when a doctor discovers quantum woo…

June 15, 2010

Just as computer scientists and famous tech evangelists who wholeheartedly embrace the utopian outlines for Technological Singularity make me groan, so do woo-espousing physicians send Orac up a wall. In this case, the subject of our common ire is Dr. Robert Lanza who claims to have evidence for what happens the flow of time after death while ineptly plagiarizing Deepak Chopra’s quantum nonsense on that repository of unabashed New Age quackery and crankery, the Huffington Post. In fact, Lanza’s column could easily rival the vacuous rambling of pseudo-philosopher Dinesh D’Souza on the subject, leaving me wondering how an MD with an impressive research record and several science books under his belt could deem something as bad as this worthy of publication anywhere but some New Age spirituality magazine… Oh, wait, right. Never mind.

Though I should be a good skeptic and proper investigator who examines all claims with as few preconceived notions as possible, I have to admit that most links to HuffPo featuring a doctor of something or other instantly sends my woo alarm (woo-larm?) into overdrive because I know that the odds of that column diving both feet first into abject inanity are generally very high. Consider Deepak Chopra’s eruptions against his skeptics, the flood of quacktastic alt med woo, the intellectual laziness of Ervin Laszlo, or the idiocy of Dr. Larry Dossey’s screed comparing scientific education to child abuse. I think I have some pretty good reasons not to expect reasonable content on HuffPo outside of Michael Shermer’s and Steve Newton’s articles. And Lanza’s attempt at playing into the much fetishized role of a New Age shaman-scientist isn’t helping to sway me otherwise. To show you why, allow me to present his thesis about what happens to us after death.

… What happens when we die? Do we rot into the ground, or do we go to heaven (or hell, if we’ve been bad)? Experiments suggest the answer is simpler than anyone thought. Without the glue of consciousness, time essentially reboots.

You know, I’d sure like to see some of those experiments because last I heard, what actually happens during a near death experience, or after clinical death, is still an open question. We know that as the body is about to die, the brain goes into overdrive and generates bizarre, dream-like experiences. In rare cases, patients who underwent clinical death or experienced a state very close to it for a risky and complex surgery, give us highly accurate accounts of esoteric surgical tools or the surgeons’ mannerisms when they should be unconscious and seeing only their dreams. Were they suddenly awoken and really saw what was going on in a dream-like haze? Did they tap into some bizarre natural phenomenon that gave them superhuman perception that could kick in when we’re on the verge of death, kind of like how our muscles can develop superhuman strength in a life or death situation thanks to a surge of adrenaline? We don’t know.

We really want to find out what’s going on but this is so far on the edge of science and so reliant on personal recollections under immense stress, that an objective investigation is incredibly difficult. So what experiments have been able to show that time literally stops for us when we die? Lanza isn’t saying. Instead, he tells us a long, cryptic and pointless story about his childhood, and throws around terms borrowed from quantum woo that holds human consciousness to be at the center of reality as we know it, i.e. absolute bunk. I know of only one theory of quantum consciousness that even tries to use real science and even this idea doesn’t answer basic questions about self-awareness and cognition in any meaningful way. To use one’s ineptitude in very commonly known facts about quantum mechanics as proof that time, a property of the universe itself, is totally reliant on the human experience, is a sign of phenomenal arrogance and reprehensible ignorance.

True, the dynamics of the quantum world can be truly bizarre, but to think that electrons and atoms actually care how we decide to measure them or whether or not we’re self-aware enough to recognize why atoms are important to the universe at large, is nothing more than vapid self-aggrandizing. And if anything, what we could all learn from the doctors on HuffPo promoting this kind of inanity is what physicians you probably should try to avoid if you’re sick and need some medical attention. Maybe some of them great doctors in practice, but I’d be very distrustful if the doctor looking at a CAT scan of my brain is trying to realign, rotate and balance a chakra rather than make sure I don’t have anything abnormal near any important cortex, and knowing that my doctor is completely woo-free and can easily explain to me what he’s prescribing, why and how it works, gives me quite a bit of relief. Not to mention plenty of interesting, real facts to learn about my own body and how it works.

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  • http://www.trainstar.net Helen Bushnell

    A sad, but true story.

    I was a humanities major in college, and I decided to take astronomy as part of my science requirement. An answer was wrong on one of the tests, and a bunch of us went to the front of the class to complain. The professor asked us to explain how the answer was wrong. A section of the class was supposed to be studying astrophysics. They knew the answer was wrong, but they couldn’t explain why well enough.

    I came up with something that included the words “quantum physics” and I got the point.