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. Stunning special effects plunge you into a world where quantum uncertainty is demonstrated – where Amanda’s neurological processes, and perceptual shifts are engaged and lived – where everything is alive, and reality is changed by every thought.
The purpose of this post is to educate the reader about what this movie is and is not. It is not a cool cutting-edge movie about quantum physics, as its marketing leads the innocent to believe (actually only the first half is “about” quantum physics — the rest is “about” how people are enslaved by their own unhappy thoughts and beliefs). While in many ways this is a feel-good movie offering common-sense advice (think good thoughts about yourself and your life), the “science” presented as backing up these ideas is mostly fallacy — fallacy taught as fact by the “Ramtha School of Enlightenment.”
What the Bleep was produced and directed by followers of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, an organization that promulgates the teachings of JZ Knight (that’s her on the right in the above image — she appears throughout the movie). Knight claims to “channel” a 35,000-year-old spirit named Ramtha, and in What the Bleep Knight is actually credited as Ramtha. As its central premise, the movie repeatedly (and incorrectly) states that because of the actions of the quantum world, people can choose their own reality. This isn’t a quantum physics concept, but it is a central concept of Knight’s books and videos. Could this movie be a marketing tool for Knight’s organization? I just wonder.
As well as teaching that people can create their own reality, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, through its website Ramtha.com, currently claims that it can teach telepathy and clairvoyance at eight-day workshops. Below are images taken from screenshots of ramtha.com on August 28, 2006.
As well as Knight, also appearing in What the Bleep is Dr. David Albert, a Columbia physicist. From a salon.com article, here’s what he has to say about his contributions to the movie:
I don’t think it’s quite right to say I was ‘tricked’ into appearing,” [Albert] has said in a statement reposted by a critic on “What the Bleep’s” Internet forum, “but it is certainly the case that I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film … Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.”
He has more to say here in a comment thread where he calls the movie “wildly and irresponsibly wrong.”
Below is an excerpt from a review of the movie by University of Queensland grad student in physics (and at this writing, soon to be Ph.D.) Joel Gilmore. Gilmore points out plenty of gross and misleading errors in the movie, particularly its central idea that people can “choose” a reality of their own making:
Let’s take one of the central themes from the movie: humans have the capacity to create their own reality. In quantum mechanics, there’s an important principle that when we measure a system, we affect it. The idea goes is that an object (electron, atom, basket ball) can be in two or more places at once – called a “superposition”. But when we try and see where it is, it’s forced to choose where it will be: we say that the superposition collapsed into a definite state. It may seem strange, but experiment agrees brilliantly with this picture.
The movie says this shows that we can affect the reality around us, and by positive thinking we can create the reality we want. ‘Fraid not. The collapse mentioned above is non-deterministic: you can’t control which position the object collapses in to. You can make statistical guesses, which are right in the long run (like tossing heads 50% of the time) but you can’t predict, let alone control, each collapse. This is strongly backed by experiment. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be us doing the measurement – as even one of the experts points out, the “collapse” can come from interacting with a rock or a tree – should we assume they also create their own reality?!
But it gets worse – while they correctly note that atoms, and hence matter, are mostly empty space, they then liken atoms to “thoughts”, and suggest that matter is made up entirely of thoughts and our imagination! One expert claims that he firmly believes humans can walk on water if they set their mind to it.
I’m not saying don’t see the movie; I’m not in the habit of telling others what to do. By all means see it; it’s an excellent exercise in critical thinking. I’m just saying see the movie for what it really is: An expensively produced mishmosh of feel-good self-help babble, science, antiscience and outright untruth. It’s not a horrible movie. Just a horribly misleading one.
For more debunking of the movie and the “science” in the movie, see this Wikipedia entry, this salon.com article, this Skeptico piece, this Australian Broadcasting Company article, or this thread from the blog of a physics professor.