Do you believe in ghosts? How about reiki? Homeopathy? Auras? Visions? Do you believe in God? Today we're going to go on a journey and examine what we know, how we know it, and what you should trust as you try to make decisions about your health, fitness, and spirituality. We're going to take the long way around, starting at the heart of the sun.
Set a timer for 8 minutes. Let it run in the background as you read this. The moment you press start on your timer, a photon exits the sun. This photon and you have a date. When your timer is finished, that photon will have entered your eye, all the way through 93 million miles of black cold space, from the surface of the sun to the wall of your retina. The photon might bounce off a wall, or a car, or the family dog first. It might even bounce off the moon before it gets to you. But unless you're inside a windowless room or in the middle of a thickly clouded night, that photon is going to blast through your cornea and ding the back of your eyeball. The cells there will register the stimulation and send a signal to your brain. The brain will collect the information from that photon and all the other ones that have landed near it and massage the data into a rough image of what you're "seeing."
When your 8 minute timer goes off, pause for a moment, look at the world around you, and realize that this isn't just a cool science idea, this is the REALITY of your existence. The sun blasts photons in every direction, your eyes catch some of them as they bounce off stuff, and from the information in those bounces creates a reasonably good picture of what's happening. Eyes are cool.
The human eye isn't a perfect instrument. If you don't have a nice round eyeball the photons won't converge correctly and you'll get a scrambled fuzzy image. You'll need to correct this with descrambling lenses available at your local optometrist.
But the eyeball isn't the only failure point. Your brain also makes mistakes as it stitches together the photon data, which is why we're so easily fooled by optical illusions like the floating star below:
This is a still picture. Nothing is moving here. Your brain is doing all the work, sending you bad data because of a processing error. You can stare and stare at the star all day, and your visual cortex will keep glitching out, even as you intellectually know it's a still image. You've got buggy software and you're stuck with it!
Your eyes also miss huge swaths of the spectrum. When you look at a flower, you see the pretty yellow color on the left. A honey bee sees the pattern on the right.
This is because insects' eyes can perceive ultraviolet light. The flowers have obligingly evolved to create landing strip patterns to guide the insects towards their nectar. We can't even make an image that truly shows what the bees see, all we can do is approximate their world with our paltry box of colors from the visible spectrum.
So yes, eyes are amazing, but they're far from perfect. Thankfully, a bit of ingenuity and a heavy dose of the scientific method means that we don't have to depend on the two balls of goo on the front of our heads for all our information about the universe.
In the 1500s, some clever Dutch lens grinders figured out how to craft a telescope that made distant objects appear close. It didn't take long for people to start pointing these tools at the sky, and, lo and behold, there was a lot of stuff we were missing up there. The moon had mountains and craters. Jupiter itself had its own moons... tons of them! And the stars... so many stars. More stars in the universe than grains of sands on all the beaches of the Earth!
For hundreds of years we tinkered with telescopes, eking out crisper and crisper images. We built telescopes in the radio and ultraviolet spectrums. We shot telescopes into space to get rid of the distortions caused by our atmosphere. And today these thousands of hi-tech "eyes" peer out at the universe, collecting photons, pushing the boundaries of what we can see from our lonely little rock.
Which brings us to the announcement of the seven planets of the Trappist 1 system. Trappist 1 is a star discovered by the Trappist telescope in Chilé (TRAPPIST = Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). In February of 2017, NASA revealed that based on the data from the dwarf star, there were seven planets in the habitable zone where liquid water could form. Where there's water, there's life. We might even be able to point more powerful telescopes at the system and get solid confirmation of this life, based on the telltale atmospheric mix that organisms produce.
The best parts of this announcement were the accompanying pieces of speculative imagery that NASA produced, showing an artist's imagination of what these seven planets might look like.
The Trappist telescope and others like it are hunting for planets orbiting stars, called exoplanets. They find these planets by looking at a star and tracking tiny "dimming events" which indicate something has passed in front of the star. If the dimming occurs at a regular interval, astronomers can be confident that it's a planet in orbit, and by running some extremely sophisticated math can determine the size, orbital distance, and even atmospheric composition of the planets.
What does all this data look like? You might have an image in your mind like the one below, a very real photo showing the sun with Venus in transit. A big, beautiful ball of plasma with a crisp round planet revealing itself as it passes in front.
