Psychology is important for research on quantum mechanics, but everything in the first half of this sentence is a mess

A fellow Caltech alum posted this article on Facebook:

This is a much better article than most others I have read on this topic, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a Caltech person is the one I saw it from! I have no criticism for these authors at all.

However I think that many of the researchers addressing this topic are suffering from a pretty fundamental misconception: namely, that “weirdness” is a real thing. When people say that quantum mechanics is “weird”, that means that it predicts things that don't match your expectations. That is the only thing that “weird” means in this context! Of course different people have different expectations; I think it's clear that a lot of the “shut up and calculate” camp are people who either aren't so attached to those expectations, or didn't have them in the first place. (Some of them are probably people who just get off on the feeling of weirdness, too.)

Whenever you have a line of inquiry that is fundamentally driven by people's expectations rather than observations, I think there are a lot of things that can go wrong. I think that if all the physicists on this line of research took a day off and went to the beach or the forest or the mountains and asked themselves, ok, if I really force myself to be brutally honest with myself and set aside all of my own expectations, and instead ask the question, what are the shortcomings of the theory in terms of its ability to predict observations, rather than what are the shortcomings of the theory in terms of its ability to match my own expectations, then I think they might choose to alter their research priorities a bit.


In other words, if you are being as precise as a scientist ought to be, then it is simply false to say “quantum mechanics is weird”. The correct statement is “I feel weird about quantum mechanics”. So, what kind of physics research program does the corrected statement motivate? Well, it doesn't, but it does give you the opportunity to keep thinking more deeply about what is wrong with the theory, and to keep asking yourself every step of the way how your assumptions are basing your observations and theorizing.

Why I don’t have strong opinions about a lot of science/politics issues anymore

I wrote this in response to a thread on Facebook comments about GMOs. I guess the meta-story here is that I don’t like getting politically worked up any more; I just like intellectually pontificating.

I have given up having strong opinions about these issues anymore because I spent a lot of time thinking about them and came up with so many good arguments either way that I realized I was never going to settle on anything. But what I can offer is, a few reasonable, prudent, scientifically valid ways of thinking about things. This collection of ways of thinking doesn’t come down conclusively on the side of GMO or anti-GMO or climate change or climate denial; I’m just presenting it as some ways of thinking.

1. Large-scale, long-term complex dynamic systems are very complex, it’s very hard to make predictions (it’s going to rain next Tuesday) or meta-predictions (we are 90% certain about what the weather will be next Tuesday.) The kinds of behavior they present can include both a surprising resilience to perturbation, and threshold effects where perturbations beyond some threshold (which might be a magnitude-of-change threshold, or a rate-of-change threshold) suddenly become very important. Examples: a) Resilience example: Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, both at the time seeming earth-shakingly catastrophic, actually the earth ended up keeping its shit together pretty well after all. b) Threshold example: Climate change. Humans have been putting carbon into the atmosphere for as long as our species, and our ancestor species, have been engaging in oxygen-based metabolism, which is several billion years if I remember correctly. However, post-industrial-era, the rate of atmospheric carbon emission has, or may be about to, pass some thresholds (we think?) that will lead to massive attractor-basin shifts. c) Currently under debate: GMOs versus thousands of years of genetic manipulation. Rate of genetic change with GM can (although may not in a specific case) be higher than with selective breeding, even though slow, steady changes through breeding have led to greater *total* change than GM. Is this destined to be a “resilience” scenario or a “threshold” scenario? I have not the slightest clue. I believe that there are valid, scientific facts available suggesting that the magnitude of genetic changes that have so far been released into the wild are “small” by various plausible standards, which is reassuring. But this does not mean someone is unscientific or foolish for pointing out that the technology offers the potential for much larger changes, and that ecosystems are potentially capable of experiencing threshold effects based on the magnitude and rate of these changes.

2. It is not adequate to consider only these kinds of scientific questions when making regulatory decisions. If you bona fide believe that a new technological something-or-other will help lift a billion people out of poverty, it is absolutely worth very seriously considering the value of that thing even if there is some abstract potential for harm. You never know everything for sure. Probably even if you don’t try very hard, 9 times out of 10 those things will work out neutrally or better than neutrally. It’s that 1 out of 10 that we’re wondering what to do with. (or whatever ratio, I mean those numbers metaphorically, not literally.) Should we never do anything new because something bad *might* happen? We’ve done pretty well for ourselves so far by doing new things, also there have been some problems, but in general the vast majority of normal people all over the world think it’s mostly been good, which is why if you actually bother to get to know personally people who are very poor in developing nations, they mostly want to move to America. As Hugh Howey points out, there is a real existing strain of elitism that runs through a lot of these politicial/scientific debates. We have to let ourselves (i.e. the global 1%, which everyone on this thread is almost certainly in) have all the Lasik and tooth whitening lasers and cell phone towers we want, but when it comes to technology that might provide diffuse benefits for all the less fortunate, you do often see much more awareness of all the risks among many people. I’m not saying anyone here is actually this kind of elitist, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that good old fashioned middle-class NIMBYism isn’t a powerful force.

