Simple Answers to Complicated Questions

Dave Bacon watched “Judgement Day” last night, and has a question:

It’s not like, you know, there aren’t people who think quantum theory is wrong or that quantum theory is somehow related to the Vedic teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So why is it that quantum theory (which after all is “just a theory” wink, wink, nod, nod) doesn’t illicit courtroom battles of such epic scope as the Dover trial?

The answer: Because quantum physics involves math, and Math Is Hard.

If you want to construct a cockamamie theory that can pretend to be an alternative to quantum mechanics, it needs to have equations and functions and stuff, whereas you can come up with something that sounds like an alternative to biology using vague intuition and appeals to “common sense.” It’s easier to be a fake biologist than a fake physicist.



  1. #1 Mark P
    November 14, 2007

    Global warming is more like evolution in that respect. You have people with marginal knowledge, like TV weathermen or mechanical engineers, who can spin a story that sounds good to the totally ignorant, because they and their audience don’t know the hard details of climate science. They can even pooh-pooh climate modeling, the hard part of climatology, the part that requires some math, by appealing to the same community of ignorance.

  2. #2 Dunc
    November 14, 2007

    I think the real difference is that to most people, quantum theory has absolutely no impact on their lives or beliefs. It’s sufficiently obscure that it can be completely ignored for all everyday purposes. It doesn’t challenge their conception of themselves, nor does it challenge their consumption habits. Very few people actually care whether the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle can be measured simultaneously, but they do care about being “special” in the eyes of God and going to the mall.

  3. #3 Julie Stahlhut
    November 14, 2007

    There’s actually quite a community of theoretical and computational biologists out there. Mathematical modeling and statistical analysis are very important tools for any biologist, and these specialties are growing. The rest of us (like me, more of a field and lab bench type) make considerable use of the models and data-analysis tools developed by mathematical biologists. And, that’s not counting the less sophisticated but non-stop, on-the-fly algebra that most of us use constantly during a routine day in the lab or at a field site.

    Biological, meteorological, and geological phenomena have histories that influence their current and future states, but they neither violate the laws of physics nor defy mathematical analyses. Conversely, most scientific (and even mathematical) topics can be explained conceptually at some level, so I don’t think that perceived difficulty is the big problem. (How many people who lack a good science education even know that quantum physics involves a lot of math?)

    It may be that our culture just doesn’t have too many hot buttons on the subject of our chemical and physical makeup, but is touchy about our kinship to other organisms. The idea that our species descended from non-humans enrages a lot of fundamentalists, but how many would blow their stacks over Carl Sagan’s line, “We are made of starstuff” ?

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    November 14, 2007

    The idea that our species descended from non-humans enrages a lot of fundamentalists,

    I’m reminded of the supposed comment from a 19th century society dowager on the idea that man and apes were related – “My dear, let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us pray that it not become widely known.”

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 14, 2007

    Biology has Math. Check out the arXiv every day. Along with the categories Physics, Mathematics, Nonlinear Sciences, Computer Science, and Statistics, there is the category “Quantitative Biology.”

    Quantitative Biology includes (see for detailed description): Biomolecules; Cell Behavior; Genomics; Molecular Networks; Neurons and Cognition; Other; Populations and Evolution; Quantitative Methods; Subcellular Processes; Tissues and Organs.

    For that matter, “Nonlinear Sciences” is related to Biology, in that it includes Adaptation and Self-Organizing Systems; Cellular Automata and Lattice Gases; Chaotic Dynamics; Exactly Solvable and Integrable Systems; Pattern Formation and Solitons.

    This is the 21st century, people. Teaching Biology by cutting up pickled frogs doesn’t do the job.

    Sure, Math Is Hard. But similarly Physics Is Hard, Astronomy is Hard, Chemistry is Hard, and Biology is Hard. Training teachers to make them somewhat easier to students is, itself, Hard. Getting Intelligent Design and other anti-science out of school systems is, politically, Hard. Leadership is needed here.

    “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said John F. Kennedy.

