Episode 56: Sheeplock and Dachson in “A Quantum of Reasoning”

Our intrepid duo of critical thinkers, Sheeplock and Dachson, had just rushed to the scene of a crime. They were informed that the police had pulled over a vehicle that matched the description and plates of one suspected of carrying illegally produced socket wrenches.  Ever since the manufacturing tool makers consolidation, Big Socket has had a virtual monopoly and doesn’t allow anyone else to make such tools.  The driver would not consent to a search until his lawyer was present, who had also recently arrived.

The lawyer was arguing “Unless you search this vehicle, my client is in a state of being both innocent and guilty.  Since he cannot be both and our law states that a person is innocent until proven guilty, then you must admit that my client is innocent.  This is a simple and irrefutable tenet of the science of quantum mechanics which has been heavily researched and proven.  Any attempt to search my client’s car will be seen as a clear violation of his rights and we will take the entire police force to court.”

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The officers, looking baffled, turned to Sheeplock and Dachson for help.  Dachson smiled and said “Don’t worry, we can help, we’ve seen similar arguments before.  Sheeplock, if you will”.  Then Sheeplock began “My good lawyer, your argument has a few flaws.  You are referring to the scientific principle of uncertainty which is a means to help explain how very small particles (in the quantum realm) behave.    While you are correct that it is a well-researched and understood idea, you are incorrect in assuming it has any value here.  This thought experiment has no meaning in the large, macro world we live in.  Now, while I don’t believe in a monopoly controlling the creation of mechanic’s tools, I must follow the law.  Officers, if you have the legal grounds to search this vehicle, this argument does not stand in your way.”

We see a clear example of the quantum physics (or quantum mechanics) fallacy here.  This fallacy occurs when people use the often-misunderstood ideas of quantum mechanics to explain something that quantum mechanics was not meant to explain.  Quantum mechanics is a specific branch of science which deals with the mathematical representation of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles.  Subatomic particles are small…really, really small.  Just the name is “sub” and “atom” which means these are particles smaller than atoms.  It is a very dense subject in which you need a lot of expertise to have any meaningful knowledge.  Plus, it is weird.  From the little I have learned, things at the subatomic level do not work the same way as they do here at the big, or macro, level.  If you hear anyone talking about macro-level things, like us, and mentioning quantum mechanics at the same time, it’s probably this fallacy.

What we saw Sheeplock deal with was a reference to a thought experiment called Schrodinger’s Cat.  The experiment says that there is a box which contains a cat, a vial of poison and a radioactive source.  You don’t know when the radioactive source will decay and break the vial thereby killing the cat.  This is a description of the Copenhagen interpretation – if you don’t look in the box then the cat is both alive and dead.  Only when you do look is the cat either alive or dead.  Obviously, people are not poisoning cats in boxes.  It is meant to demonstrate that subatomic particles exist in a state of superposition until acted upon by an external force (trust me, that’s the easy definition).  Hopefully, you’re getting the idea that quantum mechanics is an extremely complex branch of science and we cannot readily apply it to most things we deal with.

Why should you ever have to worry about this?  Well, we see a lot of pseudo-scientists applying the ideas of quantum mechanics in places they shouldn’t.  Some mystics will look at the concept of quantum entanglement in which two separate particles that are in an entangled state will behave the same even if only one is acted upon.  It’s another really weird occurrence.  However, since they can seem to do this over any distance (even though that isn’t proven) some will say that this is how telepathy can work.  And then they’ll throw in the old “Science is just beginning to figure out what great mystics have always known.”  Our brains and quantum entanglement are totally unrelated.  The mystics are using a very poor understanding of one particular idea and trying to explain why telepathy, which has never been proven, could actually work.

Hollywood and science fiction certainly like to use quantum mechanics in new and interesting ways.  While it is meant for entertainment, all too often people start believing the idea, which is rather dangerous.  I have been and always shall be a big Star Trek fan and they have one thing I just love.  The original series introduced the idea of teleporters that could map a human at the subatomic level, take them apart and then beam and reassemble them somewhere else.  I’d love this for getting to the coffee shop.  But there is a theory in quantum mechanics which says you cannot know both the position and direction of a subatomic particle at the same time; this is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  It would make mapping anything at the subatomic level impossible.  So, Star Trek just ‘invented’ the Heisenberg Compensators and installed them in the transporters. 

If you are interested in quantum mechanics it is a fascinating branch of science and there are books and courses available for it.  I barely nicked the surface here, let alone scratched it.  What I wanted to convey is that even if you know nothing about quantum mechanics, you can still recognize when it’s referenced incorrectly.  You should have gotten the idea that it is dense, complex and has limited applications (which we know of so far).  So, when you hear it mentioned you should be immediately skeptical.  Well, I’m off to both eat and not eat supper – you’ll have to see me to find out which.  Please hurry though, I’m rather hungry and not hungry.