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Teaching physics mysteries versus pseudoscience

November 2006, page 14

Physicists properly join today's arguments involving the teaching of Darwinian evolution. There is, however, a social issue closer to the responsibility of physicists: Quantum physics is increasingly invoked to promote pseudoscience.

Such promotions may start with correct statements of the intriguing implications of quantum mechanics, move to legitimate hyperbole, and then go off into complete hype. Take a recent "international hit" movie as our case in point. It's strangely titled What tHe #$*! Do wΣ (k)πow!? (What the Bleep Do We Know!?) An article in Time magazine described it as "an odd hybrid of science documentary and spiritual revelation featuring a Greek chorus of PhDs and mystics talking about quantum physics."1

Early on, the movie illustrates the uncertainty principle with a bouncing basketball being in several places at once. There's nothing wrong with that. It's recognized as pedagogical exaggeration. But the movie gradually moves to quantum "insights" that lead a woman to toss away her antidepressant medication, to the quantum channeling of Ramtha, the 35 000-year-old Atlantis god, and on to even greater nonsense.

Most laypeople cannot tell where the quantum physics ends and the quantum nonsense begins, and many are susceptible to being misguided. According to polls, well over half of the people in the US and England have significant belief in the reality of supernatural phenomena. Robert Park states the problem well. "Many people . . . seek a certainty that science cannot offer. For these people the unchanging dictates of ancient religious beliefs, or the absolute assurances of zealots, have a more powerful appeal. Paradoxically, however, their yearning for certainty is often mixed with a respect for science. They long to be told that modern science validates the teachings of some ancient scripture or New Age guru. The purveyors of pseudoscience have been quick to exploit their ambivalence."2 We should not underestimate how persuasively physics can be invoked to buttress mystical notions. We physicists bear some responsibility for the way our discipline is exploited.

The human implications of quantum mechanics that fuel popular discussion arise in the measurement problem and in entanglement. Those terms are at least how we refer to the topics in a physics class, where we rarely go much beyond their mathematical formulation. Elsewhere, the same issues are legitimately discussed more broadly in terms of the nature of reality, universal connectedness, and consciousness. But we don't distract physics students with excursions into issues that extend embarrassingly beyond the boundaries we define for our discipline. Science historian Jed Buchwald notes that physicists "have long had a special loathing for admitting questions with the slightest emotional content into their professional work."3 Accordingly, unlike the biology student able to defend evolution against intelligent design, a physics student may be unable to convincingly confront unjustified extrapolations of quantum mechanics.

It's not the student's fault. For the most part, in our teaching of quantum mechanics we tacitly deny the mysteries physics has encountered. We hardly mention Niels Bohr's grappling with the encounter between physics and the observer and John von Neumann's demonstration that the encounter is, in principle, inevitable. We largely avoid the still-unresolved issues raised by Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Eugene Wigner, David Bohm, and John Bell. Outside the classroom, physicists increasingly address these issues and often go beyond the purely physical. Consciousness, for example, comes up explicitly in almost all of today's proliferating interpretations of quantum mechanics, if only to show why physics need not deal with it. The many-worlds interpretation, for example, is also referred to as the many-minds interpretation, and a major treatment of decoherence concludes that an ultimate understanding of the implications of quantum mechanics would involve a model of consciousness.

The Copenhagen interpretation is, of course, all we need to describe the world for all practical purposes. And for a physics class, practical purposes are all that generally matter. But a physics student confronting someone inclined to take the implications of quantum mechanics to unjustified places will find Copenhagen's for-all-practical-purposes treatment an ineffective argument.

We are unable to present students with a "reasonable" picture for what's going on in the physical world, one that goes beyond merely practical purposes. But a lecture or two can succinctly expose the mysteries physics has encountered, reveal the limits of our understanding, and identify as speculation whatever goes beyond those limits. Such a presentation is possible even in a physics class for non-science majors and would enable students to effectively confront the quantum nonsense. Physics's encounter with the observer and consciousness can be embarrassing, but that's no reason for avoidance. The analogy with sex education comes to mind.


  1. 1. D. Cray, Time, 16 August 2004, p. 22.
  2. 2. R. Park, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford U. Press, New York (2000), p. 39.
  3. 3. J. Glanz, New York Times, 21 May 2002,
    p. F4.
Fred Kuttner
Bruce Rosenblum
University of California, Santa Cruz