From Abracadabra to Zombies
A review of
Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What
a film by Renée Scheltema
April 2010. Renée Scheltema calls her film a "spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena." As such, the film is more poem than documentary, a panegyric to psi scientists and people of faith. Much of the film is devoted to its central cast waxing poetic about their views on psi, consciousness, quantum physics, and the interconnectedness of things. Of course film is more conducive to anecdotes than to science, and this "journey into science" is no exception. What compels are the anecdotes and the visual beauty of the film, not the science behind the poetry. There are a few scenes devoted to illustrating the kind of science the cast engages in, but mostly the film provides a bully pulpit for parapsychologists, New Age healers, and self-promoting "psychics" and tricksters. Many of the big names in psi research are featured, each making grand claims about the work of parapsychologists. One key claim repeated throughout the film is that psi research has brought together science and the atavistic yearning for what Buddhists call nirvana. The main players in this film obviously long for transcending their individual consciousnesses and uniting with the reality external to their bodies. They call themselves scientists, but their metaphysical longings cloud their objectivity, making their science suspect. Their quest drives them to use science as a vehicle to validate what Charles Tart describes as a "yearning for something higher than simple material gratification, something 'spiritual.'"
Each member of the cast was given ample time to recite his poem about how he thinks each individual consciousness is a "field" or some mysterious entity that transcends the brain and is interconnected with everything that exists. Some bring in concepts from quantum physics to illustrate this belief (e.g., entanglement and non-locality) and to offer a possible explanation for how psi works. No one in the film expresses any doubts about the reality of psychic phenomena. Most of the central cast claim to either have psychic powers or to have proven they exist in their own scientific experiments.
The viewer is led to believe that the film is a documentary and a personal quest that was inspired by two apparently precognitive experiences, one involving Scheltema's daughter and the other involving her father and a phone call. Given the many extraordinary claims people have made that have led them to believe in the paranormal, Scheltema's experiences seem tepid and not very mysterious to this viewer. My intuition tells me that there was another motivation for doing the film, but I'm not as confident in my intuitive abilities as most of the folks she interviews. The film is called a documentary, but it doesn't document anything except the personal views of a dozen or more believers in psi. The various segments of the film are held together thematically by the humorous intrusion throughout of the grand question: can a spoon be bent psychokinetically? In fact, the idea of bending spoons occurs so frequently in the film that a cynic might suggest that Uri Geller funded it. In any case, the film is too one-sided to pass as a serious quest for the truth about apparently psychic experiences.
In an e-mail exchange, Scheltema told me that she put up most of the money for the film and that she had talked to skeptics. "Most of them said the same: it's not true." I wanted to make a film about the evidence." Of course, it's her film and she's free to make any kind of film she wants. This film, however, is about part of the evidence, the part that validates Tart's yearning for "something higher than simple material gratification." I will only comment that there are many things known that are doing things we understand, and that knowledge is way higher than simple material gratification.
Before reviewing the cast and their panegyric orations, I want to point out two errors in the film. The first is expressed by Scheltema herself when she claims that 33% of all healings occur because people believe they'll be healed. This is a gross distortion of what is known about belief, the power of suggestion, and the placebo effect. Scheltema may be basing her claim on the discredited work of H. K. Beecher. We know that suggestion and belief both play a role in some healings, but I challenge Scheltema to produce the data backing up her claim.
Another error is stated by Larry Dossey regarding the scientific evidence for healing prayer. Dossey has been misleading his followers about prayer since at least 1993 (when his book Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine was published). Dossey says that there are at least twenty studies that show healing prayer works. What he doesn't say is that there have been at least a half-dozen studies of high quality that have found no evidence for healing prayer. I doubt that Dossey is unaware of the recent studies on healing prayer and one can only guess as to why he continues to cite only the poorest designed studies and ignore all the well designed studies.
The title of the film is a quote from Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), a scientist whose work overshadows anything accomplished by the scientists featured in Scheltema's film. The movie title seems to have been inspired by Dossey, who has the Eddington quote carved into beams in his residence (?) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eddington is a favorite of New Agers who have any knowledge of the history of the quantum physics they profess to understand as supporting belief in psi. Eddington didn't think science could prove religious notions, but he argued for a harmony between modern physics and religious mysticism. One can only wonder pointlessly whether Eddington would have given his imprimatur to the speculative musings of the likes of Gary or Stephan Schwartz. In any case, when Eddington said that "something unknown is doing we don't know what," he was commenting on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. He wasn't speculating about conscious energy fields that connect everything in the universe, as Scheltema's cast are wont to do.
the weaker figures
The quality of Scheltema's witnesses for psi varies from the laughable to those worth taking seriously. Among the laughable are her inclusion of Nancy Myer, Dr. David Dosa, Jack Houk, Rebecca Good, John of God, and Deepak Chopra's publicist.
