Talking to water, yelling at rice

Hidden MessagesDr. Masaru Emoto thinks you can hurt water’s feelings by shouting at it. No, really. Stop laughing. He’s written a bestselling book about it – The Hidden Messages in Water – and he’s convinced a whole lot of people that he’s right. But of course, the sheer numbers of believers doesn’t mean he is.

Dr. Emoto has a degree in “alternative medicine”* from the Open University of Mumbai. According to CSICOP, “the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.” Other sites call it a “diploma mill.” Well, that’s at least a year’s more education than most of the people selling “alternative medicine” appear to have. But it’s not comparable to a degree in science or medicine.

Dr. Emoto believes water has feelings and you can affect it by using positive and negative words, and even music. You can make it happy or sad.

Really: stop laughing. You won’t get this piece finished if you don’t.

Some folks gush over Emoto’s work and babble on about it in distinctly New Agey-pseudoscience manner, with hot-button words like Chi, Reiki, crystals and angels tossed higgledy-piggledy into the text to make the New Agers’ eyes glaze over in delight:

Could water respond directly to people’s consciousness? Apparently yes. Crystals reflected the panic during an earthquake and also the recovery period three months later. Tap water of Tokyo, which was formless, responded to the transmission of “Chi, Soul and Spirit” of 500 people to give a distinctive crystal. And, certain specially gifted individuals could make the most polluted, formless water respond to the “Chi of love” or to prayer, to give remarkable symmetries of perfection. The Reverend Kato Hoki, chief priest of Jyuhouin Temple, Omiya city, was able to change the six-fold symmetry of the ice crystal to a previously unknown, seven-fold symmetry. “Water is the mirror of the mind”.

He’s the darling of the spa set, too, awarded a “Special Prize” as an “outstanding example of a professional who lives the Spa philosophy, or a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to cultivating and promoting the Spa philosophy.”

(Until today, I didn’t even know there was a Spa Philosophy. I must have had my nose too deep into the writings of the Epicureans and missed this major philosophical movement. It is described on the award site as, “Holistic Spa concepts translate our age-old bond with water into applications that, in the best case, leave us with a sense of purity and authenticity. This absolute harmony between body, mind and soul is the purest experience.” Sadly, Dr. Emoto lost first prize to 3 LAB Perfect Cleansing Scrub. Must have been quite a stiff competition…)

And taking from Emoto’s beliefs, some folks are selling “emotionally charged” water - magically transformed from ordinary water by “positive emotional intentions.”  Others are selling “blessings” to turn your water into “liquid prayers.” Who thinks this stuff up?

The codswallop meter is in the red zone on this one. Water woo, it’s called. Woo hoo, I say.

New Age Retailler magazine called his work “pioneering” in a lengthy interview with Emoto, who in turn was described as a “New Age rock star.”

In The True Power of Water, Emoto explores the power of the lessons of the first book as they apply to healing. In particular, Emoto describes working with hado, the subtle energy or vibration inherent in all things, drawing upon his experiences as a practicing doctor of alternative medicine. He also emphasizes humankind’s stewardship role in protecting pure water sources — and making pure water available to all.
“If you speak negative words, that leads to destructive matters, and if you speak positive words, then some positive and beautiful thing will occur.” — Dr. Masaru Emoto
Emoto’s first two books both reached The New York Times’ extended bestseller list. The Secret Life of Water, a fall 2005 release, emphasizes the power of prayer and facilitating the flow of hado.

Hado? Sounds suspiciously like Obi Wan Kenobi talking about The Force. Emoto himself describes it:

Hado is a vibration that cannot be seen, because it is so small. It is so subtle that it cannot even be measured. I believe that we should move toward vibrational medicine. The starting point of that is people’s hearts. When you have a stressed or damaged heart, then your body becomes damaged, as well. I believe that how the God, or something great, created this world is with love and gratitude. Love is an active energy, and gratitude is a passive energy. I believe when you deviate from this law, this balance of love and gratitude, a person is destined to have illness.

Just use The Force, Luke…  I wouldn’t want anyone who believes this to be my doctor, but then I’m a skeptic about this sort of balderdash, so my hado’s probably pretty mixed up anyway.

I expect you already know that think it’s codswallop of the highest degree and one of the wackiest ideas I’ve encountered online, but Emoto seems to have convinced a lot of people otherwise. Like actress Gwen Paltrow, who recently raised a few eyebrows by making statements about Emoto’s beliefs, and making more people – those who pay attention to her – aware about them.

