From Skeptic vol. 8, no. 3, 2001, pp. 86ff.

The following article is copyright ©2001 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.

Woo Woo Science:
A Review of The Living Energy Universe

by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek
Hampton Roads Publishing, $21.95, hardcover 303 pp.
Reviewed by Marc Berard

The Living Energy Universe is is a book of bold claims. There is, we are told, scientific evidence for many things such as God and life after death. But the claim that sets this book apart from others in the genre is the claim that everything in the universe ˘remembers.÷ The evidence for this latter claim¨that the authors wistfully hope is ˘Destined to win over even the staunchest of skeptics÷¨falls far short of being convincing. What Schwartz and Russek have done is to take the basic concept of feedback loops and introduce wild speculation and anecdotes as if they were evidence. They then treat these speculations as proven facts so they can build even wilder speculations on top of this flimsy foundation. Then they slap a third level of speculation on top of the first two, and so on. The end product is like a house of cards with a bowling ball ¨representing the Second Law of Thermodynamics¨thundering down upon it.

During the course of the book, Schwartz and Russek tie what they call Systemic Memory Theory (SMT) to a wide range of paranormal claims. They see the phenomena as real events that are explained and even predicted by SMT. Because of this, I am inclined to refer to what the authors are doing as ˘Woo Woo Science,÷ and the SMT as the ˘Grand Unified Woo Woo Theory.÷Among the paranormal phenomena mentioned are cellular memory, out-of-body experiences, after death contact, reincarnation, psychometry, telepathy, qi, homeopathy, aroma therapy, herbalism, energy medicine, crystal healing, distant healing, spirit medicine, acupuncture, kinesiology, akashic records, kaballa, and karma. As there is little more that anecdotal evidence for these claims, they do not lend support to the SMT theory. Unproven claims do not support unproven theories.

The Theory: Physical Systems. The theory begins with feedback loops. Two tuning forks, A and B, are used as an example. A is struck and starts to vibrate. The vibrations (a1) travel out to the second fork, B, causing it to vibrate in resonance. The new vibrations (b1) were caused by (a1) and are said to contain the history of (a). These vibrations which contain b1+a1 go back and strike the first fork A, and alter the manner in which it vibrates. The first fork is now vibrating in a pattern (a2). This (a2) is the result of (b1), which was originally generated by (a1). Therefore the vibration (a2) contains the history of (b1) and (a1). B is struck by the new vibration pattern, altering its vibrations, resulting in b2 = a2+b1+a1. As the loop goes on, its "history" accumulates. The history is termed "memory," and that it changes with each iteration is termed "evolution."

It's at this point that we first encounter unsupported speculations backed up by false comparisons; that is, they mix their own invented definitions in with regular scientific definitions as if they were equal. All of this is somehow supposed to prove that the system has memory; that it evolves; and therefore it is alive. Note that this example does not take into account the unavoidable signal decay.

The authors repeatedly state that if SMT is true, then it is true at every level, from subatomic particles to galaxies and to the universe itself. Since they redefined a feedback loop as "living, remembering, evolving," then subatomic particles also remember, evolve, and are alive, as are galaxies. In other words, everything remembers, evolves and lives. Another unsupported speculation in SMT is the idea of "emergent properties." The claim is that studying atoms or subatomic particles will not provide a clue as to what gives a water molecule its "waterness." Instead, SMT says, the properties of water come from how the atoms resonate in a systemic feedback loop. This appears to contradict a basic principle of chemistry, the idea that it really is the structure of atoms that gives substances their properties. Isn't it the job of certain industrial chemists to use atoms and molecules to create new substances with specific properties? Just last year there was a story in the news about a group that designed and built a motor out of a single molecule of 72 atoms, and a Japanese group that designed one with under 60. Resonance never enters the picture.

