My gripe about the misappropriation of quantum physics by new age woo

A  few years ago I ended up consulting someone over a health matter. This guy seemed to be talking sense, until he started up about ‘quantum healing’. Bad move. You see, I ‘do’ physics.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license
Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

One of his associates had a machine that used low voltage DC electricity to ‘heal’ by ‘quantum’ effects. This was gibberish, of course, and a brief discussion made clear that (a) the meaning of ‘quantum’ didn’t correlate with anything I knew from the work of Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and the rest; and (b) invoking the word, alone, sufficed as a full explanation of how this ‘treatment’ worked.

It was, in short, total snake oil. The science is clear: quantum effects – the real ones – don’t work at macro-level. The end.

That’s why ‘quantum jumping’, ‘quantum healing’ and the rest is rubbish. I don’t doubt that ‘quantum healers’ occasionally get results. The placebo effect is well understood. And maybe sometimes they hit on something that does work. But it won’t be for the reasons they state.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.
Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

The way quantum physics has been co-opted by new age woo is, I suppose, predictable. The real thing is completely alien to the deterministic world we live in. To help explain indeterminate ‘quantum’ principles, the original physicists offered deterministic metaphors (‘Schroedinger’s cat’) that have since been taken up as if they represented the actual workings of quantum physics.

From this emerged the misconception that the human mind is integral with the outcomes of quantum events, such as the collapse of wave functions. That’s a terribly egocentric view. Physics is more dispassionate; wave-functions resolve without human observation. Bohr pointed that out early on – the experimental outcome is NOT due to the presence of the observer.

What, then, is ‘quantum physics’? Basically, it is an attempt to explain the fact that, when we observe at extremely small scales, the universe appears ‘fuzzy’. The ‘quantum’ explanation for this fuzziness emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century from the work of Max Planck; and from a New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, whose pioneering experiments with particle physics helped trigger a cascade of analysis. Experiments showed very odd things happening, such as pairs of particles appearing ‘entangled’, meaning they shared the same measurable properties despite being physically separated.This was described in 1935 by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen – here’s their original paper.

Part of this boiled down to the fact that you can’t measure when the measuring tool is the same size as what you’re measuring. Despite attempts to re-describe measurement conceptually, then and since (e.g. Howard, 1994), this doesn’t seem to be possible at ‘quantum level’. That makes particles (aka ‘waves’) appear indeterminate.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

All this is lab stuff, and a long way from new age woo, but it’s what got people such as Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Bohr and others thinking during the early twentieth century. From that emerged quantum physics – specifically, the Copenhagen interpretation, the accepted version of how it’s meant to work. And it does produce results – we’ve built computers that operate via the superposition-of-particle principle. They generate ‘qbits’, for instance, by holding ions in a Paul trap, which operates using radio-frequency AC current – not DC.

The thing is, quantum theory is incompatible with the macro-universe, which Albert Einstein explained in 1917. Yet his General Theory of Relativity has been proven right. Repeatedly. Every time, every test. He was even right about stuff that wasn’t discovered when he developed the theory. Most of us experience how right he was every day – you realise General Relativity makes GPS work properly? Orbiting GPS satellites have to account for relativistic frame-dragging or GPS couldn’t nail your phone’s location to a metre or so.

So far nobody has been able to resolve the dissonance between deterministic macro- and indeterminate-micro scales.  A ‘theory of everything’ has been elusive. Explanations have flowed into the abstract – for instance, deciding that reality consists of vibrating ‘strings’. But no observed proof has ever been found.

Lately, some physicists have been wondering. ‘Quantum’ effects work in the sense described – they’ve been tested. But is the ‘quantum’ explanation for those observations right? Right now there are several other potential explanations – some resurrected from old ideas – that will be tested when Large Hadron Collider starts running at full power. All these hypotheses suggest that Einstein was right to be sceptical about the Copenhagen interpretation, which he believed was incomplete.

These new (old) hypotheses make the need to reconcile Copenhagen-style quantum physics with Einstein’s relativistic macro-scale world go away. They also have the side effect of rendering new age ‘quantum’ invocations even more ridiculous. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “My gripe about the misappropriation of quantum physics by new age woo

  1. This reminded me of a discussion I once had with a friend. I am a geologist, and she asked me if rocks could vibrate. Excited that someone actually had a question about geology, I went on extensively about how earthquakes cause a variety of waves to travel through rocks making them vibrate, and how seismic technology uses the same concept to “see” what is below the surface. After my rather long explanation, she simply responded that she was glad I had confirmed that rocks vibrate because she was learning to use their unique vibration properties in her holistic therapy. I had no response.

    1. I wrote a book last year on New Zealand’s earthquakes and the science underpinning our understanding of them – ‘Living On Shaky Ground’. Not strictly my field, but I understood the physics and I knew I could get proper peer review from friends in GNS Science, our government geological survey. One of my aims was to rebut some very dangerous woo about quakes – something I found great support for in that science community.

      The story is this. There’s a fellow in NZ who keeps ‘predicting’ earthquakes – specifically to times – based on ‘Moon forces’ and such like. Total woo. After the first Christchurch earthquake sequence in late 2010 – which mercifully didn’t kill anybody – he declared that quakes would subside and it was safe. GNS Science, by contrast, made clear that there was a significant probability of more action – naturally they couldn’t say precisely where or when, other than in general probability-curve terms. But the woo artist was certain – and people believed him.

      What happened? There was a massive shake in February 2011 with MM values of 9-10 in central Christchurch which killed 185 people. It was one of New Zealand’s worst ever peacetime disasters.

      Science was right, and woo was utterly, utterly wrong.

    2. As a former geologist, I feel your pain.

      The one that gets me is the therapeutic benefit of crystals. I.e, there is none. But there are a group of people that believe pretty seriously that various crystalline minerals have specific therapeutic benefits.

  2. The peculiarities of quantum physics must be a godsend to the disciples of woo. If I can (ironically) explain the existence of vampires using quantum physics imagine what a commercially bent opportunist can sell using the same bodged together conclusions.

    A few years ago I was reluctantly introduced to the business world of the ephemeral and the number of charlatans with their pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo was eye watering. It concluded with a writer who could communicate with an extra-terrestrial horse who began all its sermons with the phrase ‘greetings earthlings.’ But I’m sure someone will have an explanation based on quantum science.


    ps I actually understood about 90% of the terminology in this post!

    1. It’s extraordinary how much woo is around, and how much of it is swallowed whole by the credulous. I sometimes wonder if the appeal comes because it is easier for the woo brigade to follow a few glib certainties (such as sermons from assorted extraterrestrial quadrupeds) than to actually think for themselves.

  3. Oh man, where to begin.

    It just amazes me that in this day and age, with scientific knowledge so readily available to all, the spread of pure bunk has been spreading like wildfire. Indeed, I’m somewhat pleased to read this as I know now that it isn’t unique to the United States, but has spread throughout the English speaking world.

    Not far from where I work I’ll go by a store fairly frequently selling stuff of this ilk, and it always causes me to grit my teeth. The other day it was something you were supposed to ingest that would “detoxify” you at the “cellular level”. Oh bull.

    Essential oils, crystals, funky pseudo remedies, etc. Why is this stuff spreading.

    1. I sometimes wonder whether a few simple (if actually empty) asserted certainties carry a sense of truth for some people that more complex reality does not? Into which, I suspect, flows the idea that ‘If I can’t understand it, it can’t be true.’ A lot of the woo also seems to come packaged with a sense of implicit moral superiority over the science, which to me seems consistent with this picture. The reasons ‘why woo appeals’ are interesting and worth further exploration I think.

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