The Cringeometer

Over at Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit pans “Down the Rabbit Hole,” a movie about quantum mechanics, paranormal phenomena, and the deep imaginary connection between the two that’s setting the pseudoscience world on fire. (Don’t worry — the fire is harmless to those who have balanced their chakras.)

“Rabbit Hole” is a rehash of the 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?”; apparently the new version is longer and includes more crackpots, but the basic howlers are the same. (Woit’s summary: “entanglement=we are all connected, superposition=anything you want to be true is true.”)

I suppose I’ll eventually have to don a fake mustache, clothespin my nose, and go endure this movie, since people often bring it up when I tell them what I do for a living:

ME: …so, at least in the black-box model that we can analyze, my result implies that the quantum speedup for breaking cryptographic hash functions is only a polynomial one, as opposed to the exponential speedup of Shor’s factoring algorithm.

PERSON AT COCKTAIL PARTY: How interesting! It’s just like they were saying in the movie: reality is merely a construct of our minds.

But if I do jump down the Rabbit Hole, my worry is that I won’t make it through:

“Sir, if you don’t stop causing a disturbance, we’ll have to escort you out of the movie theater…”

“BUT YOU CAN’T USE QUANTUM MECHANICS TO CHANNEL DEAD PEOPLE! IT’S A LINEAR THEORY! POSTSELECTION’S NOT ALLOWED!”

“Alright, come with us, sir.”

“LINEAR, I TELL YOU! AND THE MEASUREMENTS OBEY THE |Ψ|2 RULE! WHAT THE %*#()$*$ DO THESE IDIOTS KNOW!? I’M BEGGING YOU, STOP THE PROJECTOR!”

Since this hasn’t yet happened, what inspired the present post was not the movie itself, but its title graphic:


Staring at this image, I came up with something that I call the Cringeometer: a quick way for anyone, scientist or not, to predict whether a given popular depiction of science will cause scientists to cringe. To use the Cringeometer, you don’t have to make any decisions about technical accuracy. All you have to do is look for mathematical symbols such as Σ, ε, and π, and then ask yourself two questions:

  1. Are the symbols used to create an aura of profundity and unintelligibility, without regard for their meaning — more or less like Christmas tree ornaments?
  2. If so, is the effect humorous?

The results should be self-explanatory — but just in case they aren’t, I’ll end with three sample applications of the Cringeometer.

  • “What the Bleep?” explodes the Cringeometer even before the movie has started.
  • NUMB3RS also sets the Cringeometer off, even though it probably does more good than harm for public math appreciation. This illustrates that the Cringeometer can’t predict scientists’ detailed opinions — only the involuntary, physical reaction of cringing.
  • “The Far Side” cartoons never set the Cringeometer off.

55 Responses to “The Cringeometer”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Ahh… I remember fondly my first pseudoscience, from age 10: The Holographic Universe and The Dacing Wu Li Masters.

  2. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I agree that I do not like the title of Numb3rs. The show itself is not so bad. There is also the equally vulgar (and redundant) movie title, Se7en. It says something about TV and movies that they can get away with titles like this.

    Turning to good science in a good movie: The Triplets of Belleville inexplicably (but humerously) displays Einstein’s equation towards the beginning. Not E = mc^2, which has become a cliche. It has the Einstein’s equation of general relativity.

  3. D. Eppstein Says:

    Dthop the rabbit hole??

  4. Scott Says:

    Greg: It’s not just the title; I can’t watch the opening sequence of Numb3rs without burying my face in my hands. But I agree that the show itself isn’t terrible — I would’ve kept watching it if I liked crime dramas.

    Triplets of Belleville I confess I found boring. Infer what you will about my philistinism.

  5. Scott Says:

    David: Huh?

  6. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I don’t think that it’s quite “philistine” not to enjoy the Triplets of Belleville. I am a sucker for (good) animated movies. I also really like Pixar movies, for example. But I understand that these movies do not click for everyone.

    Still, even if the Triplets of Belleville is boring for you, it is an interesting visual perspective on exercise, gluttony, the Tour de France, New York City, and the dedication of grandmothers. We also discovered, by doing the experiment, that the movie plays extremely well for deaf people.

  7. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Also high on the cringe-o-meter, even though it is in a good movie: The extremely bad, possibly deliberately bad, science in Spiderman.

    What movies are there with a non-trivial amount of science or math that doesn’t make you cringe, or even hurl? It has to be fiction or at least a dramatization. “N is a Number” is off the table.

  8. Scott Says:

    Greg: When I saw A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles, I felt like I might as well have been seeing a Shakespeare play around 1600. The guys at Pixar are master storytellers, who were lucky enough to seize a new medium just as it was becoming commerically viable. They’ve since taken that medium to such a height that I don’t know if anyone will ever surpass them.

