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The Higgs and Wishful Thinking

by Steven Novella, Dec 03 2012

“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.

21 Responses to “The Higgs and Wishful Thinking”

  1. David Hewitt says:

    If wishing alone altered reality, the world would be a lot weirder than it is.

    • Alice says:

      I wish I can live to 150!!
      Does it mean I should ignore the remedy and cure which might help to extend my life expectancy.
      With some sense, I should ignore the wish.

  2. Other Paul says:

    … the intention of scientists has been consistently thwarted over the centuries, providing significant evidence for the absence of any intention effect

    So the evidence suggests that the Adams has it arse over tip and that the universe is in fact contrarian. In itself, that would be an equally useful model. Aka Sod’s Law.

    Unhappily the universe isn’t consistently contrarian. Which is annoying because otherwise we could engender telepathy by wishing it didn’t exist.

  3. Chris Howard says:

    If wishing it made it so we’d be living in an inconsistent universe. One person, or group would wish for one thing, then another, not liking what the first group wished for, would wish for a different cosmology, and yet a third group would wish it existed in yet another guise. I’m guessing it would be the worst kind of dictatorship imaginable. Popularity dictating reality against the will of other people who were perfectly fine with the world as it is/was.
    The New Age Aquarians always struck me as confused totalitarians just for this reason.

    • Max says:

      You know the joke about three friends stranded on a desert island, who find a genie in a bottle granting them three wishes. One guy wishes to be transported to Paris, the second guy wishes to be transported to Hollywood, and the third guy wishes his friends were back.

      • Chris Howard says:

        That’s awesome! But yeah, that’s how it would go down in a “think it and it happens” world.

  4. Jim Wright says:

    If scientific desires caused outcomes (as Mike Adams suggests)…then,the holy grail of early science would have come true…alchemy.

  5. tmac57 says:

    I will now try an experiment:
    I wish Mike Adams would permanently shut his pie hole.Make it so!!!

  6. MadScientist says:

    It took almost 50 years of wishful thinking just to build the damned machine which could verify the existence of the Higgs Boson. It’s good to see that scientists don’t give up their wishful thinking.

    In other wishful thinking news, I wish those electrical engineers would rewrite their books so that the positive charge is not the mobile charge carrier, a historic mistake made well over 100 years before scientists demonstrated that electric currents were produced via the movement of the negatively charged particle. Of course in the laboratory I can always set up an ion current and indeed have a current consisting of positive charges in motion, but the electrical phenomena we exploit everyday is in fact due to the motion of electrons.

  7. tmac57 says:

    Does this mean that the researchers that have shown vaccines to be safe and effective for preventing serious disease have caused that positive effect,and conversely the anti-vaxers are causing autism and other harm by their fears?

    • Max says:

      Nobody’s going to agree with that. The pro-vaxers don’t agree that vaccines cause autism, and the anti-vaxers don’t agree that vaccines are safe and effective.

  8. RV says:

    I ask people if they’ve read Half Empty when they bring up positive attitude rhetoric.

  9. d brown says:

    tax cuts are good

  10. BillG says:

    On the theme of physics and wishful thinking, it’s strenuous find anything to top nuclear fusion as a power source – that’s been promised for the last 50 plus years.

    For the exception of keeping the likes of Edward Teller employed, some minor lab advances and the millions of squandered benjamins, we have come up with jack squat.

  11. Drew says:

    Whenever I’m in a plane about to take off, I attempt to earnestly wish and pray that the plane will crash killing everyone aboard. It helps to remind me that wishing and praying don’t actually do anything.

  12. Carnage says:

    Then how come the LHC hasn’t found any evidence to support Super Symmetry in particle physics. There are a lot of physicists who devoted there life’s work who want SUSY to be true, if not there will all have to go back to the drawing board.
    On the other hand when science is wrong is when new and wonderful things have been discovered. That is the beauty of science.

  13. diava says:

    very interesting

  14. Bob Roberts says:

    Please explain the “BOT Project” in regards to wishful thinking, PLEASE

  15. Bob Roberts says:

    Can the mind heal the body?