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Bones Uses Bad Science to Push Parapsychology Poppycock

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

Big Ross checks in to drop some knowledge on the writers of the Fox series Bones.

Bones is a CSI clone/crime procedural on Fox that stars Emily Deschanel as genius & semi-autistic forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan. Along with Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and a team of scientists Bones solves murders, primarily by examining skeletal remains. In the recent episode “The Psychic in the Soup” the gang was tasked with solving the murder of a psychic. This psychic was in fact a charlatan who took advantage of people, but in the course of the investigation a supposedly real psychic (played by Cyndi Lauper) showed up to “help”. She also claimed to be receiving contact from a character named Sweets, who was in actuality a member of the team who had been killed awhile back. Turns out the majority of the episode took place on Sweets’s birthday, the first since his death.

Note: My wife is a fan of this show. I’ve seen a sampling of it, but generally don’t like it. I was halfway paying attention for the majority of this episode. Until the following transpired.

Midway through Lauper tried to talk to Hodgins about his dead friend Sweets, but being the scientist, pragmatist, and skeptic that he is Hodgins shot her down, wanting to hear nothing of her psychic mumbo jumbo. And rightly so. However, toward the end of the episode Hodgins’s wife Angela, the artsy, spiritual member of the bunch, cornered Hodgins and laid out an “argument” for why he should keep an open mind about spirits and psychics and parapsychology and such. She handed Hodgins a stack of papers, to which Hodgins remarked, “You did your research.” Angela then gave an impassioned speech, remarking that “the impossible is proven possible everyday.” She cited two pieces of “evidence”. The second is how even after germs were discovered, it took decades before doctors made a practice of washing their hands prior to surgery. Not the strongest bit of evidence to support her argument, but okay. What I want to focus on is her first piece of “evidence”.

Angela claimed that for years it was believed that nothing could travel faster than light, but then scientists discovered neutrinos, which did.

Wait, what now?

This piece of “evidence” immediately raised red flags when I heard it. This just seemed bogus. And all it took to prove that it was indeed bullshit was a quick Google search.

It turns out that, yes, in the fall of 2011 a research team working with the OPERA particle detector in Italy’s subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory made headlines when they announced that they had recorded the speed of neutrinos (that were fired from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and traveled through the Earth) at 0.002% faster than the speed of light.

If you’re curious, that increase amounts to 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. That’s 60 BILLIONTHS of a second, but when you’re studying sub atomic particles that increase is huge. And if you’re studying the speed at which things travel, ANY increase above the speed of light would be incredible. If that was the end of the story, that *could* indeed be a powerful piece of evidence to support Angela’s argument, not to mention meritorious of a Nobel Prize.

I have some problems with the writers of Bones using faster-than-light neutrinos as evidence for Angela’s premise.

First, IT IS WRONG. It is incorrect. It was an error. I googled “do neutrinos travel faster than light” and got a page of links to half a dozen articles and websites stating emphatically that this is completely, categorically, incorrect. One such article from the journal Science explains:

Enough already. Five different teams of physicists have now independently verified that elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos do not travel faster than light…The OPERA results were debunked months ago…in February, the OPERA team also discovered that a loose fiber optic cable had introduced a delay in their timing system that explained the effect. A month later, researchers working with the ICARUS particle detector, also housed in Gran Sasso, measured the speed of neutrinos fired from CERN and found that they travel at light speed, as predicted. By that point, most physicists deemed faster-than-light neutrinos really most sincerely dead.

A faulty cable connection adversely affected the team’s measurements. The speed they observed was not in fact natural, but caused by an extrinsic agent (the cable) introduced into the experiment. This sort of thing happens so often in science we even have a name for it: it was an “artifact.” And whether or not the writers knew the whole story about faster-than-light neutrinos (it’s hard for me to imagine they didn’t, as a simple Google search reveals the truth) the character Hodgins most certainly would have been aware of it. Even with as little as I know of him and this show, I know for a fact that, provided the writers were being true to his character and not manipulating him for the sake of a little proselytizing, Hodgins would have known and likely called out the fallacy of Angela’s argument.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other examples of the status quo getting cast aside and rewritten throughout history and science that are, you know, accurate. To mention a few:

  • The reality of a spherical Earth replaced the archaic Flat Earth model
  • The geocentric model of the universe was replaced by the heliocentric models of Copernicus and Galileo, and now we have a grand, modern view of the cosmos, of which err are but a miniscule, insignificant part
  • Hell the Hershey-Chase experiment that proved DNA was the molecule that carried genetic information (and disproved the theory held by many that proteins might be responsible for heredity) would have been perfect and IMHO equally as sexy

But my biggest problem with this episode is that the writers are basically making an “Ancient Aliens argument”. If you haven’t seen Ancient Aliens, it is a laughably absurd show (on the History Channel no less) that puts crackpots in front of cameras and lets them diarrhea “theories” and “possibilities” and “ideas” that basically can be surmised as “aliens visited ancient human civilizations and are responsible for everything they ever did or built or wrote about.” And even though there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support any of their drivel, the mere fact that there isn’t definitive proof that they are wrong means they could maybe, possibly be right.

Essentially, that is the argument that Angela makes in this episode of Bones. Just because there is no proof that psychics and spirits don’t exist, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The writers go a step further and have Angela chastise Hodgins to keep an open mind, telling him that “any self-respecting scientist would do that.” No. As a scientist who has been working in various research labs over the course of the last 10+ years I can tell you that no, no scientist, self-respecting or otherwise, would do what Angela is asking Hodgins to do.

Scientists are, by training if not by nature, skeptical. If you hear a scientist say “we stand on the shoulders of giants” they are not exaggerating, despite the flowery language. To be a scientist, you literally spend the first half dozen years or so of your career learning. You learn what is known, and what is known has not been handed down from on high from neither deity nor spaceship. Everything that is known has been learned, and nearly all that has been learned was from scientists that asked questions, followed the Scientific Method and conducted experiments. They made discoveries, and almost invariably those discoveries and experiments were tested and repeated by other scientists. And then scientists would think about the implications of those discoveries, form hypotheses and test those through further experimentation, which in turn led to more discoveries and additional knowledge. And the cycle continues to this day and into the future.

This is why I have little patience for creationists and proponents of intelligent design who scoff at the theory of evolution. I find it difficult to discount decades of scientific inquiry and a mountain of evidence supporting evolution in favor of a creation myth recounted by ancient people who were literally wrong about everything.

This is how the scene in Bones should have played out:

Angela: “For decades scientists thought nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, and then they discovered neutrinos. The impossible is proven possible every day. All I’m asking is that you keep an open mind. Any self-respecting scientist would at least do that.”

Hodgins: “Honey, I love you. And that will never change, and while you’re entitled to your beliefs, that’s all they are. Your beliefs. You’re talking about spirits and psychics, you might as well be talking about god or religion. You want me to think about this as a scientist? Fine. Your hypothesis is that spirits and psychics are real, Well, any self-respecting scientist would hold it to the standard of science and the Scientific Method. They would demand it be tested, they would want to see proof or even a shred of evidence to support it. Not just anecdotes. Controlled, independently verified data. In the absence of that…what do you expect? And ‘faster than light neutrinos’? Not real. One group of scientists working in Italy did report detecting neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. In 2011. Within six months of their announcement, no less than four independent research times reported measuring neutrinos traveling precisely at the speed of light. And the original Italian team even retracted their findings and announced that a faulty fiber optic cable connection introduced a delay into their measurements that likely was the cause of their error. And as trivial as that sounds it was a big deal. People lost their jobs over it. While the impossible is often made possible, for now psychics are sharing space with ‘faster than light neutrinos’. But hey, I’ll make you a deal. If the day ever comes that proves they are real? You won’t have to convince me. The data will do that.”

Of course, in my version of the episode this would not be undermined by the scene that did occur at the end, where Cyndi Lauper the Psychic “proves” she’s real by discovering a thumb drive (that no one knew about AND had information on it of extreme personal value to Bones & Booth) Sweets had left in his car, which was about to be sold. Oh well.