  6. #6 Harry Abernathy
    November 14, 2007

    For such an offhand question, one can actually put a lot of thought into it. As for why there aren’t courtroom battles over this, I think a lot of it has to do with the evidence-based nature of the American court system. With evolution, ID people can point to holes in the fossil record (asking for an unreasonable burden of proof) and ask why we don’t “see” large scale evolution happening these days. Biologists can refute these arguments, and that’s why they win the lawsuits, but the opponents can at least ask the questions. Then they try to throw in their “reasonable” alternative to evolution to make a nice tidy narrative. They really on “common sense” and storytelling more than evidence.

    It’s a little bit tougher with physics. For one, with quantum mechanics, partly because of the math and equations (and I would say, mainly due to the values of the constants in those equations), physicists can quickly generate a lot of evidence to support their science. Quantum theory is an effective model that generates valid predictions of events on a timescale short enough for even the briefest attention span. And if it doesn’t work, physicists will come up with something better. I think this point is important. Contrary to what a previous poster wrote, quantum theory DOES have an impact on people’s lives. It gives a verifiable explanation for things such as incandescent light bulbs, flat screen TVs, and the color of beer bottles. If it couldn’t be supported through everyday phenomena, then more people WOULD probably contest it.

    Second, quantum theory doesn’t overtly step on too many religious toes. In the end it’s probably easier for an ID proponent to say an intelligent designer discretized energy than it is to come up with a better explanation for, say, the distribution of blackbody radiation.

  7. #7 C. Birkbeck
    November 14, 2007

    The pseudoscience of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi doesn’t get any play because nobody believes it. Creationism, being attached to certain forms of Christianity, has a lot of people believing it.

  8. #8 John Novak
    November 14, 2007

    It’s probably because no one in the west cares much about Vedic theory from a personal perspective– not a sufficient number of people to generate enough support for extended court or social battles.

    What is the actual situation in India? For that matter, what would even be the social mechanisms for fighting such a battle in various Hindu states? I don’t even know that I’d recognize the battle if I read the headlines.

    (Also, quantum mechanics is testable on a time scale of microseconds. Evolution, even in the crudest, “breed fruitflies to non-miscibility,” sense takes… what, weeks, at least? Months?)

  9. #9 natural cynic
    November 14, 2007

    The pseudoscience of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi doesn’t get any play because nobody believes it. Creationism, being attached to certain forms of Christianity, has a lot of people believing it.

    I wouldn’t say *nobody*. There is a small university in Iowa that seems to believe, along with a few million worldwide. That few a number doesn’t meet a threatening threshhold, although it does draw occasional christianist ire.

    – a BS-less meditator

  10. #10 Coin
    November 14, 2007

    Almost all evolution courtroom battles of the last hundred years have concerned, in some way, high school curricula. Are there actually, like, high schools somewhere teaching quantum physics?

  11. #11 Physicalist
    November 14, 2007

    I think Dunc (#2) put his finger on the main reason: folks want evolution bashed because they see it as being in conflict with their religion. ID is a way to bash evolution, so they want it taught. And then there are court cases do decide the issue b/c people are trying to have their religion decide what gets taught in science class.

    But I think there’s another important reason: People think that evolutionary theory (and the evidence for it) is simple enough that they can understand it. When they find it doesn’t make sense to them (“Hey! How the heck could birds have gotten feathers and wings if they were just fish?!?!”) — they feel qualified to pass judgment on the scientific theory (“My grand-daddy wasn’t no monkey!”). Then they buy Behe’s book, see some impressive sciency stuff, and say, “Even REAL scientists think evolution couldn’t have done it!”

    Same sort of story with special relativity. There used to be (probably still are, though I haven’t looked for years), lots of people who “disprove Einstein.” Often it’s some trumped-up twin paradox or something. You don’t see claims to have disproven quantum-electro-dynamics, however. Why? Because even the denialist fool knows that he has no understanding of QFT.

    But something like special relativity is simple enough that the denialist thinks he can understand it — and then when he doesn’t understand it, he thinks there’s a flaw in the theory. Same thing happens with evolution, I expect. The denialist can’t imagine how a flagellum (which he just heard about for the first time from Behe) could have evolved, so he concludes that no one else could imagine such a thing either.

    What the denialist doesn’t think is, “Gee, I really don’t really understand this — but a bunch of really smart people who have studied it for decades say they have overwhelming evidence for it — so I guess I should go along with them.” Although when it comes to quantum mechanics, general relativity, etc., he’s more willing to take this attitude.

