Woo-rant: Mystics invade my Sunday morning

I spent some of my Sunday morning watching a program called ‘The big questions’. This is usually fairly good, they invite a general audience and some people considered knowledgeable in their field of speciality, and debate political issues. This week one of the questions was about ‘Life after Death’.


When I first heard the premise of the show, I thought that there would be at least one clued up scientist debunking the myriad of mediums, pentecostal ministers and downright crazy people making up stories about receiving personal visitations from their closely departed friends with tales of how pleasant the afterlife is. Alas, I was sadly mistaken. In fact, the only guy on the program who had any scientific background made the whole thing WORSE by completely fumbling his description of what is currently understood in the field of neuroscience and reducing it to ‘we really don’t understand at all how the brain works’ – wrong – ‘but we understand how vision works, for example, and if you remove a person’s eyes they cannot see, therefore how can they claim to have seen things after death’? – this was a.) irrelevant and b.) incorrect. The brain can simulate the experience of vision through memory prediction, (think about for example when you ‘see’ in a dream). It can also link other sensory inputs with predicted visual input (e.g. identifying objects whilst wearing a blindfold allows you to ‘imagine’ how the object looks).

Having just read Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence (thank you Geordie for recommending that one), the counter-arguments to a rational, physical theory of intelligence seem all the more strange. This book puts forward a beautiful computational model of the brain, which explains how intelligence can arise, why humans are so much better at certain tasks than computers, and also explains the hiaracy of intelligence in animals in terms of this model.

Indeed, after reading this book, I have now become even more of a Strong AI supporter.

How can people not acknowledge that the brain could be explained by a beautiful theory, instead wishing to attribute some ‘mystical’ connotations to it? Why does someone not having the wish to understand how something works give them the right to argue that no-one will ever have the capability of doing so? Why do their mystic arguments hold any water at all?

Because it’s easier to resign yourself to some fuzzy, warm, but completely incorrect way of thinking than to actually work damn hard towards the real understanding. And this laziness perpetuates itself.

Of course, people can resign themselves to this if they so wish, but they should not be allowed to preach it on live television as though it’s a scientifically sound point of view: Just some equally viable ‘alternative’ to the best possible scientific enquiry with which people have been diligently pushing forward the boundary of understanding for centuries.

What a horrible, deepening blow to the scientific community to let the people who know the least appear as experts via this incredibly popular and trusted style of information dissemination. And it’s downright wrong to give the impression that the argument is stronger from the mystical side and that the science itself is weak, just because you invite more passionate and ‘knowledgeable’ *cringe* mystics than scientists themselves.

This all makes me slightly annoyed, but all the more determined to actually a.) understand the cutting edge research in this field so I can b.) disseminate it correctly to these people.

To top off the woo-week, I watched What the Bleep Do We Know!? – Basically because I’d heard from the physics blogosphere that it was really, really awful. And hail! The physics blogosphere was correct 🙂 I would still highly recommend the film to anyone who works in QM or even Physics/Biology in general, because we should be aware that stuff like this is not only in circulation, but is actually believed to be factual by many people. Maybe we should make a sequel: What the Bleep Do We Know!?: Quite a lot actually, if you ask reputable scientific people… Subtitle: – And don’t edit their responses to favour your own warped point of view –

I also felt that the copy of the film was better off in the relatively safe quarantine of my woo-antivirus vault (aka DVD shelf) than publically accessible (I found it in HMV). I did however feel slightly wrong after actually paying for a copy :S

One thing I did actually quite like about the film were the Dr. Quantum animations, I think they were very visually appealing. They would be a great way to enhance the teaching of (correct) science to kids, and indeed to interested people of all ages.

OK, end of PZMyers-esque-ness 🙂


14 thoughts on “Woo-rant: Mystics invade my Sunday morning

  1. dark_daedalus says:

    Breath… Breath… 🙂

    Since we live in a heavily Christian influenced society and am not a fan of religious programming, I tend to sleep in on Sunday mornings and so have never caught this.

    But according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Questions, it is billed as a “_faith_ and ethics” show, replacing the “Heaven and Earth” show… I would not expect “Panorama” or “Question Time”.. more “Songs Of Praise”.

    I would suggest writing a persuasive letter to Points Of View.. or inciting http://www.badscience.net to do it on your behalf.

  2. physicsandcake says:

    Hmm, I wasn’t aware it was a faith based show, the ones I’ve watched before have all been about political issues and it’s on after the Andrew Marr show….

    I want hard science on my Sunday mornings damnit! :S We’re back to our old OU debate!

  3. rrtucci says:

    What is woo? (Besides when a man courts a woman). An English word so mysterious must be Australian. But no, I looked it up in my favouriteaustralian dictionary and it wasn’t there, next to one of my favourites, woop-woop

    The graphic for the big questions is bizarre. It looks like pee on the floor, so I guess the big question is which pet peed on the floor.

  4. Geordie says:

    You should give some love to the mystics. Have you checked out Jack and Rexella Van Impe, if not you should. Rexella is my girlfriend, in this video she is talking to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-z1Cp3TciA&feature=related

  5. rrtucci says:

    Now I know what Woo-kies like Chewbacca must be saying
    boo, boo-boo
    coo, cuckoo
    do, doo-doo
    foo, fufu
    goo, goo-goo
    (k)coo, cuckoo
    loo, lulu
    moo, muumuu
    pooh, pupu, poo-poo
    (q)coo, cuckoo
    too, tutu
    woo, woo-woo
    you, juju

  6. Geordie says:

    Bob you should back off on the ayahuasca dude.

  7. rrtucci says:

    I have a Peruvian friend that claims taking ayahuasca will make you enlightened. Since there is no evidence of that in me, something else must be affecting my mind.

  8. rob says:

    ugh. i borrowed that movie a couple years ago from a co-worker. i had to explain to him that the whole movie is full of Bleep.

  9. physicsandcake says:

    I was horrified to find another 2 copies of it lurking in a different HMV, so I tried to hide it at the back…

    However I did also find the Richard Dawkins DVD collection boxset, so it wasn’t a wasted expedition 😀

  10. 8-0-8 says:

    Wow, I never knew you were so passionate on the subject 🙂 and nooooo I’m not stalking you, though it’s no accident I’m here… I was looking for your art website but can’t seem to find it, and I happen to have a thing for physics & cake…

    Anywho you probably don’t even know who I am, haha 🙂 but I’d love to discuss such things with you. You are far more amazing than I knew!

    • physicsandcake says:

      Happy to discuss Physics and/or cake at any point! (Well, the bits of Physics about which I know about anyway).

      My art site is http://www.gothicfall.co.uk

      • 8-0-8 says:

        And the bits of cake about which I know, haha 🙂 It’s not too likely I’ll ask anything complicated; I’ve probably got the lowest IQ on this here blog and on top of that math was never my forte.

        …But it is so damn interesting! 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s