Quantum Mechanics and Pseudoscience: How To Approach It

Discussion in 'Science and Nature' started by Sam_Spade, Aug 14, 2008.

  1. #1 Sam_Spade, Aug 14, 2008
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 14, 2008

    I think this is a commonly misunderstood field of science and is regularly the source of much confusion. Hopefully this may, in some small part, help to clarify.

    The following is an excerpt from a book by the famed astronomer and popularizer of science, Dr. Carl Sagan

    "Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechanics is about. There is a mathematical underpinning that you must first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading you to the threshold of the next. In turn you must learn arithmetic, Euclidan geometry, high school algebra, differential and integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, matrix algebra, and group theory. For most physics students, this might occupy them from, say, third grade to early graduate school - roughly 15 years. Such a course of study does not actually involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply.

    The job of the popularizer of science, trying to get across some idea of quantum mechanics to a general audience that has not gone through these initiation rites, is daunting. Indeed, there are no successful popularizers of quantum mechanics in my opinion -- partly for this reason. These mathematical complexities are compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuative. Common sense is almost useless in approaching it. It's not good, Richard Feynman once said, asking why it is that way. No one knows why it is that way. That's just the way it is.

    Now suppose we were to approach some obscure religion or New Age doctrine or shamanistic belief system skeptically. We have an open mind; we understand there's something interesting here; we introduce ourselves to the practitioner and ask for an intelligible summary. Instead we are told that it's intrinsically too difficult to be explained simply, and it's repleted with 'mysteries,' but if we're willing to become acolytes for 15 years, at the end of that time we might begin to be prepared to consider the subject seriously. Most of us, I think, would say that we simply don't have time; and many would suspect that the business about 15 years just to get to the threshold of understanding is evidence that the whole subject is a bamboozle: If it's too hard for us to understand, doesn't it follow that it's too hard for us to criticize knowledgeably? Then the bamboozle has free rein.

    So how is shamanistic or theological or New Age doctrine different from quantum mechanics? The answer is that even if we cannot understand it, we can verify that quantum mechanics works. We can compare the quantitative predictions of quantum theory with the measured wavelengths of spectral lines of the chemical elements, the behavior of semiconductors and liquid helium, microprocessors, which kinds of molecules form from their constituent atoms, the existence and properties of white dwarf stars, what happens in masers and laser, and which materials are susceptible to which kinds of magnetism. We don't have to understand the theory to see what it predicts. We don't have to be accomplished physicists to read what the experiments reveal. In every one of these instances --as in many others -- the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to high accuracy, confirmed.

    But the shaman tells us that his doctrine is true because it too works -- not on arcane matters of mathematical physics but on what really counts: He can cure people. Very well, then, let's accumulate the statistics on shamanistic cures, and see if they work better than placebos. If they do, let's willingly grant that there's something here -- even if it's only that some illnesses are psychogenic, and can be cured or mitigated by the right attitudes and mental states
    . We can also compare the efficiency of alternative shamanistic systems.

    Whether the shaman grasps why his cures work is another story. In quantum mechanics we have a purported understanding of Nature on the basis of which, step by step and quantitatively, we make predictions about what will happen if a certain experiment bears out the prediction -- especially if it does so numerically and precisely -- we have confidence that we knew what we were doing. There are at best few examples with this character among shamans, priests, and New Age gurus.

    Another Important distinction was suggested in Reason and Nature, the 1931 book by Morris Cohen, a celebrated philosopher of science:

    To be sure, the vast majority of people who are untrained can accept the results of science only on authority. But there is obviously an important difference between an establishment that is open and invites every one to come, study its methods, and suggest improvement, and one that regards the questioning of its credentials as due to wickedness of the heart, such as Newman attributed to those who questions the infallibility of the Bible . . . Rational science treats its credit notes as always redeemable on demand, while non-rational authoritarianism regards the demand for the redemption of its paper as a disloyal act of faith."

