Monday, 13 February 2017

Confronting Quantum Woo. Part 1: Common Mistakes.

As many of you know, as well as being a blogger of ill-repute, I'm also a student of physics, part-time, currently in my third year of a degree. For the past year and a half, that study has concentrated on aspects of quantum mechanics. As a result of this, I'm shocked at how quantum mechanics is presented to the general public. Much of what I read about quantum theory in over the counter pop-science books before I began studying was simply wrong or over-simplified to the point where it may as well be wrong. Nowhere is this more prevalent that when it's used for the purposes of supporting mind-body duality or psi-phenomena or any number of unverified non-materialistic ideas. When used in this way, quantum physics is distorted and misrepresented to the nth degree, but correcting those distortions is laborious and often unrewarding.

There's another reason many qualified physicists don't debate these ideas. As Robert May, President of the Royal Society from 2000-2005, responded when asked why he refused to debate creationists:
'That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine'. 
There's an argument that professors arguing against pseudoscience risk lending credibility to that pseudoscience. Would a debate between a leading biologist and a creationist like Ken Ham, risk legitimising creationism in the eyes of believers? Quite possibly. Also, it's hard to live debate pseudoscience from a scientific standpoint. the pseudo-scientist is free to make any claims without validation, whilst the scientist must rely on peer-reviewed studies and available data. That either requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of a subject that few possess and the ability to predict curve balls the pseudo-scientist may throw out. Unfortunately, this means that occasionally very bad ideas and concepts go unchallenged by the people with the requisite skills and qualifications to challenge these ideas.

What follows started as my appraisal of an article published on the website collective evolution on 14th January, entitled "QUANTUM THEORY SHEDS LIGHT ON WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE: THE AFTERLIFE" but it soon became clear to me that there's so much wrong with the article, and much of that touches not just on the misunderstanding of quantum physics, but of science as a whole that one post simply wouldn't cover all the bases. Nor, would it seem prudent to limit the criticism to this one post. The criticisms I'll make also apply to at least three other quantum physics/consciousness survives death articles I read in preparation for writing this. In addition to that, it's necessary to focus on the main source for the article in more depth than I originally intended. I'll also reference points made to me by supporters of quantum woo when these and other such articles were published on a social media sites.

In the first part, I'll cover some common mistakes made by supporters of quantum woo that also apply to arguments that favour other pseudo-scientific ideas. In the second part, I'll deal with mistakes that are specific to quantum physics.

The list that follows is by no means complete.

Common Mistake 1: "Scientist X believes Y"  An argument from authority.


The article quotes two prominent contributors to quantum mechanics, Max Planck and Eugene Wigner. The quotes are as follows
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” Max Planck (1931)
“It was possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” -Eugene Wigner (undated-taken from a letter written in the last decades of his life) 
What's important to note is these observations are separate from Planck and Wigner's work in quantum physics. What Planck and Wigner are discussing here are their beliefs, not their theories. There are no scientific findings that show consciousness is necessary as part of a quantum system. This is exemplified by the fact that Wigner's quote continues "....I firmly believe that in whatever way our future concepts may develop, the very study of the external world leads to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality..." Wigner's belief has yet to have met fruition. Quantum physicists quite happily formulate the laws of physics on a non-macroscopic scale without recourse to consciousness. This may be why the article fails to cite the whole quote and omits a source for the quote.

When quoting these two prominent figures in quantum physics who believed that consciousness was fundamental to the associated theories, proponents of quantum woo don't mention hundreds of equally prominent figures who strongly believe consciousness has no role no play in the collapse of the wave function. They also fail to recognise there's a reason that the scientific method is so successful, it forces those that use it to abandon their beliefs at the door. It prevents belief from becoming theory. Therefore, these quotes fall firmly into the logical fallacy category of argument from authority.

Which brings us to:

Common Mistake 2: The Doctor/scientist trope. An argument from false authority. 


