Sunday, August 09, 2009

Schrodinger’s Coyne

Almost everyone knows about Schrodinger's Cat. It's the famous example of measurement bizarreness associated with quantum mechanics. A cat is hidden inside a box. Also inside the box is some poison. A bit later we ask: is the cat dead or alive? Quantum mechanics says that we cannot say for sure without making a measurement—that is opening the box. Prior to opening the box, the best quantum mechanics can say is that the cat's state is a mixture of dead cat and live cat.1

The New Atheists, at least as much are they are followers of Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is fast becoming America's Richard Dawkins, provide another stunning example of the weirdness of measurement theory.

In the Schrodinger's Coyne experiment, we start with a common state: America's alarming scientific illiteracy. Let's call this complete state S. Schrodinger's Coyne demonstrates the following counter intuitive result:

If Ci caused S, then the effect is Ei. (Eq. 1)

Where Ci is one attributed cause, and Ei is the associated effect. Schrodinger's Coyne is the bizarre result that the effect of the same state S depends on what caused state S in the first place!

Recall that S refers to "America's alarming scientific illiteracy."

Let's now point out the strange "Schrodinger's Coyne" effect.2

Let C1 be religion. The associated E1 is well documented on sites such as the respective blogs of Coyne, Myers and Dawkins. It is: American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, and possibly the loss of the color fuchsia.

To put it in a single equation, Equation 1, with subscript 1, becomes:

If Religion caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, etc.

This version of Eq. 1 will be familiar to most readers and is the raison d'être for sites such as Pharyngula, where reasoned commenters warn about "death cultists," theocracies and the American Taliban's plan to annihilate most of the population.

This takes us to Professor Coyne. He recently wrote the introduction of a promised multi-part review of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book Unscientific America. I have not yet read the book, which laments native scientific know-nothingness. But clearly the book has struck a doctrinal nerve among the Personality-Cult O' Dawkins. So much so that if you didn’t know you might think that that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are anti-science Christian fanatics from the Discovery Institute. They are not; they have great street creds in the fight against the misguided, anti-science side of Christianity.

But that's not good enough. Just like there are people for whom even Ann Coulter is not conservative enough, there are those inhabitants of the lunatic-fringe like Jerry Coyne for whom the Chris Mooney's of the world fall outside the pale of orthodoxy—and the lidless-eyed New Atheist blogs are the Inquisition that charges, tries, convicts and judges all New Atheist apostasy.

Coyne is upset that Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame, in part, scientists for American scientific illiteracy. Coyne writes:
But, say [Mooney and Kirshenbaum] , we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves. By our failure to reach out to the public and engage them, and by our hamhanded and ineffectual efforts when we do, we have missed the opportunity to make this a truly “scientific America.” In fact, scientists themselves have supposedly spurned the public, writing off efforts to improve scientific literacy because we see the public as dumb or intractable.
They see the public as dumb? Now where’d they get that idea? It's not like you ever read about how stupid the American public is at web sites such as Pharyngula. Much. Well OK, regularly. But I'm sure they don't really mean it. Much. Well OK, its one of their doctrinal positions.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum don't realize that the priesthood is never at fault.

Still, the charge that scientists might be partly to blame appears to have triggered something inside of Coyne—perhaps a pang of conscience. He resolves it in an interesting way, writing:
To be fair, I myself have raised the alarum about America falling behind. Nevertheless, upon reflection I’m not so sure that this perceived slippage should cause us to get our knickers in a twist. America remains a scientific Mecca, despite other countries catching up, and increasing numbers of foreigners come here for scientific training. In the end, I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.
So Equation 1, with subscript 2, becomes:

If scientists caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be eh, not so much. In fact, since the rest of the world will catch up with us, it might even be good.

Compare our previous result:

If Religion caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, etc.

There you have it folks: Schrodinger's Coyne. Weirder than ten Schrodinger Cats, plus two.

1 Actually, that doesn't sound too weird. The weirdness would be that if you open the box and find a live cat, quantum mechanics does not say: see, the cat was always alive! but remains steadfast that before the measurement (opening the box) the cat was part dead. Opening the box caused the cat's sate to collapse from a mixture of "pure dead" and "pure alive" (weighted by the probability that the cat ate the poison) to the pure state of dead or the pure state of alive. Wicked cool, that quantum mechanics.

2 Which I must point out is seen nowhere else—this seems to be a special scientific anomaly that applies only to Jerry Coyne.


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