Furthermore, if SMT were true, then each and every water molecule would have different properties since their constituent atoms have different histories. One of the claims for homeopathy is that, even though there may be not a single atom of the original chemical left in the final, diluted medicine, it works because the water "remembers" the chemical it once contained. But, if water has such good memory, wouldn't that mean water would also remember other chemicals it may have contained during its millions of years of existence, and might not those other chemicals make our illnesses worse? Wouldn't water remember being in someone else's kidneys; its multiple trips through the sewers; and being the dirty snow that builds up in tire wells after a snowstorm? SMT has to say yes.

Support is also sought in stories of people who have undergone personality changes or strange dreams after receiving heart transplants. This is cited as an example of memories being stored in the parts of the body as well as in the brain, and therefore is trotted out in support for the theory that everything remembers. Again, since water is supposed to be a great conductor of memories, wouldn't blood also be excellent for storing memories? We should be hearing frequent stories of cellular memories, personality changes, and strange dreams from people who have received blood transfusions. Surgery is quite common in our society so having someone else's memories should be common as well by this reasoning.

The Theory: Energy Systems. "We will consider the idea that if matter evolves, then it follows logically that energy evolves too." Here we see the next level of the house of cards, energy systems. The "energy/information" has to travel between the two objects and, since the area between the objects has all these signals traveling through it, it is therefore not a vacuum. The claim is that as the signals change over time, the energy evolves. The signals are also said to interact, creating a feedback loop between two points in the vacuum. "These dynamical info-energy systems will continue in the vacuum of space forever, even when the physical structure deconstructs." This statement appears to be based on how light reflects off an object and into space and will continue forever, long after the object no longer exists, so the object attains a type of immortality. This idea is then misapplied to the tuning forks example. Light traveling into space is not interacting with anything, is not reflected back, and so it is not in a feedback loop. Therefore it is not part of a system. But the idea of the signal going on forever is applied to the system anyway, the claim being that if you remove the forks, the energy system is supposed to continue in an energy vortex, swirling on forever without external support.

There are two assumptions here. First, that the signals interact with each other, and second, that they will continue to exist once the physical part of the system is removed. In studying waves, we learn that when two waves pass through the same point they can combine constructively or destructively, either creating calm points or points of even greater highs and lows. However, waves emerge on the other side of the point unchanged. The signals have passed through each other without being altered, so not all types of energy interact. Assuming energy does interact, does it interact in a continuing system outside of a physical system? It might be possible for two photons to interact, but then what? Photons travel in a straight line at the speed of light unless acted on by an outside force, so how could a feedback loop be created? With no force to hold them in the area, the most that could happen is that two photons would interact and part. So light energy can't enter into an energy system.

A flow of electricity is electrons in motion, as like charges repel each other. How could a loop start without some outside force causing the continued interaction? What about other forms of energy? Heat and kinetic energy are matter in motion, chemical energy is matter in molecular bonds; they can't exist in a pure energy system. Even if a pure energy feedback system were possible, it is not universally applicable, and would require special conditions.

The lack of support for their energy systems hypotheses does not deter the authors. Once again, false comparisons are used, this time to compare energy/information to spirit/soul, with little explanation for this jump. Now we have the claim that the soul is an energy system, without any mention of what kind of energy it is or how it got started. Can energy and information be intelligent? "Why not?" That's the only reply and typical of the book's reasoning. Out-of-body experiences are explained as times when the energy system goes roaming. A new force is introduced to explain why the energy system doesn't go roaming all the time: Systemity (system gravity), and another claim is added that this totally new, previously undetected force might be what underlies the Strong/Weak nuclear forces. We also get the claim that this traveling energy system can see and hear, with no explanation as to how. If so, what draws the wandering spirit back? Why is it forced to leave upon the body's death? How is it that people claiming to be traveling out-of-body are able to speak and act? In his own example, Dr. Schwartz was still able to play in a band when he had the sensation of being outside his body.