  9. Scott Says:

    I thought the Spiderman movies were excellent, even though I never liked comic books as a kid. Sure, Spiderman’s powers might conflict with physical law — but keep in mind that with his great powers, comes great responsibility as well.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Scott: I think David was reading the title in Greek as printed. My personal favorite is when Sigmas are used for e’s instead of s’s in titles like “My Big Fat GrSSk Wedding”.

  11. Scott Says:

    Hmm, movies with decent science content?

    Real Genius

    The Dish

    Enigma (ironically, the science was OK; the main error concerned Turing’s sexual orientation)

    2001 (which I’m not a huge fan of)

    The Flight of the Phoenix

    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (honorable mention, for nontrivial swallow- and witch-related humor)

    I’m sure we can think of others.

    Of course, the Simpsons, South Park, and Futurama have the best science-related content of all.

  12. Cheshire Cat Says:

    Anyone catch Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of a physicist in “Just One Night”? I defy you to find something higher on the cringeometer. Justly enough, he gets to sleep with Maria Grazia Cucinotta, while real scientists are just, well, weird

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Don’t forget October Sky.

  14. Kent Bye Says:

    I left this comment over at Peter Woit’s blog, but I thought that I’d submit it here as well.

    I understand the message of the original What the Bleep, but I disagree with the strategy and tactics of the filmmakers.

    From a scientific and journalistic perspective, the filmmakers of What The Bleep seemed to only interview people who agreed with their perspectives. I would have liked to have seen more dissenting viewpoints incorporated within the film — especially in this latest expanded version of the film.

    The argument that they’re trying to make is that is that Biology & Psychology are trapped within a Philosophy of Science of Reductionism and that moving towards a “Quantum Ontology” would help incorporate the subjective aspects of our consciousness within healing modalities.

    * Mainstream Medicine = Objective = Reductionistic = Classical Netownian Physics
    * Complementary & Alternative Medicine = Subjective = Interconnected & Holistic = Quantum Ontology

    In other words, our beliefs, perspectives and worldviews are the first filter of our experiences and can actually have biological correlations. So instead of taking pharmaceutical drugs to feel better, there are less invasive methods of Complementary and Alternative Medicine that could relieve symptoms. People are turning to these methods because they seem to work even through mainstream science hasn’t validated them yet.

    There was a recent front-page New York Times article called “When Trust in Doctors Erodes, Other Treatments Fill the Void” that helps explain why What The Bleep has struck such a nerve:

    “Haggles with insurance providers, conflicting findings from medical studies and news reports of drug makers’ covering up product side effects all feed their disaffection, to the point where many people begin to question not only the health care system but also the science behind it.”

    Americans are spending around $27 billion per year on CAM therapies because of an “increasing distrust of mainstream medicine and the psychological appeal of nontraditional approaches as with the therapeutic properties of herbs or other supplements.”

    The NIH set up the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine to help research and vet some of these Mind-Body treatments, and so there has been some science-based research done in the field.

    What the Bleep is obviously not trying to build any bridges with mainstream science, but is trying to reach the audience actively engaged in these types of Mind-Body practices like meditation and yoga. It’s entertainment, and not science or even good journalism. But it is good enough entertainment for those who are sympathetic to the larger messages.

    The film started out in one theater, and was able to build up enough word of mouth to spread to other theaters, and it was eventually picked up by a distributor to get a wider release. I’ve written about the grassroots marketing implications of the film from a independent film perspective that cites a NYT article on how the film has spread.

    I’ve also actually interviewed a number of people from this community for my collaborative documentary on the state of American journalism.

    I was trying to draw parallels between:
    * Mainstream Medicine = Objective = Mainstream Journalism
    * Complementary & Alternative Medicine = Subjective = Blogging

    There are obviously a lot of problems with how journalism covers science issues that can be traced to a reductionistic “He Said / She Said” mindset that takes whatever the political institutions have to say about issues as gospel — even if there is a critical mass of dissent from the academic community.

    I found some interesting insights into this problem from the interviews, and I’d love to hear more feedback on it.

    I’m going to release the audio soon, and would to have some of your critical perspectives to help peer review some of the material that I’ve conducted. That way I don’t end up including information in my final film that hasn’t been fully vetted. Thanks

  15. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: I was going to say, evidently scientific truth is not one of Spiderman’s responsibilities.

    Which brings me to alternative medicine. The New York Times article was depressing. Millions of people would prefer healers who are reassuring, attentive, and polite (although they badmouth the establishment) to those who are held responsible for the truth. How liberating it must be to just make it up as you go.

    Okay, I admit it, I can fall off the wagon too. My calculus teacher was rude and had 200 students. He seemed to be in a hurry and didn’t care about the human element. He devalued his lectures with mistakes — sometimes he even admitted it. So I switched to a small, friendly humanities class in which I learned that higher mathematics is a product of the establishment. Some of the dead, white males who invented the material were notorious bigots. Some of them abetted war. Why should I believe that the derivative of x^2 is 2x when the outcome of that belief might be a bomb trajectory?

