DVD Review of What the #$*! Do We Know?

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/17/04


  Recently, on a visit from my mother-in-law, I was surprised that she wanted to take me and my wife to see a documentary film about ‘quantum physics’. The surprise came from the fact that she is far more wont to New Agey beliefs than either of us. The film was called What the #$*! Do We Know? After seeing it I understand why my mother-in-law was interested in this ‘physics film’- because it’s not about physics.

  Instead, it’s a propaganda film put out by a cult headed by a bovine blond woman named JZ Knight, who’s claimed for decades that she channels the spirit of a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis named Ramtha. Yet, it’s not even a clever little film as propaganda, because it’s so poorly edited, atrociously acted, and inanely backdropped against a dozen or so talking heads of the sort that usually delineate documentaries. Except, there’s a difference. These talking heads go uncredited until the end of the film because they are all charlatans and quacks. The film also had three directors- William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente- who just happen to be Ramtha cultists. Worse, the film’s a mess- all that spiritualism and not a dram of creativity? This is not like New York Stories where three great directors- Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese- did three small films that were independent. This film is tripartite, but interspersed like water, oil, and- oh- New Age bilge. It’s part faux documentary, part lame Junior High/Industrial film, part psychedelic cartoon. Tag team directing, yet no one in charge.

  It starts off seeming to be a straight science documentary, but turns into a New Age infomercial of the sort that makes hucksters like Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra seem credible. Among the roster of shame is JZ Knight/Ramtha her-himself- whose hooga-booga is the first sign that this ‘documentary’ is not. Other pseudo-intellectuals include quasi-physicist, founder of the Natural Law Party, and sometime Presidential candidate John Hagelin, physicist-mystic Fred Alan Wolf- whose career suicide in recent decades was rivaled only by the late psychiatrist John Mack, of UFO Abduction infamy and whose tagline for the film is ‘The key to life is not to be in the know but to be in the mystery.’, and a token Indian swami type- actually named Amit Goswami.

  Then there’s the putative ‘story’ of the film, in which deaf actress Marlee Matlin (please, someone write a decent role for her) portrays a photographer whose life is an archetype of addiction and regret. Via flashbacks we see she was cheated on by her ex-husband, loathes her job, has a ditzy blond roommate and lascivious boss. Of course, this is all those characters represent. There is no real story. Amanda amazes at the quantum physical possibilities of the world, or else is just hallucinating because she’s off her anti-psychotic meds. On her way to work she meets an annoying prepubescent ‘Wise Negro’ basketballer  on a mystical basketball court, who clearly has no idea what he’s saying. Why should he, though? He and Amanda exist to illustrate questionable nostra put forth by the talking heads. Later, Amanda photographs a Polish wedding, and the cultural stereotypes fly. Apparently New Age PC has deemed that Polacks are still fair game- to the point of making them suffer through animated sequences with bloated, gaseous human cells that fart, burp, and fornicate. Yet, the graphics are dated- the level of a mid-70s sci fi flick like Logan’s Run. The animation does nothing to advance Amanda’s story, nor enliven the commentary of the ‘experts’.

  After grounding the viewer with ‘facts’ known about quantum physics, the ‘experts’ slowly go astray, piling on seemingly logical syllogisms to the point of absurdity. For example, in certain conditions matter can appear to be in two places at once, therefore humans can be in two places at once. The problem is that what may or may not be true at the sub-atomic level, in very specific controlled circumstances, has absolutely no correlation to the uncontrolled macro-world humans abound in. Another example is the commonly misinterpreted idea that nothing exists without an observer, yet ‘observation’ is not necessarily a conscious act. The truer form of that claim is that nothing exists without interaction- time is the record of events. Without ‘events’ time is a meaningless construct. Yet, from this misconstrual the experts declaim we are omnipotent, gods controlling our every moment. Of course, randomness does not exist in this paradigm (a word tossed about so liberally it should have been bathed in French dressing). Therefore, if something is wrong in our life it’s our fault- we chose to be hit by a drunk driver, the Elephant Man chose to be deformed and scorned, etc. This, naturally, is the same co-dependent guilt-ridden tripe 12-Steppers have been spewing for decades.

  It’s no surprise almost all the strictly non-scientific claims are bogus or lies. Two stick out- the first is a claim that in the summer of 1993, when a group of people in Washington D.C. meditated to reduce crime in the city by 25% it occurred. This is flat out false, and has been debunked on many skeptics/urban legend websites. In fact, crime rose during the time of the meditators. Yet, a more profound question should be asked- why didn’t the group aim to totally reduce crime? Because it’s easy to fudge a numbers game with a statistic like 25%, yet a 100% reduction is impossible to fudge.

  The second example is a claim that some photographs taken by Masaru Emoto (a doctor of alternative medicine) show the formation of ice crystals of differing types in bottles of water frozen, with different words pasted on it. Words with negative connotations showed deformed crystals, while words with positive connotations showed perfectly formed crystals. First off, the photos show just a single crystal each- not a pattern. Secondly, there is no proof offered that the bottles were so worded, nor that their wording produced the claimed effect- even on the single crystals photographed, nor that the crystals were from the bottles worded as claimed. Of course, Emoto’s work has never been peer reviewed. Furthermore, the film uses this dubious claim to insist that since humans are largely water, similar thought processes can affect and psychically deform us. Damn my Western rationality!

  Such thinking is on par with Creation Science, Intelligent Design, and the Omega Point. What started out a few decades ago as a sincere Norman Vincent Peale urging people to, ‘Change your thoughts and you change your world.’ has now become the realm of all sorts of charlatans. Matlin’s Amanda is a photographer, yet cannot see until she embraces the Ramtha philosophy. In a moment that pinnacles bad art with worse science, Amanda tosses her bottle of anti-psychotic meds into a trash can and liberates herself to self-empowerment; and presumably endless delusion. It’s no surprise, then, that a talking head then mixes metaphor with reality and claims it’s only negativity and cultural bias that prevents us from literally walking on water like Jesus did. In this metaverse things like mass and surface tension are just products of self-loathing.

  A major flaw with this nirvana of self-empowerment is that it denies the existence of other self-empowered beings who may be working at odds with your self-empowerment. What happens when two such wills meet is never broached. Why? Reason. But why expect reason from a film that makes the astounding claim that when Columbus’s ships were first sighted by native Hispaniolans they were not seen- literally. The explanation for this is 1) the film’s patois cannot distinguish between metaphor and reality, 2) cultural relativism taken ad absurdum. While the natives had never seen large European sailing vessels they’d certainly seen ships, and fabric from the sails, the wood that made the ships. Light still reflected off these solids- no? This bogus claim is then held up as an exemplar of different realities to different peoples- i.e.- all ‘realities’ are subjective in toto.
  This film is a combination of bad art, and emotional and intellectual dishonesty- the very reason they do not give the names and backgrounds of the ‘experts’ until the end. The problem is not that the film has no answers to the questions it posits, but the questions, themselves, are asked with annoying smirks by condescending fakers who seem contented with their own superiority, and ignorance. Here’s hoping rationality still has a place in President Bush’s world (grimace).


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 11/04 Hackwriters website.]


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