Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Five

Quantum Noise

From time to time, certain words and phrases are lifted out of their native environment and placed into everyday language. When this happens, the original meaning of the word or phrase is often altered or lost entirely. Such is the case with the word “quantum”.

The idea that energy might come in small, indivisible “quanta” was the result of the photoelectric effect, the solution of which was what led to Albert Einstein’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Later, it was discovered that not only energy, but space and even time are “granular”.

When quantum mechanics reached the public consciousness (several decades after it was developed), one of the first colloquial terms introduced was “quantum leap”, meaning a large, revolutionary (and presumably progressive) change. This is ironic, since a “quantum” (plural “quanta”) is the smallest possible change in energy, space or time.

It was once said that only a handful of people truly understood quantum mechanics, and looking on the Internet, you might be forgiven for believing that it is true today. This is not to say that quantum mechanics is not discussed on the Internet – quite the contrary! A search for the word “quantum” will reveal thousands of websites offering “quantum” products and services, along with large number of sites offering to explain how quantum mechanics can explain a dizzying amount of pseudoscientific (or quack) nonsense.

Easily the largest numbers of these quantum nonsense sites are those about “quantum healing”. Starting with the undisputed king of quantum nonsense, Deepak Chopra, and moving down to websites that offer to cure you – using the mysterious quanta – over the telephone (you don’t even need to stay on the line!).

Let’s look at some of the ways these people think they are using the “mysterious quantum”:

From Deepak Chopra:

"Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body."

From a Quantum Healing Center:

"Further, quantum physics discovered in the last decades that every particle of matter is associated with interaction and resonance quanta (parcels of energy) at a ratio of about 1 nucleon to 1 billion quanta. The quanta exhibit specific patterns and are susceptible to resonance. These subtle energetic configurations (bodies) can be disturbed causing unwellness and pain. Therefore, the body is a quantum mechanical device and Quantum Healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level, which is not manifest at a sensory level. Quantum Depth Healing involves a shift in the areas of energy information, so as to bring about a reconstruction in an idea that has gone wrong. "

A testimonial from a nurse anesthetist who believes that she is a “quantum healer”:

"This is one of the latest of my adventures. I was giving a fellow anesthetist a break recently, and the surgeon was 2 hours into trying to fix a tibial fracture that would not reduce. The OR nurses know first hand of my abilities, and smiled when I went into my 'voodoo' mode. Doing a vector anaysis, I noted that the femur was also affected by the tibial fracture. By utilizing Quantum-Touch , the tibia realigned itself under fluoroscopic visualization to the amazement of the surgeon and the radiology technician. The returning anesthetist just smiled and nicknamed me 'Dr. Bombay' after the character in Bewitched."

From a person who believes that quantum mechanics means we can create our own reality:

"You probably know of the increases in awareness and consciousness on the planet. Just think what it could mean for your life to find out about the reality of the unseen world, and how it responds to the holographic images you create with your mind!

Choose to take part in rejuvenating the entire planet while also Creating What You Want!"

What all these people have in common is that they really don’t understand quantum mechanics at all.

Quantum “consciousness”:

There are two underlying features that most of the “quantum misunderstandings” have in common. The first is the idea that “consciousness” can influence reality directly – as opposed to acting through the actions of the organism with the “consciousness”. Many of these “quantum promoters” assert that we can change our reality – our health, our wealth, and even our future – simply by thinking the right thoughts.

Now, this is what practitioners of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have argued for decades, but the “quantum promoters” are not talking about changing your life though a better attitude – they’re claiming that your thoughts can actually influence the elementary particles that make up our world.

Where did they get this idea? Well, when quantum mechanics was still new, many of the leading lights in physics were bothered by its apparent paradoxes. In physics, paradoxes are almost always a sign that the theory is wrong. Einstein and Schrodinger believed that these paradoxes indicated that quantum mechanics was an incomplete theory of reality.

One of the apparent paradoxes of the quantum world is the behavior of photons and electrons. Depending on how you look at them, they are “either” waves or particles. To many physicists in the early days of quantum mechanics, the way that photons and electrons showed wave properties when the experimenter was looking for waves and showed particle properties when they were looking for particles suggested that it was human consciousness –a “conscious observer” – that caused the “collapse of the wave function” into either a particle or a wave. Prior to this intervention of human consciousness, the photon or electron was supposedly in a “superposition of states” – neither particle nor wave - waiting for a conscious observer to “cause” it to choose one or the other.

Schroedinger went so far as to propose a “thought experiment” in which a cat was placed in a box containing a device that would release a poison if a radioactive atom decayed (this would never get by modern animal experimentation rules). Since radioactive decay is a quantum event (and random – which bothered Einstein and Schrodinger), it could be assumed that it would also be influenced by a conscious observer. As a result, the fate of the cat would not be determined until someone opened the box. Until then, the cat would be in a superposition of states – neither alive nor dead – a situation that is (as Schrodinger clearly intended it to be) completely ridiculous.

The modern resolution of this “paradox” of quantum “particles” (e.g. photons, electrons, etc.) is simple. The “paradox” results because of the false dilemma – particle or wave – rather than any limitation or “magical” nature of quantum theory. Photons and electrons (and all other elementary particles) are neither particles nor waves – they are something that we have no analogy for in our macroscopic world.

As a result, there is nothing about our consciousness that influences quantum particles or – sad to say – the world outside of ourselves. If we want to use our consciousness to influence the world, we will have to work through our muscles – by talking, typing or doing.


