My close encounter of the third kind
It was in 2007, on a hot and sunny afternoon, that I had my first contact with the alien. Don’t worry, this alien was not from any other planet, parallel universe, or another dimension. It was just a foreigner, more precisely an American from Salt Lake City, Utah. He was one of the owners of the English language school franchise where I worked and had prepared a presentation that “would change our lives.” My fellow teachers and I were curious, and when we entered the multimedia room, he put on the movie “The Secret.” Funny how our memory works. I vividly remember the sensation of having discovered something phenomenal and also a colleague saying the words “quantum mechanics.”
We discussed the idea of the movie, which also became a book, for half an hour. The so-called secret was based on something called the Law of Attraction. You need only create a thought in your brain and everything can materialize or manifest. Positive thoughts bring positive things to our lives. Negative thoughts attract negative things. What gave a certain scientific feel to the whole thing was the testimony of apparently qualified people and the association with theories and concepts of physics, including quantum mechanics. If I wanted to find a parking spot, I simply had to think positively, and the universe would pick up the message and send vibrations to guide me to the exact location where I would find that spot. This logic claims that the bad things that happen to me are the product of my negative thoughts – including illnesses.
I was 21 years old in 2007, and the idea fascinated me. I remember being influenced by it for a brief period - but maybe it was because I am already optimistic. The problem is that none of this is true. None of this actually works. Many people have been using the label “quantum” to talk about the power of the mind and of thought. Deepak Chopra, a guru of the New Age movement, and author of several books on the brain and well-being, even went so far as to say that there is something he calls quantum healing, capable of delaying or reversing aging and curing diseases like cancer – just with the power of thought. And he got old.
Quantum Mechanics: My Gross Oversimplification
The thing is: quantum mechanics has nothing to do with it. It emerged in the early 20th century from the works of Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and others as they studied how extremely small things work. We are talking about the atomic and subatomic levels. One of the most fascinating discoveries of this branch of physics is the so-called wave-particle duality. Running the risk of oversimplification - and I apologize in advance, we can say that particles can behave like waves and vice versa depending on observation. However, particles such as electrons have mass, a defined shape, and occupy space. On the other hand, waves like sound or light have no mass or defined position.
Another interesting concept is the quantum leap, which is an abrupt transition of an electron, atom, or molecule from one quantum state to another with the absorption or emission of a quantum. Let’s consider an example. We can say, in simpler terms, that a quantum leap occurs when an electron gains an amount of energy and jumps to a higher energy level orbit. The intriguing thing is that the jump itself does not seem "to exist", or at least cannot be detected. The electron seems to simply disappear from its orbit and reappear in the next, like a magic trick. Again, I am definitely oversimplifying the concepts here.
Finally, there is the idea of quantum entanglement, also called “spooky action at a distance.” It is a property that allows two quantum particles to be intrinsically linked in such a way that the state of one affects the state of the other, even if they are far apart. This property is one of the most intriguing and important characteristics of quantum mechanics and has profound implications for quantum communication and computing.
What does all of this have to do with our thoughts, the materialization of our desires, and the manifestation of our dreams? Nothing. Nothing observable or measurable. These quantum theories are based on tests and formulas derived from these experiments with subatomic particles, atoms, and waves of light. We are made up of atoms that come together into molecules and form cells, tissues, organs, and finally our organisms, but the laws of quantum physics do not apply directly in the macroscopic world.
However, many people from the esoteric and New Age movement have appropriated quantum jargon to explain the "supernatural". These people say that just by meditating or thinking positively, they can transform particles into energy or vibrations and, like an antenna, attract good things to themselves. As Gabriela Bailas, a theoretical particle physicist from the University of Clermont-Auvergne in France, explains:
Quantum physics will not cure anything and has nothing to do with people’s emotions or energies. It is wrong to use the term quantum in anything that promises healing or something like that
This is called pseudoscience and all of this can cause more harm than we can imagine.
Pseudoscience: from astrology to homeopathy to Gwyneth Paltrow
Pseudoscience is a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in today’s society, and its dangers are not to be neglected. This concept can be defined as the assertion or propagation of ideas or theories that appear to be scientific but have no proven scientific basis, or even worse, that directly contradict established scientific knowledge. This happens in various areas such as medicine, psychology, biology, physics, education, and many others.
One example is homeopathy, which claims that highly diluted substances can cure diseases, even when there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim. Furthermore, many rigorous scientific studies have shown that homeopathy is not effective in treating any disease beyond the placebo effect, which is a positive response that occurs due to the person’s belief that they are receiving an effective treatment, even if the treatment itself has no real therapeutic effect. It is obvious that there are people who argue that the lack of evidence for homeopathy is related to methodological problems in the studies, however, the truth is that homeopathy does not have a solid scientific basis and, therefore, should not be considered a legitimate medical practice.
