Thursday, 5 March 2015

Quantum quackery

One reaction to my writing The Quantum Age is that the number of emails I receive based on a sort of 'quantum mysticism' has doubled. This is where the jargon of quantum theory is applied recklessly, without any of the background science, to imply that something strange and wonderful can happen... because it's 'quantum'.

 I recently had this article on the website of the 'Committee for Skeptical Inquiry' with the same name as my current post brought to my attention. It is rather dated, as it was written 17 years ago, but much of it holds up. A lot of blame is laid at the door of Fritjof Capra's popular book, The Tao of Physics, which draws parallels with aspects of quantum theory and Eastern mysticism (though to be fair to Capra, he doesn't the extra step, made by many New Agers, of going from parallels to assumed causality).

The author of the CSI piece, Victor Stenger, is very blunt in his dismissal of anything mystical, if not mysterious, about quantum theory. He was a physics professor, but the view he gives in this article is not 100% what I'd regard as mainstream physics. He is so enthusiastic to get rid of any possible weirdness that he plays down some aspects. This comes across particularly strongly when he merges the concepts of quantum entanglement and wave function collapse. He says, for instance, that Einstein called wave function  collapse 'spooky action at a distance', but that was a reference to quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that does indeed allow the kind of instant communication at a distance that Stenger is at such efforts to dismiss, although admittedly it is a not a mechanism that allows the communication of non-random information, as there is no way of controlling what is 'transmitted'.

Stenger also seems to dismiss the Feynman path integral approach, commenting that quantum behaviour can be understood 'without discarding the commonsense [sic] notion of particles following definite paths in space and time.'

What we have here, I think, is almost an inverse of Capra. Just as Capra could sometimes be a bit loose with making something of parallels that didn't mean anything, Stenger is so determined to show that quantum physics really isn't strange but is 'common sense' that he overplays the idea that quantum theory is really just good old classical physics with a few bells and whistles.

However much I find the Stenger piece irritating, though, there is no doubt (as often seems to be the case with skeptics with a 'k') he is doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Because there are plenty of people trying to deceive others by claiming all sorts of quantum holistic hogwash. Just because something has a probabilistic component, and seems weird to common sense, as quantum theory certainly does, it does not follow that everything weird is valid. There is no scientific basis for using quantum theory to justify magic.

We know that there are some quantum effects in biology - and it's just possible, despite Stenger's firm denial, that quantum physics plays a role in human consciousness (though it's relatively unlikely, as quantum effects dislike warm and wet conditions). But there is no firm evidence to date for quantum physics underlying strange psychic abilities or medical magic. Unlike a skeptic with a k, I don't dismiss these possibilities out of hand - there is slight, though certainly not definitive, evidence for at least one aspect of ESP (see my Extra Sensory). But even if such abilities were definitively proven, there is no basis as yet for saying that quantum physics has any role to play. And its relevance certainly can't be deduced from any mystical mumbo jumbo.

So, unless it's used in a scientific context*, beware 'quantum' like the plague.

* With the exception of uses where it is not intended to portray weird mysticism, such as the Bond film Quantum of Solace, or Finish Quantum dishwasher tablets, which actually work quite well.

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