Quantum Waves are Still Physical, Regardless of Your Thoughts

Adam Frank, founder of NPR’s science and culture blog 13.7, recently published an essay on Aeon about materialism. It’s a bit confusing to get at what he’s trying to say because of the different focus its two titles have, as well as his own arguments. First, the titles. The title I saw first, which is what is displayed when shared on Facebook, is “Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness”. But on Aeon, the title is “Minding matter”, with the sub-title or blurb of “The closer your look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” The question of theories of mind is very different than philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics.

This shows up in the article, where I found it confusing because Franks ties together several different arguments and confuses them with various ideas of “realism” and “materialism”. First, his conception of theories of mind is confusing. I’d say the average modern neuroscientist or other scholar of cognition is a materialist, but I’d be hesitant to say the average one is a reductionist who thinks thought depends very hard on the atoms in your brain. Computational theories of mind tend to be some of the most popular ones, and it’s hard to consider those reductionist. I would concede there may be too much of an experimental focus on reductionism (and that’s what has diffused into pop culture), but the debate over how to move from those experimental techniques to theoretical understanding is occurring: see the recent attempt at using neuroscience statistical techniques to understand Donkey Kong.

I also think he’s making a bit of an odd claim on reductionism in the other sciences in this passage:

A century of agnosticism about the true nature of matter hasn’t found its way deeply enough into other fields, where materialism still appears to be the most sensible way of dealing with the world and, most of all, with the mind. Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the nonscientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality.

Yes, he technically calls it materialism, but he seems to basically equate it to reductionism by assuming the other sciences seem fine with being reducible to physics. But, first, Frank should know better from his own colleagues. The solid-state folks in his department work a lot with “emergentism” and point out that the supposedly more reductionist particle people now borrow concepts from them. And he should definitely know from his collaborators at 13.7 that the concept of reducibility is controversial across the sciences. Heck, even physical chemists take issue with being reducible to physics and will point out that QM models can’t fully reproduce aspects of the periodic table. Per the above, it’s worth pointing out that Jerry Fodor, a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, who does believe in a computational theory of mind disputes the idea of reductionism


This is funny because this tends to be controversial, not because it’s widely accepted.

Frank’s view on the nature of matter is also confusing. Here he seems to be suggesting “materialism” can really only refer to particulate theories of matter, e.g. something an instrument could definitely touch (in theory). But modern fundamental physics does accept fields and waves as real entities. “Shut up and calculate” isn’t useful for ontology or epistemology, but his professor’s pithy response actually isn’t that. Quantum field theories would agree that “an electron is that we attribute the properties of the electron” since electrons (and any particles) can actually take on any value of mass, charge, spin, etc. as virtual particles (which actually do exist, but only temporarily). The conventional values are what one gets in the process of renormalization in the theory. (I might be misstating that here, since I never actually got to doing QFT myself.) I would say this doesn’t mean electrons aren’t “real” or understood, but it would suggest that quantum fields are ontologically more fundamental than the particles are. If it makes more physical sense for an electron to be a probability wave, that’s bully for probability waves, not a lack of understanding. (Also, aside from experiments showing wave-particle duality, we’re now learning that even biochemistry is dependent on the wave nature of matter.)

I’m also not sure the discussion of wave function collapse does much work here. I don’t get why it would inherently undermine materialism, unless a consciousness interpretation were to win out, and as Frank admits, there’s still not much to support one interpretation over the other. (And even then, again, this could still be solved by a materialist view of consciousness.) He’s also ignoring the development of theories of quantum decoherence to explain wavefunction collapse as quantum systems interact with classical environments, and to my understanding, those are relatively agnostic to interpretation. (Although I think there’s an issue with timescales in quantitative descriptions.)

From there, Frank says we should be open to things beyond “materialism” in describing mind. But like my complaint with the title differences, those arguments don’t really follow from the bulk of the article focusing on philosophical issues in quantum mechanics. Also, he seems open to emergentism in the second to last paragraph. Actually, here I think Frank missed out on a great discussion. I think there are some great philosophy of science questions to be had at the level of QFT, especially with regards to epistemology, and especially directed to popular audiences. Even as a physics major, my main understanding of specific aspects of the framework like renormalization are accepted because “the math works”, which is different than other observables we measure. For instance, the anomalous magnetic moment is a very high precision test of quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory of electromagnetism, and our calculation is based on renormalization. But the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” can sometimes be wrong and we might lucky in converging to something close. (Though at this point I might be pulling dangerously close to the Duhem-Quine thesis without knowing much of the technical details.) Instead, we got a mediocre crossover between the question of consciousness and interpretations of quantum mechanics, even though Frank tried hard to avoid turning into “woo”.

