Dec 03 2012

The Higgs and Wishful Thinking

“I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”
– Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley.

Self-help books are full of advice for thinking positively, and using affirmations to tell ourselves that the reality we wish to be true is in fact true. This is interesting because psychologists have discovered that people in general have a large positive cognitive bias – a wishful thinking bias. All other things being equal, we will tend to assume that what we wish to be true is actually true. Sometimes we can maintain this belief despite significant contradictory evidence.

It may be that this bias exists because it relieves cognitive dissonance. Essentially, it makes us feel better, and that may be sufficient. However, there is also a theory that such wishful or positive thinking is, to an extent, self-fulfilling. People who think they will be successful will take advantage of opportunities and work harder to make that success a reality. Expectations can even affect other people, the so-called Pygmalian effect. If teachers believe that a student will perform better, that expectation may improve the student’s performance.

Richard Wiseman points out, however, that visualizing the goal (“I am a success in my business”) does not work (so much for positive affirmations). What is helpful is visualizing the process by which a goal can be achieved.

Within the “New Age” spiritual community, however, this psychological discussion over the impact of positive or wishful thinking is all moot. Within this community there is the widely held belief, or at least claim, that wishful thinking does not just create a successful attitude – it actually alters reality. This belief reached its pinnacle, perhaps, in the widely successful book, The Secret. This book promoted what it called the “Law of Attraction” – that wishing something to be true attracted that very thing to you. Essentially the secret is that the universe will answer your wishes – so wish away.

This is literally a childish attitude. Children often behave as if asking hard enough of the universe for something might produce the thing wished-for. Most adults have learned that the universe does not work this way – or perhaps they have just learned to hide this childish desire that they still harbor. They use their better developed frontal lobes to rationalize what they wish to be true (manifesting as a positive cognitive bias).  Reframing this wish-fulfillment desire as a “law” makes it sound a bit more respectable, however.  The Secret, and other such nonsense, in essence just gave some adults permission to embrace their childhood wish-fulfillment fantasy.

What does all this have to do with the Higgs boson?

A recent article by Mike Adams on his website, Divinity Now (Exploring Conscious Cosmology) argues that the scientists who “discovered” the Higgs actually got the results they wished for through “intention” – the word used by believers to refer to wishing, again to make it sound a bit more respectable. And yes – that is the same Mike Adams of NaturalNews infamy – the crank site that promotes, in my opinion, all sorts of medical pseudoscience. Apparently Adams is branching out into consciousness pseudoscience.

He writes:

But that assumption may be fundamentally incorrect for the simple reason that all known scientific knowledge has been gathered under a critical selection bias… the “consciousness” bias. The consciousness of intelligent, self-aware observers may actually shift the results of seemingly “random” events into the direction imagined or visualized by the conscious observers — even without their intending to alter the data. There is evidence that this phenomenon is, in fact, quite real, making it one of the “spooky” realities of our mysterious cosmos.

Adams does not link to any such evidence, but if his other articles are any indication he is likely referring to things like the recent book by Eben Alexander claiming “proof of heaven.”In other words, he is referring to low-grade evidence that has been thoroughly debunked. In fact “intention” is not an accepted scientific phenomenon. It remains a fringe idea without compelling evidence.

Adams is arguing in this new article that the scientists who found evidence for the Higgs affected the outcome of the random events that made up the collisions they were observing in the CERN supercollider to create evidence for the Higgs. He is not arguing fraud, or even bias, but that their intention altered reality. In fact he argues that all of science is, to some extent, one massive intention experiment where scientists “discover” what they are looking for. Since we cannot do science without scientists, the intention of those scientists is always in the loop. All of science, therefore, may be the result of wish-fulfillment, and not a process of discovering how the universe actually works.

Nice – all of science denied with one stroke. Adams is not the first crank to suggest this idea, which crops up from time-to-time in the fringe community.

This suggestion, however, is profoundly ignorant of the actual history of science, which is one long story of scientists discovering that what they thought about the universe is not true. Scientists have been failing to discover what they expect, or intend, since the beginning of science, forcing them to change their thinking about how the universe works. If there were any truth to “intention” as it applies to science, then we would likely believe that health is a product of the four humors, that a light-bearing ether permeates the universe, that N-rays exist, that mankind is the center of the universe, and that oxygen has negative mass (which is why it rises). The list of discarded ideas in science is massive. They are discarded because the results of careful experiments contradicted what scientists expected to find.

If, as Adams suggests, science itself is a big experiment in intention, then the results of that meta-experiment are clear – the intention of scientists has been consistently thwarted over the centuries, providing significant evidence for the absence of any intention effect.

Belief in the power of intention, or the law of attraction, or whatever you call it, is perhaps the biggest wish-fulfillment bias of all. Believing that wishing works is itself a manifestation of wishful thinking, and nothing more.

17 responses so far

17 thoughts on “The Higgs and Wishful Thinking”

  1. Ori Vandewalle says:

    Au contraire, good doctor, you’re ignoring the very real possibility that scientists who discovered things they didn’t expect to find may have subconsciously been wishing to find what they ultimately did find, as opposed to what they said they wanted to find.

    The real flaw in Adams’ argument is that he expected to find scientists finding what they expected to find, and that desire of his altered scientific history so that he did, indeed, find that. It’s only true because he says it is.

