American in Spain

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is Anti-Science

October 5, 2009

The Lost SymbolI started and finished Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol this past weekend. While it was a heck of a can't-put-it-down thrill ride, the overall message and theme of the book was very disturbing to me. It seems like, after pissing off The Church with The Da Vinci Code, Brown has decided to do a 180° and fire in the other direction, at Science.

Spoiler Alert: I will not discuss any aspects of the plot in this post, nor any of the puzzles that are solved along the way. What I will discuss is thematic elements, particularly as they relate to the "science" in the book. If you want to be completely surprised by everything you read in The Lost Symbol, read no further, but I promise you can read this post and still enjoy the exciting twists of the book.

The lone breakthrough scientist

In The Lost Symbol, there's a character that has her own isolated super-secret research lab where she "does science", particularly in the pseudo branch called Noetic Sciences, where she makes mind-blowing (kind of literally) breakthroughs that will forever change the way we look at the human mind. Her research shows that human thoughts can, and do, affect the physical world.

She "proves" that group prayer can heal the sick.

This experiment has been run hundreds of times, and when it is done properly (i.e. double blind), absolutely no statistically significant effects have been shown. In fact, when it's not double blind, and patients know that they are being prayed for, they actually get sicker because they stop trying as hard as the patients that know they are not being prayed for.

She records, with super-chilled CCDs the actual energy flowing from a healer's hands into a cancer patient's body.

One of the first things that a scientist will tell you about being skeptical of pseudo-scientific claims is, "As soon as someone refers to 'energy' as a physical thing that can be seen, rather than a 'the ability to do work', you can be reasonably certain that they are full of shit."

She mentions the noticeable shift in the randomness of the world's random number generators following September 11th, 2001

This episode of Skeptoid is all you need to know about that.

She has a terminally ill person die on a scale and measures a noticeable weight drop, and concludes that this is the soul leaving the body

This experiment was actually performed by a Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who really did measure a slight decrease in body weight. Unfortunately, his methodology was suspect and his results inconclusive.

Science is not done in a hidden secret laboratory by a single researcher! New scientific theories are published and then critiqued and torn apart by other scientists with more voracity than anyone has ever criticized Dan Brown's writing. Only the strongest most correct theories can withstand such an onslaught.

I wouldn't be so ticked off about this if the very first page of the book didn't say:

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

This statement demonstrates a truly profound ignorance of what Science is. It is equivalent to claiming that some wacko in California claims that drinking his urine will cure cancer is Real Science just because the wacko calls it such. It doesn't work like that Danny boy.

Ancient peoples knew more about Science than modern scientists

This is the classic ploy behind all kinds of New Age scams, often involving crystals or astrology, and it is also, unfortunately, the basic premise of this entire book. Brown equates quantum entanglement to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that, "We're all, like, connected, maaaan!" What a joke. When challenged with the cutting edge superstring theory, a character pulls out a copy of Zohar, a thirteenth century religious text written in medieval Aramaic, and reads (not out loud, conveniently) a passage that convinces his challenger that mystics in the 13th century clearly understood superstring theory. From my limited knowledge, I understand superstring theory to be based almost entirely on very complex mathematics. Call me a skeptic, but I find it just a little hard to believe that medieval priests were calculating the effects of ten-dimensional D-branes. As it does not support his case, he mentions nothing of astronomy, knowledge of galaxies or the nature, size, or age of the universe. In fact, even worse, he repeatedly implies an equivalence between astronomy and astrology. Talk about a pet peeve for scientists!

But people believed the Earth was flat!

In every case where a skeptic challenges some claim in The Lost Symbol, rather than present any sort of evidence, the claimant pulls out this common fallacious argument:

Can't you see you're being closed-minded? People used to believe the Earth was flat, until brave pioneer explorers sailed around it and proved it was round! You're being just like those people who wouldn't believe the Earth was round!

And every damn time the skeptic agrees, "Yeah, maybe you're right. I should open my mind!" For the love of Zeus! Eratosthenes, using simple geometry and shadows, calculated the circumference of the Earth to within a 1% error back in 200 B.C.! No one by the time the sixteenth century circumnavigators were around had any doubt that the world was round. Dan Brown obviously didn't research this beyond his grade school textbook.

If a story survives, it must be true.

The likelihood that a story will be passed on from one person to another is a matter of how entertaining, dangerous to not pass on, advantageous to pass on, the effort required to pass it on, and how believable it is. In the modern world, we see this every day with viral emails that promise good fortune if they are passed on and bad fortune if they are not. There is an entire field of study, called Memetics, devoted to the reproduction and mutation of ideas. No one really believes that Oedipus Rex or Odysseus, or Pyramus and Thisbe actually existed, but the stories about them are didactic and entertaining, so we continue to tell them. [I'm looking at you, Mr. Shakespeare!]

Humans are special

The Lost Symbol talks at great length about the relationship between humans and God, never once mentioning a little totally proven scientific theory we like to call Evolution. Dan Brown mentions that the founding fathers of the United States were Deists. What he fails to mention is that Deism is just about as atheistic as any thinking person could be until a gentleman by the name of Charles Darwin came along and explained how complexity could arise from simplicity without a designer. Just because they loved ancient Greek symbology and mythology doesn't mean they believed any of it.


In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown does his best to make his spiritual message non-denominational, not favoring any sacred text over others (well, okay, The Bible is pretty prominent), and definitely preaching an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures. Frankly, I was very, very underwhelmed by The Big Secret that the whole book is about chasing. Let's just say it was the spiritual equivalent of Ralphie using his Secret Society decoder ring to decode the Little Orphan Annie secret code, only to discover that the code translated to "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!"