3. Personally I think a lot of what *really* matters comes down to “don’t be a dick”. Enron may or may not have had some good points about efficiencies in energy markets that were being suppressed by government regulations, but the reality is that they were the worst of the worst of greedy shitbags and were totally consciously choosing to ruin millions of random people’s lives for their own profits. And now all reasonable people who have human brains that work the way human brains do, who are aware of the actual objective facts, reasonably are suspicious (to say the least) of anyone trying to make those points about energy technology and deregulation. Likewise, Dick Cheney is (as I understand it) personally responsible for legislation in Texas basically subverting everyone’s *fundamental* property rights for the benefit of fracking companies. I’m about to say some blasphemy here, but: modern fossil fuel extraction technologies are not actually as evil as everyone makes them out to be, if they are done by companies that are actually trying to not be dicks about it. Yes, what is actually happening now involves a lot of clueless, greedy, and/or irresponsible work and there is a lot of harm being done, but this isn’t actually an indictment of the technology per se. So reflecting this back to the topic at hand, even if an idealized scientific analysis of GMO agricultural technology shows that it’s “definitely OK”, are the companies implementing it actually intrinsically motivated to act definitely in the public welfare? Or are they dicks? And even if they are dicks, what then? Regulation is an extremely blunt and clumsy instrument when it comes to new technologies, especially ones that involve a lot of money. This is true if we’re talking about regulations on carbon emissions to stop climate change, and it’s true if we’re talking about regulations on GMO agriculture to stop the GMOcalypse or whatever. The technologies and the markets are moving and changing much faster, and with more power, than anyone can keep control over. Honestly I have no idea what the answer is; since I have no idea what the answer is I’m certainly not going to *personally* take any strong stands on the issue. I’m willing to go on record saying that my personal opinion is that the evidence, as well as the mechanistic understanding, regarding atmospheric carbon and climate change is clear enough that I think it’s justifiable to wade into those murky, blunt waters of regulation and at least try to do something constructive, although I have only about 10% confidence that that effort will be successful. On the other hand, when it comes to GMO agriculture, if we limit our consideration to the small genetic changes involved in current actual products, the evidence is that it’s probably not seriously ecologically harmful. However, our understanding of the mechanisms of how specific genetic changes relate to large-scale ecosystem effects is essentially zero. This zero understanding doesn’t really give us much to go on *either* for asserting safety, *or* for wading into those nasty regulatory waters. I hate to say it, but the status quo looks not-entirely-unreasonable in that respect: careful scientific review, doing the best we can, approving a few products after rigorous testing and review, hoping for the best. I’m not really a fan of just doing nothing, maybe that’s just a personality preference and not really rational, but I am vaguely satisfied with the current balance of progress and caution on that front.

Unwanted sexual attention in the digital age and other inequalities

Since I went back to being a (grad) student at a university, my friend group has come to include people in the “college age female” demographic. And by being close friends I’ve had the chance to hear about what their lives are like at a personal level. And I have to say, even with widespread awareness-raising media about catcalls and so on, there’s a depth and intensity to the pervasiveness of unwanted sexual attention that’s really beyond anything I ever would have imagined, even with the intellectual understanding and sympathy that goes along with me being a more or less stereotypical progressive intellectual type. For example, the hidden camera catcalls video that circulated widely a few months ago might leave one with the impression that the phenomenon is compartmentalized, that certain neighborhoods or times of day or functional divisions of life might be worse or better. But electronic communications erase a lot of those boundaries. Drunk sexts from now-married male friends waking you up in the middle of the night when your mind was supposed to be anywhere else from that, being the most current example of a story I heard. It reminds me (dating myself here) of how when I was growing up in the 80s, there was literally never any moment of time ever in anyone’s life when one could completely take one’s mind away from the threat of nuclear war. And now for some people there is literally never any moment when one can take one’s mind completely away from the threat of unwanted sexual attention. It just becomes a part of the background noise of cognition, emotion and awareness. Sorry to anyone who feels that the analogy to nuclear war is overly melodramatic; the point is just the pervasiveness and inescapability of it, and that’s the first analogy that came to mind. And of course, just as the understanding I get from being personally close is beyond anything I was ever capable of through intellect alone, I’m aware that the understanding that comes from the lived experience is beyond anything I could grasp from hearing about it. I’m not one for glorifying victimhood; in fact I think that is an actively destructive tendency that comes up a lot on the Left and seriously inhibits social progress. But it’s important to know about–not glorify, not criticize, simply know about–the range of different kinds of experiences that people are having; to know that the experiences farther from your own are much more extreme than you probably imagine them to be. We all know that our own experiences are intense and serious; as the distance from our ego-center increases we naturally attenuate our evaluation of other experiences. But that’s not real.

Relatedly, there’s an odd irony that goes with the other contemporary narrative of disconnection. Just as some people are receiving way too much sexual attention, others are receiving way too little. I have an intuition that the connectedness of the modern world has an unexpected side effect of exacerbating unequal distributions of all sorts. Everyone talks about unequal wealth distribution nowadays, but it seems that a lot of other irksome phenomena are also characterizable as unequal distributions. I could describe a simple economic model of why this makes sense but I’ll leave that for another post.