  2. locutusbrg says:

    Based on Adams illogic, then a negative study is what? Maybe the scientist did not have enough faith in his hypothesis for it to come out right?
    Great post, this guy watched the matrix one too many times. I can Adams sitting there and saying there is no spoon.

  3. EO says:

    What a bizarre, awful, and incredibly negative way to look at the universe. A way to just obliterate not just the history of science in one stroke, but also the history of struggle and triumph that defines the character of humanity.

    If you take this view further, apply it to the history of slavery, or the history of war, are you not in effect saying that people wanted to be slaves, that children longed to be the causalities of war?

    I imagine that law-of-attraction style thinking sounds good when you talk about focusing your intentions on getting a raise, or a date, or even on some level making discoveries about the universe, but wow the ramifications if such thinking were true would be really horrible.

  4. Ori – I disagree. First – that is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, for no matter what the result of any experiment you can just say that is what the scientist intended (even if subconsciously).

    But – you miss the scope of what I am talking about. It’s not just that scientists found unexpected results, but their entire view of reality was challenged by science. Scientists have had to come up with entirely new ways to view reality in order to accommodate empirical evidence.

    In other words – the “intention” hypothesis is just incompatible with the occasional “paradigm shifts” that occur in science. The subconscious is not sufficient to account for this.

  5. steve12 says:

    I knew those clowns at the Tevatron didn’t really care enough….

  6. Bronze Dog says:

    I remember a quote that went something like this: “The great breakthroughs in science were generally not accompanied with cries of ‘Eureka!’ but with ‘That’s funny.'”

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    Incredible. So scientists are creating reality. This computer I’m using is the ultimate wish fullfillment of all the scientists who have ever lived. Before consciousness arrived on the scene, the potential for computers was presumably precluded by the laws of physics.

    Besides a link with the higgs boson, there is also a link with evolution. There is a fringe group who for thirty years or so have been fruitlessly trying to insert ‘intention’ into the evolutionary process via non-random mutation. Bacteria mutate their genomes towards desired ends!

    And, of course, we have the misunderstanding in quantum physics that consciousness causes collapse of the wave function, which has persisted despite no one in a hundred years of trying ever demonstrating that this interpretation has any basis in fact.

    The problem is consciousness.

    Consciousness is the last remaining mystery and the fringe-dwellers are going to make the most of it while that mystery remains. In the mean time, scientists will continue to do what they have always done: push back the barriers of ignorance.

  8. SARA says:

    I wonder why hundreds of obsessed alchemists were never able to make lead into gold. They definitely were committed to that intention. They believed. Still never happened.

    Why didn’t Harold Camping and hundreds/thousands of other false end of world prophets. who believed sincerely, didn’t cause the end of the world.

    Why don’t stalker’s victims love them?

    Why isn’t there magic, like Merlin did?

    Since evidence isn’t necessary to the secret’s hypothesis, so I suppose it will just take some creative thinking to come up with some form of exception to explain the lack of results from some very focused and sincere believers/wishers.

  9. Factoidjunkie says:

    The automatic mind (Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 thinking system) is susceptible to a wide range of “snake oil.” Each generation has had to keep pace with modern technology and scientific discovery in order to improve their snake oil. Those who partake in this “intention science” approach are no different than those who used to peddle simplistic positive thinking and prior to that a host of remedies (some of them actually labeled snake oil) that had the appearance of science or simply borrowed scientific jargon.

    I wonder if we started critical thinking skills in pre-school if we could help future generations deal more effectively with the non-useful aspects of the automatic mind.

  10. tmac57 says:

    Of course,if we are ‘living’ in a simulated universe,then all bets are off I suppose.

  11. Fabulous! No chance this Mike Adams is some relation to a fellow by the name of Douglas, is there? If so, perhaps he’s pulling our collective legs. It would explain a lot:

    “He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.”

    ― Life, the Universe and Everything

    “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
    There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

    ― The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

  12. Guy says:

    wow wow wow, it’s not that other scientists wanted to fail it’s just that they weren’t in tune with the force enough to bend reality to their will.

    But seriously, it’s the “God of the Gaps” argument from bizarro world. We have a gap in our knowledge, we explore it and if we find something we’re God?

  13. Jared Olsen says:

    Bronze Dog, that’s a quote by Isaac Asimov…
    I’m ashamed to belong to the country that brought the world “The Secret”

  14. SteveA says:

    I heard a theory that sightings of yetis, bigfoots etc were the product of anthropologists and evolutionary scientists really, really, really wanting to find the ‘missing link’.

    They wanted it and…poof. It appeared. Voila.

  15. Ori Vandewalle says:

    Dr. Novella: My hypothesis is only unfalsifiable because you want it to be. If you wished hard enough, I’m sure you’d find a way to disprove it.

  16. jre says:

    As I never tire of pointing out when the subject of Mike Adams comes up, this is the same ninny whose all-natural lifestyle conferred upon him a suite of superpowers, including “Photo-reading books at the speed of one page per second.”
    The thought of asking for a demo does not seem to have occurred to anyone.

  17. dave martyn says:

    I think he needs to run for office,

    Mike Adams, he uses 20% of his brain, maybe more…

    Mike Adams, he instantly grasped the “big picture” of homeopathy…

    Mike Adams, he took up gymnastics at age 34!

    Mike Adams, he remembers his credit card numbers!

    Mike Adams is a superlearning machine.

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