Paltrow herself wrote that she was “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.”

Growing science? Uh, no… growing skepticism, maybe. But real scientists have been avoiding Emoto’s ideas in droves, except to offer some comment about his methods, rife with disdain. Growing gullibility among the glitterati? That’s more likely.

Okay, actors and actresses are not necessarily the brightest pennies in the piggy bank when it comes to science, medicine or politics. Just think of how dangerous and life-threatening it is to actually pay attention to the wingnuttiest among them – Jenny McCarthy. So it’s easy to dismiss Paltrow as being air-headed and gullible. But Emoto’s following is much larger than just a few glitterati – he has “psychics” among them, too! Okay, I asked you to stop laughing.

Paltrow’s comment is followed by a lengthy piece by By Dr. Habib Sadeghi, who the Daily Mail calls a “psychobabble-spouting new age love guru.” In the Goop piece, Sadeghi writes:

Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990’s. When frozen, water that’s free from all impurities will form beautiful ice crystals that look exactly like snowflakes under a microscope. Water that’s polluted, or has additives like fluoride, will freeze without forming crystals. In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labeled with negative phrases like “I hate you” or “fear.” After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallized under the microscope: It yielded gray, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like “I Love You,” or “Peace” on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals. Emoto’s experiments proved that energy generated by positive or negative words can actually change the physical structure of an object. The results of his experiments were detailed in a series of books beginning with The Hidden Messages in Water, where you can see the astounding before and after photos of these incredible water crystals.

Well, let’s start with the basics: Emoto isn’t a scientist. He has no degree in any science or formal medicine. Second, he didn’t “prove” anything. He conjectured that what he saw was the result of his actions, but that’s not proof. Proof requires a far more rigorous methodology and banks of controlled, blind tests.

But people with no background in or understanding of science are easily fooled by pretty pictures and fuzzy descriptions. One writer (on a site that sells New Age “wellness” paraphernalia) says rather fatuously:

From Mr. Emoto’s work we are provided with factual evidence, that human vibrational energy, thoughts, words, ideas and music, affect the molecular structure of water…

Uh, no again: there is no evidence, nor fact shown; just wild supposition and conjecture – and, of course, subjective analysis.

You can likely see the critical flaw in the studies mentioned in the earlier quote above: water with impurities don’t form the same aesthetically pleasing crystals. But what process was undertaken to ensure that the water was poured in a sterile environment? Remember: a single dust particle can affect the formation, and ordinary air is chock full of particles: pollen, spores, yeast, dust, skin. What was done to assure us that absolutely clean and sterile containers were used and that there was no possible contamination from something like the experimenter’s own breath?

Apparently nothing.

And who decides if one crystal is “beautiful” and another not? Isn’t that merely a personal, subjective judgment? Like saying spiders or centipedes are creepy? Or a Picasso painting is ugly?

(BTW, if you aren’t aware of it, people have been photographing water crystals and snowflakes for decades. See here for Snow Crystals by W. Bentley; one great book of pictures… but not a single line about hado…).

One writer commenting (at great length) on Emoto’s research and notions, wrote.

…in the Maui News interview, Dr. Emoto specifically stated, “I do not require any blind tests on any samples,” but rather he believes that “the researcher’s aesthetic sense and character is the most important aspect when taking crystal photographs.” Emoto’s belief that ice crystal formation is sensitive to human thought lead him to select technicians who would not affect crystal formation with negative thoughts over technicians who had formal research experience.

And also wrote:

Emoto has been happy to do his “research” without accurately employing the scientific method. While he does employ the spirit of the scientific method in his research design, he makes critical mistakes in its rigor. For example, Emoto’s research does employ observation of a physical phenomenon, formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon, and testing and revising the hypothesis, but he makes the critical mistake of failing to minimize the influence of the experimenter’s bias on the outcome of the research. Dr. Emoto’s procedure for photographing crystals has no controlled means of ensuring that experimenter’s bias is prevented or minimized. For example, his methodology does not ensure that the obtained results are not selected consciously or subconsciously by the photographer.