The article goes on to discuss another scientist, Robert Lanza, who unlike Planck and Wigner is attempting to prove a correlation between quantum physics and consciousness. But there's a clear bait and switch here. Also, unlike Planck and Wigner, Lanza isn't a physicist or a mathematician. Here's how the article describes Lanza's qualifications and expertise. See if you can spot the bait and switch:
"In 2010, one of the most respected scientists in the world, Robert Lanza, published a book titled Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding The True Nature of the Universe. An expert in regenerative medicine and the scientific director of Advanced Cell Technology Company, Lanza is also very interested in quantum mechanics and astrophysics..."
Interested? So not qualified then? I'm very interested in psychology, but I don't for one second assume this gives me the right to start proposing revolutionary theories in the field. I think Lanza and others who propose revolutionary ideas in quantum physics are suffering from a form of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they believe a cursory knowledge of the subject they aim to pontificate one is sufficient simply because they only possess a cursory knowledge of the subject!

Proponents of Lanza's theory fail to see the issue with his lack of qualifications as a result of what science blogger Max Power calls the "doctor scientist trope" most easily exemplified in popular culture.


There's no argument that Lanza is remarkably skilled in his field of cell biology. His achievements speak for themselves and he is clearly a remarkably intelligent man. But, he isn't a physicist. You wouldn't go to a cardiologist for a root canal, would you? And I doubt adding "he's the best cardiologist in the world, with an interest in dentistry" would change your mind.

Supporters of quantum woo often meet this argument by claiming that developments in science often come from left field, and even I have pointed out in the past that the progress of science is sometimes non-linear.

Common Mistake 3: Do the math(s).... Ignoring the formal presentation of quantum physics


 In the course of writing  this rebuttal Lanza's lack of qualifications in the area of quantum mechanics were sharply illustrated to me, courtesy of one of his supporters during a facebook conversation. Martin sent me a page of Lanza's book Biocentricism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe in an attempt to show me how mathematically robust it is. In the text, Lanza attempts to explain a Lorentz transformation between two inertial reference frames exemplified by the twin paradox.  


Even though Lorentz transformations strictly don't have much use in quantum mechanics, breaking down the passage above shows Lanza doesn't have the requisite mathematical skill to formulate theories in quantum physics. There are several problems with the above passage. First the trivial: Lanza doesn't use standard SI units. Equations such as the Lorentz transformation equations of which there are several are based on the use of standard units. Conversion from years and seconds and miles and metres are simple enough but it's telling that Lanza hasn't attempted to use his conclusion in an actual example. Secondly, the v doesn't represent the velocity of the travelling frame but the relative velocity between the two frames, which is only a trivial error if we model one of the frames as stationary. If both frames are moving relative to each other, it's certainly not trivial.

A mistake that is also far less trivial is the fact that Lanza, rather laughably, gets the equation he cites as "quite simple" and later "meat and potatoes" completely wrong! He gives the Lorentz factor, which is found in all the Lorentz transformations, explicitly as:

ΔT = t√1-v²/c²

Where he gives delta T as the time in the moving observer's reference frame and t as the real time in the stationary observer's frame. Lanza takes the square root of just 1, not of 1-v²/c². This is completely laughable as the square root of 1 is just 1 so why would Lanza think it was relevant to include? Possibly because even very basic maths eludes him?

Let's look at the actual formulation Lanza needs, and consider its use in an example of a muon travelling towards Earth at a velocity of 3/5 the speed of light. If an observer on Earth records the time elapsed for the particle as 2.75 us, how much time elapses for an observer travelling with the particle?
Where the delta tau (the curly t) is the time progression in the reference frame of our travelling particle and delta t the time progression in our hypothetical lab.

Rearranging to make delta tau our subject gives:



Plugging in our values

Which is a reasonable result in fitting with Einstein's theory of special relativity which states that clocks run slower for moving observers, the result using Lanza's formula remains consistent but is incorrect.

From what I can see from a brief look at a PDF of Lanza's book is that there is little to no mathematics, the Lorentz factor is one of the only equations I can see given explicitly at any point and it's both nothing to do with quantum mechanics and wrong!

This is so important because more so than other areas of physics, quantum mechanics is based on abstract mathematical models. The values and associated probabilities of observables in quantum mechanics arise from manipulations of Schrodinger's equation as do concepts such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Without being able to perform these manipulations one simply can't do quantum physics. Does that make me sound like an elitist snob?

Tough. It's the truth.

