A Quantum Fail on Climate Change Communication

An unfortunate trend has emerged in academia over the past decade or so. There has been a concerted effort to engage the public with "science communication," ostensibly to improve the public's science literacy. In my experience, these efforts often appear to be -- at least in part -- politically motivated, and they commonly involve non-scientists taking simple, accurate, and already clearly explained scientific concepts and morphing them into dumbed-down and incorrect explanations that actually serve to misinform the public, rather than properly educate them.

Ground zero in this domain is climate change science. In the Huffington Post, John Cook -- a climate communication research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia -- wrote a recent article entitled "The Quantum Theory of Climate Denial" in which he attempts to somehow link quantum mechanics with skepticism about imminent catastrophic anthropogenic climate change.

Cook's article, like all too many written by activist representatives of academia when talking about climate change, is a derisive rant with the intent to ridicule supposed climate skeptics with their illogical nature and poor understanding of science.

However, it is Cook who has made a very serious scientific error in his article, so perhaps one shouldn't throw stones from a glass house?

Cook spends the first third of his article attempting to explain the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, which was created by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s to illustrate some of the weirdness at the quantum level. I'm not sure where Cook obtained his understanding of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment (I asked him on Twitter and he didn't reply), but it looks like an attempted paraphrasing of this article at National Geographic from 2013. Regardless, there are some incorrect statements in Cook's article. For a readable and accurate review of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, Wikipedia does a good job on the subject -- particularly some of the primary references cited therein.

Cook states the following:

"Imagine you have some radioactive material that may or may not decay. Quantum mechanics says that if no one is observing it, the radioactive material is simultaneously in both the decaying and non-decaying states. Only when you observe the material does it collapse into one state or the other."

Wrong.

First off, by definition, all radioactive material will decay. The question is how long it will take before it all decays. In a piece of radioactive material, you cannot predict exactly when individual atoms will decay and in which order, but you know one thing for certain: given enough time, the material will decay in a manner quantitatively described by its radioactive kinetics.

The second two sentences are entirely absurd. To claim that in the absence of an observer (i.e., you or I watching it), that "radioactive material is simultaneously in both the decaying and non-decaying states" and that "only when you observe the material does it collapse into one state or the other" is pure nonsense and a textbook example of what happens when you erroneously interpret the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.

In no way does radioactive decay require an observer to occur. Imagine if it did. That would mean that the radioactivity decay that heats the interior of the Earth would need an enormous army of observers living inside the planet watching the radioactive material to ensure it continued to decay. It would also mean that all the radioactive decay at highly dangerous sites such as Chernobyl and Fukushima could be effectively turned off just by having us turn our backs and not watch the radioactive material. The claims made by Cook are so scientifically ridiculous on their face it is difficult to convey how truly wrong they are. Quite simply, radioactive decay occurs independently of any observers. Full stop. End of story. No debate. The science on this is most definitely settled.

So what should happen with Cook's article? Well, it should be retracted or corrected with a clear explanation to the audience of what errors were made. That would be the solution if the University of Queensland's intent was truly public education in science.

The article also highlights how non-scientist "communicators" should probably not be communicating science, or at least they require much greater oversight to ensure their claims are accurate. We do need the public to understand science, but it has to be the correct science, not wild claims and analogies that do not reflect reality and only serve to coarsen and dumb down important scientific and policy discussions. 

An unfortunate trend has emerged in academia over the past decade or so. There has been a concerted effort to engage the public with "science communication," ostensibly to improve the public's science literacy. In my experience, these efforts often appear to be -- at least in part -- politically motivated, and they commonly involve non-scientists taking simple, accurate, and already clearly explained scientific concepts and morphing them into dumbed-down and incorrect explanations that actually serve to misinform the public, rather than properly educate them.

Ground zero in this domain is climate change science. In the Huffington Post, John Cook -- a climate communication research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia -- wrote a recent article entitled "The Quantum Theory of Climate Denial" in which he attempts to somehow link quantum mechanics with skepticism about imminent catastrophic anthropogenic climate change.

Cook's article, like all too many written by activist representatives of academia when talking about climate change, is a derisive rant with the intent to ridicule supposed climate skeptics with their illogical nature and poor understanding of science.

However, it is Cook who has made a very serious scientific error in his article, so perhaps one shouldn't throw stones from a glass house?

Cook spends the first third of his article attempting to explain the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, which was created by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s to illustrate some of the weirdness at the quantum level. I'm not sure where Cook obtained his understanding of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment (I asked him on Twitter and he didn't reply), but it looks like an attempted paraphrasing of this article at National Geographic from 2013. Regardless, there are some incorrect statements in Cook's article. For a readable and accurate review of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, Wikipedia does a good job on the subject -- particularly some of the primary references cited therein.

Cook states the following:

"Imagine you have some radioactive material that may or may not decay. Quantum mechanics says that if no one is observing it, the radioactive material is simultaneously in both the decaying and non-decaying states. Only when you observe the material does it collapse into one state or the other."

Wrong.

First off, by definition, all radioactive material will decay. The question is how long it will take before it all decays. In a piece of radioactive material, you cannot predict exactly when individual atoms will decay and in which order, but you know one thing for certain: given enough time, the material will decay in a manner quantitatively described by its radioactive kinetics.

The second two sentences are entirely absurd. To claim that in the absence of an observer (i.e., you or I watching it), that "radioactive material is simultaneously in both the decaying and non-decaying states" and that "only when you observe the material does it collapse into one state or the other" is pure nonsense and a textbook example of what happens when you erroneously interpret the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.

In no way does radioactive decay require an observer to occur. Imagine if it did. That would mean that the radioactivity decay that heats the interior of the Earth would need an enormous army of observers living inside the planet watching the radioactive material to ensure it continued to decay. It would also mean that all the radioactive decay at highly dangerous sites such as Chernobyl and Fukushima could be effectively turned off just by having us turn our backs and not watch the radioactive material. The claims made by Cook are so scientifically ridiculous on their face it is difficult to convey how truly wrong they are. Quite simply, radioactive decay occurs independently of any observers. Full stop. End of story. No debate. The science on this is most definitely settled.

So what should happen with Cook's article? Well, it should be retracted or corrected with a clear explanation to the audience of what errors were made. That would be the solution if the University of Queensland's intent was truly public education in science.

The article also highlights how non-scientist "communicators" should probably not be communicating science, or at least they require much greater oversight to ensure their claims are accurate. We do need the public to understand science, but it has to be the correct science, not wild claims and analogies that do not reflect reality and only serve to coarsen and dumb down important scientific and policy discussions. 

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