We can also mention astrology, which basically asserts that the movement of planets at the time of a person’s birth can influence their personality, life, and destiny. Again, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. On the other hand, many rigorous scientific studies have shown that astrology is not capable of predicting future events or describing personality traits accurately beyond randomness. Physics also describes in detail the movement of celestial bodies and their impacts on other celestial bodies in the solar system and in the galaxy. In other words, astrology should not be considered a legitimate scientific or medical practice.
The great danger of pseudoscience is that it can lead people to believe in false and miraculous solutions that promise to cure diseases, increase intelligence, improve performance or productivity, and even help them earn the first million using scientifically unproven methods. Often, these pseudoscientific practices are sold as more effective alternatives to conventional treatments, which can lead people to abandon proven treatments in favor of dubious and potentially harmful health solutions.
An iconic case was the so-called “cancer pill” from the University of São Paulo, phosphoethanolamine. It was described as a miraculous drug and created turbulence in the lives of many people and in Brazilian science. It has even been called a national shame and a police case simply because it didn’t work and led many people to fight tooth and nail to get the “holy remedy.” Leo Costa, an advocate for scientific literacy, explained in an interview one of the great dangers of treatments not based on scientific evidence and “miraculous” cures. They reach the most vulnerable people, those who are desperate, and often make things worse. He reminds us that nothing is truly 100% effective and the dose makes the poison.
Everything is amplified when there is the endorsement of a celebrity or an influencer. I don’t know if you knew this, but the famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow is known for promoting and defending various forms of pseudoscience and controversial alternative therapies on her website and online store called Goop. Among the products and practices promoted by Goop, we can find crystal therapy for healing and heavy metal detox for example. In addition, Paltrow has been criticized by doctors and health experts for promoting misleading and unscientific information on topics such as vaccines, diets, and mental health.
An El País Brasil article that cites the industry Gwyneth Paltrow is part of says the following:
Shamans on Instagram: the invasion of pseudoscience influencers
A legion of stylish young women combines the narrative of ‘female empowerment’ with the business of pseudoscience. Followers of ‘wellness’ create a new genre of healers that feeds on activism mixed with spells or ‘healing’ stones.
The pseudosciences worth mentioning are:
Flat Earth theory
Psychoanalysis – this does not mean all types of therapy
Clairvoyance – psychics
Ozone Therapy – when not used as an antiseptic
Arcturian Multidimensional Healing
Ufology – and the idea that aliens helped build the pyramids
Some of these are less harmful than others or not entirely nonsense and, of course, there are controversies. Much of Freud’s work, for example, which gave rise to psychoanalysis and psychodynamics, had immeasurable value for the advancement of psychiatry and psychology. However, Freud doesn’t explain everything – as the popular saying goes. Some examples are his obsession with sexuality and his theories about it, including it as a cause of neuroses, his categorization of the three psychic instances in conflict, the id, the ego, and the superego (portrayed popularly as the little devil and the little angel on each shoulder). There is no evidence supporting many of his theories, or they simply do not allow for something essential to science: falsifiability, that is, the ability of a theory or hypothesis to be tested and potentially refuted through experiments or observations.
One of the main characteristics of science is the possibility of being put to the test and ensuring predictions that can be observed and measured (quantitatively or qualitatively) in some way. This requires rigor, which is allowed by the scientific method, and plausibility. Science is far from dogmatic or absolute truth. As new evidence appears, new experiments are conducted, new paradigms are questioned, and a new scientific consensus is created. Pseudoscience does not take well to questioning, testing, or the scientific method itself. Pseudoscience places itself above all of this because it claims that the observable world and objective reality are not enough – there is something mystical behind all of it.
Lack of scientific literacy and denialism: A challenge for education
There is ignorance or a lack of scientific literacy – or simply choosing comfort brought by belief in something. Not everything causes so much harm. In the private world, each person is entitled to their belief. Belief in pseudosciences may be related to the comfort that people feel in finding simple and convincing explanations for complex phenomena. In addition, these beliefs are often based on cognitive biases, such as the famously known confirmation bias, which can lead people to seek and value evidence that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, ignoring contrary evidence. This can lead to the creation of unfounded beliefs that are difficult to change, even when confronted with scientific evidence to the contrary.
The problem arises when this reaches curricula, politics and policy, and begins to impact the community. Take the proliferation of pseudoscience in English Language Teaching for instance. It is a worrying trend that is affecting both the profession and the students who are looking to learn the language. The lack of training and expertise in language teaching among many of these so-called "English gurus" is alarming, as they are offering "innovative methods" that have not been backed up by scientific/academic research.