  16. Kent Bye Says:

    Greg: Saying “those who are held responsible for the truth” is like saying that established Mainstream Journalism are the sole arbitors of truth and that no truth can be found within blogs.

    Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) leverages the subjective aspects of our worldview and perceptions to bring about biological correlations that help alleviate symptoms.

    So it is important to realize that mainstream medicine views CAM treatments as too subjective and invalid just as mainstream journalists view blogs as too subjective and invalid.

    The fact that you’re spending time reading this blog tells me that you find value here, just as millions of Americans are finding value in resorting to CAM treatments after mainstream medicine has failed them.

    So mainstream medicine does not have a lock on healing, and there are some grains of truth that can be found in Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Mind-Body techniques. The NIH’s NCCAM is at the forefront of scientifically researching and vetting the grains of truth that do exist.

    The problem is that there are a lot of quacks out there as well as a lot of scientifically unvalidated healing modalitaties — treatments that could potentially be harmful.

    Finding discernment for what the best way to heal an illness is analogous to trying to find credible news and information on the Internet.

    There’s a lot of crap out there, but there are also some diamonds in the rough that are filtered and vetted by domain experts that are trusted within their respective fields.

  17. Cheshire Cat Says:

    Love that quote from Seinfeld:

    “And you’re not a doctor, but you play one in real life…”

  18. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Kent Bye: There’s a lot of crap out there, but there are also some diamonds in the rough…

    Yes, it’s the old diamonds in the crap argument. It’s all well and good to look for diamonds in the crap — it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Somehow I doubt that that is the real attraction for fans of alternative medicine.

    Also, I never said arbiters, I said held responsible. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who face penalties when they get it wrong, and those who don’t.

    Of course Scott doesn’t have to get it right in this blog. He has to get it right in his papers, which is also my real connection to him. The blog is just time off from work. We all deserve some of that.

  19. Kent Bye Says:

    Greg: Point taken re: “held responsible” and not “arbiters.” Sorry I misread that.

    Greg says, “It’s all well and good to look for diamonds in the crap — it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”
    NCCAM is one organization trying to do that as well as other journals and research that’s done outside of mainstream science.

    I don’t think this the job of filmmakers like What the Bleep to help figure it out, and in some ways they are adding more noise than signal to the issue.

    Greg says, “Somehow I doubt that that is the real attraction for fans of alternative medicine.”
    I’m not sure quite sure what you mean by this.

    I think that the intentions and motivations for why people turn to alternatives medicines are just as diverse as why they turn to alternative sources of information.

    They’re trying to scratch an itch that otherwise isn’t being scratched.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    Mainstream Medicine = Objective = Reductionistic = Classical Netownian Physics

    Which reminds me, my cringeometer goes up when people use the “=” sign between words. Is that just me?
    Other ones: abuse of the word “logically” and the phrase “mathematically true”.

    More interesting maybe is the phenomenon that even scientists try to impress each other with their mathematical skills. The times that I heard somebody argue that something was derived by topological arguments when it was actually done geometrical ones or otherwise…

    Some readers here should have more examples of this.

    – Wim van Dam

  21. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Kent Bye: I don’t think this the job of filmmakers like What the Bleep to help figure it out, and in some ways they are adding more noise than signal to the issue.

    Yes, they are piling more crap onto the purported diamonds. As is NCCAM, much of the time.

    Kent Bye: They’re trying to scratch an itch that otherwise isn’t being scratched.

    Ultimately they (the Coretta Scott Kings of the world) are just getting fooled.

  22. Kent Bye Says:

    Wim van Dam: my cringeometer goes up when people use the “=” sign between words.

    Good point. I was trying to succinctly explain the parallels that “What the Bleep” is ineffectively trying to make.

    So what is a better notation for analagous or approximately equal to? “~=”

  23. Scott Says:

    Greg:

    “Of course Scott doesn’t have to get it right in this blog.”

    Yes I do. If I don’t, you’ll get on my case immediately. :)

  24. Kurt Says:

    The argument that they’re trying to make is that is that Biology & Psychology are trapped within a Philosophy of Science of Reductionism and that moving towards a “Quantum Ontology” would help incorporate the subjective aspects of our consciousness within healing modalities.

    This kind of stuff really sets off my BS meter, to borrow Scott’s phrase. Philosophical language like this can be twisted around to mean damn near anything. The problem with trying draw conclusions like this is that it is an argument by analogy. Particles at a quantum scale exhibit such-and-such properties, so maybe X also exhibits these properties, where X is your favorite subject (“Consciousness” is a popular current choice for X.) Analogies can be used to *illustrate* a point that has already been established. Analogies provide absolutely zero evidence for anything, not even suggestive evidence.

