Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Quantum Physics
I have decided to expand this website a little and address quantum woo and quantum mysticism more directly. Quantum woo is the justification of irrational beliefs using confused, vague, and ambiguous references to quantum physics. Many people do not understand quantum physics. But, they know that it predicts and explains some weird things. So, con-artists dupe their audiences by stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that it explains whatever it is they are pushing. Ignorant and credulous consumers are eager to buy their quantum healing, or quantum self-help programs, or their “proof” of an afterlife. It’s much easier to simply believe them than to try to comprehend the mathematical and experimental constraints that science requires you to understand.
Examples of quantum woo include quantum healing, quantum touch, healing through “frequencies” or “energies”, claims of a “one-ness” with the universe or a consciousness that pervades the universe, or the ability to shape one’s destiny with your mind (specifically, they mean directly influencing and manipulating your world with your thoughts, not by your thoughts motivating your actions which then influence your surroundings). Products such as The Secret or What the Bleep Do We Know!? are excellent examples of this. Also, just about anything written or said by Deepak Chopra. Any claims that quantum physics proves the existence of an afterlife or a universal consciousness also fall into this category.
The Challenge of Being Skeptical About Quantum Woo
Over the years, many authors have written books that claim evidence for some deep role of consciousness in guiding the universe, or a connection between quantum physics and Eastern Mysticism, for example. Some of these authors have even been credentialed scientists. That, along with the vague interpretation and description of quantum mechanics adopted by its creators in the first half of the twentieth century (i.e. the Copenhagen Interpretation), makes it difficult to convince the casual reader that this quantum nonsense should be dismissed out of hand. However, these individuals were mistaken; their claims or conjectures were wrong. Using them to justify continued support for nonsense that has since been theoretically and experimentally de-bunked makes no more sense than using the fact that Isaac Newton studied alchemy to justify someone’s claim that he or she can transmute anything into gold just by touching it.
So why worry about the perpetuation of quantum woo? The potential harm includes:
- Financial exploitation of gullible audiences.
- Health risks for those that decide to rely on “quantum healing” or similar nonsense in place of proven treatments.
- Encouraging people to avoid dealing with the real sources behind their problems.
- Encouraging political or educational complacency (why work hard to solve “real” problems; why work hard to learn “real” science).
- Misdirection of research funds, resources, and priorities, towards dead-end claims.
- Wasted careers for those that pursue “research” in these areas; making no contribution to furthering our understanding of the universe; no contribution to improving the quality of life for mankind.
- Misleading of the public about the nature and limits of science.
- Erosion of public confidence in the scientific process and legitimate scientific results.
- A waste of time and a distraction for those who want to learn real science, but who may not yet be able to distinguish the difference between science and pseudoscience.
First and foremost, the best defense against quantum woo and the charlatans that promote it, is knowledge and a proper conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics. So, I will continue to write about quantum physics theory and experiments; providing background knowledge as well as separating myth, misconception, and fact. I will also expound on the history of quantum physics and it’s portrayal in the classroom and in the media. Additionally, I will be adding some additional pages to this website, pages with information and resources for skepticism and critical thinking.
Armed with this knowledge of what quantum physics is and is not, my hope is that people can use the tools of skepticism and critical thinking to help make the world safe for science and reason. My goal is not to convert the likes of Deepak Chopra. Rather, I want to give people the tools to recognize BS when they see or hear it, and to apply skepticism and critical thinking to myths, misconceptions, and deceptions involving quantum physics.
The Prototypical Quantum Woo-Master
Deepak Chopra is the poster child for the quantum woo movement. He has made millions of dollars from people too ignorant and too gullible to realize that his books and speeches are nonsense. One example is the Nightline Face-off debate: Chopra and Houston versus Shermer and Harris, Does God Have a Future? You can watch the entire debate at that link.
An example of the word salad that Chopra likes to mix together is this: “Today, science tells us that the essential nature of reality is non-local correlation. Everything is connected to everything else. But there is hidden creativity. There are quantum leaps of creativity. There’s something called the observer effect where intention orchestrates space-time events.”
First of all, the so-called observer effect in quantum mechanics has nothing to do with intention orchestrating space-time events. And non-local correlations are present only in very specific systems and circumstances. Moreover, the intrinsic randomness in quantum mechanics precludes us from using non-local correlations in any sort of “intentional” way. Before you start catapulting from non-local correlations to speculations about “hidden creativity” or what exactly it means to be “connected to everything else”, you need to understand what the words used by scientists actually mean. Chopra’s assertions are completely baseless and unsupported.
During the question/answer session of that debate, Sara Mayhew (illustrator, writer, and skeptic) asked an insightful question. I encourage you to check out her webpage and blog. Her question to Deepak Chopra was:
“Deepak mentioned that there are deeper ways of knowing, …based on intuition and the subjective. …If we don’t use the objective scientific method, how do we distinguish what is true from what we simply want to be true?”
Chopra does not answer the question but makes it painfully obvious that he does not understand the vocabulary of science, much less the concepts of science. His response includes “nature does not decide that this is the subject, that is the object…” He doesn’t understand the meaning of subjective versus objective claims, hence he cannot possibly understand the scientific process nor why it succeeds where hope, faith, and feelings do not.
subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions; dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.
For example, if I believe that I am connected with the universe through a universal consciousness because it makes me feel good or because I fear the alternative, that does not make it true. If I believe that all super models would love to date me if only they had a chance to meet me, the idea may make me feel good, but it is nonetheless delusional.
objective: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.
This includes repeatable and verifiable experimental evidence. For example, we use the scientific method to figure out what medications or treatments actually work, based on data and not based on opinion, wishful thinking, or desire. Some subjective claims can be made objective by quantifying them, or making testable predictions based on them (rendering them falsifiable).
Apparently, Chopra does understand the meaning of obfuscation, because he is so effective at it: to render unclear, or unintelligible; to hide the intended meaning, to make communication confusing, willfully ambiguous, and harder to interpret. One thing is certain. If a conscious universe wants to be taken seriously, he/she has to find a better spokesperson, someone who understands the scientific process and understands why it works so well (when used correctly).