Looking through the index of Lanza's book shows no mention of Schrodinger's equation. When he mentions a particle existing in a superposition of states he doesn't seem to understand that wavefunctions and superpositions are mathematical models, not physical realities. We need these mathematical descriptors in quantum physics because it's beyond our ability to physically describe or determine these states. Lanza isn't alone in these mathematical failings, I've yet to see an article or book that proposes a connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics that doesn't gloss over or reject mathematical formalism. 

Speaking of books...

Common Mistake 4: Popular Literature Vs Peer Reviewed Literature


No major scientific breakthroughs have ever been made in popular literature, if Lanza's work is so revolutionary why hasn't he submitted it to peer-review. It may be because Lanza hasn't actually conducted any experimentation for himself. His "theory" is based on his misinterpretation of existing work by other physicists. There are no original results in his book, nor is there a working hypothesis. His book simply wouldn't pass peer-review, nor would the work of his fellow quantum woo distributors such as Deepak Chopra. Supporters of Lanza and Chopra would argue that peer review isn't perfect and they are right, it's not. Sometimes bias shows through and sometimes findings that pass peer review are overturned, but it's literally the best system we have for assessing scientific ideas. The infrastructure of modern scientific understanding is based on the framework of peer review, anyone can put literally anything in a book or on the internet, the same cannot be said for peer-reviewed journals.

Supporters of quantum woo often meet this argument by claiming that developments in science often come from left field, and even I have pointed out in the past that the progress of science is indeed sometimes non-linear in nature. In the course of making this rebuttal, they will often cite Einstein and special or general relativity as an example of a paradigm changing ideas emerging from non-establishment sources. And it's certainly true that in 1905 when Einstein wrote four of the major papers of his career that changed physics forever, he was not part of the physics establishment working as he did as a patents clerk. Despite this, Einstein still was a qualified physicist, his degree didn't lie in cell biology as with Lanza, or epidemiology as with Deepak Chopra. Proponents of quantum woo often go on to cite the physics establishment's reluctance to accept many of Einstein's findings as if confirming their theories and concepts also having validity. The problem with this idea is plucky Einstein's ideas didn't win through because he simply stuck at them, or published vanity press books. Einstein's theories won out because people went out and collected evidence that could only be explained by those theories being correct. This is something that has yet to be done for the quantum/consciousness connection. If indeed, this is something that can be evidenced at all.

Common Mistake 5: When No Formal Education Is An Advantage

When considering quantum woo claims one of the first arguments I make is that in two years of formal, degree level education in the subject, I've haven't come across one reference to consciousness as a cause of wave-function collapse. That's in roughly seven text books and hundreds of pages of additional material in addition to hours of lectures and tutorials. A mathematical model of reality can't have a component that can't be described mathematically, and there is no formal description of consciousness. This incredulity is often met with accusations that formal physics education actively seeks to suppress radical theories. As the aforementioned Martin put to me:
"No. You've just spent two years studying the "shut up and calculate" side of QT while either ignoring, or being denied information on, the nature-of-reality side of things."
Except quantum physics education does include discussion of the nature of reality. The many worlds and Copenhagen interpretations of quantum physics are heavily discussed in physics degrees. What isn't discussed is wild unfounded speculation.

There's a supremely unthinking arrogance in suggesting that a lack of formal education in an extremely complex subject is a benefit to its understanding and even to developing new ideas within its framework. Further suggesting that such an education may actually be detrimental. It's an insult to the people who've dedicated their lives to furthering knowledge in these fields, be they any field of science of any discipline at all for that matter.  And further to that it's potentially quite dangerous. We rely on scientists and good avenues of communication to reach politicians and world leaders with correct and contemporary scientific findings so they can make informed decisions. The suggestion that a formal education isn't needed to understand these complicated concepts muddies these waters. 
As an example of this perhaps none is more prescient than that of climate change.

We are currently in a situation in which a major World leader believes climate change is a hoax. Unless proper scientific information can be relayed to the American government quickly, they likely to pull out of various carbon-emission limiting deals and protocols. Following this, without the caution of listening to actual climate scientists being heeded, other countries may well follow suit and also extricate themselves from such deals.

In the next part: how proponents of quantum woo abuse the most fundamental experimental in quantum physics, the double slit experiment.