    From the book entitled: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Dr. Carl Sagan, 1996, ISBN: 978-0-345-40946-1

    Pages 249 - 251, Chapter 14 "Antiscience"

    Note: this does not accurately reflect the author's take on many various claims of dubious origin. That particular paragraph is out of context, in reference to the chapter.. To better understand this particular statement, please borrow this book from your local library.

    I hope you have enjoyed this little excerpt. Perhaps this has even enticed you to read the book.

    Yours Truly,
  2. Don't be scared, it won't bite.
  3. Thanks for sharing, it was a good read. I have not read that book and I believe that is a big oversight on my part. I'll have to get it.
  4. Anything by Carl Sagan is good, and often excellent. My personal Hero :)
  5. Quite true indeed, well written.

    shimmy shimmy shimmy, shimmy yaw shimmy yay
  6. Thank-you for the thread. Some of us truly appreciate proof. Or even attempts at questioning the unknown.
  7. Interesting....very interesting indeed :). I was watching Elegant Universe and they touched on quantum mechanics a little. One passage that helped explain QM to me was roughly

    Again this is off my head.
  8. Are you sure? I've been bitten my own lack of mathematical prowess before.

    Just bumpin' it once for old timers, like me, who were partly victimized by an educational system that spent more time being a baby sitter than actually stimulating thinkers. I was given a public school education, that took little notice of anyone who was unarmed, and simply doled out the 'chicken nuggets' mindset, that we could all be pushed into the same mould.

    I wish I was smarter, therefore I read a lot. Thanks for a cool read recommendation.

    An observation from my corner of the world, though, is that religious or theistic private schools are multiplying like rabbits, in my town, and many others, even in a bad economy, large numbers of people appear to be willing to invest in the maintenance of their own ideologies, and to consider it a superior way of educating young minds. How can this be countered?
  9. Hah! yeah, you and me both.

    Yeah, institutionalized education in general failed me. I found out quite late in my education that I needed to take an initiative and teach myself everything the schools were failing to.

    It's still very much an uphill battle, at least from my perspective. That's why I'm glad for people like Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, even the likes of Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, Penn and Teller, James Randi and pretty much anybody who advocates critical thinking.

    Oh boy... I don't know how to answer that one...

    I'd like to hear Zylark's take on theistic education, though.
  10. I actually just ordered this book from amazon, been meaning to read it for a while. Thanks for the excerpt!
  11. Post back here when you're finished. I'm really interested to hear what you think! :)

  12. :)

    Meh, what can I say? Secular government requires secular schools. Makes me happy. Those that are not can finance their own schools, no tax breaks, no government financing.

    But in either case, parents are the best teachers. If they get involved and sit down with their children to augment the limited education standard schools give, what could be better? And the child would get to hear different stories of the curriculum if there is a conflict, and make up its own mind. Not to mention race ahead on other subjects. :)

    Nothing else makes you fucked up enough to handle the real world than school, that got to count for something :D
  13. Will do. The first thing I saw by Carl Sagan was pale blue dot and I've been hooked ever since.
  14. Interesting, I enjoyed it.

    Here's a blog I stumbled across one day and found it very fun to read, and interesting.

    You guys may enjoy it just as I have, read on!


    Experience is the best teacher, it's the parents' role to be the teacher's aid. :)

  15. yeah, something about seeking knowledge its always an uphill battle. So much to learn, so little time!!!!:eek: thanks for the read recomendation
  16. Unfortunately it isn't.

    The film "What the bleep do we know" is actually a pseudoscientific marvel of new age mysticism. The film has been heavily criticized by physicists and the greater scientific community for it's significant misinterpretation of experimental evidence it's implications.

    It does have a lot of facts in it, but is steeped knee-deep in garbage.

    Not to mention it was produced by Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, the home organization of the charlatan JZ Knight. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSK1La6wpZU

    Be very careful what you take away from this movie.
  17. hey, thanks man you just saved me the trouble of waisting my time with that bullshit. I did smell bullshit but kept watching. Damn shouldve stuck with my guns.
  18. I fell for a lot of it my first watch-through too, no worries :D
  19. its all good, when im a quantum physicist I'll look back at this and laugh:D

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