Quantum Mechanics Is Not Magic, No Matter What Amazon Says

While I'm thrilled to see How to Teach Physics to Your Dog listed on Amazon, I am distressed to see it offered as a pair with something called The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart. I'm not linking to the Amazon page for that book, because it's a giant pile of crap, and I wouldn't want anyone to accidentally one-click-order it after following a link from my page.

If you should choose to look it up, you can read bits and pieces of it via the "Look Inside" feature, and it's true that the opening chapter or so is a reasonable-sounding description of the physics of quantum entanglement, provided you don't actually know much of anything about the subject. You really don't even need to reach double-digit pages to know that the book is full of crap, though, because on page 9, we find this:

Most quantum experiments incorporate some test of Bell's inequality. This famous experiment in quantum physics was carried out by John Bell, who developed a practical means to test how quantum particles really behaved.

Sounds good, right? Here's the thing: Bell never did the experiment. Bell's work on quantum foundations was entirely theoretical-- he proved the theorem that bears his name, and is the basis for a number of very impressive experiments. The first tests of the inequality were done in the 1970's by John Clauser and colleagues, and are described in Louisa Gilder's The Age of Entanglement. The experiments that are generally regarded as definitive were done by Alain Aspect in the early 1980's (Aspect is correctly cited in the previous paragraph by McTaggart).

"Oh, that's just a minor error," you might say. No, it's not. It's a very fundamental error, indicating that while the author may have read some books on quantum foundations, she hasn't understood them. Aristotle was not Belgian, and John Bell was not an experimentalist.

The reasonable-sounding material is riddled with these sorts of errors, and many of them occur in a way that slants the material toward the preposterous woo-woo material that follows. Erwin Schrödinger is cited as saying that quantum non-locality "represented no less than quantum theory's defining moment," without bothering to not that he found the whole idea so distasteful that he abandoned work on quantum mechanics for the last couple of decades of his career. The experiments done on diffraction of fullerenes in Anton Zeilinger's group-- which are also mentioned in the first chapter of my own book, which you can read here-- are used as the basis of a claim that entanglement is possible with macroscopic objects, without bothering to note that the experiments in question were tremendously difficult, and that subsequent experiments have yet to see entanglement in anything larger than C60F48.

McTaggart's book, like the similar works by Deepak Chopra and others that I spend the last chapter of my book debunking, starts with a very superficial discussion of real physics, then leaps directly to fantastical woo-woo crap about the how all things are inherently interconnected through quantum entanglement with the Zero Point Field (eccentric capitalization is a fairly reliable marker of kookdom, though it leads to some false positives when confronted with Germans). Thus, merely thinking positive thoughts can bring you health and wealth, etc.

There's a simple, one-line proof of the fact that quantum physics does not transform desire into reality through simple thinking: Quantum physicists still write research grants. If McTaggart's claims were really true, Dave Wineland wouldn't need money from the NSA, it would just fall from the sky in quantities sufficient to fund his lab ten times over.

The sad fact is, the only way positive thoughts and quantum mechanics can work to bring you effortless wealth is if you put those thoughts in a book full of hokum that you peddle to the credulous.

So, to recap: My book being on Amazon: Good. My book paired with Lynne McTaggart's fetid pile of dingo kidneys: Bad. Shame on Amazon for doing this. I'll talk to my publisher and see what can be done to fix this, but in the meantime, don't buy anything McTaggart is selling.

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Isn't that pairing more or less automatically generated? I mean, I've looked at Pink Floyd albums and David Gilmour and seen them paired with David Gilmour the jazz musician. I never thought that someone consciously made that decision.

"...eccentric capitalization is a fairly reliable marker of kookdom, though it leads to some false positives when confronted with Germans."

I love it. That is too good a line to let lie. I'm using it in my sig line on the CFI forums, right up there with a Douglas Adams quote.

In September, I saw Clauser speak about his work from this period at the University of Washington symposium in honor of my father, John Cramer's 75 birthday and his retirement. Clauser mentioned that a lot of the early papers in this area were published in a journal called Epistemological Letters, because what he was doing wasn't respectable physics at the time.

He said that libraries didn't carry it so it is now quite hard to come by; its subscription base was almost entirely individuals. I thought this was fascinating. A number of the important papers from there were later reprinted in mainstream physics journal, but my experience as an editor of anthologies teaches me that some of the other items in a publication like that would turn out be be interesting in retrospect. (I did look around online and did not find any copies for sale.)

I do believe that the pairings are automatically generated with some kind of Bayesian algorithm, if I recall correctly. Maybe contacting the publisher can get Amazon to change the prior on your book ;-)

Isn't that pairing more or less automatically generated?

It's probably semi-automatic, but a bit of clicking around through other books about quantum physics does not produce similar linkages to kookery. Books like the Age of Entanglement aren't paired with quacks, but other reputable science books. So there's got to be more than just a simple algorithm behind it.

The only other real physics book I found linked with kookery was Quantum Enigma.

Thank you for reviving a horrible memory I tried to repress. I was involved in working on the manuscript for the McTaggart book, and there was even more stupid stuff we managed to get fixed, but once it gets down to people like me it's too late to do much. And it's structural--the whole book is an error, so what can you do?

Maybe Amazon's algorithm has designated your book as flapdoodle because it searches for unlikely pairings of words with quantum. "Quantum" + "Dog" must imply some sort of pseudo-scientific tract about how quantum theory explains the consciousness of dogs and therefore it gets paired with other flapdoodle. Similarly, "Quantum" + "Enigma" is a little bit wacky sounding.

But, I can save 53 cents if I buy both books together. It worked! Just by buying her book, I've saved 53 cents. See - she's not a quack.


They misread your book title. They thought it said "How to see physics go to the dogs...".

Thanks for saying what I have been thinking. McTaggart reminds me of "Christian Science" or "Scientology" or maybe the "Book of Mormon." It may well be true that the human individual has miraculous powers unrecognized by modern thought processes, but I seriously doubt that they can be accessed by believing fatuous nonsense.

I'm pretty sure Amazon just uses sales/wishlist/etc. correlations for these things.

It wouldn't really surprise me to see that people who are interested in a pop-physics book with dogs are also interested in a pop-physics book with mysticism. It's been my experience that dog people are pretty feeble-minded and mush-headed.

I haven't had a chance to read Quantum Enigma, but the copy on the back cover reads a bit woo to my eyes, so that could have influenced them.

I work for one of the Big Bookchains Beginning with B -- I've become the resident science geek at our store so I'm forever putting up Staff Select talkers by the neat books. And I also get amazing customers. The other day this sweet little old lady came in and said she loved science and wanted to see some physics books because at her age she wanted to exercise her mind. O happy day! So, not wanting to completely wipe her out, I talked up Age of Entanglement because I thought the docudrama side of it would appeal to her, and even showed her Wilczek's Lightness of Being because I enjoyed his imagery. Then the brick dropped. These were OK, but she wanted to get one of the really advanced physics books. She wanted a Fred Alan Wolf book. Oh. Dear. Last attempt at an emergency rescue -- I showed her Victor Stenger's Quantum Gods but it didn't work. Our BBBwB shelves that one in the Atheism section and she was a nice Christian lady and wouldn't have it. So she bought her Fred Alan Wolf and I went to a quiet place and sobbed.

By ChicagoMolly (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

The quantum mechanics seem to apply at small scales, nobody has seen evidence of them on a large scale, where outside influences can more easily destroy fragile quantum states.