Evil Survey: Quantum Chicanery

Believe it or not, this is actually book-related: I have in mind to do a chapter at the end of the book about the use of misrepresentations of quantum physics to promise magical results. I’ve been writing the dialogue to go with that this morning (because it’s more fun than what I’m supposed to be doing), and it struck me that this might be a decent question for the audience. So,

What’s your favorite example of quantum chicanery?

By “quantum chicanery,” I mean somebody using the language of quantum theory to make wildly unrealistc promises of magical results. Examples abound– Bob Park got several months’ worth of “What’s New” out of some guys who claimed to be able to generate free energy by putting hydrogen in “a state lower than the ground state.” My personal favorite was a guy I heard on a talk show (I was stuck in an auto repair place) claiming that the secret to eternal life was to simply concentrate on measuring yourself to be healthy and happy, which would collapse your wavefunction into that state.

But I’m sure there are lots of novel versions of this sort of thing that I’ve never even seen. So, what’s your favorite example?


  1. #1 Harry Abernathy
    November 20, 2007

    You should peruse Orac’s “Friday Dose of Woo” columns over at Respectful Insolence for an abundance of abuses of quantum theory to sell alternative medicine crap. A particularly good one is the use of quantum entanglement to explain how homeopathy works. Check it out:


  2. #2 Mitch P.
    November 20, 2007

    I’ve seen the observer effect used to justify all sorts of stuff, mostly implying that if you concentrate you can affect (and effect) the collapse of the superposition. This supposedly allows you to influence random events like dice rolls, etc.

    — Mitch

  3. #3 Rajesh
    November 20, 2007

    Deep Ack Chopra. ‘Nuff said.

  4. #4 Orac
    November 20, 2007

    Actually, when it comes to abusing quantum theory to justify the quackery known as homeopathy, no one that I’m aware of can surpass Lionel Milgrom.

  5. #5 Orac
    November 20, 2007

    Oh, and lest I forget, Milgrom was featured in the very first Your Friday Dose of Woo.

  6. #6 Ben V-L
    November 20, 2007

    While Chopra’s QM is true chicanery, I find the most annoying misuse of quantum mechanics is the attempt to connect it with questions of free will.

    Whatever free will is, it isn’t lost by determinism (think chaos), and it can’t be gained by indeterminism (exactly how am I supposed to discover my will in that stochastic event?).

    Most people arguing this aren’t being disingenuous, just clueless, so it doesn’t qualify as chicanery. But I find this the most annoying misuse of QM because I’m confronted with it the most often.

  7. #7 perry
    November 20, 2007

    Not the worst I’m sure, just one that made me scream out loud.

    NUMBERS, a story about an FBI agent and his math genius caltech brother. Brother runs probabilistic model to predict where bank robbers will go, and as usual gets it exactly right. Turns out though that the bank robbers have buddies who outflank the cops, and get away. Cops are like, “smart brother, just tell us where they will go next (not to mention when)”. Smart brother CAN’T, as they have just intereacted with the robbers and the freaking HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE means that he has lost predictive power till he gets more data.

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. Some things I can take. An abuse of classical probabilitity, abuses of optics whereby a reflection of a reflection taking up one pixel can be used to recreate a 1024×1284 portrait of the assailant, the fact that supermodels of both sexes say “I’m done with my autopsy and DNA work, time to break a door down and arrest the perp, before I exactly match this tire to one from a 1945 Vincent motorcycle that has only been driven on sand, that on TV you can get anywhere in LA in 5 minutes (Jack Bauer’s most impressive achievement), that you can hack into an NSA supercomputer using a 1982 handheld Atari video game, that aliens look like humans with funny makeup whose mindnumbingly advanced technology we can use by randomly pushing what looks like a start switch, all this crap I can take.


    More mundanely, when folks try and make human observers more special than other environmental factors that interact with a system. It’s not if you know it nutjob, its if it is in principle knowable.

  8. #8 Neil Bates
    November 20, 2007

    Well, we don’t really understand the collapse of the wave function, so my nomination for the Nobel Prize in quantum chicanery is: “decoherence.” The ideas of decoherence don’t really explain or get us to the concentration of what was spread over a wide region of space, into a particular spot (and why not somewhere else.) Not only that, what about the reallocation of the WF by Renninger-style “negative measurements”, and I never heard a good answer to how *unreliable* detectors affect the wave function (Really, is there then a certain chance that the WF itself is still “really there” versus having been collapsed?!) But Decoherence is the current fad for how to “solve” the collapse problem. Go figure (or “shut up and calculate!” …)

    Now, to defend Penrose and his trying to link consciousness and QM. For example, a comment from Washington Monthly (in the thread that links here):

    Penrose wins, ’cause he should know better. “Quantum mechanics is mysterious. Consciousness is mysterious. Therefore, consciousness much be connected to quantum mechanics!”


    Posted by: …

    This is the fallacy of assuming the applicability of strict fallacy. Of course it does not *follow* by *neccessity* that any two mysterious things must be connected, but: there is a great chance that a strange phenomenon would be connected to QM. QM is pervasive in ultimate influence at the micro level, and it does often entail unconventional traits. I mean, if you noticed some non-linear behavior in the response of a crystal to microwaves, you would figure maybe there’s a quantum component. So, it is worthwhile to *look into* that possibility, which Penrose does – he doesn’t just “assume” the connection. (It really irks me, how often people assume that: someone else “assumed” rather than carefully considered something!)

