Friday, November 04, 2016

The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, #3)The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a love-hate relationship with Dan Brown. I love his engaging (not superior, but engaging) storytelling and characters, and I hate that he makes claims like this:

“All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real.”

Yep, that’s a claim that he makes at the beginning of The Lost Symbol . My contention is with the word, “All.” Sure, his expertise in the fields of art history, symbolism and architecture is way better than mine, but the man either has a very poor understanding of what constitutes science and how science is done or he knows it well enough but chooses to ignore it for the sake of sensationalizing his fiction. If he wanted to create a world in which the “science” that he vomits upon the page works by his fictional set of rules, fine, but don’t go claiming that it’s real at the beginning of the book.

I’m OK with him writing stuff like this:

“The Capitol’s massive footprint measures more than 750 feet in length and 350 feet deep. Housing more than sixteen acres of floor space, it contains an astonishing 541 rooms. The neoclassical architecture is meticulously designed to echo the grandeur of ancient Rome, whose ideals were the inspiration for America’s founders in establishing the laws and culture of the new republic.”

It’s informative and interesting! In fact, much of what he writes about Washington DC makes me want to visit and tour the historical sites and have a brain feast at the Smithsonian Museum.
But then, he goes spouting stuff about “Noetic Science,” which has no existence in the scientific consensus of neuroscience, psychology or even philosophy. Here is my unapologetic note regarding “Noetic Science” in the kindle version of the book:

“It isn't science. Mind and consciousness can't even be adequately defined. Therefore, they can't be measured. Their properties are vague and their actions employ unknown mechanisms. Calling it science is dishonest. Calling it philosophy is too kind. It's more like religion.”

This line from the book is ironically laughable:

“The truth was that Katherine was doing science so advanced that it no longer even resembled science.”

It is very telling just how ignorant – willfully or not – Dan Brown is about science. He uses terms like “theoretical experiments” and “brain radiation” or “thought emissions” from people nearby. They better by nearby enough to EEG leads on their scalps or the electric field produced by the brain won’t even be detectable. The brain also produces infrared radiation, but then so does anything that has a temperature. Dan Brown knows what IR is as he has CIA agents using IR sensitive vision systems, yet he doesn’t mention it be produced by a brain.

He is highly misleading in the following from the book:

“Experiments at facilities like the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in California and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) had categorically proven that human thought, if properly focused, had the ability to affect and change physical mass. Their experiments were no “spoon-bending” parlor tricks, but rather highly controlled inquiries that all produced the same extraordinary result: our thoughts actually interacted with the physical world, whether or not we knew it, effecting change all the way down to the subatomic realm.”

Yes, the institute and the experiments being done are real, however, the institute personnel and their die-hard fans are the only ones who claim that this work has categorically proven anything “noetic.” Their studies have not been replicated and their protocols have been criticized by real scientists doing real science.

You’ll find plenty of widely publicized contention with this “fact” presented in the book:
“In 2001, in the hours following the horrifying events of September 11, the field of Noetic Science made a quantum leap forward. Four scientists discovered that as the frightened world came together and focused in shared grief on this single tragedy, the outputs of thirty-seven different Random Event Generators around the world suddenly became significantly less random. Somehow, the oneness of this shared experience, the coalescing of millions of minds, had affected the randomizing function of these machines, organizing their outputs and bringing order from chaos.”

Practically everything else he mentions about brain action or physics as it relates to brain action or particle physics or quantum mechanics is pseudoscientific hogwash that is perfectly acceptable in his made-up world. My concern is that readers will be convinced that it holds in the real world also. Let’s put it this way, Deepak Chopra would love this book.

Dan Brown doesn’t know how science works. He has Katherine making the observation that the mass reading on an isolated system containing a terminally ill patient decease at the moment of death. Her immediate conclusion is that the soul has mass. No real scientist would make that conclusion with that one observation. She would consider all the possibilities and eliminate them as well as obtain several data points and then collect corroborating information and propose a plausible mechanism before she ever came anywhere near even a tentative conclusion like that. But no, she jumps right on it. The soul has mass! Give me a break!

Katherine and Peter Solomon spout much more of this new age, Deepak Chopra inspired nonsense, so if you’re into that stuff, you’ll just love this book. As for the “Ancient Mysteries,” please consider that there is absolutely no reason to suppose that ancient people knew more about how the mind worked than we do today or than the hand-me-down tall tales that get passed on through oral and written tradition. There is no reason to believe that just because something is ancient that it is somehow “better.” Dan Brown seems to be attempting to provide a story that reconciles religion and science. It might be due to the vast amount of criticism he got for his shoddy treatment of faith traditions in The Da Vince Code and Angels and Demons . Personally, I would suggest that you read Faith Versus Fact by Jerry Coyne and then draw your own conclusions. In full disclosure of my own bias, I will say that given the fact that science and religion operate on two completely different ways of knowing things, they have been, are and always will be incompatible.

Despite all this, I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the inspiration to visit DC that I got from reading this book. I recommend it as a fun read, but don’t take it too seriously.

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