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Nov 21 2011

How to spot a quack

As I was going through my usual morning roster of webcomics, I discovered that Sci-ence referenced an earlier one I missed — the Red Flags of Quackery. There are certain tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with woo…like the abuse of the word “quantum”.

But then you all already knew that Sci-ence was required regular reading, right?

(Also on Sb)

68 comments

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  1. 1
    Blondin

    Fossilized dinosaur droppings are known as “coprolites”. I like to think of the droppings from Chopra’s fossilized brain as “chopralites”. Similar to Dennett’s “deepities” but specifically invoking quantum.

  2. 2
    Sean Boyd

    I’d never encountered Sci-ence.org before. Awesome, and appropriate.

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    Lasers can help you directly in many ways: surgery, reading optical media, transmitting information from place to place. Quantum physics must be invoked to explain lasers.

  4. 4
    shouldbeworking

    I propose naming the quantum of stupidity the Deepakon in honor of its discoverer and leading researcher in the field.

  5. 5
    Anthony K

    I was gonna comment that my favourite response to the Ancient Wisdom card is something along the lines of “You mean the thousand-year-old practices brought to you by the same people who eat powdered rhino horn to keep their dicks hard-kind of ancient wisdom?” but I see they’ve already covered that.

  6. 6
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    Argh… some troll is spamming the Why I am an atheist thread by Natasha Krasle with copying and pasting some sort of germanic looking song lyrics. They’re doing a lot of nym changing with the nyms being full of guff.

  7. 7
    Holytape

    Well, Chorpa is probably correct. The problem is that the answer’s correctness changes the minute you observe it. So the incorrectness is not a fault of the answer giver, but more of a function of the answer receiver. All you have to do to make the answer correct is to change the spin of the solution…….

    St. Mandi

  8. 8
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Ariaflame:

    Argh… some troll is spamming the Why I am an atheist thread by Natasha Krasle with copying and pasting some sort of germanic looking song lyrics.

    Yeah. That’d be Chris. He’s probably using Tor, though I’m not sure why, as it doesn’t appear he’s been banned.

    Some people just gotta give grief.

  9. 9
    littlejohn

    And “toxins.” Don’t forget toxins.

  10. 10
    Tualha

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    Ditto for transistors; which is to say, your laptop, your mobile, your car, the internet, and basically 99% of everything that makes the modern world what it is.

  11. 11
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Reginald Selkirk:

    Lasers can help you directly in many ways…

    I think the bolded “directly” means even a little more “directly.” Chopra basically teaches that you can control the quantum in your life, that manipulating the quantum effects around you by thinking about them can directly cause your life to get better. Like The Secret, he preaches a direct control over the random events in the universe.

    By that measure, the application of quantum effects for lasers and transistors are completely secondary.

  12. 12
    Trebuchet

    You’ve Pharyngulated Sci-ence! I’m getting intermittent “503 Service not availble” errors. I’d never seen it before and now I’m going to have to read through from the beginning. But I can’t help wondering, PZ, if you’ve shown up as a character yet? I’ve already seen Phil Plait!

  13. 13
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    @nigelTheBold

    Ahh. Oh well, it’s giving me a chance to practice using the killfile greasemonkey script.

    Liked the Sci-ence thing. I don’t think I had come across it. Or not this bit of it anyway. Nice one.

    Whenever the radio in my car (ran out of podcasts) has adverts for such things as the ‘lemon detox diet’ this is my cue to change channel or turn the thing off. Slightly depressing this evening was that one of the ads was for varicose vein treatments. I am no longer listening to a station for the young.

  14. 14
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    My parents once gave me a book that was something about being happy (I being a not hugely happy child). When it got to the bit about how the brain has electricity, and therefore the electric currents in the brain creates magnetic fields, so if I want something to be drawn towards me I just have to think of it very hard, well that was the first time I remember throwing a book across a room.

  15. 15
    Escherichia coli

    PZ, could you give us your list of webcomics? That’d be pretty awesome.

  16. 16
    showmethedata

    The phrase I use is the short and alliterative
    Quantum Quackery

    QQ

  17. 17
    ibyea

    @shouldbeworking
    Orac already coined the word for it. It is called the Choprawoo.

