Stenger on Quantum Woo

I can’t quite believe I am writing this, but the HuffPo religion section actually has not one, but two, good posts up. The first is from Victor Stenger talking about some of the daffier misapplications of quantum mechanics. It makes a nice follow-up to Monday’s post about Michael Shermer’s essay.

In short, a physical object isn’t either a particle or a wave. These are just two alternative descriptions of the same object. You do not have to measure one property or the other exclusively. Observing a beam of light with appropriate apparatus, you find that localized photons are always present. The wave-like property of the light beam is found only in the statistical distribution the large number of photons it contains.

In the meantime, reductionism in physics has never been more firmly established. By the time The Tao of Physics was published in 1975, the standard model of elementary particles and forces had reduced all of familiar matter to three types of particles: the electron and two types of quarks. That model has agreed with all observations for over three decades.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    August 4, 2010

    Stenger’s conclusion is correct, but the article is a little too superficial. The notion of measurement in quantum theory does indeed have some perplexing problems, but Stenger doesn’t even touch it. He instead focuses on the wave-particle duality.

    A better approach would be to note that the results of a measurement correspond to the eigenfunctions of the Schrodinger equation, and the statistical distribution of these eigenfunctions isn’t “decided” by the observer at all, but are predicted by the mathematics of the theory. Thus nothing about quantum mechanics suggests that the “mind creates reality” or some such gibberish.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    August 5, 2010

    Stenger should probably have also brought up modern double slit experiments which show that even interference patterns are composed of granular hits. When Stenger mentions the wave nature of matter being the statistical ensemble of a large number of particles, he’s probably talking about the fact that particles can interfere with themselves and each other (this is weird, but not in the way quantum woomeisters want you to think). Several commenters in the thread over there have already jumped in with “WELL WHAT ABOUT THE FSCKING DOUBLE SLIT AND ERASER EXPERIMENTS!!!”

  3. #3 Reginald Selkirk
    August 5, 2010

    Look below Stenger’s article: it’s links to examples of quantum woo by Robert Lanza and Deepak Chopra. Oh the irony.

  4. #4 Steve Esser
    August 5, 2010

    I guess you could say he oversimplified for a brief article, but on the face of it the first paragraph quoted is just wrong. You should be able to debunk without doing that.

  5. #5 KMA
    August 8, 2010

    Oh dear, HuffPo’s moderators are sensitive. Someone used the “blind men and elephant” story to argue that everything is unknowable. This was deleted:

    Last I heard, the three blind men did further research, compared notes and agreed on a good-enough model of elephants. This convinced them, tentatively, that elephants do exist and that it’s possible to learn more about them. They still don’t have all facts, but they have enough of them to hold an informed opinion. (Crackpots always fail to understand this simple distinction).

    Of course, there are other reports. Some say that the three blind men declared eachother heretics and started smothering each other with elephant dung. The blind man with the superior gag reflex control procaimed himself pope.

    Unless you trust those who say that the three men decided that all opinions are equal and that reality is whatever the hell you want it to be. Hurt egos were mended, but they still don’t have a clue about elephants. Personally I don’t believe this report. There is no such thing as a solipsist.

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