Believe it or not, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Energy systems are alive, okay? Energy systems take place in a vacuum and everything is connected through the vacuum; therefore the vacuum is alive, evolving, and eternal. Of course, that's like saying bacteria are alive, bacteria are connected through the petri dish that contains them, therefore the petri dish is alive. Since we're declaring everything alive, why not natural laws as well? That's on page 142. How a law can evolve is not explained. Laws are descriptions of how nature behaves. If natural laws somehow evolve, then they could potentially evolve into a state that doesn't support SMT. They might eventually end all systems in the universe. Time and space are not safe from being labeled as alive either. Electrons, photons, and superstrings are all declared to have consciousness for no other reason than the belief that the system is true on all levels. Since everything is connected through the vacuum, everything is one.

Stories come to life, too. According to the book, a story that is on people's minds creates an energy system that is alive, so the story is alive, a living idea that can exist on its own. The example given is that people contacting Jesus could be in contact either with the "original" historical Jesus or a Jesus created from the concepts and stories of people since that time. This means that every different concept of Jesus exists as its own energy system being. Following this logic, that means Santa Claus, Freddy Kruger, Romeo, Ronald McDonald, and many other fictional characters exist as real spirits. And you might meet them since cause and effect are reversed in one chapter where we read that it was energy systems that created matter. "The purpose of physical systems may be to shape the evolution of living energy systems. From this perspective, the purpose of matter may be to evolve information and energy, the soul and spirit of the universe." You'll be happy to know that before time and space came into existence there was a single primal force guiding what came later. That force is Love.

Dr. Schwartz wants to conduct well-designed experiments. To maintain intellectual integrity, he wants properly conducted studies that will supply real evidence. Unfortunately, it seems that he is not all that familiar with some of the elementary concepts and practices of proper research, and he shows a shocking lack of understanding about basics outside his field.

Consider thermodynamics. According to the Second Law, systems tend to become less organized over time. According to SMT, systems normally increase in order and complexity over time. This is one of several issues examined in the book as a possible problem with the theory. They handle it this way. To start, the authors invent another new force, "enformy" or "negentropy" (energy form, negative entropy), which is clearly in conflict with known principles. How do the authors handle the problem? Simple: By saying the Second Law of Thermodynamics must be dropped, since it is totally wrong!

The authors also display an ignorance of evolution that is common among creationists: complex life could not evolve because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Their explanation for the Second Law is that what looks like disorder is actually incredibly complex order, that systems falling apart may be just systems that have reached the limit of how much information they can hold. But wouldn't this mean that systems are not eternal, since they will eventually fill up? Following this line of reasoning, they propose that aging and some physical disorders are merely a matter of the body becoming too "full" of information. When we excrete, it is not to get rid of waste and toxins, but to get rid of extra memories. Water is supposed to be very good at holding memories (according to homeopathy) and, since it's been around for millions of years, the water we drink should be pretty full. If we create new water in a laboratory it won't have those years of ancient memories. Would some of this created water then be better for us? Would a glass of this newly created water sustain us for a significantly greater period of time than regular old water?

This is not the only bizarre biological claim made. "Brain cells learn as complex networks of feedback loops. However, the story science has created for explaining how brains learn applies equally well to how hearts, lungs, kidneys, or even bones can learn." This is another example of false comparisons, one of many in this book, this time equating real methods of learning and reinforcement methods to provide support for SMT. All the mechanisms for memory are not fully understood, but many are. As learning and knowledge grow, we have observed how the nerve cells in the brain create more connections that are reinforced by repetition. That is how feedback helps in learning. These connections can deteriorate over time from lack of use, resulting in our forgetting things. No such physical connections are created in other organs, yet the claim is put forward that these other organs learn in exactly the same way as the brain, and no evidence is offered to support the claim. For scientists supposedly involved in medical research, the authors have a shocking lack of understanding of biology, highlighted when they refer to the pupil of the eye as a "black surface."