  18. 18
    Brett

    That was a great entry by Sci-Ence. I particularly liked the entry on “Energy”, since the actual scientific definition of Energy is poorly understood by most people (same for Heat).

  19. 19
    rad_pumpkin

    It’s a crying shame that the people criticizing the idiots for making stupid quantum claims do not really understand quantum physics themselves. Oh wait, nobody does!

    @Reginald Selkirk:
    Don’t forget that burning ball of fire up in the sky. Or the monitor on which you are reading this, or the process of seeing something in the first place! It’s like quantum theory has to be invoked to describe just about everything on the atomic scale! Shame it doesn’t really permit for magical/bizarre things on the macroscopic scale…

  20. 20
    Glen Davidson

    ‘If quantum physics Chopra is being invoked to explain anything’…it’s probably a scam.

    Glen Davidson

  21. 21
    Zinc Avenger

    The real question is if Chopra is not being invoked, does he actually exist in any meaningful way?

  22. 22
    Glen Davidson

    As for conspiracies, there is a worldwide conspiracy to hide the truth, although it’s hardly secret. It’s called creationism.

    Glen Davidson

  23. 23
    Dianne

    Quantum physics does lots of things that directly help us. However, I still agree with the statement because people who understand quantum mechanics (as much as anyone understands QM) will invoke a specific effect rather than just saying “it’s quantum physics” which is a bit like saying “It’s newtonian physics” to explain anything from how cars run to how to keep a satellite in orbit: true but so nonspecific as to be completely unhelpful.

  24. 24
    ErictheHalfaBee

    New Scientist magazine’s Feedback section prints an occasional submission of pseudo-scientific fruitloopery found in advertisements. “Quantum” features heavily, as do “vibrations” and “negative ions” (after all, they’re negative so they must be bad, right)? The list continues to grow…

  25. 25
    starblue

    Tualha:

    Ditto for transistors; which is to say, your laptop, your mobile, your car, the internet, and basically 99% of everything that makes the modern world what it is.

    But if you look into the data sheets of the chips and transistors these devices are built from, the word “quantum” is nowhere to be found (I grepped through my collection and didn’t find it).

  26. 26
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    Hmm, I think that if/when those clever scientist chaps find an annoying subatomic particle that does precisely fuck-all they could name it the “chopra”.

  27. 27
    Anthony K

    But if you look into the data sheets of the chips and transistors these devices are built from, the word “quantum” is nowhere to be found (I grepped through my collection and didn’t find it).

    That’s because science doesn’t know everything.

  28. 28
    angelakingdom

    Wasn’t it the inspirational and brilliant Physicist Richard Feynman who said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics”

  29. 29
    Predator Handshake

    That picture of him as a nucleus gives me the willies. He looks like he could be a Bond villain; I wonder if they’re finished with casting for the next one?

  30. 30
    Tualha

    @starblue:

    But if you look into the data sheets of the chips and transistors these devices are built from, the word “quantum” is nowhere to be found (I grepped through my collection and didn’t find it).

    Well, if you mean that QM isn’t usually invoked to explain how transistors work, the way DC always invokes it to explain all his mumbo-jumbo, you have a point. But you do need QM to really understand how transistors work and to design them, even though the workaday datasheet doesn’t need to mention it, any more than the specs for an aircraft part need to mention all of the aerodynamic theory that went into designing it.

  31. 31
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    quantum bacon technology is the future

  32. 32
    Maki

    Thanks PZ! No better way to start the day than with a little Pharyngulation in the morning. ;)

    @reginald
    Indeed @nigel has the right idea. That said, I’ve been wanting to strengthen that language for a while, as I am well aware of what quantum mechanics has done for the electronics industry. Perhaps Nigel’s reversal (“If anybody says that you can influence quantum mechanics…”) is best. I’ve been compiling all the suggested changes and new panel ideas in order to make this a really comprehensive guide. So thanks everyone!

    I’ve always been fond of the word “Chopresque” to describe bunk quantum stuff.

  33. 33
    ChasCPeterson

    the actual scientific definition of Energy is poorly understood by most people

    lol
    Maybe that’s because it’s essentially un-understandable.
    “The ability to do work”?

    It’s like defining water as “the ability to quench thirst.” Not much help.

