In response to quantum physicists who excoriated my latest article accusing me of ignorance, quackery, and engaging in quantum hype, I reached out to ask them where I went wrong. Here’s how to avoid ‘quantum hype.’
There’s a cadre of scholars committed to bringing the insights of quantum physics to the social sciences. Alexander Wendt, James Der Derian, Laura Zanotti, Michael Murphy, and Thomas Biersteker, among others, are keen to stimulate something of a ‘quantum revolution’ in the study and application of international relations, politics, government, and sociology. Their efforts notwithstanding, there has been, and continues to be, considerable pushback, from some quarters, of this agenda. Many social scientists consider the prospect fruitless and unnecessary. This is nothing new for thinkers, such as those listed above, who have raised their heads above the parapet and attempted something ‘different’ if not ‘revolutionary.’ As Thomas Kuhn made clear many decades ago, institutions struggle with institutional change, and academia is, if nothing else, an institution of ideas. What has emerged more recently, however, is that a considerable faction of quantum physicists also find the idea untenable. In this piece, I’d like to explore the critical reaction an article I wrote in March 2022 elicited from numerous sober-minded and well-intentioned quantum physicists. Dozens of physicists absolutely hated (and, no, this is not too strong a word) the article, “Quantizing the Invasion of Ukraine,” wherein I interpreted the Russian invasion of Ukraine using a form of analysis I claim to have ‘derived’ from quantum physics.
While I have an intuitive sense why social scientists might not fancy a quantum revolution (professional territorialism, careerist biases, a reflexive disdain of faddism, a sincerely held belief the social world is classical not quantum, epistemological and ontological prejudices and preferences, the tendency for academia to attract and foster an overly critical and finickety disposition, intellectual jealousy, and so on…), I was shocked that (some, not all) quantum physicists also wanted me to stop what I was doing.
To set the scene, I made the mistake of reading the comments and retweets my recent article engendered online. My heart jumped. The essay was variously referred to as ‘quackery’ (although the physicist suggested this may be an insult to quackery), a demonstration of my profound ignorance, immoral, BS, and a clear example of quantum ‘hype.’ There were lots of ‘stunned-face,’ wft memes and gifs with mouths aghast. My first reaction was one of panic because I assumed I must have misunderstood the quantum concepts I discussed in the piece. I was being mocked and chastised by (literal) quantum physicists! Reading what I wrote about the role of Planck’s constant in quantum physics, they must have immediately observed an error. What a devastating blow. I don’t write about quantum physics hoping I understand quantum concepts and philosophy, I write about it assuming I do! I was in the midst of a mini existential crisis. Was I an object lesson in the Dunning-Kruger effect?
I looked back over the comments and it occurred to me that none of the dozens and dozens of disparaging remarks referred to anything specific in the essay. Instead, the comments signalled considerable disdain for the essay, my take on the war in Ukraine, and the inappropriateness of my using quantum physics to make my ‘absurd’ argument. Maybe it wasn’t my use of quantum physics, per se, they objected to? Maybe they just really, really, didn’t like my argument about why Western sanctions have proven ineffective in constraining Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and took me for some kind of crypto-Putinist? The fact I marshalled quantum physics in service of crypto-Putinism was simply the fetid cherry on top… The other complication was that some quantum physicists did like the article. What was I to make of this? On the one hand, a battalion of quantum PhDs said I neither understood quantum physics nor international relations. While, on the other hand, a separate squadron of physicists seemed to enjoy what I had done. There was also the matter of a lack of specifics? It was all quite unsettling. I needed to know what the issue was.
I decided to contact my critics.
I emailed everyone for whom I could find an institutional address. I told them I was writing an essay to investigate whether quantum physics belongs in the social sciences and wanted comment from those with a formal background in quantum physics. Here’s what I sent:
“If you have a resistance to (or concern about) social scientists deploying quantum concepts or quantum philosophy in their studies, are you able to provide some colour or context about why that might be?
“Do you have an in-principle objection? Or, is your objection particular to certain deployments/uses, only?”
I then provided some suggestions to prompt their thinking and linked my previous article as an ‘example’ of an opinion piece attempting to bring quantum into social science.
It didn’t take long for me to start receiving their replies. The physicists were extremely polite and professional and were adamant they had no objection to the use of quantum physics in social science, per se.
“I do not have an in-principle objection to contextualizing quantum philosophy in the context of other disciplines, however, reading several pieces that apply quantum concepts to social sciences gives a strong dose of scepticism about the prospects of this endeavour.
In regard to the opinion piece that you raised, my criticism is that the author demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of quantum concepts.”
“I personally don’t have any objection to social scientists undertaking interdisciplinary research that includes quantum technology. In fact I encourage it, since like any technology quantum technology has huge social implications, and like any dual-use technology it has major ethical and moral considerations as well.
However having said this, since quantum technologies are so highly specialised and nuanced there is enormous risk associated with quantum concepts being misunderstood or misconstrued, and this is where my concerns lie.”
