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What note is your toaster? ‘The Sound of Silence’ is an unlikely, unintentional skeptic anthem

A beautiful story that also informs.

When I first saw the marketing copy for The Sound of Silence, my heart sank. The independent film about a New York City “house tuner,” someone who balances the “frequencies” of all the objects in your home in an effort to cure, well, whatever issue was beleaguering you at the moment, seemed to be glorifying the kind of charlatan chicanery that keeps feng shui practitioners in business, and sells people water as medicine. And it was being supported by Sloan Science & Film, no less!

Sloan Science and Film is an outreach program run by Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a non-profit organization that awards grants to artists who strive for more “realistic” portrayals of science and technology. Now, artists can be known to be a little, let’s say, less discriminating in their standards of scientific evidence, so even before the ads come out, I can get a little concerned. A screening of the film was announced on Facebook, and the description of that looked a little more … promising?

Join the Museum of the Moving Image for the new film The Sound of Silence, starring Peter Sarsgaard as a New York City “house tuner” who is more sensitive to his surrounding environment than most. For a living, he tunes clients’ household appliances to correct disharmonies, which he believes can help with everything from depression to chronic fatigue. That is, until he meets Ellen (Rashida Jones).

So I gave it a shot, but was unnerved anew when the program’s executive editor, Sonia Epstein, quoted the film’s writer and producer, Ben Nabors, as saying that sometimes “you have to convince yourself and others that something is there, or that it’s worth pursuing, before you have any hard proof yourself,” which struck me as kind of backward. I settled in and bit my lip as the lights dimmed.

Our introduction to Peter Lucian is in the apartment of a distressed man looking for some relief from the loud music coming from next door. The man becomes further irritated when he realizes Lucian isn’t there to soundproof his apartment, but instead says the real source of his anxiety is the out of tune radiator. But then we hear voice-overs of answering machine messages (because Lucian is sensitive to electronic noise, and doesn’t use a cell phone) praising his work, telling him “whatever you did to my blender,” it seems to have helped.

So maybe there is something to this, or maybe it’s confirmation bias. Most people who hire Lucian, of course, want his techniques to work, so they can trick themselves into thinking they actually do. Almost like a placebo effect. That motivation is only heightened by the monetary cost sunk into purchasing his services. “I paid for it — it better damn well work!

Ellen Chasen had Lucian recommended to her by some particularly crunchy friends who also sent her to an acupuncturist and a woman who says she can help with your problems by looking at your tongue. The New York transplant from Ohio can’t sleep and is always tired, and will try anything for a change. Lucian tells her she needs to replace her B flat toaster.

As The Sound of Silence progresses, though, we learn more about Chasen’s life. Specifically, she says it’s weird to still be getting Patrick’s mail, and to have things of his hanging around in the apartment. It’s never made apparent whether Patrick broke up with her (or worse), but it does become clear these are the real issues she’s struggling with, and a therapist would probably get the job done better than a guy with three tuning forks.

Still, after the film, first-time director Michael Tyburski told the audience he doesn’t think Lucian is a charlatan, and honestly, I kind of agree. Confirmation bias can affect the practitioner as well as the subject. When Chasen doesn’t get better from her toaster treatment, Lucian dismisses it as a simple “anomaly,” choosing to remember his techniques’ successes and forget the failures.

Lucian is a science outsider by choice, preferring to rely on his older, analog equipment and and his own judgment when collecting data and assessing it for possible patterns. After sinking so much time and effort into developing this model, its success becomes a reflection of his success. That’s why it’s best to share your data with your peers, or at least get some advice, early in the process, to make sure your emotions aren’t clouding your judgment, and that the path you’re on is worth pursuing.

Lucian is forced into action when a corporation selling apartment soundscapes pulls his research out from under him, a reminder that even if something is unproven (and maybe especially in New York), people will make money off of it if they can. So in an effort to show the world he had the idea first, Lucian finally submits a paper to the appropriate journal, and confronts its editor after a lecture when he doesn’t hear back right away. He understands things usually take time (does he?), but this is an extenuating circumstance.

At first, the editor doesn’t recognize his name, and is then taken aback, saying she thought they’d never actually meet. “I didn’t think you were serious,” she says, in an admittedly heart-breaking moment, one that’s sadly all too common in real life. Scientific journals (especially ones devoted to physics) are continually sent unsolicited manuscripts claiming to have unlocked the secrets of cold fusion, or finally discovered the elusive universal field theory.

It’s not that scientists aren’t open to new ideas, but a lot of these things either don’t have the data to support the claim, or flagrantly violate theory that is already well-established, or both. Is Lucian’s model different? It’s impossible for the audience to tell for sure, and a window for success is left open a crack when Chasen tells Lucian she’s (unsurprisingly) feeling better after painting the apartment and clearing out some old things, and we see his last attempt to help her, a dongle plugged into the wall, blink to life.

Tyburski calls this ending “satisfyingly ambiguous,” and that’s okay. The evidence is still heavily tilted in one direction, and that’s a lot better than a skeptical perspective usually receives on screen. I don’t believe Tyburski set out to make a cautionary tale of self-deception in The Sound of Silence, but it can certainly be viewed that way. Any skeptic wanting to engagingly show how weird beliefs develop and persist, when facts fall on deaf ears, may want to add this to their outreach efforts.

Note:  A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed Ben Nabors’ quote to Sonia Epstein herself. AiPT! Science regrets the error.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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