Big question time

May 19th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, quantum physics, religion | 7 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 19, 2005
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? I want answers. Because with answers like these up my sleeve, I’d have solace and a bigger house. And what more could a boy wish for? But science is the last place I’d look.

So, this boring film, What the Bleep do we Know!? plays the new-age trick of mixing up quantum physics with the meaning of life, consciousness and healing. It includes the notion that saying nice things to water can alter its molecular structure. And they’re not the first.

Scientists routinely barge in on weird stuff, such as consciousness and quantum phenomena, and usually at the end of a career, once they’ve got your attention. If you ask me, it’s slightly grotesque.

Roger Penrose: brilliant maths, name made, Oxford, set up for life, then suddenly, big heave, out pops the book on quantum consciousness. Francis Crick, genius boy, discovers DNA, suddenly it’s 30 years later and he’s knocking out books on consciousness too.

Penrose and Hameroff’s hypothesis that microtubules might have something in them that precipitates a wave function collapse, and that this might have something to do with consciousness, is OK. It’s a nice idea. It smacks of the minimisation of mystery, the idea that quantum is weird, consciousness is weird, and we can’t have too much weird stuff going on in the universe so we’d better collapse the two together. It’s an indulgence, although to be fair it’s a fun one.

But compare Darwin and suddenly it all looks a bit trite. No nonsense for that boy. His last manuscript – contain your excitement – was called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

So what’s the difference between Penrose shooting off about quantum consciousness and these cheap new-age quantum truth peddlers? Like all scientists, although he was shooting at the stars and having fun, he still had the decency to label, clearly and separately, what was evidence and what was conjecture.

And more than that, like Darwin, he knew his stuff, which is probably why he didn’t feel the need to go off on one about self-help spirituality.

Read the last chapter of Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman for the real story on the outrageous weirdness of quantum phenomena – the bit where the waves turn into particles is particularly scary – and I defy you to still be worried about your place in the universe.

There are much stranger and more important things going on out there, and it is a lot more interesting than making stuff up.

dont fuck with chaz


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7 Responses



  1. Wordbug said,

    October 13, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    You see what you’re up against…
    www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=57309

  2. Alan Harrison said,

    February 2, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Here’s an interesting little debate about ID v ET going on at the Graun.

  3. Alan Harrison said,

    February 2, 2006 at 10:12 am

    talk.guardian.co.uk/WebX?230@411.GCChiJG3JU0.6@.774d9ff1

  4. persephone19 said,

    October 15, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    What’s this article on quantum consciousness trying to say. How can it be wrong for science to study consciousness. The only logical justification would be if consciousness were a non-physical spirit stuff outside the physical universe. In this case the author should uncloak as a borne-again dualist. Otherwise it is a physical property and should be studied by science.

    The tone of the article seems unscientific. Merely to stick the adjective weird in front of something does not justify excluding it from scientific discussion. Quantum theory is not a weird peripheral thing but one of the two theories on which our understanding of the physical universe is based.

    The oft trundled out argument that its too convenient to kill two weird birds with one scientific stone is similarly not a scientific argument. Only processes of observation and experiment can show whether or not there is a connection between the quantum level and consciousness..

  5. alwaysquestion said,

    March 29, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Ummm, has Ben or anyone else noted that Darwin’s theory is still just that? It hasn’t been proven, it’s pretty much unprovable: it’s just extremely probable and makes perfect sense. It’s nonetheless a theory, not fact.

    And, Ben, does it not make you questions something or other if notable scientists, having spent their lives thinking hard and within the scientific paradigm, come up with the kind of ideas you felt it pertinent to diss in your column? People working on higher mathematics regularly come out with similarly ‘weird’ takes on reality. If these people, with their proven ‘non-weird’ track records and decades of thought and scientific enquiry behind them, come to certain conclusions, who are you to dismiss them so summarily? Please not that I am not saying I agree with their thinking – I plainly don’t know enough about it to have a qualified opinion. But I know enough to recognise a prejudiced view.

  6. MSumner said,

    March 2, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Sorry Ben – it’s very common misconception that Crick et al discovered DNA, but actually it was a guy called Friedrich Miescher. In Basel. Basel being one of the major centres of Novartis. And funding their own pharma-academia crossover research institute named after… yep – you guessed it.
    And to bastardise a quote from Nietszche (another famous Basler) ‘weird’ is a description of a thing, not a reason to not believe it.

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