The authors also lack knowledge of probability, something necessary for this line of research. Frequently in the book they refer to experiments that had "slight but significant results." Exactly how significant the results are is not mentioned. Based on the errors concerning probability that they make in the book, I question whether the results had any statistical significance at all. "Statistics tells us that to obtain a random distribution, each event must be independent of every other event. The question is, does nature fit this condition, this essential requirement of independence? What systems theory tells us is absolutely, positively, no. However, if things are independent, then you will observe randomness. In fact, if there is complete independence and no ordering process, the probability of getting a random distribution is actually 100 percent!" The authors then suggest this experiment. Have a computer randomly select 10 numbers from 1 to 10 and calculate the mean of the numbers. Repeat this procedure a thousand times, and plot the resulting distribution of the means. The result is an upside down U-shaped function known as a bell curve. This is curiously given as evidence of underlying order rather than randomness, but isn't the opposite true? In a completely even distribution each number would appear once, with a mean of 5.5. Since there is an equal chance to get a high number or a low number, purely random distribution would tend to have as many highs as lows, resulting in a mean close to 5.5. When this is plotted, the bell curve shows that is exactly what we are getting, with rare, but expected, high and low means. Dr. Schwartz repeatedly states that no one has found a flaw with the logic. The logic of the basic system is fine, but as with the probability experiment, it is not the system but the claims and interpretations based on it that are questionable.

Finally, they don't understand Occam's Razor, the rule that the simplest theory is usually to be preferred. The authors seem to be a bit confused on exactly what this means. Given a choice between the possibility that paranormal phenomena consist of misinterpreted and coincidental normal phenomena and their SMT beliefs, they think SMT is the simpler choice. Consider that SMT includes at least two new undetected forces, requires the abandonment of a well-established law of physics, and would mean totally rewriting biology, chemistry, and several parts of physics. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence for SMT other than anecdotal stories of paranormal claims which even if true don't necessarily support SMT. In fact, the book repeatedly states the "challenge is for future scientists to prove SMT." Not quite. Since it is they who have made the claim, it should be up to them to provide evidence for it.

This mindset is not surprising, considering the attitude they seem to show towards science displayed in some sections of the book. The authors make it quite clear that they consider science nothing more than a dogmatic religion. "A paradigm is a grand story or dogma that scientists hold at a given time. Paradigms in science are like dogmas in religion. Champions will protect their respective paradigms, virtually at all costs." In discussing atoms: "Some priest or priestess of science, a physicist or a chemist, tells us they [atoms] are there, and we believe him or her. We accept their story, typically on faith." Is that what scientists are doing? Telling us a story they wish us to accept on faith? I'm sorry, but that is not how science works.

Science works through rigorous peer review feedback. It is especially telling that Schwartz and Russek submitted their theory to the journal Nature. It was returned, with the reviewer's recommendation: "Do not publish, and do not even consider in revised form." In an e-mail letter Schwartz explained the reason he believes it was rejected. "Nature decided the theory was too controversial to send out for peer review. Most conservative scientists do not like the implications that logically follow from a careful analysis of systems theory, and therefore choose to avoid addressing the questions altogether." When asked if this was true, Nature explained that submissions are held in confidence; however, they also stated "But as a general rule, Nature is delighted to publish controversial articles, we think that our interdisciplinary readership finds arresting and surprising contributions stimulating. However, we would not knowingly publish anything that contains technical flaws."

A common theme used by many with unsupported or flawed theories is comparing themselves to Galileo. Since he was persecuted for promoting a theory that went against the official beliefs of his time, and he turned out to be right, the conclusion is: "They laughed at Galileo, but he was right, and so am I." The authors do not make this statement so directly, but instead do so by insinuation: "Science has taught us that the earth is not actually flat; it only appears that way until we look more closely. Science has taught us that the sun does not actually revolve around the earth; it only appears that way until we look more closely. And science is now teaching us that energy and matter are not without life and intelligence; it only appears that way until we look more closely." Later there is even the traditional "humble" statement that if Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Newton, and Darwin had been born today, "These luminaries of science and religion would, in all likelihood, come to the vision of an evolving God in an evolving transformational universe." Claiming that long-dead great thinkers would agree with you is not support for a theory; it is merely an exercise in ego.