Recently, I saw a remarkable video entitled, " What the #$!%* Do We Know!?  It challenged my worldview at every level, from my common sense  appraisal of reality to my understanding of physics.  The speakers in the film (some of whom I recognized) made claims about the nature of reality which gave me a glimpse into their everyday world, and stood everything I had been taught, and learned on my own, on its head.
     The claims made in the movie were so astonishing, I was speechless.  The view of reality put forth in the film is so confused and convoluted, it's difficult to untangle.  Fortunately, smarter folks than I have done a commendable job.  I have posted their essays below.  There are links to the original sources.  Following the essays, I have posted some FAQ on these matters of my own.  

Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?
Published: March 14, 2006

Can physics save your soul?

Two years ago, a movie with the unpronounceable title "What the #$!%* Do We Know!?" became an underground new-age phenomenon, raking in $11 million out of midnight screenings and word of mouth, spawning an industry of books, tote bags, clothing, DVD's and "biofield" jewelry. It purported to argue, based on the insights of modern quantum physics, that reality is just a mental construct that we can rearrange and improve, if we are enlightened or determined enough. Science and spirituality have tied the knot, and the world is your infinitely deformable apple.

This winter an expanded version, "What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole," began to play to
audiences who say that the movie confirms what they already thought about the cosmos, some vibe they had that it is a slippery, woo-woo-woo kind of place. The movie just finished a two-month run in New York and is to be shown in May at the Quest for Global Healing Conference, in Ubud, Bali, with luminaries like Walter Cronkite and Desmond Tutu attending. Like its predecessor, this film features a coterie of talking heads: physicists with real Ph.D.'s, biologists, philosophers and a woman who claims to be channeling a 35,000-year-old spirit warrior from Atlantis. It tells the story of a sourpuss photographer played by Marlee Matlin who learns to love herself and take a chance on life. Like its predecessor, the film touts the alleged power of meditation to affect the crystalline structure of water, as revealed in photographs by Masaru Emoto, a doctor of alternative medicine in Japan. Love and gratitude make for symmetrical and intricate crystals, according to the film, while hatred produces an ugly mess. If thoughts can do this to water, imagine what they can do to humans, who are, after all, mostly water — at least so runs the mantra repeated several times in the film.

When I first heard that Marlee Matlin had made a movie about quantum theory, I was excited. (Total disclosure: Ms. Matlin once bought an option on the film rights to an essay of mine about Albert Einstein and his wife.) What could be more deserving of wide-screen cinematic treatment than the weirdness and mystery of the laws that sculpture our space-time adventures? But hours and hours spent watching the two films and navigating their splashy Web site have tempered my enthusiasm. These films and the quantum mysticism industry behind them raise a disturbing question about the muddled intersection between science and culture. Do we have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?

The "rabbit hole" in the title refers to the philosophical muddle that the contemplation of quantum mechanics, the paradoxical laws that govern subatomic life, can lead to. And it is a legitimate and maddening one. Quantum physics proclaims, for example, that an electron (or any object, elementary particle or not) is both a particle and a wave before we look at it, a conundrum neatly illustrated by a cartoon featuring "Dr. Quantum" in the new film. Physicists have been at war for the last century trying to explain how it is that the fog of quantum possibilities prescribed by mathematical theory can condense into one concrete actuality, what physicists call "collapsing the wavefunction."

Half a century ago the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner ventured that consciousness was the key to this mysterious process. Wigner thereby, and inadvertently, launched a thousand New Age dreams. Books like "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" have sought to connect quantum physics to Eastern mysticism. Deepak Chopra, the physician and author, has founded a career on the idea of "quantum healing," and a school of parapsychology has arisen based on the idea that things like telekinesis and telepathy were a result of probing minds' manipulation of the formless quantum potential. And now the movie. All of them promote the idea that, at some level, our minds are in control of reality. We are in charge of the holodeck, as one of the characters in "Down the Rabbit Hole" says. And if it doesn't work for you, it's probably because you don't believe. So what's wrong with that? Like everyone else, I am inspired by stories of personal change. The ideas that consciousness creates reality and that anything is possible make for terrific psychology. We all know that self-confidence breeds its own success. I wish I were a member of that club.