    Many thinkers make the sophomoric mistake of thinking that if a connection is not logically *mandated* by an association, it is in practice a fallacy to even suspect that the connection is there. That isn’t true. Formally, a fallacy is a conclusion that is falsely presumed to be *mandated* by logical deduction. But many things that aren’t mandated are nevertheless good *bets* to be related, etc. You have to understand the role of fallacies and some related but acceptable lines of thought, not just look for them as former incidents and chalk up “failures” thereby.

    BTW, QM is so weird, it’s hard to know what should constitute chicanery anyway – it takes some arrogance to do so. For example, some of the best minds in the field, like John von Neumann and John A. Wheeler (sort of), believed that consciousness collapsed the wave function (even weirder than saying QM causes consciousness.)

  9. #9 Josh
    November 20, 2007

    I have to agree with comment #6. I can’t give specific examples of this off the top of my head, but I’ve definitely seen jokers try to use quantum mechanics to justify the soul, free will, God, and any other mystic thing that one can think of.

  10. #10 Neil Bates
    November 20, 2007

    “not just look for them as former incidents and chalk up “failures” thereby.”

    I meant, “formal” incidents, and “formal mistakes” is better.

  11. #11 Neil Bates
    November 20, 2007

    My humble response to #6:

    If QM allows free will, it isn’t from the mere fact of neurons firing in isolation in an undetermined way. Suppose it had to do, with some wholeness about the brain, so the firings expressed some sort of global movement that was itself not determined (but could be greatly influenced) by the simple aggregation of isolated processes. The existence of entanglement relations shows at least that such correlations can (in fact, must) exist. Sure, there’s no evidence for other kinds, but once you have a foot in the door, it’s at least plausible and no longer “impossible.” Without such coordination, I don’t think that mess in our heads could produce such stable behavior, given the destabilizing effects of multiplying chaos. After all, it’s not a formally programed system (nor a *narrowly focused* “neural net” with one task to keep track of.)

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 20, 2007

    My coauthor Prof. Phillip V. Fellman and I present papers on Physics, and on Business & Economics, sometimes at the same interdisciplinary conference. We’ve been harassed with ignorant queries at several successive conferences by authors of nonsensical papers on “Quantum Management.” The authors perster us to help them write explanations of why people at the same level of a corporate organization chart are “entangled.” We’ve tried telling them that QM was developed for microscopic systems, and managers are macroscopic. We’ve tried telling them that they are using “quantum” and “entangled” as metaphors, and/or as buzzwords, but that the reality requires actual Mathematics. This just makes them more sure that we can help them get published in more prestigious venues.

    Picking an example almost at random upon Googling:

    Keynote Address – First National Quality Congress – Mauritius
    AUTHOR: Ted A. Miller – Miller Company

    As we move towards the Year 2000, it is imperative that our quality vision expand beyond the tools of the past. We must look to other fields such as quantum mechanics and chaos theory for direction. In this paper, we will go on a quality journey through traditional programs based on TQM, ISO 9000, and ISO 14000 to the leading edge of performance improvement. A look at a new initiative “Quantum Management” will provide you with fresh insight into organizational development and human dynamics that are being used to secure competitive advantage for the 21st Century.

    The opportunities of the Global Economy lay in front of us. Are you preparing yourself and your organization?

  13. #13 Ed
    November 21, 2007

    Ben Goldacre wrote a couple of pieces about Danie Krugel, a man who claims to be able to find anyone anywhere in the world using a sample of their DNA, a GPS system and some magical quantum physics technique that’s a secret. He used these powers to try and track down Madeleine McCann. He’s a bit like Molly from Heroes but with more ludicrousness.

  14. #14 Mark
    November 21, 2007

    Here’s a few examples.


    I think it’s quite telling that the first, which is supposedly about healing and transformation, gives me a headache when I start reading it.

    *wanders off to find some Aspirin*

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 21, 2007

    Re: #8

    “We are acutely aware that the strange implications of consciousness have increasingly been exploited to promote quantum nonsense. We not only consider this a serious societal problem, but we feel it to be the responsibility of physicists to address it. In fact, evading the enigma, or worse, denying it, cedes the field to the purveyors of psuedoscience.”

    arXiv:0710.2361 (replaced) [pdf]
    Title: Response to Nauenberg’s “Critique of Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”
    Authors: Fred Kuttner
    Comments: To be published in Foundations of Physics
    Subjects: Quantum Physics (quant-ph)

  16. #16 negentropyeater
    November 22, 2007

    #14, indeed, this Matrixenergetics must get a secial award for chicanery. But wait, not only quantum buzzwords are randomely distributed in the exlanatory text, it even invokes String theory :

    “Matrix Energetics sometimes appears magical in its expression but is based on the laws and expression of subtle energy physics and the concepts and laws of quantum physics, superstring theory and Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance.”

    A gem.

  17. #17 PK
    November 22, 2007

    Don’t know if anyone mentioned it yet, but: superluminal signalling with quantum entanglement.

  18. #18 Ivan
    November 22, 2007

    I haven’t seen anyone mention the two movies.

    1. What the bleep do we know.
    It is jam-packed of quantum misinterpretations all stemming from the definition of “observer”.
    Also noteworthy is a technique they use in the movie to push their quantum non-sense:
    they have a simplified presentation as if for kids which tells you what quantum mechanics is ALL about.
    The simplified presentation “for children” makes the viewer revert to a schoolboy state of unquestioning information absorption.

    2. The Secret.

    quantum keyword appears near: 12:53

    There are other things that have seriously pissed me off over the last years but I can’t think of any worse than these two films.

  19. #19 Fred
    November 24, 2007

    I was rather charmed by the one where a Christian told me god had to exist because there must be an observer for the universe in order to have it actually exist according to quantum mechanics.

  20. #20 Peter Morgan
    December 20, 2007

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