Many of the “quantum promoters” use “entanglement” as an explanation of how everything in the universe is “connected”. This supposedly explains how we can influence objects and “draw energy” from them. This is about as far from real quantum entanglement as it could possibly be.

Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles (usually photons) are emitted from an atom in a singlet (or neutral) state. Because of the conservation laws, the photons (for instance) will have the same polarization [the identical polarizations cancel out because the photons are heading in opposite directions – for a much better explanation, see Victor Stenger’s “The Unconscious Quantum”]. No matter how far they travel, these two photons will have the same polarization – they are considered to be “entangled”.

What entangled photons have to do with “quantum healing” or “remote viewing” or anything of that sort is unclear – and probably imaginary. The basic problem is that the “interesting” quantum effects average out as you get more and more particles together. This is referred to as “decoherence” and explains why we don’t see footballs (“soccer” balls, to those raised in the US) changing into waves during the World Cup.


Of all things, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is occasionally used to explain New Age Nonsense. For those who don’t know it, the Uncertainty Principle states that it is not possible to know a particle’s position and momentum with complete accuracy. This is usually expressed as:

DpDx > h

where: Dp = uncertainty in momentum, Dx = uncertainty in position and h = Planck’s constant.

There is some uncertainty (pun intended) about what this means. At one level, it is expressing a physical limitation of our ability to measure very small objects. While I can know with very good precision the exact position and momentum of a football during a game, that is because the particles I am using to “measure” its position and momentum (photons) are infinitesimal compared to the object I am measuring.

At the level of measuring photons or electrons, the particles used in measuring are nearly as massive (or equally as massive) as the object being measured. It is if I had to track the location and momentum of the football by bombarding the field with footballs and watching to see footballs taking an odd bounce. Clearly, once one of the “measuring” footballs collided with the “target” football, the “target’s” position and momentum would be changed.

However, there is data suggesting that another interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle is also valid – that position and momentum are complementary properties and that knowing one of them more precisely means that the other property can only be known with less precision. Alternately, momentum and position may be properties that are linked in such a way that constraining (measuring) one forces the other to become less precise (less “real”).

As with all of the other quantum effects, uncertainty becomes less of an issue in the macroscopic world we human inhabit. In our world, it is possible to know both position and momentum with a high degree of precision, given the proper tools.


Quantum mechanics is a fascinating subject that is filled with apparent mysteries and paradoxes – effects that are unfamiliar or even counter-intuitive for beings that inhabit our scale level. Despite its bizarre aspects, quantum mechanics is not magic. And magic is exactly what the “quantum promoters” are trying to claim.

Mind reading, distant viewing, therapeutic touch, etc. all make use of jargon that includes liberal use of the word “quantum”. This does not mean that they are quantum effects any more than repeatedly saying a cat is a dog will turn it into a Labrador Retriever. What they are describing is not quantum physics but magic, and magic does not exist outside of storybooks.



Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

Great stuff. I don't know why, but I always admired the hbar convention - simple pleasures I guess.

"magic does not exist outside of storybooks."
ONJ disagrees.

Not having TV really assists the effort of never exposing oneself to the likes of Deepak and Dr. Phil, I highly recommend it.

I was also wondering if these guys who half-ass physics ever allow their ego to be trumped and admit to themselves that real physics is just way over their own heads.

25 February, 2006 21:01  
Blogger Joseph said...

Maybe you can ask proponents of the Nitwit Interpretation of quantum mechanics if events don't exist until they are perceived. If they agree with that, ask them if that means we can make mercury/nukes/DDT/whatever they're against harmless by refusing to perceive the damage.

25 February, 2006 22:19  
Blogger Big Lebowski Store said...

You're right, Prometheus, sometimes you don't understand quantum mechanics even when you study it. I covered it three times, as per the old joke, and it was absolutely true of me. Here goes:

The first time you study QM you don't understand it and this bothers you a great deal.

The second time you study QM, you still don't understand it, and it bothers you a little less.

The third time you study QM, you still don't understand it, but this time it doesn't bother you at all.



26 February, 2006 04:25  
Blogger EoR said...

The woo brigade all sound quite reasonable at first, until that fateful word "therefore" enters into their arguments and everything just spins off into a delusional fantasy world of love and vibrations and energy and crystals...

27 February, 2006 16:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I thought this was going to be an article about Quantum Leap

27 February, 2006 18:52  
Blogger hollywoodjaded said...

Thanks, Flea, I guess I need to study a third and final time....

27 February, 2006 19:53  
Blogger Prometheus said...

My excuse is that I got my undergraduate degree in physical chemistry and, as a result, had to study a fair bit about quantum mechanics. I don't claim any deep insights, but one doesn't need depth to refute what the "woo-woos" are claiming.

When I was studying the elusive quantum, I heard it said: "If you aren't at least a little confused by quantum mechanics, you probably don't understand it at all."


28 February, 2006 05:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joseph, I'm *so* stealing "Nitwit Interpretation" -- Thanks!

28 February, 2006 08:12  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most concise, yet thorough, refutation of the misuse and misunderstanding of quantum physics I’ve yet seen. Absolutely clear and cogent, and this will be used to attempt to bring that photon of light into some minds darkened by newage babble. When the gullible ask what the bleep do we know, I can give them your excellent piece and say, ”this much for certain."

07 March, 2006 13:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nitwit interpretation indeed. That 'What the bleep do we know?' film was a seriously stupid, boring waste of time. People lap it up though; poor dumb bastards.

A truly excellent series you've written here. I'm going to have to grab a couple of my friends, plonk them down in front of a computer, and beat them about the head until they've read the whole thing.

21 June, 2006 17:58  

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