But physics has moved on. It has been decades since anybody took Wigner's idea seriously, said David Albert, a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia, who has the dubious honor of being one of the talking heads in both "What the Bleep" films and is not pleased with the results. Many physicists today say the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed. As Dr. Albert pointed out, Wigner framed the process in strict mathematical and probabilistic terms. "The desires and intentions of the observer had nothing to do with it," he said. In other words, reality is out of our control. It's all atoms and the void, as Democritus said so long ago. Indeed, some physicists say the most essential and independent characteristic of reality, whatever that is, is randomness. It's a casino universe. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

There's a great story to be told about atoms and the void: how atoms evolved out of fire and bent
space and grew into Homer, Chartres cathedral and "Blonde on Blonde." How those same atoms came to learn that the earth, sun, life, intelligence and the whole universe will eventually die. I can hardly blame the quantum mystics for avoiding this story, and sticking to the 1960's. When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert said, that if you look deeply enough you will find "some reaffirmation of your own centrality to the world, a reaffirmation of your ability to take control of your own destiny." We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution. But one of the most valuable aspects of science, he said, is precisely the way it resists that temptation to find the answer we want. That is the test that quantum mysticism flunks, and on some level we all flunk. I'd like to believe that like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, "without hope or fear," as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival. But I wouldn't call it good physics.


November 2006 issue
Wronger Than Wrong Not all wrong theories are equal
By Michael Shermer

In belles lettres the witty literary slight has evolved into a genre because, as 20th-century trial lawyer
 Louis Nizer noted, "A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults." To wit, from high culture, Mark
Twain: "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." Winston Churchill:
"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." And from pop culture, Groucho Marx: "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it." Scientists are no slouches when it comes to pitching invectives at colleagues. Achieving almost canonical status as the ne plus ultra put-down is theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli's reported harsh critique of a paper: "This isn't right. It's not even wrong." I call this Pauli's proverb. Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit recently employed Pauli's proverb in his book title, a critique of string theory called Not Even Wrong (Basic Books, 2006). String theory, Woit argues, is not only based on nontestable hypotheses, it depends far too much on the aesthetic nature of its mathematics and the eminence of its proponents. In science, if an idea is not falsifiable, it is not that it is wrong, it is that we cannot determine if it is wrong, and thus it is not even wrong. Not even wrong. What could be worse? Being wronger than wrong, or what I call Asimov's axiom, well stated in his book The Relativity of Wrong (Doubleday, 1988): "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." Asimov's axiom holds that science is cumulative and progressive, building on the mistakes of the past, and that even though scientists are often wrong, their wrongness attenuates with continued data collection and theory building. Satellite measurements, for instance, have shown precisely how the earth's shape differs from a perfect sphere. Scientists' wrongness attenuates with time. The view that all wrong theories are equal implies that no theory is better than any other. This is the theory of the "strong" social construction of science, which holds that science is inextricably bound to the social, political, economic, religious and ideological predilections of a culture, particularly of those individuals in power. Scientists are knowledge capitalists who produce scientific papers that report the results of experiments conducted to test (and usually support) the hegemonic theories that reinforce the status quo. In some extreme cases, this theory that culture shapes the way science is conducted is right. In the mid-19th century, physicians discovered that slaves suffered from
drapetomania, or the uncontrollable urge to escape from slavery, and dysaethesia aethiopica, or the
tendency to be disobedient. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientific measurements of racial differences in cognitive abilities found that blacks were inferior to whites. In the mid-20th century, psychiatrists discov-ered evidence that allowed them to classify homosexuality as a disease. And until recently, women were considered -inherently inferior in science classrooms and corporate boardrooms. Such egregious examples, however, do not negate the extraordinary ability of science to elucidate the natural and social worlds. Reality exists, and science is the best tool yet employed to discover and describe that reality. The theory of evolution, even though it is the subject of vigorous debates about the tempo and mode of life's history, is vastly superior to the theory of creation, which is not even wrong (in Pauli's sense). As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins observed on this dispute: "When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong." Simply wrong. When people thought that science was unbiased and unbound by culture, they were simply wrong. On the other hand, when people thought that science was completely socially constructed, t hey were simply wrong. But if you believe that thinking science is unbiased is just as wrong as thinking that science is socially constructed, then your view is not even wronger than wrong.
Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic ( His new book is Why Darwin Matters.

0123&pageNumber=1&catID=2 Dark Ages article

What the (Bleep) Were They Thinking?