The methods proposed by these English gurus are often secretive and lack transparency, with little to no published research in reputable journals. They also tend to say things like "no grammar", "be fluent in just a few months", "traditional schools have been deceiving you", "learn better with native speaker teachers", "easy and fun, little effort needed". The emphasis is often placed on shortcuts and easy-to-use formulas, promising fast results without any effort or hard work. This type of approach not only undermines the integrity of the profession but also creates false expectations among students who are constantly looking for a quick fix, leading to disappointment and frustration when the promised results do not materialize.
We are living in the era of social media and the great problem and danger that all countries face is science denialism. Not only do influencers spread fake news and distort the scientific consensus but many times government officials systematically attack science. To combat denialists and obscurantists who spread help pseudoscience thrive, our best tool is an educated population, made of a generation of students who understand the importance of science and are educated in the scientific method and become ethical citizens who understand the consequences of using science to do good or evil.
One of my favorite books was written by one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. Carl Sagan wrote “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" and conveyed a powerful message in his chapter about a dragon in the garage. In short, the chapter reflects on how we should remain skeptical about someone’s claim that there is a dragon in their garage, after proposing every possible idea to empirically test the person’s proposition only to be confronted by their justifications - or excuses - that make their idea impossible to test, and thus unfalsifiable.
So, what can we do in this scenario? I think the following statement given by Adriane Wasko, a Brazilian biologist and geneticist, can show us the way:
In other words, we need to fight for science itself. And that is driving us more and more. Scientists are dedicating themselves more and more to dissemination efforts to combat denialism, anti-science, and fake news.
Who doesn’t remember the tireless scientists during the pandemic trying to combat the countless fake news and “alternative treatments” that emerged from basically everywhere? That’s what I want to see more often. I want to see serious and educated people gaining more prominence in the media and on social networks. The distance between the population and science favors the spread of pseudosciences and the increase in denialism. Academia can be quite elitist and needs to communicate better with those who have low levels of instruction, scientific literacy, and little access to education. The influencers we need to see more often are those who propagate real science. Television programs focusing on science, experimentation, empiricism, and technological development need to reach further and arouse the curiosity of families and their children.
It is a fact that social media has given voice to many people with good and bad ideas. It is also a fact that science is not an absolute truth and that new evidence or methods may emerge in the future. It is also a fact that perhaps our generation and many future generations will never find out how certain things work. The problem is how people take advantage of this and how they use these gaps to reach an increasingly larger audience. I urge caution with the idea of “DNA reprogramming,” “materialization of desires,” “law of attraction,” and “quantum leap express.” Many use scientific jargon to scam, sell miraculous solutions, and divert attention from what can actually work.
I think we should remember that we are all free to have our religious, spiritual, healing, and well-being beliefs and any other aspect of life. However, we must recognize that there are many ill-intentioned people profiting from unproven scientific ideas and diverting the attention of their followers from real scientific facts. This impacts the education of future generations. These things cannot be embraced by policy and schools and receive investments that could go to real science.
I myself have changed a lot when I think about that younger 21-year-old André. I learned to question and embrace the marvel that science alone gives me. I pursued a qualification in the area of psychology and neuroscience to understand how we learn, and I am fascinated by every little and major scientific discovery, such as the generated image of a black hole, transcranial magnetic stimulation, the advances in Artificial Intelligence and Large Language Models. The universe is already fascinating as it is so I can leave non-scientific things to the filmmakers and science fiction writers - which I also love. While science cannot explain many things, we must remember that it has already shone a light on so many others over the last centuries. It may be wise to follow Carl Sagan’s recommendation.
In the absence of evidence, remain skeptical.
Many people use the idea of a quantum leap as a metaphor for quick - even magical - progression to a higher level of excitability or energy. They refer to a radical change in life through the power of thought alone. However, this type of belief creates problems such as toxic positivity and alienation from real problems such as exhaustion and burnout, high rates of depression and anxiety, imposter syndrome, and many problems that make people vulnerable to “miracle” solutions.
The truth is that the quantum leap is not magical or supernatural. It is a property of physics - or at least our understanding of it now. Things tend to become clearer over time. It is worth remembering that even Carl Sagan believed in things that were refuted later, simply because scientists had not broken ground yet. Not all scientific consensus lasts as long as gravity or the shape of our planet. This is how science progresses, and that is a reason to celebrate. I think we need to embrace the age of reason and of science. After all:
Science is not perfect. It’s often misused; it’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything: with this tool, we vanquish the impossible