Abusing Science

Number 25 of a series

Twenty-seven years ago I attended a presentation by health quack Charlotte Gerson. It was an interesting audience. I got into a conversation that came around to homeopathy. Homeopathy, it was explained, works by quantum mechanics. And that was it. Not many people understand quantum mechanics. In fact top physicists remind us that maybe nobody understands quantum mechanics. And that’s the allure. Something this dark and mysterious can be used to explain all manner of questionable proposals. One of these might be transubstantiation.For the uninitiated, transubstantiation is associated with the Eucharist of the Catholic faith. The little wheat wafers, presumably blessed by the church, literally become the body of Christ. How does this work?

According to the Magis Center, quantum mechanics is at the heart. I won’t recap the posting , but the headline catches my attention:

Quantum Mechanics and the Real Presence: What Reality Should We Believe?

After some background we get to the heart of the matter:

First, quantum mechanics is itself a mystery: as the great physicist Richard Feynman remarked, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Second, the theory gives probabilities for alternative results of experiments, probabilities that are confirmed to a high degree of accuracy (much like actuarial results—one may not know when any given person may die, but one does know that among a large number of 70 year old men, a well-defined percentage will die in the coming year).   Even though quantum mechanics is deterministic in a statistical sense, this probabilistic character bothers many physicists. Einstein himself opposed the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, insisting that “God does not play dice with the universe.

Third, from the beginning of quantum mechanics, scientists have posited a connection between the conscious mind and the role of the observer in determining quantum mechanical outcomes in experiments. As d’Espagnat puts it, “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” The conscious mind of the observer plays a role in making a choice of experiments and what is to be observed.

This last part, “… scientists have posited a connection between the conscious mind and the role of the observer in determining quantum mechanical outcomes in experiments,” is problematic. While it is literally true that observation of an outcome, especially one involving quantum-level activity, does make the outcome irreversible, the notion that the observation must be human is imaginary. A classic case is the thought experiment involving “Schrödinger’s cat.” The experiment goes like this.

Put the cat in a closed box. Nobody can see in. Inside the box is a deadly poison, set to be released by a quantum event, e.g., alpha decay. Did the decay occur? If it did, then the cat is dead. If not, then the cat is alive. But until we open the box (as the protocol describes) the cat is in an undecided state. Until we observe the dead/alive cat, the alpha decay happened/did not happen.

The problem with this description is the requirement for human observation. Until we open the box, we may not know whether the alpha decay happened. But the cat does. Actually, any number of irreversible conditions can remove the alpha decay from the undecided state. The alpha decay happens, the alpha particle exits the nucleus. No matter how many cats are involved, the alpha particle is not going back into the nucleus. The outcome becomes final before any cat dies.

Religious hard cases become distressed at the failure of faith to accomplish anything material, anything of substance. Others perceive what is called science envy. If science can be invoked to substantiate religious conjectures, then wanderers can be coaxed back to the faith. Science is having none of that. The claims of the supernatural posited by religious zealots are never going to pass any sensible evaluation for merit. This kind of stuff is, at its base, an abuse of science.

The Magis Center post references the late French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, who made contributions to this subject. An item I posted back in my college days commented on the so-called EPR paradox and referenced d’Espagnat’s work. Here is a link to a page that’s all about the mysteries of quantum mechanics. John Gribbin’s book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is a comprehensive read on the subject.

One thought on “Abusing Science

  1. Pingback: Abusing Science | Skeptical Analysis

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