I decided to see “What The (Bleep) Do We Know!?” (sic!). I had avoided this film, as it looked like what Murray Gell-Mann calls quantum flapdoodle - distortions of quantum physics to support a mystical viewpoint. But the “what the bleep” meme is growing, so I decided I should see it for myself. Now I’ve seen it I can confirm that it does distort quantum physics to support a mystical viewpoint. But it is much more than that. Much worse. Hilariously so, in fact.

This post is rather long, but please read it to the end – there is a surprise there that will astonish you, I promise. But I should start with the science. Or, I should say:

The “science”

The premise of the film is that quantum mechanics proves a conscious observer is necessary to create reality. The conclusion is we literally create reality with our thoughts.

Unfortunately the theory of quantum mechanics does not say this. The film makers are confusing the theory of quantum mechanics with an interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is an explanation to help understand what might be going on, but it is not part of the theory because it is not falsifiable: it cannot be tested in such a way that, if it were false, it would fail the test (without falsifying the whole of quantum mechanics, and therefore all the other interpretations too).

To falsify this interpretation you would have to see what would happen without a conscious observer monitoring the experiment. But that’s Catch-22: you need a conscious observer monitoring the experiment to see what happens. You can’t look at the experiment without looking at it so no one can ever know if this interpretation is true. Even if it were true, extrapolating to “we literally create reality by out thoughts” is applying reductionism to an absurd level.

Don’t believe me? You don’t have to because David Albert, the professor from the Columbia University physics department who was featured in the film, is quoted in saying:

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.

(My bold.)

The ironic thing is that the film makers tell us quantum mechanics is oh-so-mysterious and can’t be explained - and then they explain it. I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s famous quote, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics". These film makers think they understand quantum mechanics. They don’t, but that doesn’t stop them from making a film explaining it. But it’s just a consciousness-of-the-gaps explanation: we can’t explain it so it must be consciousness.

Any one of the many interpretations could be correct. Or none of them might be correct, and the correct explanation is something not yet thought of. Quantum mechanics is not telling us this is the way the universe necessarily is.

Baaaad examples

So they have the theory wrong, but they must have some good examples, right? Wrong. They have three bad examples. Appallingly bad, actually.

The first was the claim that when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, the natives were literally unable to see his ships. Why? Because they had never seen ships before, so ships did not exist in their reality.

I had to rewind the film to make sure I hadn’t missed the part where they said this was just a fable. But they were stating it as fact. This idea is just too dumb to be considered seriously. Even if true, how could anyone verify it? I have searched the web for the source of this story to no avail, and conclude the film makers just made it up.

The second example was of the supposed “Maharishi Effect.” John Hagelin of the Maharishi University, described how in 1993, violent crime in Washington D.C. was reduced over a two month period, by 4000 people practicing transcendental meditation (TM).

There were many problems with this experiment. One was that the murder rate rose during the period in question. Another was that Hagelin’s report stated violent crime had been reduced by 18% (in the film he says 25%), but reduced compared with what? How did he know what the crime rate would have been without the TM? It was discovered later that all the members of the “independent scientific review board” that scrutinized the project were followers of the Maharishi. The study was pseudoscience: no double blinding, the reviewers were not independent, and the experiment has never been independently replicated. Hagelin deservedly won an Ig Nobel Prize in 1994 for this outstanding piece of work.

The third example was the work of Masura Emoto, who tapes words to bottles of water. The water is chilled and forms into crystals descriptive of the words used. For example, if the word “love” is taped to a bottle, beautiful crystals form; if the words “you make me sick” are used, ugly images appear.

What the film makers didn’t say is that Emoto knows the word used, and looks for a crystal that matches that word (biased data selection). To demonstrate a real effect, Emoto would need to be blind to the word used. James Randi has said that if Emoto could perform this experiment double-blinded, it would qualify for the million dollar prize. (He has never applied.) Such a protocol would show there is no correlation between the words taped to a bottle and the crystals formed within. These experiments have not been performed to a scientific protocol and have never been independently replicated.

Pert scam

The next segment was about neuro-peptides, how they are created in the brain, and regulate other cells in the body. This was presented as another example of how the human brain (consciousness), creates reality. None of this would be new to anyone who has read Candace Pert’s “Molecules of Emotion”. Pert is a talented scientist who went woo woo many years ago for reasons I don’t have time to go into here. (Edited to add: see my May 2005 review of Molecules of Emotion.)  Suffice to say she has made many dubious claims, including this in the film:

Each cell has a consciousness, particularly if we define consciousness as the point of view of an observer.

