We all have one. You know it. Deep in the darkest recesses of your heart is something that you believe is immune to criticism. Maybe it’s a pet theory or a person who can do no wrong in your mind; crystal deodorant* or a brand of nutraceutical.
[*Matt has just informed me that crystal deodorant has entered the realm of plausibility. Granted, this is a fine grained, crystalline structure that rubs off onto the armpit and not a magic quartz crystal. You can have a listen to the Ottowa Skeptic's take on the product, where they discover a not-so-tiny caveat to the crystal deodorant's claims. Furthermore, technically, all antiperspirants have crystals in them in the form of aluminum based salts. Bam, science!]
It was once pointed out to me in a debate that science was my sacred cow—because I stood by it so ardently. But being that science is by definition and in process a self-critiquing methodology, the accusation doesn’t quite hold up. This peer review and revision-upon-new-evidence is what keeps it in check from stagnation and self-delusion (at least so long as there are those willing to challenge ideas) and is undountedly the most beautiful part of the scientific process.
I ran into this revision process firsthand—though not for the first time; I screw up daily—when I came upon a short video clip that explained the famous double slit experiment pretty well. It was slick, well done, and so I summarily shared it amongst several social media outlets. For those who just want the gist, scientists discovered that particles act like both granular packets of matter and waves at the same time, that is until a detector is set up to observe where the particles are going. Here’s the clip:
Everyone enjoyed seeing such a confusing aspect of quantum mechanics explained so succinctly, but something was amiss. People began to object to the wording at the very end of the video regarding the wave-function collapse of the electrons upon observation. First, friend and blogger Brad Goodspeed, and then Nadir, who recognized the clip as being part of a more sinister woo-fest. At first I brushed off the critiques, thinking the explanation as being oversimplified for time and the big eye representing the observer as merely a poor artistic choice. But it sort of ate at me.
So I looked up this Dr. Quantum character, and sure enough. The clip was from none other than “fantasy docudrama” What the Bleep Do We Know!? a film known for its fuzzy thinking and Deepak Chopresque way of using quantum physics to support new age spirituality. You know what I mean, take a look back to the Red Flags of Quackery. Dr. Quantum was even a representation of sorts of Fred Alan Wolf, another lama of crappy-science-supported spiritual bullshit. In this very clip that I spread like so much peanut butter, the narrator implied that we, as observers, had some sort of magical power of the universe. Crap. Not only that, but it implies that there is some sort of conscious decision made by the particle to collapse and pick a position upon observation. Oh Crap.
So as quickly as I could, I explained the unfortunate source material and tried to find a new clip. I didn’t have to search long. It seems a group called the Casseopeia Project had also seen this Dr Quantum clip and lamented over its woo-skew. In their effort to squelch this purveyor of pseudo-science, they took the script, scoured it of its misinterpretation, and in its place added a nice explanation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You can view that video (free of woo) below:
Much to my pleasure, just as quickly as I had corrected myself, presenting the new video as one “free of Fred Alan Wolf woo-woo baggage,” so did everyone else who had shared, retweeted, or originally posted the old video. Maybe its not peer review per se, but you have to admit that it’s revision upon the acquisition of new data. Bam. Matt Schickele of Scopes Monkey Choir even wrote up this blog piece about my flub and subsequent correction, and he goes into much more detail about how much a simple wording choice can woo-skew an explanation. If people can learn from my lack of research, well, my day is finished.
So the lesson here, kids, is this: Vet your sources, be skeptical of fuzzy wording, and remember that Silver Zordon Head = Science, and Deepak Chopresque Thinking = Woo.
This post was brought to you by Sulfur (S), main ingredient of the equally famous Barking Dog Experiment.