Nancy Myer comes across as a channeler of Sylvia Browne. Her reputation precedes her. She makes stuff up, makes extravagant claims about her abilities and how she has "assisted" police in hundreds of cases. She's cynical and doesn't care who she hurts by her speculations. On a positive note, Scheltema asked Myer if she could locate Osama bin Laden. Myer deadpanned that she wouldn't answer that question on film because she'd be killed.
David Dosa makes claims about a cat named Oscar who possesses death-predicting ability. Most of the "evidence" for Oscar's abilities seems to be little more than anthropomorphizing by people who count the hits (selective thinking and selective memory) and don't seem too interested in observing any misses: a classic case of confirmation bias and shoddy science. Dosa is a laughingstock among real doctors, but he got a book out of the publicity surrounding his "anecdotes."
Jack Houk was thoroughly debunked and exposed by Penn and Teller in Bullshit! Season 1, episode 10. The debunking seems to have been good for business. If Penn and Teller thought that exposing Houk as a deluded idiot whose customers are as dumb as he is would diminish his business, they were greatly mistaken.
Rebecca Good is brought in for an anecdote used to validate therapeutic touch, a practice that has been thoroughly discredited as a form of energy healing and whose satisfied customers have been explained by the same mechanisms that explain other forms of faith healing:
Most cases of faith healing need no cure, since most patients will get better even if they receive no treatment at all (Hines 2003). Some serious ailments like cancer and multiple sclerosis abate for months or years for reasons we don't understand (Nickell 1993: 134). There is an "impressive variety of ... ailments, ranging from back pains to hysterical blindness, [that] are known to be highly responsive to the power of suggestion." The "main requisite for curative effects" is "the patient's belief in the practitioner's assurances." And, having a positive attitude seems to enhance the body's healing capacities (Nickell 1993: 134).
The majority of faith healings are successful because of the cooperation of healer and patient. Working together, believing in the treatment, strongly desiring the treatment to work, not only can relieve stress and bring about the curative effects of the power of suggestion, it can lead the patient to give testimony that is exaggerated or even false in the desire to get well and to please the healer. The power of subjective validation is enormous and essential to many, if not most, faith healings.
Eric Pearl is a chiropractor who invented something he calls reconnective healing, which I noted in passing in a newsletter. He contributes very little to the film.
Larry Sofer is identified as a magician and a healer. He did a nice trick with a spoon, but his appearance seems superfluous.
The inclusion in the film of an unchallenged João Teixeira de Faria, who calls himself John of God, is reprehensible. His tricks have been exposed and finding a couple of people who are impressed with him could lead some desperate and seriously ill people to add to their suffering and financial burden by going to Brazil in search of a miracle cure.
One heavyweight among the promoters of psi, healing prayer, and the non-existent "quantum healing" was missing. Deepak Chopra is not featured in Something Unknown, but his publicist is interviewed to provide an anecdote about her and Chopra's alleged telepathic abilities.
Among those interviewed who might be considered heavyweights in the field of psi research and promotion are: Charles Tart, Dean Radin, Roger Nelson, Gary Schwartz, Rupert Sheldrake, Hal Puthoff, Edgar Mitchell, Stephan Schwartz, and Larry Dossey. (One might consider El Santuario de Chimayó a heavyweight. The church in New Mexico is America's answer to Lourdes and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Instead of water, pilgrims claim the dirt has healing power. There's a lot of faith and dirt in New Mexico.)
S. Schwartz has an impressive vitae and I regret he's been unknown to me until now. He is listed as a preeminent researcher in the field of remote viewing, whose specialty is psychic archeology. He's even escaped the notice of the thousands of writers who fill up the pages of Wikipedia, so I don't feel too badly about not being aware of him heretofore. Anyway, I can't comment on his work because I am unfamiliar with it, but I can note that he is one of several in the film who asserts his belief that all consciousness is interconnected.
I have read Larry Dossey and discussed his work in my course on Critical Thinking about the Paranormal. In addition to his deception about healing prayer studies, Dossey has come to my attention for claiming that a transplant recipient's craving for beer is due to the intermingling of the consciousness of the donor and the recipient. The "consciousness of the donor had fundamentally united with the consciousness of the recipient enabling the recipient to gain information from the donor." Perhaps, Dossey mused, organ recipients enter into a realm of consciousness where information about another person can be accessed through the Universal Mind. Perhaps, but is there a simpler explanation? (Is it a coincidence that Deepak Chopra mused the very same thing?) Though Dossey is trained in modern scientific medicine, he seems to value more highly the ideas that current Native Americans in his area have about their ancestors' healing practices.