  34. 34
    Tualha

    @ChasCPeterson: Not a physical science or engineering major, I take it.

    “Energy” is a slippery concept so they decided, ok, if you can move something against an opposing force with it (aka “do work”), it’s energy. Electricity? Here’s a motor, give it electricity and it’ll move something, ergo, energy. Chemical energy, e.g., a piece of coal? Burn it with oxygen, use the heat to run a steam engine, it moves something. Light? Have a solar cell. Deepak Chopra’s gobbledegook? We don’t see a way to harness it to move something, so we assume it’s not energy, until Mr. Chopra shows us an engine that runs on it. Not holding our breath on that one.

  35. 35
    CSB

    Ditto for transistors; which is to say, your laptop, your mobile, your car, the internet, and basically 99% of everything that makes the modern world what it is.

    Let’s not forget magnetic hard drives (that is, non-solid state). Without tunneling magnetoresistance we wouldn’t be getting anywhere the storage density we have.

  36. 36
    dianne

    Wasn’t it the inspirational and brilliant Physicist Richard Feynman who said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics”

    Feynman died in the 1980s. It might be that (some) people understand quantum mechanics better now than they did then. Whether that means that they really understand it or not altogether I don’t know.

  37. 37
    Ingdigo Jump

    lol
    Maybe that’s because it’s essentially un-understandable.
    “The ability to do work”?

    It’s like defining water as “the ability to quench thirst.” Not much help.

    Only if you’re stupid.

  38. 38
    X

    Poor Feynman, to be abused by inapt quotation for so many years. When the man said nobody “understands” quantum mechanics, he did not mean that nobody can calculate the results of quantum mechanics or that nobody can figure out what the implications of quantum mechanics are for particular systems or even that there was any unresolved fundamental physics underlying quantum mechanics that was left to be uncovered. He meant that nobody understands quantum mechanics, as in that gut-level intuitive grasp we all have over something like gravity (if I drop something, it falls down) or momentum (if the big guy hits the little guy, the little guy will get clobbered). To understand quantum mechanics, we often have to grind out the equations to figure out what’s going to happen, and the results will often be surprising or apparently paradoxical. Nonetheless, as Feynman well knew, we have had the technology for nearly 100 years to get the right answers. Quantum mechanics is not mysterious.

  39. 39
    ChasCPeterson

    Is that one of those ‘snark torpedoes’ there Ing?
    Or you simply being a direct asshole?

    I detect no snark, which leaves me with the asshole option.

  40. 40
    Ingdigo Jump

    @Chas

    The concept is easily understood from basic physics. Work has a definition in physics, energy as a measure of ability to preform that makes sense given that definition. It is a rather simple concept.

  41. 41
    Tualha

    @Ing: Failure to have been adequately instructed in physics does not equal stupidity.

  42. 42
    ChasCPeterson

    Not a physical science or engineering major, I take it.

    Did you know that we use the concept of energy in biology too? It’s true! Here, let me quote a physical biologist, Steven Vogel:

    Energy is a very peculiar stuff. It’s usually defined only by what it can do–”the ability to do work”–really quite a monstrous evasion! So let us honestly admit to treating energy as an imaginary device, to simplify the task of describing the operation of the real world. It permits us to express a conservation law, and of the latter, the more the better.

    Yeah, another stupid biologist, I know.
    Well, how do you feel about Feynman?

    It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge if what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount.

    yeah, also stupid, I guess.
    *shrug*

  43. 43
    Ingdigo Jump

    Failure to have been adequately instructed in physics does not equal stupidity.

    Point. I’ll try to explain better for Chas

    @Chas

    Work is applying force over distance (often simplified as ‘moving something). Energy is the recognition that something can perform work, ie it can be used to apply force. With force defined as an affect on speed or shape. It’s an abstraction of an ability to affect something.

    I suspect Feynman meant that we tend to view energy as coming in little units like Pacman power pellets while in reality it is an abstraction of a variety of phenomena.

  44. 44
    Ingdigo Jump

    @Chas

    You seem to misunderstand what I meant. Energy is a abstraction. I wasn’t disagreeing with what you said. That doesn’t mean that it is un-understandable. It is quite understandable, and useful as a concept.