  12. #12 Physicalist
    November 14, 2007

    Shorter version: You’re right, exept that what matters is the denialist’s perception that biology doesn’t require knowledge of math, or other tough sciency stuff.

  13. #13 Physicalist
    November 14, 2007

    @ Colin (#10):

    Well, high schools (and grade schools) do teach the basic results of quantum mechanics (atomic structure, maybe a picture-book version of wave-particle duality), even though they won’t teach the formalism.

    If the fundamentalists saw quantum theory as undermining their biblical world view, I think they’d object to it being taught even in this heuristic way. What I find amusing is that you could build a much better case for their being inconsistencies in and lack of consensus about quantum theory and gravity, than you can for evolution. But they aren’t interested in going there (yet?)

  14. #14 Leia
    November 14, 2007

    I’m with those who think quantum mechanics isn’t getting questioned because people don’t see it as in conflict with their beliefs. Indeed, a lot of religious people seem to see wacky-sounding physics (whether quantum mechanics or relativity) as SUPPORT for their beliefs.

    If quantum mechanics ever demonstrates conclusively that there is no God, expect to see lots of “alternatives” thought up, complete with fake math “proofs.”

  15. #15 KeithB
    November 14, 2007

    Most of the Old Earth Creationism was settled in court years ago, so they don’t try any more.

    But if arguments like this:

    Ever come up again, QM may find its way into a court trial.

  16. #16 Mark P
    November 14, 2007

    I agree that religion has something to do with the treatment of evolution by the public. But what about global warming? Why do so many people think that’s not true, and think that they can disprove it? Not religion, generally, but probably economic reasons.

  17. #17 Carl Brannen
    November 14, 2007

    It’s not that math is hard. It’s that humans are stupid. That’s why computers are so fast at math. They’re not stupid.

  18. #18 gibbon1
    November 15, 2007

    “or mechanical engineers”

    Well your mechanical engineer unlike most people has had at least a semester in fluids, heat transfer, several years of high level math, and two or three semesters worth of thermo. Not to mention finite element analysis and modeling.

    The two things about Quantum Mechanics is that one, trying to wrap your brain around it is painfull. And truly understanding it requires math that will make you brain hurt.

    Second, it’s completely undiscovered country and thus doesn’t directly contradict narratives that are important to believers in a certain strain of ignorant back woods theology. More those believers comprise a class of individuals who are politically at least, useful idiots which is what makes it a political issue.

    PS: I’m tending to think more and more that one problem we have with these people is equating all religion with their particular ignorant version. That is certainly not true in practice in that there are a large number of religions that aren’t like that. It’s just that they aren’t politically useful. They tend to demand things that cost money and are smart enough to know when they are being used.

  19. #19 Dunc
    November 15, 2007

    Contrary to what a previous poster wrote, quantum theory DOES have an impact on people’s lives. It gives a verifiable explanation for things such as incandescent light bulbs, flat screen TVs, and the color of beer bottles. If it couldn’t be supported through everyday phenomena, then more people WOULD probably contest it.

    I’m guessing you were referring to me there, and not understanding the point I was making. Of course the actuality of quantum mechanics underlies everything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. But the vast majority of people never think to ask how things work in a really fundamental way. You ask someone what makes a light bulb work, the answer you’re going to get is “the switch”. If you’re really lucky you might get “electricity”. Nobody outside of a university physics department is going to even think about QM in relation to everyday bits of technology that they take completely for granted.

  20. #20 Tom
    November 15, 2007

    There are anti-QM and anti-relativity cranks out there. Look no further than the comments of the “Relativity passes new test of time” link (11-15) for an example of someone wishing to resurrect the aether. Generally, they argue by analogy and metaphor and don’t do math, but don’t see this as a problem.

  21. #21 CCPhysicst
    November 15, 2007

    Since quantum mechanics, as a tool used to explain the physical origins (and hence predictive reliability) of nuclear decay rates, is at odds with the claims made by some proponents of creationism (in any of its forms), it *is* a target. They would be quite happy to teach bogus physics as part of the ID agenda if they could slip it into the public school curriculum as easily as they can get it into the parochial school curriculum at present.

    Private schools do teach nonsense physics right now. You just don’t know it. Yet.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.