I think what she saying is that when one cell interacts with another, it fulfills the role of the “observer” in quantum mechanics. Well OK, but by that definition my toaster is conscious. It’s such a general definition of consciousness as to be meaningless: consciousness has to include some degree of self-awareness.  There is no evidence I’ve heard of that individual cells are conscious.

This was followed by someone claiming he literally creates his day with his thoughts, plus some feel-good drivel about god and self that almost put me to sleep. At the end, the main character in the film throws away her prescription meds because, since she creates her own reality, she doesn’t need them. (Don’t try this at home.) And that was it.

Channel No. 5

One thing that puzzled me was who were all the talking heads? I recognized a couple, but who was the bizarre guy who claimed he creates his day just by thinking about it, and who was the heavy-set blonde woman in the boxy red suit making the weird pronouncements in a funny accent? Normally in a documentary, the experts are introduced when they first appear. But here they introduced them after the end of the film. I was amused to see the guy who creates his own day, was a chiropractor. But when I found out the identity of the blonde woman, my eyes nearly popped out. I figured you wouldn’t believe me if I just told you, so I took a screenshot of it:


In case you can’t read the text, it says:


Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment

Channeled by JZ Knight

They are stating as a fact, that one of the people you have been listening to for the previous 90 minutes, a main authority for the information being presented, is a 35,000 year old warrior spirit from Atlantis, being channeled by this Tacoma housewife turned cult leader. The woman pictured is JZ Knight, but you are not listening to JZ Knight. You are literally listening to Ramtha. There were people who saw this film and didn’t say, “That’s just a woman putting on a funny accent”. Scary, huh?

At this point the film lost any remaining pretence of being based on any kind of science or facts.

I did a little digging on Ramtha:

Ramtha is a 35,000 year-old spirit-warrior who appeared in J.Z. Knight’s kitchen in Tacoma, Washington in 1977.  Knight claims that she is Ramtha’s channel. She also owns the copyright to Ramtha and conducts sessions in which she pretends to go into a trance and speaks Hollywood’s version of Elizabethan English in a guttural, husky voice.  She has thousands of followers and has made millions of dollars performing as Ramtha at seminars ($1,000 a crack) and at her Ramtha School of Enlightenment, and from the sales of tapes, books, and accessories (Clark and Gallo 1993). She must have hypnotic powers. Searching for self-fulfillment, otherwise normal people obey her command to spend hours blindfolded in a cold, muddy, doorless maze.

Upon further investigation I find the films’ producers, writers, directors, and a number of the featured “experts” are members of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. The film is a propaganda piece for a cult.

What the (Bleep) Were They Thinking?

I can answer that now. They were thinking that if they made a film using the word “quantum” a lot, plus plenty of feel-good drivel they would (a) make a ton of money (not that they are short of the stuff), and (b) gain more recruits to their loony-tunes cult. This is probably one of the few things they got right.


Some further reading if you’re interested.  First a good expose of the film as infomercial for Ramtha, by

A site with masses of information about Ramtha.

A blog with information about some of the talking heads.

A blog with some comments about Hagelin. Read the comments section.

An amusing review of the movie by Orkut Media.

CSICOP’s review of the film.

Skeptic Magazine’s review of the film.

A really good explanation of the real science involved, as opposed to the fanciful "what The Bleep" version of it.

And for the other side of the story, read the film makers’ reply to their critics. If you have any remaining doubt about the criticisms of this movie, read this. It is an (unintentionally) hilarious martyr piece where they blame the media for “publicly crucify(ing) people with new ideas”, and where they say the US government and way of life, not Ramtha, is a cult. All the usual fallacies are in evidence: scientists were wrong before so they are wrong now, we only use 10% of our brain, the film’s critics feel discomfort in their mindset (ie it is not the film makers’ fault the film makes no sense, it is our fault).  Plenty of fallacies and playing victim. Nothing to refute the criticisms.


Many thanks to Tez for reviewing and making suggestions about the quantum mechanics section.


Thanks for reading this far.  Here are the FAQs on these matters.

back to the kitchen table