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The Water Experiment

The Intention Experiment is a project run by Lynne McTaggart to “(show) the orthodox community that the power of collective thought has the ability to change the world.” She is not talking about the power of culture and belief to affect the collective actions of a society – like getting everyone to use less electricity or help reduce drunk driving. She is talking about, well – magic. This is the most basic form of magical thinking – that your thoughts can affect the physical world. This is The Secret.

McTaggart has set up a water experiment at the Pennsylvania State University’s Materials Science department to test her theory of intention. The scientists running the experiment will use a Raman Spectrometer to measure the Raman scattering of a sample of water. This is a method for measuring the molecular structure of a liquid. They will monitor the Raman scattering of the water before, during, and after McTaggart and her fellow experimenters try to affect the structure of the water with the power of their minds – their “intention.”

I have several problems with this experiment.

My biggest problem is that the purpose of the experiment seems to be, not to find out IF intention is valid, but to prove to the world that it is. McTaggart is obviously heavily invested in the notion of intention. She has placed her belief and promotion of this idea ahead of the evidence. Now she is trying to backfill the evidence in order to convince the “orthodox” community – not a subtle pejorative.

I might have been reassured as to the validity of the experiment, but my doubts increased when I learned that the scientists at U Penn who will be doing the measuring include Rustom Roy. Roy is a strong advocate of all things woo. He has used water structure pseudoscience to support the claims of homeopathy. His modus operandi is to anomaly hunt – and then declare any fluctuations as positive evidence for whatever he is looking for. To put things in perspective, Rustom Roy has declared that “the materialist paradigm is dead” because he was bamboozled by a fake faith healer (I know – that’s redundant) John of God.

With McTaggart at one end of this experience and Rustom Roy at the other – us “orthodox” scientists don’t have much reason to put any stock in the outcome.

But, while misguided, I do think Roy is sincere. He may pull off a legitimate protocol because he does want to convince the world that his water woo is correct. The question then is, how should we interpret the results – positive or negative. McTaggart has already said what she will do. If positive – that will take us a step closer to proving her intention nonsense is true. If negative, however:

That doesn’t necessarily mean intention doesn’t work. The greatest challenge of the scientific method is determining why something works or why it fails. A failure can suggest myriad possibilities.

This is strictly true, but her emphasis is telling. If positive, she argues – there is only one way to interpret the results, but if negative we have to consider all the myriad reasons other than that her hypothesis is simply wrong. Of course, a skeptic would turn that around. If positive, the experiment can have any number of explanations – many of which are far more likely than concluding that magic is real. If negative, however, that is evidence against the intention hypothesis. The default position for legitimate science is that a new hypothesis is not true until there is some reliable evidence for it. We don’t continue to assume that it is true, despite negative evidence. It is legitimate to consider the limitations of your experiment, and no one experiment is definitive – but when we start with a firm belief, this can quickly degenerate into special pleading – making endless excuses for negative studies and the absence of convincing evidence.

Another way to look at this is to consider the prior probability that intention magic is real, and then consider how the new information gathered from this experiment affects that probability. If we have an extremely small prior probability, then one positive experiment will not affect that very much – we will still have a low, if slightly increased, probability. If the prior probability is effectively zero (as close as we can come in science) then nothing but the most rock solid and unequivocal experiment, with reliable reproducibility, will change the probability. This is because the impact of the new experiment has to be at least equal to all the previous experiments and observations that make the hypothesis low probability in the first place. If we have a mountain of evidence on one side of the scale, you can’t place a pebble on the other side and declare victory.

Of note – Rustom Roy has also criticized the entire notion of prior probability. In response to my criticism of homeopathy concerning its low probability, Roy dragged out that old canard that – science is about discovering what is new, therefore there is no consideration of plausibility. He even tried the sleazy debating trick of tagging the notion of scientific plausibility as “my” theory. That’s right, Roy – I made that up.

In the end I predict this experiment will affect nothing, regardless of the outcome. If negative, the skeptics will yawn and the true believers, including McTaggart and Roy, will make excuses. If positive, the believers will declare victory, an the skeptics will yawn – more anomaly hunting nonsense from the purveyors of woo. If these experimenters seriously wanted to convince the “orthodox” scientists, they should have transparently involved some skeptics and neutral scientists.

The actual experiment was run yesterday, April 26th. I anxiously (yawn) await the results.

7 comments to The Water Experiment

  • I have to say, Steve, that this is awesome.

    “That doesn’t necessarily mean intention doesn’t work.”

    Like you’ve said so many times on the SGU, stuff like this is so stupid that you can’t even make fun of it. I tried to come up with some other wild nonsense to hyperbolize, but the actual claim made here just blows anything else “out of the water,” so to speak.

    Just because there’s no evidence, that doesn’t mean it’s not real? Give me a break…

  • ellazimm

    And who is paying for this? Not me thankfully, I live in England. Honestly, I’d look into invoking separation of church and state.

  • physicsguy23

    Just out of curiosity, is this experiment happening at Pennsylvania State University, or the University of Pennsylvania?

  • Jim Shaver


    …stuff like this is so stupid that you can’t even make fun of it.

    Can’t make fun of it? Can’t make fun of it?! Dude, you’re giving up too easily. Don’t fret, maybe you just need a little inspiration to keep you on your game. Er, well, I don’t know, try this:


  • Is this the same as the “emotions trapped in water” thing in that horrible “What the @#$% Do We Know” movie? The sad thing is that most people eat it up.

  • You might be being a bit hard on them, Steve. At the Intention Experiment webpage you link to they’ll sell you “The Intention Experiment conference DVD set:
    Re-live two days that made history with this wonderful 3-DVD set.”
    for the low low price of UK£29.95 (US$59). Everybody knows that real scientists sell DVDs instead of writing boring “papers” to be published in boring “journals”. Science progresses by the sale of DVD sets, right? Oh, no, hang on…

  • Chris Noble

    The intentional vagueness of the experiment guarantees its success.

    They aren’t specifying what they are specifically measuring in the experiment.

    They aren’t specifying in advance what is going to specifically change with “intention”.

    This means that anything that changes can be construed as evidence. Any parameter that goes up or down will be a change.

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