Lynn Conway, Enabler of Microchips

Are you using something with a modern microprocessor on International Women’s Day? (If you’re not, but somehow able to see this post, talk to a doctor. Or a psychic.) You should thank Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who is responsible for two major innovations that are ubiquitous in modern computing. She is most famous for the Mead-Conway revolution, as she developed the “design rules” that are used in Very-Large-Scale Integration architecture, the scheme that basically underlies all modern computer chips. Conway’s rules standardized chip design, making the process faster, easier, and more reliable, and perhaps most significant to broader society, easy to scale down, which is why we are now surrounded by computers.


She is less known for her work on dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). DIS lets a computer program operate out of order, so that later parts of code that do not depend on results of earlier parts can start running instead of letting the whole program stall until certain operations finish. This lets programs run faster and also be more efficient with processor and memory resources. Conway was less known for this work for years because she presented as a man when she began work at IBM. When Conway began her public transition to a woman in 1968, she was fired because the transition was seen as potentially “disruptive” to the work environment. After leaving IBM and completing her transition, Conway lived in “stealth”, which prevented her from publicly taking credit for her work there until the 2000s, when she decided to reach out to someone studying the company’s work on “superscalar” computers in the 60s.

Since coming out, Dr. Conway has been an advocate for trans rights, in science and in society. As a scientist herself, Dr. Conway is very interested in how trans people and the development of gender identity are represented in research. In 2007, she co-authored a paper showing that mental health experts seemed to be dramatically underestimating the number of trans people in the US based just on studies of transition surgeries alone. In 2013 and 2014, Conway worked to make the IEEE’s Code of Ethics inclusive of gender identity and expression.

A good short biography of Dr. Conway can be found here. Or read her writings on her website.

The Demographics of Granola Science

It is taken for granted by a certain segment of our pundit class that Republicans and/or conservatives don’t play well with science. But after a decade of mining that trope, it’s starting to seem thin. Fortunately for the pundits, there’s a whole other half of the political spectrum to criticize with vague framings of science policy. In January, The New Republic published the most recent major piece in this trend about Democrats (or maybe liberals, or who knows, because the article uses them interchangeably) not really following science. Armstrong, like most authors, criticizes the cultural qualities everyone “knows” are emblematic of the left: alternative medicine, an obsession with “natural” products, anti-GMO sentiment, and distrust of nuclear power. But that’s my issue: most of the article, and others like it, is powered by the author’s sentiments on the party in question with little to support them.

Right off the bat in explaining homeopathy, Armstrong has to use the official platform of the Green Party to make one of his points in an article nominally about Democrats. Then Armstrong strains to accept that liberals actually don’t differ from conservatives much in terms of GMO acceptance. Also, weirdly, Armstrong skipped the data that fit the title of his article more: people who identified as or leaned Republican were a bit more likely to say genetically modified food is safe than those who identify as or lean Democrat, 43% to 38%, although the analysis says the differences weren’t statistically significant by party or ideology. (Still, I’m a bit surprised by the swing. I would assume comparing “Democrats” over “liberals” would have gotten rid of more granola-y GMO skeptics.) But that brings me to my main point – so many of these conversations are strange without any data.

Again, we don’t get a data point proving that homeopathy practice is much more common among Democrats/liberals compared to Republicans/conservatives. Technically, Armstrong does link to a YouGov poll claiming that liberals are the “worst” on the issue, but the summary doesn’t include a breakdown by ideology and the link to the full survey results misdirects to one on tax policy. Libertarians and conservatives have proven sympathetic to homeopaths through the health freedom movement. Laws “protecting” practitioners of homeopathy and other alternative medicine systems from charges of unlicensed practice of medicine have passed in blue, red, and purple states: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Heck, Walmart and CVS sell homeopathic “medicine” now. It’s worth pointing out that the data I’m asking for here is hard to find. There are some studies on homeopathic demographics, but few are on American populations, and there’s not a great line up with those social and political norms across cultures. (Here’s a UK one and a Norwegian one.) Seriously, American grad students in sociology (of science/tech/medicine) or public health, there’s a great topic for you to dissect here.