    Analogies are supposed to help explicate an idea by providing a simpler or already understood picture for a concept. Drawing on a subject – quantum theory – that the viewer and quite possibly the speaker do not really understand cannot possibly serve this purpose. Instead, it serves only to obfuscate.

    Of course, quantum theory is not the only scientific idea that gets misused like this. Historically, evolution and the concept of survival of the fittest has been used to argue by analogy for all kinds of idiotic ideas. Closer to home, Godel’s theorem has likewise been used as “evidence” for all nature of things, even by scientists who should know better.

  25. Scott Says:

    Kent: Whenever I go to the doctor’s office, I’m reminded that the reason people can fall for homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and other stuff that’s 100% crap, is that conventional medicine is at least 60% crap. But even if the doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong with me any more than I can, at least he knows that it’s something with my sinuses, or lymph nodes, or whatever, rather than an imbalance of my chi energy field.

  26. Kent Bye Says:

    Scott says: people can fall for homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and other stuff that’s 100% crap
    Well, it’s not 100% crap because in some ways you can think of Complementary & Alternative Medicine therapies as a non-invasive placebo effect.

    What “is” the placebo effect?

    Some believe that it is the statistically-significant effect of believing or expecting that what you’re doing is going to make a difference.

    However, there seems to be an active dispute on the wikipedia page for placebo on whether or not the placebo effect even exists.

    But if you do believe in the placebo effect, then you have at least some recognition that your beliefs, expectations and perceptions can have certain biological correlates.

    The next step is to determine which of these CAM therapies have a statistically significant effect beyond the placebo effect.

    Try doing an academic database search on the keyword “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” to see what type of research that has turned up so far.

  27. Scott Says:

    “Well, it’s not 100% crap because in some ways you can think of Complementary & Alternative Medicine therapies as a non-invasive placebo effect.”

    At this point we’ve entered the realm of parody. From The Onion:

    FDA Approves Sale Of Prescription Placebo

    (Also relevant: Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms Of Pseudoscience. Plus a short story I wrote years ago.)

  28. Kent Bye Says:

    Kurt says: Philosophical language like this can be twisted around to mean damn near anything. The problem with trying draw conclusions like this is that it is an argument by analogy.
    I agree with what you’re saying.

    I’m not saying that I agree with “What The Bleep’s” approach (I don’t). I’m just trying to explain the dots that they’re attempting to connect, and you explain quite well the downfalls to their approach.

    There is an article by Marilyn Schiltz & Willis Harman called “The Implications of Alternative and Complementary Medicine for Science and the Scientific Process” that is published by Elsevier in a book called “Consciousness & Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Medicine.”

    This article does a much better job of explaining where CAM fits within the context of science than either I can or especially “What the Bleep.”

    Schlitz & Harman write “much of complementary and alternative medicine does not fit even with accepted new views of science, such as quantum mechanics and complexity theories. It seems to be true that, taken together, these diagnostic, therapeutic, and health-promoting practices pose a fundamental challenge to the metaphysical foundations of Western science, which is based upon assumptions of materialism, objectivism, reductionism and physical determinism.”

    The book argues that there is a certain amount of efficacy with these types of phenomenological healing modalities, and is quite cognizant that there isn’t a scientific model that can adequately explain them.

    But this particular article doesn’t try to connect dots where no dots can be connected — like “What the Bleep” does.

    Instead, the authors write: “The most important answer is not to accept a particular answer but to open the dialogue about the metaphysical foundations of Western science and their relationship to understanding mind-body-spirit health and healing.”

    So these authors chose to leave it as an unanswered question that there aren’t adequate scientific models for Mind-Body phenomena.

    And I do agree with you Kurt that “What the Bleep” chooses to obfuscate the question by using quantum analogies as suggestive evidence.

  29. Kent Bye Says:

    Scott says: At this point we’ve entered the realm of parody.
    Don’t just take my inadequate explanations as the final word.

    The most convincing evidence I’ve seen is from “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.”

    Do an academic database search on it. There are some statistically-significant double blind results that have been achieved with this Mind-Body technique.

  30. Scott Says:

    Greg: Yes, it’s the old diamonds in the crap argument.

    I just had an idea for a cartoon: Two flies are buzzing around a treasure chest. One says to the other: “Yes, but if you look carefully, there’s some crap in the diamonds.”

  31. Anonymous Says:

    The kind of crap about physics in “What the Bleep!” is at least (so far) something that we can laugh about. One reason is that nobody has figured out how to make real money out of it.

    CAM on the other hand is hardly a laughing matter. It is supported by the advertising from a large industry making billions. (Check out Food Politics, by NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle for a great discussion of industry’s role.)

    When we start seeing “What the Bleep!” infomercials then we will really need to worry…

  32. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Kent – “The argument that they’re trying to make is that is that Biology & Psychology are trapped within a Philosophy of Science of Reductionism and that moving towards a “Quantum Ontology” would help incorporate the subjective aspects of our consciousness within healing modalities.

