No, Gwyneth Paltrow, That’s Not How Physical Reality Works

Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Gwyneth Paltrow has an online newsletter, and in its latest edition she lays out some of her thoughts about the power of human consciousness. They are ... interesting.

To wit:

I am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter. I have long had Dr. Emoto's coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it.

If like me, you are not Gwyneth Paltrow, you may be wondering who this Dr. Emoto guy is. His full name is Masaru Emoto, and he's garnered a fair amount of notoriety for books I won't be linking to with titles like The True Power of Water: Healing and Discovering Ourselves. In them, he recounts experiments "proving" that positive and negative emotions can affect nonliving physical substances.

As Carrie Poppy wrote a couple of months ago in Skeptical Inquirer:

During his studies, Emoto separated water into one hundred petri dishes and assigned each dish a fate: good or bad. The good water was blessed or praised for being so wonderful (“Oh look at you wonderful little water droplets! One day you shall be a water slide!” I imagine him saying). The bad water was scolded (“May you become that gross grey sludge that builds up under a Zamboni,” he maybe said).

Then he froze the water, and, lo and behold, the "good" water froze in a beautiful way, while the "bad" water adopted jagged, asymmetric features when viewed via microscope. He's conducted similar experiments yelling at rice (he really likes yelling at inanimate objects) and found that "bad" rice ended up becoming stankier.

Poppy tried to re-create a version of the rice experiment, and if you want the full debunking of this stuff, check out her article. The shorter version is: nope. None of this is real. But that hasn't stopped a horde of credulous admirers from hoisting Emoto's work aloft as proof of the power of positive thinking and human consciousness and [fill in the blank].

It's easy to see why people want Emoto's results to be real. Most folks, myself included, don't really know much about the physical details of how ice freezes or rice ferments. These are just mysterious things that happen when we're not looking. Our emotions, on the other hand, are all too familiar — we're swamped with them just about every moment of every day, and one of the earliest experiences we have is the frustration of wanting something and not getting it. So a belief system in which we can affect physical reality through mere emotionally charged thought has a natural appeal to it. Throw in science-y sounding words — note how Paltrow's short blurb is packed with "structure" this and "molecules" that — and it's no wonder that people who don't really get how these physical processes work in real life will all too easily embrace claptrap.

In many cases, this is harmless, and actually touches on some real-life science suggesting that our levels of optimism can have significant effects on our well-being. The trouble comes when hucksters like The Secret author Rhonda Byrne pop up and start telling people that they can basically have whatever they want simply by thinking positively or visualizing it. There's a lot of this pseudoscience-infused self-help nonsense, especially in the U.S.; people end up wasting huge amounts of money on it (and, in extreme cases, doing things like rejecting clinically effective medical treatment in favor of thinking away their serious illness). So Paltrow, by encouraging belief in stuff that has no scientific basis, is making it easier for the next Byrne to take people for a ride.