The Water Woo of Masaru Emoto
Today we're going take a look at one of the founders of a pseudoscience that has, for more than three decades, given birth to a whole slew of knockoff pseudosciences pertaining to water. The man is Masaru Emoto, born in Yokohama in 1943, and creator of what he calls hado (rhymes with shadow). It is Emoto's firm conviction that water, human consciousness, and human emotion are deeply entangled; and he has become best known for his photographs of ice crystals (basically snowflakes) that he says are either beautiful or ugly based on the emotions expressed at the time of their formation. If you write a positive word on a bottle of water, or expose it to a picture of beautiful animals like dolphins, it will freeze into beautiful ice crystals; but if you speak harshly to it, or write a negative word on the bottle, it will freeze into ugly non-crystalline lumps. Emoto's definition of hado is "The intrinsic vibrational pattern at the atomic level in all matter. The smallest unit of energy. Its basis is the energy of human consciousness." Throughout his writing in his several books, Emoto uses the word "vibration" in much the same way as Deepak Chopra uses the word "quantum": without any actual meaning relevant to its context. He writes:
It's quite poetic, yet to find any meaning in it, it seems one must view Emoto's writing purely from the perspective of metaphysics and allegory. But Emoto means it quite literally, and a massive number of products and books have sprung to life in the ecosystem created by Emoto's magical water beliefs. Water filters claiming to form water into special molecular arrangements that promote super health cite Emoto. His emotion-governed ice crystals were a major theme in the 2004 New Age pseudo-documentary film What the Bleep Do We Know? Uncounted companies sell bottles of water that they say has been blessed, or spoken to positively, or exposed to positive energy, or otherwise prepared in some manner according to Emoto's research. One website selling such blessed water (since defunct) even claimed:
Emoto also famously claimed that jars of rice will rot if negative words are written on the containers yet will stay fresh if positive words are used instead, an experiment that has become viral on the Internet. And, of course, his beliefs have been embraced and publicized by Hollywood celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.
But to establish the validity of a scientific claim, we don't look at what pop culture phenomena it has created. Instead, we look at the data; so to learn more about Emoto's hado, we have to set aside all of that. To do science, we start with an observation, and then we form a hypothesis that can be tested; and if the testing bears up under scrutiny, then we reach the point of having an official scientific theory explaining how emotions control the freezing process of water. We have some issues here. First of all, very few scientists have found Emoto's observations to be repeatable; so if you ask most chemists, you'll probably find that almost nobody has bothered to look for something that seems so nonsensical at face value. But at least one researcher, Dr. Dean Radin, has taken Emoto's claims seriously enough to try to replicate the observation. Radin is best known for his Global Consciousness project, in which he proposes that human emotions affect the output of electronic random number generators, so he was predictably receptive to Emoto's very similar claims.
Emoto reveals little about his exact procedures to obtain these photographs, and he's often criticized for this, and for a lack of any controls. Why do some of his photographs look like crisp snowflakes, and why do others look like blobs of water? In the case of virtually all of his published photos, nothing is publicly known about the temperature or other conditions in which the picture was taken, so the great disparity seen among the images is not surprising. In 2005, Radin teamed up with Emoto to publish a protocol which he hoped would establish Emoto's observations as replicable. Their paper was published in 2006 in the energy healing journal called Explore. The researchers took a number of bottles of store-bought water to Radin's Northern California facility, set some bottles aside as controls, and had a group of Emoto's associates in Japan concentrate on a photograph of a few of the target bottles. Radin then sent the bottles to Japan, and described Emoto's process:
100 visitors to Radin's website then rated the beauty of each of the 40 photographs that Kizu had chosen on a scale of 0 to 6. Radin found that the crystals resulting from water on which the Japanese had focused their thoughts were statistically significantly more beautiful. Both Kizu and Radin's volunteers were blinded as to which photos came from which water.
So, at first glance, it sounds like there may actually be something here. Humans had focused positive thoughts on some bottles of water, but not on others; and on average, all the water froze in patterns that produced positive responses correlated to the amount of positive thoughts it had received.
That's the press release version of the research. The hard data version of it, is, unfortunately, less enthusiastic. Dean Radin has something of a reputation for collecting data first, then looking at it and deciding what sort of patterns to look for, according to whatever conclusion he hopes to reach. That's precisely the largest flaw in this particular experiment as well. Kizu was under no restrictions except his own personal whims to decide which pictures he should send back to Radin, and was also allowed to freely choose where in each tray to look for apexes with crystals that he deemed photogenic enough to include, both good and bad. I can't know this, not having been there; but my sense is that in each and every one of the 50 trays (assuming they were all frozen and photographed under similar conditions), I could have found at least one snowflake-looking crystal and at least one boring looking region of ice. Every step of this experiment required each participant to act in a purely subjective manner according to his or her personal preferences. Significantly, there is no mention made in the paper of whether the 100 website visitors had any foreknowledge of Emoto's belief that complex, crisp snowflake shapes are the ones he considers beautiful while rounded, less complex shapes are the ones he considers ugly; but it strains credibility to suggest that Radin's own visitors were completely impartial and unaware of Emoto's preferred outcome.
Nevertheless, while defending against this criticism on his blog, Radin quipped in reference to the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge for proof of a paranormal ability:
Although, considering that neither Radin nor Emoto have ever applied to the Million Dollar Challenge, nor ever discussed with the Foundation what a valid test protocol might look like, nor ever taken or passed any sort of controlled test, it's a bit puzzling why Radin might even joke about considering himself due for the prize. He was probably referring to this challenge issued in 2003 by James Randi personally in his newsletter Swift:
But Emoto never did respond to Randi's challenge, and if the work truly had been done in a fashion that would satisfy peer review, it wouldn't have had to be published in Explore, but could have made waves through the scientific community if it had impressed enough to be published in Nature or Science.
Note that Randi referred to Emoto as "Dr." Emoto. I always wonder why people like Emoto purchase worthless doctorate degrees from diploma mills; Emoto's came from the Open International University in India and required no coursework or curricula. Surely Emoto must know that it's a meaningless degree; no more or less meaningless than one you might type up yourself on your computer. So why spend the money? I understand why he wants to call himself "doctor" — to impress the majority of people out there who don't know to check for the validity of a credential — I just don't understand why he spent money to get one from India rather than simply invent his own equally worthless degree for free. In fact, if you want your own doctorate degree that's every bit as meaningless as one from the Open International University but doesn't cost anything at all, point your browser to my unaccredited online university, ThunderwoodCollege.com, and print out your own diploma in the discipline of your choice in seconds. Congratulations; your own water woo research is now just as academically certified as Masaru Emoto's; the only difference being that he mailed a check to India, and you didn't have to.
By all the accounts I've read, Masaru Emoto is a very nice man who wants only the best for people and for the world. Every indication is that his water vibration ideas are well intentioned; and though he makes money with his books and with selling educational courses about hado, he's not consciously ripping anyone off. But this is a dangerous combination. Con men can be thrown in jail and their pseudoscience then questioned by their victims, but the Emotos of the world have a free pass to erode the public intellect with bad information, and most of their students will never be offered a reason to question the misinformation. Emoto's water woo, though silly, can have a bigger impact than we fear. A lot more people saw What the Bleep than listen to Skeptoid. Approach with extreme caution.
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