“I have no in-principle objections to applying quantum concepts to the social sciences. However, I do have objections to the motivation and integrity of such authorship.
Take the opinion piece, for example, it is clear that… The author of this article demonstrates no understanding of scientific concepts.”
The verdict was clear: quantum physics in social science is fine, provided you understand the physics. The problem was that the author of the opinion piece (me) didn’t understand the physics. This wasn’t exactly amazing information, however, given this was my worst fear realised. I raced back to the article and isolated every claim I’d made about quantum physics. I then consulted the physics literature but couldn’t see an immediate error. I was confused.
I decided I needed more information from the physicists. I replied to their replies to my unsolicited email and pasted-in the list of all the quantum claims I’d made in the article. I asked them if they would please tell me where I went wrong. It wasn’t clear to me, and this was, in a way, even worse than seeing the mistake plainly.
No one got back to me.
Here are the options:
- They saw the emails were coming from the same person who wrote the offending article, got annoyed, and decided not to continue the dialogue;
- They got busy, didn’t respond, and now the email is buried under a mountain of fresh correspondence;
- They didn’t feel inclined to answer such self-evident questions;
- There wasn’t, actually, anything wrong with the way I had presented the quantum concepts.
Since I don’t have any replies, I can’t be certain which of these hypotheticals is the more probable.
What I do have, however, is an extremely generous email from one physicist who mentioned something called ‘quantum hype.’ This idea is worth exploring. The physicist writes:
“…enormous care should be taken not to simply throw around the term ‘quantum’ without properly understanding what it means. Clearly not everyone is in a position to be able to understand quantum physics in detail, in which case such interdisciplinary work would be best including technical experts in the field to ensure things are being correctly and accurately represented so as to avoid ending up in the ‘quantum hype’ category…The key is simply to make all efforts to ensure technical accuracy of both fields when combining them. Just adding the word ‘quantum’ to something doesn’t make it especially quantum, but a lot of work, not only in the social sciences but also in the popular press, does exactly that.”
Two things jumped out at me immediately: the terms “technical accuracy” and the phrase “adding the word ‘quantum’.”
I finally had the realisation there was something qualitatively different about quantum physics as a technical discipline and a philosophical domain. Although the founders of quantum physics – Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein – were deeply interested in and reflected upon the philosophical implications of the work they were doing in the natural sciences, the same is not necessarily the case for contemporary quantum physicists. Indeed, despite Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Einstein each having written one or more books on philosophy (varying in the degree to which quantum physics determined their philosophies), there is no reason to assume someone with a PhD in quantum physics, today, has read a book on the philosophy of quantum physics. Therefore, for many physicists, quantum is an exclusively formal, mathematical, and technical discipline. And, if this is the case, it is entirely reasonable to think social science should discuss the ethical, material, and social implications of quantum technology, and not take its ‘words’ to burnish ‘other’ arguments.
I completely understand this point of view.
If you take a purely technical position on quantum physics, then the following kind of argument makes no sense whatsoever:
- Since, the social world is best understood as relations rather than material bodies;
- While, quantum physics deals with (and makes sense of) relations between quantum objects and measuring apparatuses, in a way that classical physics cannot;
- Therefore, the social world is better understood using quantum heuristics, epistemes, and ontologies than the traditional, classical forms inherited from the seventeenth century.
For the technical expert, proposition (1) probably seems like a nonsense, proposition (2) a truism, and conclusion (3) a complete non-sequitur.
At the end of the day, quantum physicists who object to the use of quantum physics in popular media or the social sciences are entirely justified in so doing if the objective of the purveyor is simply to ‘jazz up’ their pedestrian argument with quantum jargon. Nothing is added to the piece and the quantum terms are crudely exploited for no good reason.
If, however, the objective is not to ‘enhance’ a claim, but, rather, to facilitate understanding, I do not consider this form of analysis ‘quantum hype.’ Not at all! On the contrary, analysis, thinking, or investigation that uses quantum concepts to leverage greater understanding of their subject are not hyping anything. To hype something is to excessively ‘publicise’ or ‘promote’; to ‘exaggerate’ some benefit or claim. But that’s not what I tried to or did in the recent piece. Nor is it what Alexander Wendt, James Der Derian, Laura Zanotti, Michael Murphy, or Thomas Biersteker are doing, or have been doing for almost a decade. They’re not publicising, promoting, or exaggerating anything. Instead, all those invested in a quantum revolution for the social sciences are keen to enhance the understanding of their respective subjects through the application of heuristics, epistemes, and ontologies most appropriate to the phenomena under investigation.
Finally, there’s one thing I should probably avoid in the future — and, I wonder if this might make all the difference to the quantum physicists I offended… In my article, I said I was deploying a novel theory, “derived” from quantum physics. Derivation has a very specific meaning in mathematics. It’s too specific and too strong a word for the context in which I was using it. I should have said ‘inspired’ and left it at that.
In future, I will be clear to state I am developing, deploying, and leveraging forms of thinking inspired by, not derived from, quantum physics.