I’m open to the idea that homeopathy is more prevalent among liberals, but most of the conversation is just anecdotes and stereotype. But in that case, why does major “alternative medicine” guy Dr. Mercola have a lot of support in conservative circles? Similarly, although vaccination skeptics don’t have to be homeopaths, they’re often stereotyped as liberals. But in 2012, it was two Republican Congressmen who basically heckled an NIH institute director about mercury in vaccines causing autism in a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. And based on this study by the Cultural Cognition Project, you’re actually least like to question vaccine safety if you’re very liberal and a  bit more likely than average if you’re somewhat conservative, although I don’t think the difference is significant.


You can look at local data for trends, but that doesn’t clearly map out politics either. Silicon Valley daycares allegedly have low vaccination rates, except at the biotech companies. But according to this reporting of California vaccination exemptions, conservative Orange County also has one of the highest rates of exemptions. (Although maybe liberal anti-vaxxers are more likely to cluster together?)

In an article in Policy Review titled “Science, Faith, and Alternative Medicine“, philosopher Ronald Dworkin pointed out that alternative medicine tends to not be a partisan issue:

The confusion surrounding alternative medicine is reflected in the political arena, causing deep divisions within both the liberal and conservative camps. Within the conservative camp, libertarians see any governmental regulation of the alternative medicine movement as a violation of individual freedom. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are suspicious of the movement’s links to anti-Western multiculturalism. Within the liberal camp, progressives like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman have pushed for greater regulation of the alternative medicine industry in the spirit of consumer protection. Yet multiculturalists want alternative medicine to flourish unimpeded because they see it as a powerful weapon to use against traditional Western ideas.

Granted, he wrote than in 2001 and in the same article, he feared that alternative medicine would end up becoming politically polarized. But the data above suggests that still hasn’t happened.

I think we should target liberals who are “bad” on science issues just as much as conservatives, just like the famous Daily Show clip on the Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy. But the trope of these “bad science issues for liberals” misses a lot. Even the Daily Show clip placed it as a kind of specific cultural strain of liberalism (see Bee’s question below to test the qualifications of her vaccine denialist), not liberalism writ large – and the interviewed expert points out that vaccine denialism matches up with wealthy, white, college-educated people. Also, the trope often seems like a weak cop-out, either by conservative writers who think this somehow gets them out of problems with science by their own movements or when liberal or moderate authors attempt to make equivalence out of this as a poor attempt at crossing the aisle but without any clear understanding if the stereotype is true or where it comes from.organic-hair-gel-recipe

(You’ll notice I’m skipping the last section of the article here, and that’s for good reason. Armstrong actually provides a good data point, not just a stereotype, on Democrats skepticism towards nuclear energy. And I agree with his basic argument: unreasonable skepticism towards nuclear just leads to the adoption of other power sources, and right now, those are overwhelmingly fossil fuels. It’s worth pointing out that there’s something interesting in that while polarization increases with scientific literacy on nuclear power, it turns out liberals still accept it more as they become more informed, it’s just that conservatives tend to accept it way faster. Also, can we guarantee this won’t become a NIMBY problem if suddenly our bipartisan elites agreed?)

You might ask, why does this matter? Well, this framing of currently  nonpartisan/nonideological issues as partisan can turn them into ideological markers. So a trope of just assuming Democrats hate GMOs and vaccines and love homeopathy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which would go against the goal of most of these articles I’m criticizing (and my own!). There’s probably a decent case to make that this process did happen with the politics of climate change, though I could only offer a vague outline at the moment without digging through more sources. Also the stereotype doesn’t suggest a clear way to deal with the groups who reject the science on these issues. There’s my obvious complaint that I think it ignores that conservatives, and even moderates, (probably) represent a significant share of people with these beliefs.

But even just within liberal groups, there’s diversity in the way these beliefs manifest. You’re not going to convince a center-left Silicon Valley anti-vaxxer to vaccinate with the same approach as some honest-to-goodness hippie because they’re in cultural environments with different values.This also applies to groups on the right. Good science communication accepts that those values matter if you want to engage meaningfully with someone, just as much as the relevant knowledge. And if there’s something we should be learning from last year, it’s that figuring out how to communicate to people with different values is going to be a major part of approaching politics in the future.