    * Mainstream Medicine = Objective = Reductionistic = Classical Netownian Physics”

    I haven’t actually seen this movie, but if this is true than I might have to give it a looksee (even if it will likely set of my cringe-o-meter too). Couple of questions though. Are you putting Psychology into the “Mainstream Medicine = Objective” category? There has been a long-standing tradition of hostility from the medical field towards psychology. And it works on an entirely different model (Medicine works on the typical medical model, psychology works on a bio-psycho-social model). The applied fields of psychology actually do tend to use a more subjective, holisitic approach. So you’re half right… academic psychology USUALLY strives for reductionism, which doesn’t quite work. It’s funny that you compared it to physics (Newtonian and Quantum) because that’s the field that psychology adopted it’s methodology from. Psychology was originally intended to be “psychophysics”. But asking psychology to adopt a new methodology only heigthens the crisis already occuring within the field: neuropsychology is fine using the methodology now employed. The more social and cognitive parts of psychology are being asked to adopt a more hermenuetic approach. Not to mention the divide between applied and academic psychology. Adopting a new approach means that psychology as we know it would have to split into at least 2 seperate disciplines.

  33. Kent Bye Says:

    Miss HT Psych: “What the Bleep” has a subtext that critiques the use of medications as a quick fix for our stress-based problems. There is a cheesy narrative story intertwined with interviews with talking heads & animations — the story follows a deaf photographer who is taking anti-anxiety pills, and throughout the film she learns how to overcome her anxiety by changing her thought patterns, perceptions and meditation. So by the end of the film she throws her drugs away.

    The film doesn’t explicitly delve in the larger context, but insurance companies and HMOs are the real driving force of the types of medical and psychological treatments that will be reimbursed. There is a clear bias towards reimbursing the use of pharmaceutical drugs as a quick fix to all of your problems, and the trend is that you have to pay out of your own pocket for cognitive-based therapies, psychoanalytic treatments or other “subjective, holisitic approaches.” BTW, my wife is studying social work, where she sees a lot of this firsthand.

    The underlying strategic message of What the Bleep is to point out that there are complementary & alternative Mind-Body techniques that you can use to help you cope and deal with stress. This is the message that is carrying enough grains of truth to resonate with audiences.

    What’s unfortunate is that this larger message is drowned out by their heavy-handed tactics of using Quantum Physics to connect dots that haven’t yet been connected within the larger scientific community. And so it makes me and others question the filmmaker’s larger motivations for advancing their own particular interpretations.

    The film also doesn’t get into whether or not “a new approach” to psychology should be adopted. But the point of “Complementary” and “Alternative” medicine is that sometimes treatments should complement existing therapies — and other times they can be a complete alternative.

    The “Consciousness & Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Medicine” book is a much better source for investigating how to integrate these many different healing modalities into a comprehensive philosophical framework.

  34. Kurt Says:

    Kent Bye said: Schlitz & Harman write “much of complementary and alternative medicine does not fit even with accepted new views of science, such as quantum mechanics and complexity theories. It seems to be true that, taken together, these diagnostic, therapeutic, and health-promoting practices pose a fundamental challenge to the metaphysical foundations of Western science, which is based upon assumptions of materialism, objectivism, reductionism and physical determinism.”

    Kent, if you’re offering this as an example of something more clear-headed than “What the bleep…”, I have to disagree. This sounds like more pure crap to me. If one wants to argue that the practice of medicine should be more open to traditional healing techniques, fine; that’s a public policy debate. But to suggest that there is a difference between “Western science” and other means of gaining scientific knowledge is just nonsense. The scientific method is the scientific method, and anything else is not science but faith.

  35. Kent Bye Says:

    Kurt says: But to suggest that there is a difference between “Western science” and other means of gaining scientific knowledge is just nonsense.
    Science has indeed brought about a lot of great advances to our society, and I’m not saying that the scientific method within itself is the problem. It is the particular ontological & epistemological assumptions that you are using that can cause you to have blindspots.

    Reductionism brings about certain assumptions regarding causality. There are clear boundaries between the actor and observer within classical Netwonian Physics that seem to break down within a more interdependent quantum ontology.

    The mechanics of emergence and cooperation are interpreted differently when seen through the lens of Systemism or Biological Organicism.

    Hard science is much more cut and dry when it comes to these types issues, but the real problems come when dealing with the social sciences and more complex biological ecosystems.

    Sociological behavior and it’s influence on personal psychology isn’t easily scientifically modeled or predicted when you start trying to incorporate “motives, histories, traditions, beliefs, emotions, reluctances, denials, prejudices, clarities and insights” into the equation.

    Mind-Body techniques such as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” can yield statistically-significant results in research settings despite the fact that there isn’t a comprehensive scientific model that can adequately explain consciousness and it’s connection to health and healing.