So it seems that rigorous and controlled experiment just gets in the way of the results. What matters is the conclusion, not the methods, right? Well, maybe the book royalties matter. And those speaking fees… oh, and the iPad app, too…

Emoto also believes if you shout at rice, you can make it turn bad (one has an image of angry rice grains hanging around the darker corners of the kitchen, wearing backwards baseball caps and smoking…).

Sadeghi also wrote about another of Emoto’s experiments, this time the one with rice:

In another experiment, Emoto tested the power of spoken words. He placed two cups of cooked white rice in two separate mason jars and fixed the lids in place, labeling one jar “Thank You” and the other, “You Fool.” The jars were left in an elementary school classroom, and the students were instructed to speak the words on the labels to the corresponding jars twice a day. After 30 days, the rice in the jar that was constantly insulted had shriveled into a black, gelatinous mass. The rice in the jar that was thanked was as white and fluffy as the day it was made. This dramatic example of the power of words is also detailed in Emoto’s books.

Carrie Poppy, on has a fun time attempting to replicate Emoto’s rice experiments. Worth reading her results.

The questions about the original experiment arise easily: were the containers sterile? What method was used to prevent them from being opened to air (and exposed to the yeast and bacteria in it)? Was the rice sterilized before (your kitchen-variety rice, like your flour, hosts a fair-sized colony of micro-organisms – some could survive cooking, depending on method used). How was it cooked? How long did it cool and under what conditions?

Micro-organisms collect on cooked rice from the air and our breath, starting immediately with exposure to normal (unfiltered, unsterilized) air. The moisture in cooked rice is sufficient to easily start fungal growth if a batch was even lightly contaminated.

Were all of tthe jars kept in exactly similar light and heat conditions? What utensils were used to move the rice from cooker to jar and were they sterile? Was this done simultaneously in other schools with the same batch of rice?

Scientific method means every step, every stage, every item has to be documented and controlled and tested multiple times.

And who made sure the students spoke the exact same words every day, with the same inflection and tone? Or that they didn’t switch the labels or open the jars? Come on, these are kids, after all. But Emoto thinks kids are more pure in their thoughts, so they make this happen:

Children have more effective power and even better results than adults with the rice experiment, because children don’t have any doubts whatsoever. They believe. Adults have added pressure and always have a doubt as to whether the prayers will work. Or, adults may think that they must have a bigger power than children or anybody else: “I will prove this better than anybody else.” So, it’s not very pure. It’s very wishy washy.

I dunno. Kids can be very cruel. Didn’t Emoto read Lord of the Flies? The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea?

And it could be like my efforts to make a levain: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Those pesky micro-organisms just like to do what they want, and no amount of pleading and nice talk worked to make my sourdough starter come alive with wild yeast (that only happened when I changed the pH balance of the starter mix…).

Emoto also has some rather bizarre notions about evolution that seem awfully creationist:

I believe there was no distinction between man and woman in the beginning. I don’t think there was sex between people. I think everybody lived for eternity. When people started to have unpure thoughts, then they started to deviate from the law of the God, or something great. Then, their lives became in jeopardy, and eternity was taken away from the people. In order for us to exist forever as our species, something great created man and woman. I believe that we now follow the animal nature and animal laws of female and male partnership.

Which speaks volumes to me about his approach to real science. But he seems to pack them in on his seminar and speaking tours. So if nothing more, pseudoscience continues to provide a good living for him. P. T. Barnum could learn some lessons from Dr. Emoto.

On July 25, Emoto will host a ceremony to “offer love and gratitude to water.” I expect Gwyneth will be there, in spirit if not in body, along with others of the hard-of-thinking crowd. Sending out good vibrations to the water. Making happy talk with the H2O.

Me, I’ll use that day to thank water in my own way: by emancipating the water trapped inside a can of beer and returning it to its source. I’m sure it will thank me for my generosity. I know I’ll be grateful for the opportunity.

* Regular readers of this blog know that I often associate that term “alternative medicine” with hoaxes, scams and snake oil. Not that there aren’t valuable and valid practices to be found outside the formal medical environment – just that the field of “alternatives” is generally poorly regulated – even unregulated in many areas – poorly researched, and jam-packed full of pseudoscience, New Age piffle and predators who prey on the gullible. It’s become increasingly difficult for the average person to deconstruct the conflicting, often hyperbolic or even false claims, and find something both safe and therapeutic. My advice: avoid all of it unless it’s backed by rigorous research with results that can be independently replicated.

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