Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pseudoscientific technobabble

One of the common strategies of pseudoscience is to use technical language in order to sound more scientific.  It serves the same function as technobabble in science fiction: it makes people sound like they know what they're talking about when they don't.

In my presentation "Quantum Mechanics for the skeptic", some of the audience asked how to tell the difference between technobabble and real scientific language.  But there's a problem in asking me for help.  The method I use and the method they use are necessarily different.  I can easily tell the difference myself because I study physics and know the scientific language.  But they are lay people who may never study physics.

In the presentation, I showed this video as an exercise in spotting quantum nonsense.

Let me describe a bit how this video looks to someone who knows the scientific language.  Lynn Mctaggart plainly uses a lot of technobabble.  I might put the technobabble into three categories which sometimes blend into each other.
  1. Words that aren't really used by physicists.  Usually, these words appear to be derived from some real concept in physics, but she's garbled it so much that she doesn't recognize that the words she uses mean something completely different from the original words.

    Examples: connected, sea of light, separateness, potential life, nether region, beings of light, vibrating energy, sea of energy, memory bank

  2. Words that are used by physicists, but don't mean what she thinks they mean.  Sometimes she mixes in true facts, but often in really misleading ways.

    Examples: energy, field, zero point field, Copenhagen interpretation, observation, nonlocality, photons, ground state energy, information, waves

  3. Technical words that are just tossed around for no apparent reason.  The words are just there to provide an aura of science.

    Examples: DNA, frequency, constructionists (?), vacuum, hologram, magnetic resonance imaging, geomagnetic storm
But the layman can't see any of this.  To the layman, Lynn McTaggart looks vaguely suspicious, but, hey, physicists say pretty crazy things too.

The rule of thumb I would suggest is "Physics language, when properly used, does not say things about moral or social issues."  You can't go from physics to sociology without first passing by chemistry, biology, and psychology.

For example, at the beginning of the video, Lynn says we're all connected, and starts talking about wars and the "mine is bigger than yours" mentality.  You automatically know she's talking nonsense because even if "we're all connected" were a true statement in physics, it could not possibly mean that we're connected in a psychological, social, or moral sense.

Really, she's just using the physics as a metaphor.  She even says so herself at one point.  We determine the laws of physics based on experiment, not based on which ones give the best metaphors.

Even if a physicist uses technical words in this way, I would regard it with suspicion.  Physicists like to make social commentary just as much as the next person, after all, but they don't have any special insight into social issues that the layperson doesn't.  I think most physicists would actually appreciate it if you can distinguish between their authoritative statements on physics and non-authoritative statements on social issues.

But this rule of thumb is not sufficient.  For example, if someone tries to sell you a bracelet that interacts with your bioenergetic fields to keep you healthy... well, that's pseudoscientific technobabble right there.  But no social commentary is necessary to sell you a bracelet.  What other rules of thumb can the layperson use?

Or must the layperson accept that they cannot always spot pseudoscience on their own?  Gee, I sure hope this isn't the answer... that would require humility.  Surely, we can find a better answer than that.


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Ok, perhaps this is too cynical an answer, but pseudoscience, of the kind that a layperson would encounter, will always be directed towards what the person wants you to believe (which is why it's opposite to science). Therefor:

1. Don't believe a physicist making a political or sociological point (unless it's about how, in their experience, politics and society treat physics).

2. Don't believe a physicist who's trying to sell you something.

In either case, it's more likely that they're arguing for their own ends, not being objective.

miller said...

On the other hand, you want to avoid the "fallacy fallacy". Just because someone supports their conclusion with technobabble doesn't mean their conclusion is wrong. For instance, I think I would agree with Lynn McTaggart that wars are bad.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

I'm not saying that the physicist is definately wrong. Just that you shouldn't believe them, that their 'expert' status should be considered carefully if you can see what's in it for them.

Jaden said...

I'm interested in what you think about the language/method/validity of those physicists engaged in the dialogue between science and religion (particularly, those sympathetic to religion who attempt to reconcile/integrate the two). I honestly don't know what to make of physicists like John Polkinghorne, who (for example) think that quantum physics can tell us a lot about divine action. What do you think?

I don't think people like Polkinghorne are technobabbling, but I'm still suspicious of the agenda of harmonizing+integrating Christian theology and physics. It seems to me that, while one can unnecessarily layer physics with theology, physics per se doesn't have much of anything positive to say about orthodox Christian theology.

miller said...

I've never heard of John Polkinghorne, and his Wikipedia page was not very enlightening. If you want my reaction to his ideas, perhaps you should briefly summarize them.

Jaden said...

"Quantum physics shows, I think, that physics has not proved the closure of the world in terms of its own laws and equations. Physics can’t tell us that the exchange of energy between bits and pieces is the only thing that is going on in the world. Quantum theory, and in a different way chaos theory, have a more subtle picture of the world. If the world were simply mechanical, as people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would just be a gigantic piece of cosmic clockwork, and its creator would be an unseen cosmic clockmaker. That’s the creator who just makes the clock and lets it tick away. Quantum theory is something more subtle than that. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact — we’re not clockwork at all — and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation."

That's Polkinghorne on quantum physics and God.


Coyne criticizes Polkinghorne.


And here, Polkinghorne on divine action.

I honestly don't understand what the heck he is trying to say about quantum physics and God!

miller said...

To keep the focus narrow, I'll just respond to that quote.

The quote reminds me of a theological question that was posed in my high school religion classes. Did God simply create creation and let it go? Or does he continuously sustain it? Polkinghorne believes it is the latter.

But the support he offers for this position is very lacking. Why does he think quantum mechanics suggests that God is constantly involved? Is it because it's non-deterministic? What does determinism have to do with it? What about the deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics?

And why does he think classical mechanics suggests a "cosmic clockmaker" God? Surely, we can imagine a deterministic universe which requires a god to sustain it.

Until he shows a link between quantum mechanics and theology, quantum mechanics is irrelevant to his argument. Therefore, I am forced to classify his language in category 3.

Given the huge leaps and bounds he is making in his reasoning, it appears that he is making a conclusion first, and then looking reasons to back it up. If this is the case, why does he want to be in a world that is continuously sustained by God? I mean, that's a really silly and pointless fact to take comfort in. I might as well take comfort in the fact that the chicken came before the chicken egg.