    So the point is that our emotions, perceptions and conscious state of mind may actually have biological correlates as well as a bi-directional causal relationship even though the specific mechanisms of these relationships can’t be explained by the most widely used ontological and epistemological assumptions.

    The point that the book tries to make is that it may be worth evaluating the limitations of these assumptions and possible supplements to them.

  36. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Kent Bye: There are clear boundaries between the actor and observer within classical Netwonian Physics that seem to break down within a more interdependent quantum ontology.

    Don’t bother trying to explain quantum mechanics to people who actually study it. On a good day I might be more polite on this point, but I think that alternative medicine is reprehensible quackery.

  37. Anonymous Says:

    I’m rather surprised that people here doubt that “mind effects matter”. It’s actually bidirectional: when I get angry my heartbeat goes up, when I drink alcohol my thought processes change. Big surprise.
    There was actually some research that follows leads about this. Getting an injection of water may ease someone’s pain, and the same goes for many other liquids, but it won’t work if you inject the right drug – that is, you can counter the effect physically. It’s science.
    As for alternative medicine, I think much of it is bullshit. It is true, as scott mentions, that much of regular medicine is too. Medicine isn’t a science, it’s more like engineering – it helps knowing physics, but bridge building didn’t stop ’cause they didn’t have the equations.

  38. Anonymous Says:

    greg, your last statement has to be interpreted as idiotic in light of its gross generality.

    the national institute of medicine defines “alternative medicine” as “Therapeutic practices which are not currently considered an integral part of conventional allopathic medical practice. They may lack biomedical explanations but as they become better researched some (physical therapy, diet, acupuncture) become widely accepted whereas others (humors, radium therapy) quietly fade away…”

    to dismiss all alternative medicine as “reprehensible” ignores the fact that some forms _have_ become widely accepted as effective by the western medical community, even if their exact scientific explanations have not been arrived at.

    it’s analogous to saying that engineers could not have existed before newton, since the classical laws of physics were not on solid scientific ground yet. if I notice that meditating for 20 minutes every morning helps me to control my ADD, do I really need to submit this to the western medical community for inspection before I suggest it to others?

    certainly I am skeptical in believing that some form of therapy is effective unless it can be tested scientifically. but this is not equivalent to it being condoned by the western medical world (which is itself a corrupt, political beast).

    clearly “what the bleep?” is complete quackery, but don’t overgeneralize.

  39. Scott Says:

    Kent:

    There are clear boundaries between the actor and observer within classical Netwonian Physics that seem to break down within a more interdependent quantum ontology.

    You mean between the system and observer? Or is the observer watching a play? If you’re going to spout vague flapdoodle about “interdependent quantum ontology,” you should at least get the buzzwords straight. :-)

  40. Anonymous Says:

    man you guys are insecure (and thus respond in a rather shitty way to imprecisely phrased objections). sure, it’s easy and safe to hide behind an “axiomization of quantum mechanics” and prove and prove and prove without actually worrying about whether you’re saying something about the universe itself, but at least try not to pass yourselves off as physicists.

    To quote Bell:

    It would seem that the theory is exclusively concerned about “results of measurement”, and has nothing to say about anything else. What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of “measurer”? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less “measurement-like” processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere. Do we not have jumping then all the time?

  41. Kent Bye Says:

    Scott says: You mean between the system and observer?

    Yeah, sorry. The Actor/Observer terminology is from psychology.

    Greg says, “Don’t bother trying to explain quantum mechanics to people who actually study it.”

    Sorry. The implicit point that I didn’t make clear is that alternative medicine often uses Quantum Mechanics as a metaphor to describe the Mind/Matter interdependence.

    There is more discussion about the use and misuse of metaphors in science
    starting here in this thread.

    The leap from physics to journalism that brought me here in the first place is more from a metaphoric perspective in the sense that journalists attempt to observe things from a detached and objective perspective — while obviously their worldviews, perspectives, questions and published reporting influences the actors and the larger political system.

    But journalists still attempt to be a detached observer with a more traditional Newtonian mindset, while new media is more Quantum in the sense of being more personally and emotionally involved within the story.

    Anyway, I’ve actually interviewed a couple of the What the Bleep scientists dicussing these metaphoric parallels to journalism — which is my interest in this thread.

  42. Anonymous Says:

    damn’t kent. here I was trying to defend you, to construct some reasonable argument from your posts, and then you have to drop this bomb:

    “But journalists still attempt to be a detached observer with a more traditional Newtonian mindset, while new media is more Quantum in the sense of being more personally and emotionally involved within the story.”

    all this time while I thought my girlfriend was being illogical and irrational, she was just giving me quantum proofs (the personal, emotional kind). shit, I have to stop recommending “men are from mars, women are from venus” and start suggesting more watrous for couples with communication problems.