One of the common threads put forth by the heavyweights is an idea reminiscent of the Transcendentalists' notion of the connection between the All-Soul and individual souls. Of course, the unscientific term 'soul' is never used. That would make these scientists sound like theologians. Instead they prefer the word 'consciousness,' and each considers his work as providing a fundamental understanding of the nature of consciousness. Not mentioned by Scheltema is the fact that the vast majority of scientists and philosophers doing work on aspects of consciousness do not consider the work of the heavyweights to be of any interest. Their names and work rarely pop up in the scientific literature on consciousness. The reason for this is that very few scientists or philosophers working on the nature of consciousness think the paranormal or the spirit world has anything of interest to reveal about consciousness. Susan Blackmore notes in her book Consciousness: An Introduction (2004) that “most of what we have learned so far [in studying consciousness]….seems to point away” from the existence of minds that are separate from brains that can magically affect the world. “Parapsychology,” she says, “Seems to be growing further away from the progress and excitement of the rest of consciousness studies.” You would not know this if Scheltema's self-promoters were the only scientists you were exposed to.
None of the heavyweights provide any new evidence for their claims. If you are at all familiar with their work, you have heard it all before. I am not going to repeat here what I've written in dozens of Skeptic's Dictionary entries, blog postings, essays, and book reviews. I will, however, provide a list below of pieces I have written that are relevant to various individuals who make up the cast of Something Unknown.
The film will undoubtedly find a favorable audience among those who already believe in telepathy, clairvoyance (remote viewing), precognition, telekinesis, and energy healing. The film may appeal as well to those who haven't a strong opinion on these matters and who are so uncritical as to not realize that there must be another side to these stories. Skeptics will not be enticed to change their minds by what is presented here because all of it has been presented before and none of it has withstood the rigors of critical examination. I reviewed the film not because I was looking for something to debunk, but because the filmmaker wrote me and asked if I would like a complimentary copy and said "it would be nice if you could review it." I wanted to see the film for the same reason I wanted to read Charles Tart's latest book The End of Materialism: I try to practice what I preach. For thirty years I told my students that critical thinking requires that one seek and take seriously the arguments of those who disagree with them. There was nothing in Something Unknown, however, that has led me to rethink my position on psi, consciousness, or the likelihood of energy fields that interconnect everybody and everything.
The reader might wonder why Scheltema would want me to review her film. I have been a longtime critic of most of the heavyweights she features and the odds were great that I would not write a favorable review. I wondered the same thing. She told me that she didn't know I was a skeptic and had asked me to review the film on the advice of her partner in The Netherlands.
about the filmmaker
Renée Scheltema not only produced the film, she did most of the camera work, as well. She has worked for 25 years as a director, producer, and camera-person for Dutch television. She is also a professional photographer. Her excellent skills in these areas are evident in the quality of the cinematography in Something Unknown. We're told that she "basically filmed, produced, and edited this journey on her own. No crew accompanied her."
It is easy to understand why Tart, G. Schwartz, and Dossey praise the film as "courageous," "fair," and "educational." They're given a free pass to say whatever they want without being questioned. If you want to look at the whole picture regarding psi and the interconnectedness of consciousness with all things, you'll have to supplement this film with some reading.
For those who would like to read what the critics have to say about the work of the stars of Something Unknown, I suggest the following:
What if Gary Schwartz is Right? by Robert T. Carroll
Gary Schwartz's Subjective Validation of Mediums by Robert T. Carroll
A Novel Way to Make an Ass of Yourself - Gary Schwartz Rides Again by Robert T. Carroll
My review of Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality (search for staring effect)
The Skeptic's Dictionary entry for quantum hologram
Dr. David Dosa
João Teixeira de Faria (John of God)
The Skeptic's Dictionary entry for John of God
'John of God’: Healings by Entities? by Joe Nickell (Nickell goes undercover and poses a pilgrim seeking a miracle cure from “John of God”.)
James Randi's The Faith Healers
But the news said psychics are real! (search for Myer)
For those who would like a more complete picture of the topics addressed by Scheltema, I suggest the following:
Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.
and the following entries from The Skeptic's Dictionary
anomalistic psychology, clairaudience, decline effect, displacement, ESP, experimenter effect, ganzfeld, magical thinking, Raymond Moody, Nostradamus, optional starting and stopping, parapsychology, past life regression, psi-missing, psychic surgery, psychometry, James Randi Foundation psychic challenge, retrocognition, and séance.