  45. 45
    Tualha

    @ChasCPeterson: Can you define “atom”, “electron”, “charge”, or “momentum” other than in terms of what we observe about them and how they act? How about “gene” or “selective pressure”?

    These are not monstrous evasions. They’re simply forced on us by the nature of science. We make observations, we come up with concepts to describe and model what we see in a useful way, and these concepts often can’t be defined except in terms of what they do. Or, in other words, they are imaginary devices, to simplify the task of describing the operation of the real world.

  46. 46
    Ingdigo Jump

    @Tualha

    Might I offer the suggestion of CONCEPTUAL devices rather than imaginary?

  47. 47
    PZ Myers

    This is a biologist’s blog. Some mere physicist wants to demean biology, expect to get ripped.

  48. 48
    Tualha

    @Ing: I was paraphrasing Vogel. And if you have a definition of conceptual that clearly distinguishes it from imaginary, I’d like to see it.

  49. 49
    ChasCPeterson

    The concept is easily understood from basic physics.

    I understand the fucking concept, you insufferable jackass. I did not deny its existence.

    My point is about the definition of the fucking word. OK?
    It is (can be?) defined solely by what it can do. This is indirect to say the least and as far as I know unique.

    It’s like if I ask a student on an exam to define, say, ‘myelin’, and the student answers “myelin speeds up the propagation of action potentials.” It’s a crappy, at best partial definition: they told me what it does but not what it is.

    My point is that just exactly that crappy a definition is the best anybody can do for ‘energy’. It’s un-understandable as a thing or substance. And that’s why wooists get away with abusing the word.

    It’s a valid point, one made before me by people like Vogel and Feynman, and I have to say it really cheeses me off for people to be questioning the quality of my education just because they don’t get what I’m saying.

    So have nice days, dipshits.

  50. 50
    Ingdigo Jump

    @Chas

    Except you were WRONG. The definition is not un-understandable and the wooists can’t abuse it if the proper definition is enforced. I got what you were saying, you’re just wrong about it.

    @Tualha

    Imaginary implies being imagined without connection to reality. Conceptual implies that it’s a mental process based on reality.

  51. 51
    Ingdigo Jump

    It is (can be?) defined solely by what it can do. This is indirect to say the least and as far as I know unique.

    As Tualha pointed out you are wrong. The term artist for example is defined by what it does. your criticism doesn’t make sense.

  52. 52
    ChasCPeterson

    Can you define “atom”, “electron”, “charge”, or “momentum” other than in terms of what we observe about them and how they act? How about “gene” or “selective pressure”?

    Everything is defined ‘in terms of what we observe about them’. So what? And yes, I can define things like ‘atom’, ‘gene’, and even ‘selection pressure’ in terms of their component parts, etc. (Electrical charge, not so much; I suspect that’s another un-understandable).
    That’s not the point. Which of those items in your list can be defined only with use of the phrase “the ability to do X”?

  53. 53
    ChasCPeterson

    Jesus fuck.
    It’s defined by its ability/capacity, not by ‘what it does’. Familiar with the concept of potential energy?

    An artist is a person who does art.
    A worker is a person who does work.

    Energy is…something… that can do work.

    See the difference?

    eh, I don’t care if you do or not.

  54. 54
    mythusmage

    Does anybody here remember those ads with a grumpy koala, or am I think of an airline?

  55. 55
    myeck waters

    I don’t remember ads with a grumpy koala, I remember ads with my brain.

  56. 56
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    ARGH! Toxins!

    My mom’s favorite flavor o’ woo.

  57. 57
    mythusmage

    55,

    Such humor from someone so young. Tell me, are you so bright your mother calls you “son”?

  58. 58
    DLC

    Well now. Every time Mr Scott quipped “ye cannae change the laws o’ physics!” Deepak snuck in there with “but you don’t know Everything about Physics, therefore I can make up any bollocks I want and slap labels on it that I don’t myself understand, and use the resultant word salad to fill a book which I will sell and make money. ”

    There’s not much difference between Deepak and any of the so-called “scientific creationists” out there. “Archeology can’t show us a complete fossil record, ergo creation must be true and therefor Yahweh exists, Score! “

  59. 59
    Jake Hamby

    CSB wrote:

    Let’s not forget magnetic hard drives (that is, non-solid state). Without tunneling magnetoresistance we wouldn’t be getting anywhere the storage density we have.