  43. Kent Bye Says:

    anonymous says: here I was trying to defend you, to construct some reasonable argument from your posts, and then you have to drop this bomb

    Well, I don’t think that I made any convincing connections from the interviews that I got.

    That was the intention that I started with.

    Anyway, I have some interview audio with some potentially useful or interesting insights for journalism.

    Again, I’m looking to Newtownian/Quantum from a purely metaphoric sense — not a literal one.

  44. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I have the deepest respect for Bell’s theorem and the research of John Bell. However, Bell was about the last person in history who could significantly contribute to quantum theory without really believing it. If he provided good answers, he did not always ask good questions. Some of the questions were good at the time, but aren’t good questions now.

    The simple truth is that we are obliged to admit that measurement-like processes are going on all the time, everywhere. One solution to this “problem” is to use CPTP maps, or quantum operations, to model open quantum systems. Quantum information theorists are used to it by now; there is no need for philosophical angst about who measures what.

  45. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I am reminded of the great line from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, in which an angry king kicks over his dinner cart and say, “Every day it’s the same thing — variety! I want something different!”

    The fact is that the “Western” medical “establishment”, which is to say licensed medical practice in wealthy democracies, already recognizes choices and experimental treatment. However, proven treatment is recognized as better than unproven treatment, and logical deduction is recognized as better than subjective speculation.

    So to throw out logical variety and demand another alternative really is quackery in principle. Someone could conceivably have a good idea within the framework of alternative medicine, but it would be despite the ideology and not because of it.

  46. Kent Bye Says:

    Greg says: So to throw out logical variety and demand another alternative really is quackery in principle.
    The larger field is called Complementary & Alternative Medicine — not just Alternative Medicine.

    Sometimes treatments can be a supplement, and other times they can completely replace traditional methods.

  47. Anonymous Says:

    wow, greg, you sound excessively naive. certainly the medical establishment (in the US, say, we can start being specific), recognizes experimental treatment–I’m not saying they’re idiots. I am saying that there are tons of other factors involved. How about pharmaceutical _companies_ not wanting to promote non-patentable treatments? (and you probably believe that the enron fiasco was just an accounting error, as you seem so trusting of the world…) how about licensed doctors having to worry about malpractice suits? how about lobbyists getting research funding for only the stuff they want funded? how about the fact that we know more about the side effects of a natural remedy used for thousands of years in some asian country than we do of some new drug which has been tested by the FDA for at most 10 years in limited trials? how about the fact that I can’t legally get access to marijuana in this country because of some puritanical bullshit? (oh, and by the way, my doctor is also my dealer, but that’s _against_ the will of the “establishment.”)

    it’s not about throwing out “logical variety,” it’s about recognizing that you’re not being exposed to the variety of treatments that you could be. i happen to be friends with some of your coauthors, and some of them employ alternative therapies (e.g. acupuncture). you know what they say about cavorting with quacks…

  48. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    anonymous 6:51: First, you may have a good reason for being anonymous, but if so, you might as well skip personal assertions, like that you are friends with my co-authors.

    I don’t harbor any illusions about “the establishment”. If you take the most dogmatic possible definition of the establishment, then of course a lot of “alternative” medicine is valid and important. But then you could make the same case against the mathematical “establishment”. For example, the establishment pushes Mathematica because of aggressive marketing, which goes hand in hand with monopolism and high prices. So therefore there is room for “alternative” mathematics.

    I take the most flexible definition of the medical establishment, namely all medical practice backed by (a) the scientific method, and (b) legal accountability. Which is not to say that I completely trust even this model of the medical establishment. Of course it still has its problems. I just don’t see how I could place any trust whatsoever in a system of medicine without properties (a) and (b).

  49. Scott Says:

    man you guys are insecure (and thus respond in a rather shitty way to imprecisely phrased objections). sure, it’s easy and safe to hide behind an “axiomization of quantum mechanics” and prove and prove and prove without actually worrying about whether you’re saying something about the universe itself, but at least try not to pass yourselves off as physicists.

    First: I’m not a physicist, I’m a computer scientist. :)

    Second: I really do think there are profound questions about why quantum mechanics is the way it is, and whether it’s really true at a macroscopic scale, and if not what should replace it, and if so how to make sense of wavefunction collapse. Much of my research has been motivated by these questions, as should be clear even from reading the abstracts.

    (In this, I might have a genuine difference of opinion with Greg — or maybe we just have different tastes in what we like to study.)

    But precisely because the questions are so thorny, and our intuition so inadequate for them, I think we need to be especially careful to avoid facile metaphors and sloppy thinking. Whether I agreed with him or not, John Bell always expressed himself clearly, and that’s one of the reasons I admire him. Bell did not use phrases like “interdependent quantum ontology.”

