Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” Good on History, Lost on Science

September 28, 2009

In the months leading up to the release of the new thriller “The Lost Symbol” there seems to have been a general turn away from Dan Brown and a deeper criticism of his writing style. While I admit his prose are extremely simple and his metaphors silly, I remain a fan of the genre and an admirer of his extraordinary interweaving of history, symbolism, architecture and art, into a modern plot.

His latest book is more of the same, but having recently finished it I wanted to share an observation. The novel gets a lot of history right, but it gets a lot of science very, very wrong. And while it is just a novel, it does begin with the following preamble:

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

First, “Spoiler Alert!” The lost message is, ultimately and quite pathetically: “God”.

Let me elaborate. The novel makes some strong and important points about the real history of the deistic - rather than Christian - beliefs of the American founders. Brown has a character describe the Jeffersonian bible which was created by Thomas Jefferson by removing Gospel miracles. The character explains:

“America’s forefathers had a vision of a spiritually enlightened utopia, in which freedom of thought, education of the masses, and scientific advancement would replace the darkness of outdated religious superstition”

In fact, Brown details the pagan elements in Washington DC, including the Washington Monument which is an Egyptian obelisk, the George Washington Masonic memorial which was inspired by the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, and most shockingly a crypt with an eternal flame under the Rotunda of the US Capital building, the room itself decorated with images of Pagan divinities.

It made for interesting history and a good connection to Brown’s central story about the “Ancient Mysteries”, but when those Mysteries are credited with scientific insights, that’s when the book takes a turn for the worse.

In essence, Brown moves far beyond fact when he claims that the Ancient Mystery religions anticipated all of modern science, and conversely when he claims that modern science proves religious mystical claims. When he makes the latter point, he may be either apologizing for previous writings that some believed showed disrespect to religion, or showing a general bias in favour of the “theist club” but his ultimate conclusion is that every culture and people on the planet of all time periods have agreed on one thing: God.

The science in “The Lost Symbol” revolves around something called Noetic Sciences. Quackwatch lists the Institute of Noetic Sciences in its list of questionable organizations . Noetic science involves claims that human thought can affect physical mass and that science is therefore paving the road to mysticism. Brown has characters make claims that this has been proven in controlled and repeatable experiments. The book also references the Institute with work involving the discovery that after 9/11, 37 random number generators became less random.

This refers to the Global Consciousness Project , which Wikipedia describes as follows:

The Global Consciousness Project ( GCP , also called the EGG Project ) is an experiment begun in 1998 that aims to detect potential interactions of global consciousness with physical systems, by generating random numbers and attempting to uncover patterns in them that might correlate with major world events. It maintained by an international collaboration of about 100 research scientists and engineers, based on research from Princeton University.

But there’s a problem, as this site explains

The U.S. invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003. The data showed no sign of it. The space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry on February 1, 2003, but had no effect on the random number generators. An earthquake in Turkey on August 17, 1999 killed nearly 4,000 people, but you wouldn’t know it from examining the pattern of random numbers.

So what’s going on here? Why are these researchers claiming that their random number generators are evidence of a global consciousness? Because they’re humans, and humans are very good at seeing connections—even when there is no connection to be seen.

When a presumably important event happens, someone makes a prediction that they will see a corresponding deviation in the data. They then examine the data to see whether that is in fact the case. If they see that the data has deviated from the average, that is deemed significant! If they find that the data has not deviated from the average, well, that’s not significant, is it?

They also look for deviations in data at any point into the past or future of the actual event without any predetermined amount of search time. Nor is there a predetermined amount or type of change from randomness.

Also referenced in the book is Lynne McTaggart, author of The Field and The Intention Experiment . She leads the Intention Experiment, described as (insert quote) “a large scale web-based investigation to discover whether intentions can affect the physical world.” You may also have seen her in the pseudoscience “classic” What the Bleep Do We Know!? .

Brown writes:

“Katherin Solomon’s research had vaulted forward, proving that “focused thought” could affect literally anything - the growth rate of plants, the direction tha fish swam in a bowl, the manner in which cells divided in a petri dish, the synchronization of separately automated systems, and the chemical reactions in one’s own body. Even the crystalline structure of a newly forming solid was rendered mutable by sending loving thoughts to a glass of water as it froze.”

Her brother then explains to her how mystics had discovered modern chemistry, physic’s entanglement theory and even the 10 dimensions of string theory. The latter refers to the Zohar’s ten Sefirot, or divine “ emanations “.

These lines particularly insult me:

“science wasn’t so much making “discoveries” as it was making “rediscoveries”

“perhaps we simply need science to catch up with the wisdom of the ancients”

Much like prophecies in general, these ancient discoveries were entirely useless for modern science until they were found in the ancient texts after their true and original discovery by science.

But it gets better:

"Does anyone hear prayers, life after death, do humans have souls “Katherine had answered all of these questions, and more. Scientifically. Conclusively. The methods she used were irrefutable. Even the most skeptical of people would be persuaded by the results of her experiments"

In any case, I wouldn’t waste my time on a novel except for the fact that, as stated earlier, Brown makes the claim that all science in the book is real and for the record it most definitely is not.


#1 Personal Failure (Guest) on Monday September 28, 2009 at 10:35am

If I’m sufficiently loving to a glass of water as it freezes, does the glass not break?

#2 JakeR (Guest) on Monday September 28, 2009 at 2:26pm

Not only is Brown’s style poor and his arguments simplistic, his oeuvre is hopelessly flawed movie treatments masquerading as novels. They lack character development, realistic scenarios, and rational choices by their characters. His big blockbuster, for example, has an educated and presumably worldly police agent who is French, for God’s sake, holding her widowed grandfather’s sexuality as a deep, dark secret, even apparently to herself.

#3 peterb on Monday September 28, 2009 at 2:27pm

I wouldn’t expect anything but fiction from DBrown on science. Ditto for L. McTaggart and the Bleep people, who promote the worst of new-age fuzziness. But Justin is dead wrong on the Global Consciousness Project. Unfortunately, Justin gets his info third hand from a blog - as do most bloggers - and his comments are about as accurate as, well, new-age fuzziness. The Global Consciousness Project is a serious experiment that has produced a subtle and puzzling result. There’s a link to the most recent research paper on the home page. Not easy reading, however, so bloggers might want to skip it…

#4 Keith Harrison (Guest) on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 12:32pm


The whole idea of global consciousness affecting random number generators is completely without theoretical support. There is not even any indication that there exists such a thing as a “global consciousness”, let alone why such an entity would affect, of all things, random number generators.

Any effects of a “global consciousness”, apart from normal verbal and written communication, would require some sort of transport of thoughts through physical space outside people’s brains which, again, has never been observed and has no theoretical foundation.  In short, it’s poppycock.

#5 peterb on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 4:16pm

Comment #4 is a fine example of the point I make. People often don’t inform themselves and, worse, somehow assume they don’t need to. But one needs to read the research. If you do, you’ll learn that “global consciousness” simply refers to explained data correlations which occur at the time of large scale human events. A puzzling result, but there it is. Keith is correct (in spite of himself) when he says there is no theoretical understanding for this result. Most (not all) science happens this way; an unexplained observation is only understood theoretically at a later time (sometimes much later; superconductivity is a good example).

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