New Horizons, old hoaxes

As if I hadn’t learned my lessons with Tribal Science, I’m about to embark on another insane journey with a follow-up book. A pitch is with the publisher, who has asked for a sample chapter.

The roots of this one stretch back some way, to about 2006 when I delivered a public lecture to a young audience on the topic of energy. After the crowd had left, a curious couple came up to ask me about ‘living energy’. It inspired me to take a closer look at the impact theories involving vital forces have had on our history of biology.

One related topic of interest is the theosophical field of noetics – a branch of metaphysical philosophy that holds that thoughts and mental constructs have material properties (or at least are immaterial subjects that have an influence on the material universe). In other words, noetics is primarily concerned with the point at where the two branches of dualism intersect.

Modern noetics has the classic features of a pseudoscience – it uses scientific terms and incompatible theories and principles to confuse the metaphysical with the material. Research related to this field varies from relatively rigorous (if anomalous and unrepeated) studies of the likes of Dr Duncan Macdougall, to hints at research that I can only conclude is at best a fabrication, and at worst a hoax.

In hunting down 20th researchers who have attempted to measure material properties of thoughts, mind or soul, I came across numerous mentions of two scientists by the name of Becker Mertens and Elke Fisher. Even relatively skeptical blog articles cited them. It’s alleged that in 1988, they concluded based on research that human thoughts amounted to a mass of about 1/3000th of an ounce. While no source is provided for the research’s publication, it’s implied that at least some mention of it was made in a German magazine by the name of Horizon.

This claim is so pervasive, it is repeated in the new age magazine, New Dawn (special issue 15, page 70), not to mention a variety of blogs and online articles. Its original source seems to be a Weekly World News Article.

Given there’s no sign a German science journal named Horizon ever existed (there is a media/advertising journal named Horizont), and no evidence of scientists by the names of Becker Mertens or Elke Fisher, we can be fairly confident that we’re dealing with fiction here. I’m not overly surprised by that, given Weekly World News isn’t exactly known for its academic rigour. Yet it is a rather good example of how pseudoscience relies on a reluctance of authors to ask critical questions of what they’re presenting as fundamental facts.

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Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. [Duplicating a comment here I left on Facebook, if I may:]

    If there was no GDR periodical named “Horizont” in 1988 then indeed this whole Becker Mertens business seems to be a hoax. If I wanted to verify it though, I’d be looking for “Fischer” (not “Fisher”) and treat “Becker Mertens” as a hyphenated surname (i.e. “Becker-Mertens”) with no first name known.

    Regarding the weight of a soul however, the concept does kinda make sense to me. No matter what our definition of “soul”, I think we can agree that it would consist of information. That information would be destroyed at the time of death. Destroyed information, as in all non-reversible computing (cf. the von Neumann-Landauer limit), will be dissipated as heat. Heat (energy) is, as Einstein taught us, equivalent to mass. Thus the annihilation of a soul might coincide with some loss of mass.

  2. Thanks Udo – I’ll do another search and see if it makes any difference.

    I disagree that the definition of what a soul is remains insignificant. If a soul is purely neurological (in other words, an analogy for the emergence of thoughts from our neural chemistry), the information would emerge from static and changing chemical transitions. As such, information would be defined by the effect one change of chemical state has on another. When this ceases, a ‘loss of information’ doesn’t equate any loss in energy content, strictly speaking.

    Where I would concede a change in temperature does occur is that respiration ceases, leading to a decrease in the temperature of the system. But that’s not unique to the nervous system. Nor, given the magnitudes involved, would I imagine it would lead to a measureable change in mass.

  3. You are probably also aware that the Mexican film director, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2003 fi8lm “21 Grams” is attributes that to being the weight of the soul:

    “The title refers to a belief propagated by the 1907 research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall which attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a small loss of body weight (representing the departure of the soul) immediately following death. The research by MacDougall attempted to follow the scientific method and showed some variance in results (21 grams is the reported weight loss from the death of the first patient). His final report was not fully recognized by the scientific community at the time. The film presents MacDougall’s findings as accepted scientific fact as a form of dramatic license.[1]”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/21_Grams

    So we seem to have 5 orders of magnitude difference in the weight of a soul. Pretty slippery measurement.

  4. Absolutely; Macdougall’s research is amongst the most well known on the topic. It featured in Len Fisher’s ‘Weighing the Soul’, which is a wonderful example of a book on how science is done. For that reason, however, I’m keen to try to find other examples that can put his experiments into a greater context. Len’s already done a great job of describing Macdougall’s work – not much point in my going over old ground.

  5. The most likely candidate for the journal you are looking for is “Horizont – Sozialistische Wochenzeitung für internationale Politik und Wirtschaft”, a GDR journal for international politics and economics published from 1968 to 1991, ISSN 0863-4521. (More at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizont_(DDR-Zeitschrift)). Quite a few German libraries have it, ten of them in Berlin, e.g. the library at the Otto-Suhr-Institut for Political Science at Berlin’s Free University. (http://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/en/polwiss/index.html)

    My guess is they will mostly be on microfilm, with no online searchable index. Why an article (or “letter”?) on that subject would have appeared in it beats me though, but if you really want to be sure, the interlibrary loan system might be able to help, or perhaps someone local.

    What you are saying about the chemical states makes sense I guess, I was thinking of electrical states, but I just don’t know enough about life sciences.

  6. Oops. My first link disappeared: I meant to say “More at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizont_(DDR-Zeitschrift)

    There seems to be no edit option here. Could you do that for me?

  7. Done.

    Thanks for the help, btw. I keep thinking I might be giving too much credit to what is some widespread hoax. Such a thin line between parody and reality sometimes, it’s easy to get them confused.

  8. Went over to the Otto-Suhr-Institut on my lunch break today, but the Horizont microfiches are at their outside location, available on request; I don’t have time for that.

    Been thinking about the mass loss / heat dissipation issue. So I think you are saying a neurological “soul’s” information would be stored in chemical compounds? Then the laws of entropy would dictate that, at the time of death, they would assume a state of greater disorder, which normally means less energy. Unless all of those chemical states were energetically equivalent, I would still expect that to cause heat dissipation. Measurable? Hell no!

    Giving too much credit to a hoax? Of course! But you started it, not I 🙂 I’m just enjoying the intellectual distraction …

  9. I think the properties that produce thoughts, memories, and other mental conditions (things that could be attributed to a historical definition of ‘soul’) are due to various chemical and electrochemical arrangements. Would entropy be a factor after death? Absolutely – without oxygen to facilitate metabolic reactions (i.e., energy coming into the system), there would be a tendency towards disorder. This would lead to energy dissipating into the environment, no doubt. But as I said, that’s not really all that different to muscle, liver or pancreatic tissue (which I don’t think qualifies as having any sort of soul-like properties).

    I think that’s where the danger in noetics lies – it starts with a metaphysical construct and tries to fit physics around it to lend it some sort of empirical strength. Unfortunately it requires so much flexibility in definition, what you have in the end isn’t the same principles you started with.

  10. […] [4] The Tribal Scientist – New Horizons, old hoaxes: https://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/new-horizons-old-hoaxes/ […]


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