    Imagine that you’re a playwright, and someone at a dinner party is droning on about how “the epistemological framework of modern drama has overturned the stale Shakesperian paradigm that reigned unquestioned for centuries.” Now imagine that this person has never read a single play by Shakespeare or anyone else. That should give you some idea of how a physicist (or computer scientist!) feels in the presence of a Dancing Wu Li Master.

  50. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Actually, I disagree with Scott: I don’t think that our difference in taste in quantum theory is significant. :-) But there may be a difference in motivation, even when we like the exact same questions.

    In my case, “why” or “whether” quantum mechanics is true does nothing to motivate me. Or more precisely, quantum information theory. Quantum information theory is true, there doesn’t need to be a reason why, and no one has thought of any logically consistent modification. My instinct is not to wonder whether such a modification exists. Certainly some things that we believe will have to be modified, but it is wishful thinking to expect a modification of any specific surprising truth. If quantum information theory did need to be modified, it would probably be replaced by something even harder to believe.

    But still, it is delicious to map out the logical world of quantum information theory, exactly as I would if I did care about “why” and “whether”. My motiviation is to keep repairing my intuition so that quantum information theory becomes as unsurprising as possible. Everyone likes to philosophize about counterintuitive things; it is delicious to rescue a topic from that moribund state.

  51. Kent Bye Says:

    Greg says: I just don’t see how I could place any trust whatsoever in a system of medicine without properties (a) [the scientific method] and (b) [legal accountability].

    In a lot of ways, the search for trustworthy information and accountability on the Internet provides some insights to these two issues.

    First there is the emerging economic concept of “The Long Tail,” which basically means that the Internet has made niche markets viable business ventures with the explosion of products and information to chose from.

    There are no more localized limits of “shelf space” with Internet stores like Amazon, eBay and iTunes — which means that niche products can now be more effectively produced and distributed. The barriers to disseminating information have been lowered to the point where anyone with Internet access can start a blog and start communicating to the world.

    So with the explosion of information and available products to chose from — including Complementary & Alternative Medicine — then how do you go about figuring out which ones to pay attention to, trust, and ultimately purchase?

    The answer that the Wired magazine editor describes is “post-filtering” systems such as recommendations from trusted friends or Amazon’s “Customers who bought this book also bought…”, reputation systems like eBay’s to track trustworthy sellers, music playlists like Webjay and Google search in the sense that their pagerank algorithm incorporates authority that includes a weighted citation analysis of incoming links from other sources.

    * Do you trust the marketing of the drug maker or CAM therapy within themselves?
    * Or do you trust the verification mechanisms by authorities within your respective community?
    *Who are the respected authorities in your community?
    * And how did they come about their conclusions?

    These are these types of post-modern trust and recommendation mechanisms to help reducing the uncertainty for finding quality information that will eventually expand to other markets including health treatments. It will be up to each individual to shift through the ocean of possibilities and mediate what is trustworthy and effective for your specific illness. There are very little “one-size fits all” solutions to healing.

    The second issue of accountability is an open problem. The current medical system has more accountability and responsibility for demonstrating efficacy, but yet there are still unresolved issues of accountability and justice for both traditional and CAM treatments.

    The problem with the current medical system is that accountability ultimately ends up being an economic issue. If you can still make enough profit to keep government penalties within a reasonable margin, then it becomes a cost-benefit analysis of paying off fines, settling disputes out of court, publishing sympathetic studies while suppressing the unsympathetic ones, etc. Is that really justice?

    Government regulation for accountability for CAM treatments is a trickier problem, and I see that there are similar issues in discussions about the regulation of the Internet. Esther Dyson has the best round-up of accountability issues in this IT Conversations discussion about the various issues that come into play such as transparency, authenticity, identity and potential tools for peer-to-peer accountability.

    This is still an open problem that pops up in all sorts of other ways within the technology world.

  52. Kent Bye Says:

    Scott says, John Bell always expressed himself clearly, and that’s one of the reasons I admire him. Bell did not use phrases like “interdependent quantum ontology.”

    Sorry for not communicating clearly. I’m obviously stretching myself beyond my expertise.

    I also don’t consider these blog comments worthy of being widely published — they’re more of an opportunity to make my thinking more clear by engaging with people who are much smarter than I am.

    My intent here has been to find ways to introduce more complexity into journalism, but at this point it’s obviously probably too much of a leap to invoke “quantum” to describe any type of macroscale social phenomenon.

    But for what it’s worth, to me “quantum ontology” represents being interconnected, holistic, engaged, participatory and probabilistic.

  53. Anonymous Says:

    I find that being both probabilistic and engaged are at odds with each other. My fiancee broke up with me because half the time I didn’t show up for our dates.

  54. nic Says:

    Damn Everettians, its all fun and games until someone makes a film…

  55. william quartz Says:

    Everyone likes to philosophize about counterintuitive things; it is delicious to rescue a topic from that moribund state.