If only. After the NASA announcement, the world's exoplanet hunters all turned their gaze towards Trappist 1. The biggest, baddest planet-finding machine of them all, the space-based Kepler telescope, focused its lens towards the star. Below is the clearest, crispest data ever collected on the star. Remember your 8 minute timer? You'd have to set one for 39 years in the future before you saw any current photons from Trappist 1.
That's it. Roughly 9 pixels of various shades of gray. The main group of pixels is the star. Ignore the pixels that flash up on the sides from time to time as they're just noise in the data. Scientists can look at the way these pixels change color and figure out pretty much everything there is to know about Trappist 1 and its planets. In this case, we learned that none of the seven planets seems likely to have water or life. But that's ok, we'll keep looking. There are still a lot of grains of sand on the beach. If there's life in the universe, we'll find it sooner or later. That's what we're good at.
As humans, our senses are limited and fallible, but our minds are vast. When we bend our will towards finding something there's not much that can stop us. From those blocks of gray we teased out the secrets of this distant star. When you combine sophisticated tools with an understanding of the laws of physics, there's not much that can hide from our gaze.
We can use a stream of electrons to peer at the structure of things with greater detail than mere light could ever give us. Here's what the grooves of a record look like under a scanning electron microscope.
We can "smell" substances in the parts per billion with electronic sniffers. These devices are being used to hunt for everything from explosives to cancer to truffles, and have started out-performing even the best scent-finding dogs.
Nothing could be more boring than a banana, right? With a geiger counter you can find that bananas are actually radioactive. The potassium 40 in one banana releases about 0.1 microsieverts of radiation. Geiger counters reveal the hidden world of radioactivity that surrounds us.
Using tools like these we've become adept at finding out what's going on in the world. Choose anything you want to measure and there's a device that's been designed to specifically detect that thing, at levels of precision that make our own senses seem blunt and clumsy.
Now let's bring in the ghosts!
Have you ever seen a ghost? Heard one walking on the floorboards upstairs? Let's think this through.
For you to see a ghost, a photon from that ghost would need to enter your eye. For you to hear a ghost, a molecule would need to press into another molecule and send vibrations through the air. And yet, despite a century of looking for evidence of ghosts or the afterlife, we haven't found a thing. To which any good ghost-believer will say:
"But maybe ghosts operate on a different plane that our instruments can't detect!"
Let's say that's true. Ghosts operate on a different plane. That's fine. But for that ghost to have a physical effect on our plane, he will at some point have to interact with it. Even if it's just hitting your eyes with photons for a brief moment, the ghost will have left his mark on our world. And we can measure things that leave marks. Be it a single molecule per parts billion, or a planet orbiting a star 39 light years away, we'll pick up its signature. We're really good at that. But no ghost data exists.
"But despite all its ghostly qualities, radiation is interacting with reality, and therefore we can find it, measure it, and control it."
Want to know what a real ghost looks like? Radiation. Invisible, mysterious, silent, and dangerous. But despite all its ghostly qualities, radiation is in fact interacting with reality, and therefore we can find it, measure it, and control it.
Now substitute reiki (healing the body by manipulating auras) for the word "ghost."
We can't measure any kind of human aura or chi, no matter how hard we look for it. So how is the patient being healed?
"I'm not healing the body, I'm working with the spirit which leads to the body healing itself."
Ok, that's fine. But again, at some point the spirit will need to interact with the physical body to get things done. And we can't find that interaction!
"But the body has energy fields. You can measure them!"
Yes, the body has an electrical field. The body also emits radiation in the form of heat. This is true, solid science. It's also true that reiki doesn't do anything to change these fields. We know this because we can measure them before, during, and after a reiki session. You can't pick and choose when you want to apply scientific rigor to your healing arts.
The same goes for acupuncture, cupping, homeopathy, magnetic bracelets, feng shui, and on and on and on. Either these things exist in a completely separate plane which never interacts with ours (in which case, they functionally don't exist) or they don't have any real effects. If they were real, if they were doing real things in the real world like moving photons and atoms around, we'd find them!
You can have this conversation again and again, down the line with every claim of mysterious energy, hidden forces, UFOs, mythical animals, or divine intervention. If these things are really happening, where's the physical evidence for them? We can look into space as far back as the beginning of time itself. We can focus in on matter all the way down to the quark and neutrino. We can detect the subtle warp of space time itself. But we can't find what gives your crystal its magic energy?
If you keep gently bringing up these realities to a believer, you'll eventually get to the one sentence which sends me over the edge.
"So what? It makes me feel better, and it's not like it's hurting anybody."
