This morning I was watching a very so-so movie about Quantum mechanics and “mysteries”, called What the (Bleep) Do We Know? (here’s the imdb entry)and it mentioned some Japanese fellow named Masaru Emoto. Now, during my visit home my parents had been talking about him as someone who’d done amazing research into the effects on water that can be obtained from the power of human thought. They showed me some pages from one of his books, and they had a lot of pretty color photos of ice crystals and some weird commentary about how they’d been affected by his thoughts.
Those of you who know me just know I was biting my tongue as best I could, after a few dismissals of the idea out of hand. Well, seeing mention of Emoto again, I got the itch to see what was really going on with those “experiments” of his. So I went and looked him up, with as open a mind as I could have given what I know about him, which I admit was not very open, but I was willing to admit a mistake if I had misjudged his claims or misunderstood them.
So this morning, I did a little reading, and it turns out he’s not a scientist at all, like I suspect he presents himself to be. (You seemed to think he was, at least, in our conversations.) He graduated with a master’s in International Relations and then got a degree from some “Alternative Medicine” school. But I feel pretty safe in assuming that he has no serious training in hard science, and he’s never published anything in a real scientific journal. He did publish photos in an alternative medicine magazine, but even that wasn’t peer-reviewed — other specialists didn’t even check it for mistakes or wrong conclusions, because it was just a photo-essay.
And besides, if you look around his site, the guy is clearly a little crazy. He thinks that when rats (and crows, and cockroaches, and lions) die, their bodies go into the astral plane with them, because otherwise it’d be an indignity for nobody to hold a funeral and bury their bodies. He actually says, “No one can disprove this.” That’s clearly the sign of a crazy man, isn’t it? See for yourself.
Anyway, I don’t know about whether he claims to be scientific about this, but it is pretty unlikely that he could be exactly scientific enough without extremely expensive equipment. Crystal formation in water is determined mainly by temperature change and circulation. Unless he had perfectly controlled conditions, and even then, it’d be very hard to demonstrate any effect on water that was from thoughts, as opposed to, say, minor differences in temperature all the way along from liquid to solid state, along with perhaps contaminant content in the water and the effects of container position and shape on circulation during the intermediate state of the water.
And anyway, finding one crystal in a bottle would mean nothing; he’d have to have a massive sample of crystals all in the same formation for his results to mean anything. After all, I could think of cats and then hunt in the snow for one snowflake that looked a little like a cat, and then declare I’d affected the snow on that day… but what about the trllions of other snowflakes?
Anyway, all of this is probably why not one other scientist has replicated the results and published them in a proper scientific journal. He hasn’t been dismissed as a maverick, it’s just not science he’s doing—it’d be like me writing a novel and then blaming musicians for not performing it in concerts. I’m sure they’d love to prove that we can purify water with only our minds, but I should think we’d all be doing it by now if it actually worked with regular, predictable success.
I know, I know, why would he lie?
Look at his tour schedule. He’s traveling all over the world and making A LOT of money all over the place, all on the basis of this “water” business. There have been people doing this forever, long enough for quacks to be in our literature and “snake-oil salesman” to actually to mean “a fraud” in English; Pardoners in the middle ages sold off pieces of pig bones as bits of Christ’s body and splinters of wood as parts of the true cross, and people then also said, “Why would he lie?”
Well, maybe he’s not lying, though the profits, judging from the Amazon page, are likely to be big just from publication alone. But set that aside and consider the lecture tours. This guy is getting invited all over the place, including, recently, to a Korean University. It’s sad that supposedly trained academics would be courting a fraud like this, and asking him for help with a water problem that is going to make Seoul very uncomfortable a few years down the road. Can’t they see how silly it is to once again give money to a snake-oil salesman?
Oh, but this time it’s Oil of Smoke, and he’s such a nice man. And socially, we’re living at a point now where people are actually starting to reject scientific fact because it’s scientific and they’ve learned from the quacks that a distrust of science is the only way to know what’s really going on. Sadly, at a time when we desperately need science as a tool to help save ourselves from all the poisons and pollutions we’ve pumped out into the world, when we need to call science to responsibly help clean up the global mess it helped to create, before catastrophe comes, most people seem to be giving up hope and turning to easier, more exciting answers to those problems.
The result will be that the quacks will be making more and more money, and the problems will fester. That’s what makes me so sick about the quacks: they’re exacting two prices: the money they get from peddling their trash, and the cost that will be paid by the generations down the road when they finally do throw that garbage aside and start looking for real, workable, realistic solutions outside the realm of fantasy. It’s a very sad thought.
As for Emoto, it seems to me the only nice thing I can say about him is that his photos are nice.
Edit: I should say that I don’t mean to hurt my parents by these comments, or anyone else who’s “into” this stuff individually. I mean, I read science-fiction and listen to jazz music played by people who’ve been dead for 20 years. To each his or her own, I suppose, in terms of entertainment and emotional edification.
The problem is, entertainment and emotional edification do not science make.
In fact, like with politics, I’m not sure a world where the whole populace were trying to be scientifically active and informed would actually work better than ours, Carl Sagan’s fond wishes aside. After all, the vast majority of anything is badly done, and I prefer therefore that there’s less bad science to weed through, instead of more.
But there’s one thing we’re lacking, which I think goes back to the Catholic domination of Europe and its eventual downfall. We no longer really have proper respect for authorities in certain subjects. I’ve known people who were miffed in University when an expert shot down their theories, even rightly so. It seemed to feel to them as if there had been an offense against their honor or freedom or something. Well, academic freedom means nothing if rigorousness is not adhered to. When someone starts going off about how The Wife of Bath is a protofeminist figure whose reading of the Bible suggests Chaucer’s empowering sympathy for the female plight in the middle ages, someone has to step in and point out that her reading is (for the Medieval audience, in terms of depictions of women) stereotypically carnal and uninformed since of course like almost all women at the time she was (to the original audience) obviously illiterate and can’t read the Bible; and that further she reads like a lift of the old hag from The Romance of the Rose, who was far from a sympathetic character.
What’s my point? This: while it’s warranted to take a realistic view of scientists as human individuals, and a critical view of applied science’s being in bed with big and often destructive businesses these days, it simply does not do to go ahead and throw all respect for science itself out; nor does it do to allow any fellow off the street to appropriate scientific credentials to his claims so easily that one doesn’t even check his background or what he’s saying against real scientific theory. That people simultaneously dismiss “official” science and yet accord to pretenders the awe and respect that are often bought by the trappings of science is a painful and ironic fact of modern life. And it makes me wonder just how badly it will affect the whole planet before we snap out of it.