Don’t say “quantum” when you mean “I don’t understand”

There are so many things that I don’t understand
There’s a world within me that I cannot explain
philosopher-musicians Daft Punk

Panel from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weinersmith.
Panel from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weinersmith.

I admit: I can be a bit curmudgeonly sometimes about people making elaborate claims based on errors. That grumpfyness gets amplified when it’s someone who should know better: a famous physicist saying that climate change can’t be all that bad (contrary to the work of nearly the entire climate science community), or a neuroscientist claiming that the answer to consciousness may lie in some very unlikely areas of physics.

Intellectual cross-fertilization between disciplines can be very fruitful, but it has to be done through understanding — and preferably with collaboration, not as a lone wolf. If you charge into someone else’s area of expertise with limited knowledge, you’re almost certainly going to get it wrong, and end up looking like a jerk in the process. I think it’s important to get this right, so I wrote a bit of a rant for Slate on the topic.

Yet the mysterious aspects of quantum physics and consciousness have inspired many people to speculate freely. The worst offenders will even say that because we don’t fully understand either field, they must be related problems. It sounds good at first: We don’t know exactly how some things in quantum physics work, we don’t know exactly how to go from the brain to consciousness, so maybe consciousness is quantum.

The problem with this idea? It’s almost certainly wrong. [Read more…]

Thanks to my editor, Laura Helmuth, for letting me rant away, and to Zach Weinersmith for letting us use one of his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics.


3 responses to “Don’t say “quantum” when you mean “I don’t understand””

  1. “Roger Penrose proposed that the problems of interpreting quantum states implies that the conscious mind will need a new kind of physics to describe it.”

    The above is from that article of yours. Here you seem to have no idea what the word “implies” means in its various usages. Read the book more carefully, and its followups, and you’ll see that the proposal (very likely wrong as Tegmark calculated quite some time ago) is definitely not a toss-off. And it is from someone who has contributed to far more inside physics, as well as outside, than ‘just’ the mathematics of relativity theory, as you imply there. Even within that area, giving a convincing theoretical prediction for the existence of black holes (along with Hawking) well before their ‘observation’, probably to most people would make your phrase “expert in the mathematics of relativity theory” sound like describing Babe Ruth as “one of those experts in hitting baseballs long distances” in order to minimize his accomplishments. Most of us are scientific pipsqueaks, but it’s better not to sound too obviously like one when writing, even for Slate.

    1. I certainly do not intend to demean Penrose’s accomplishments within mathematical physics. His work on black holes and singularity theorems is essential to our modern understanding of general relativity. And of course there are Penrose tiles, which were the first step toward quasicrystal research. I can see how my brief mention of him could seem to be damning with faint praise, but it wasn’t my intention!

      1. Fair enough, I probably went overboard a bit in the other direction. Mainly I don’t think Penrose fits in at all with the others you mention.

        Actually I certainly wonder about his co-author Hameroff on this topic, especially after seeing him on the list of well-remunerated mostly woo peddlers, who will pick up a cool $4000 honorarium plus other luxuries, for going to Copra’s little conference. All the few respectable guests will achieve is to give Chopra more propaganda for pretending he’s doing science.

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