These beliefs do hurt people. They hurt you, they hurt the people around you, and they hurt our shared project of creating a better society. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. sums it up succinctly in this quote about Homeopathy.
"Those kind friends who suggest to a person suffering from a tedious complaint, that he "Had better try Homoeopathy," are apt to enforce their suggestion by adding, that "at any rate it can do no harm." This may or may not be true as regards the individual. But it always does very great harm to the community to encourage ignorance, error, or deception in a profession which deals with the life and health of our fellow-creatures."
When you engage in a practice or thought system that has no basis in testable reality, you've chosen to take your time, attention, and money, and throw it all into a black hole. You're not learning about the true nature of the world, of your body, of anything. You're spending your resources on something that's not even there. You're enriching people who are either very confused or lying to you.
When we have a society that rewards shoddy thinking, we all suffer. Maybe a person spends a year trying alternative herbal treatments for a serious condition, only to visit a real doctor too late and end up with needing expensive end of life care. This not only sends money to a quack therapist, it makes your insurance premiums higher and wastes medical resources that could have gone elsewhere.
When we have a society that rewards shoddy thinking, we all suffer.
Even worse, most governments have carved out a portion of research for "alternative" or "integrative" therapies which have no basis in reality. The US spends more than 120 million dollars a year funding the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which encourages evidence-free health interventions. The NHS in the UK spends 5 million pounds a year on homeopathy treatments, which have absolutely zero efficacy. Chinese citizens funnel more than 25 billion dollars a year to traditional Chinese medicine services, all of which have no grounding in proven medical science. Alternative reality medicine gives us a sicker, poorer, and dumber society. And, yes, people do die in all of this. The website What's the Harm tracks pseudo-science related deaths around the world.
"Scientists just don't like what they don't understand. Not everything can be analyzed in a lab."
First off, everything can be analyzed in a lab. That's what this lesson has been all about. But beyond that, put yourself in the position of a scientist.
This is a Nobel Prize. Not only does it bring you worldwide fame and prestige, it comes with a cash award of one million dollars. If a scientist found evidence of human auras, fairies, telepathy, or any of the ideas in this article, he or she would have a lock on the Nobel. Why? Because discovering such things would mean that we had uncovered a whole new branch of science. The scientific community would REJOICE at learning that they had missed something so huge. And our plucky scientist would be one million dollars richer. This has happened many, many times.
Albert Einstein discovered photons. He got a Nobel Prize.
Marie Curie discovered radiation. She got a Nobel Prize.
Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. He got a Nobel Prize.
James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA. They got a Nobel Prize.
Werner Heisenberg discovered quantum physics. He got a Nobel Prize.
Saul Perlmutter discovered dark matter. He got a Nobel Prize.
Each of these revelations opened up whole new areas of science, and the discoverers weren't harassed or hounded for it, they were in fact handsomely rewarded. Science doesn't fear discovery, science IS discovery!
At this point in the conversation you might hear the following:
"Well, the government, industry, and scientists are all in on it. They're coordinating to keep this knowledge secret."
Congratulations, you're a conspiracy theorist. There's not really anything I can say to you now. Any reasoning or evidence can be folded back into the conspiracy theory, and this discussion has reached a dead end. This is sad for both of us.
My daughter starts Kindergarten in a few months, and as such has to get some vaccinations. I'll gladly take her to the doctor, hold her as she gets jabbed, and get some ice cream after. But there are millions of people who have become convinced that vaccinations are unsafe, and are denying their children protection from the ravages of disease. The fact that so many people can hold such a wrong-headed, self-harming view is a testament to how slipshod and dull our thinking has become.
I hope that this piece can be a kind of vaccination for you, like a booster shot for your critical thinking skills. Every day we're bombarded with pitches for crappy, ineffective products and lazy, dim-witted philosophies. When one of these pops up in your life, ask about the evidence. If no evidence can be produced, ask yourself, how is it possible we can check the atmospheric conditions on a Trappist 1 exoplanet 39 light years away but can't seem to find any data on this thing before you?
Approaching the world this way may sound cold and robotic. Far from it. When you live an evidence-based life you get the pleasure of celebrating REAL stuff. You get to marvel at the harmony of the laws of physics. You get your mind blown by the intricacy of biology. You get to dream of visiting far off planets and the kind of life you might find there. This is the kind of world I want to live in, eyes up, looking to the heavens, not stumbling around like dimwits in a dark, dank basement of our own ignorance.