Quantum woo - how to distinguish good, from bad physics.
Physics, particularly quantum physics, is notorious for being complicated, non-intuitive, and difficult to understand. While there is some basis for this notoriety, its complexity is often exaggerated and its results misinterpreted, which makes quantum physics particularly prone to being exploited by charlatanic scientists, and new-age gurus alike. So how do we distinguish good, from bad physics?
The first thing to pay attention to is what sort of language the post is using. Scientific lingo is often hijacked for the dual purpose of making the post sound more credible, while at the same time confusing those readers who might not be familiar with all these terms. Pseudoscientists will often speak in certain terms, portraying their theories as revolutionary and ground-breaking, while casting doubt on established knowledge.
Genuine scientists and science communicators naturally take a much more cautious tone, knowing the uncertainties involved in making accurate statements.
Another great indicator of pseudophysics is the context in which it’s presented. Wild physics claims are often made in association with selling a set of products, or galvanising support for a certain brand – in other words, advertising. Physics terminology is often used to make something sound particularly scary, chemical, or artificial which is why it’s so readily hijacked by new age health and wellness brands.
On other occasions bad physics is also used to advance conspiracies – usually in the form of a ‘rogue’ physicist whose invention(s) supposedly challenge the status quo. Specifically, the internet is filled with claims of devices which supposedly generate infinite amounts of ‘free energy’ thus threatening the world’s energy businesses. However, such devices are physically impossible to conceive (even in theory) and every single case has been debunked in one form, or another.
Genuine physics will have a primarily educational tone, without political undercurrents. All physics claims made in association with promoting any kind of product should immediately be viewed with suspicion, especially when containing the word 'quantum', until it is verified.
Pseudoscientific claims often contradict one another and offer no consistent narrative, which makes them easier to spot. Taking Deepak Chopra’s ‘Quantum Healing’ as an example, most search results reference Chopra directly or indirectly, and there is little independent work or study that has gone into this subject.
This stands in stark contrast to actual physics, where claims are scrutinised by many authors, and several independent studies on the subject can be found.
Above I’ve outlined a few quick methods which will hopefully help you distinguish good from bad physics. In brief:
1) Is the presenter making an effort to explain his/her terminology, and are they using this terminology consistently?
2) What’s the motivation behind the claim? Are they selling something, or making a political statement?
3) Can I verify this information through credible sources?