    And without quantum tunneling, we wouldn’t have flash memory either. Technology is harnessing scientific knowledge of quantum mechanics to build incredibly cool gadgets that can hold more and more of our data in smaller and smaller spaces, but that’s boring old nerd science quantum physics and not the exciting and magical ChopraWoo® brand quantum hocus-pocus.

    After all, your iPhone will continue to work regardless of whether or not you are using the quantum powers of positive thinking as taught by the gurus of quantum-woo, or purchase any of their numerous quantum-infused placebos “remedies” of dubious merits.

  60. 60
    Becky

    Here’s a Face book chat I had with a girl I know from Middle School:

    she said “Off to a lecture on Quantum Physics…yes Quantum Physics. Didn’t know I had it in me did ya? Actually can’t wait. Cool Stuff!”

    said “Quantum Physics or Quantum Mechanics? there is a HUGE difference.”

    she replied “It was a little of both. A lot of Carl Jung and Pauli. E. Schrodinger, Dark Matter. Photons, Teleporting and Two Particle Spin , Exclusion Principle…VS Newtonian Physics. Also, looked how it could explain paranormal as actually natural events. It was really cool but 4 hours long…ugh!!! Oh yeah can’t for get string theory and particle excelleration. haha” (note the miss spelling is her’s)

    I stopped it right there.

  61. 61
    Crys

    Terrible. At first glance and before reading, I thought the face was Cenk from TheYoungTurks.

    My deepest apologies to Cenk for such a mix up

  62. 62
    Tualha

    @Becky:

    (note the miss spelling is her’s)

    Well, some of them.

  63. 63
    Marius Rowell

    Thankfully Victor Stenger’s book “Quantum Gods” cured me of being at risk of the quantum woo brigade – gotta have something impossible to explain or understand to generate woo-full followers now that more and more people recognize (all) religions for the mythological crap they are.

  64. 64
    Ichthyic

    It was a little of both. A lot of Carl Jung …

    as soon as you hear that, you need read no further, unless the person saying it is already a trained psychologist.

    Jung might be the single most misused figure in psychology for wooists.

  65. 65
    Ichthyic

    I don’t remember ads with a grumpy koala, I remember ads with my brain.

    even grumpy koalas themselves would have to answer similarly.

    though, I think it might be fun to try using a grumpy koala as a memory storage device.

  66. 66
    Ichthyic

    Does anybody here remember those ads with a grumpy koala, or am I think of an airline?

    well, Qantas did used to use a grumpy koala in their ads.

    I don’t watch TV any more, so have no idea if they still do.

  67. 67
    Juice

    Ha ha. There’s an ad for Deepak Chopra’s Leela: body.mind.spirit.play. game for the X-Box Kinect and the Wii.

    O man.

  68. 68
    Perry Bulwer

    Chopra may be the most famous person promoting quantum quackery, but there is a Canadian quack who has been mostly ignored by the skeptic community so far, perhaps because his ‘career’ is just getting started so he is not widely known yet. I’m referring to Adam McLeod, whose stage name is Adam Dreamhealer. As the poster PZ posted says, Adam invokes quantum physics as giving him the ability to heal others, even from great distances, or the ability to stop tsunamis. He is currently in university studying naturopathic medicine, paid for by all the money he is making from books, dvds, and high priced public healing sessions.

    I’ve written three blog posts about him on my blog Chain The Dogma. see:

    “Quakes, Quacks and Kidnappers: Baptists, Scientologists, DreamHealer and Bad Consequences of Good Intentions”
    http://chainthedogma.blogspot.com/2010/10/quakes-quacks-and-kidnappers-baptists.html

    “Wishful Thinking Won’t Stop The Oil Gusher But Nuking It Would”
    http://chainthedogma.blogspot.com/2010/10/wishful-thinking-wont-stop-oil-gusher.html

    “Quantum intentions and prayers to deities: two sides of the same supernatural coin”
    http://chainthedogma.blogspot.com/2010/10/quantum-intentions-and-prayers-to.html

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