Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dangerous metaphors

On a forum, I've gotten into a discussion about the idea that in some way, string theory validates some principle or other of qabbalism and some other occult symbolisms. The conversation has also drifted through various bits of quantum physics, notably the observer effect, along with an ill-defined exploration of other ideas of the mind influencing the world directly.

The discussion is as always ultimately unsatisfying because the people who can take this kind of idea seriously in the first place are the kind who are never dissuaded by, well, anything. But it's also instructive about the levels of illogic that a person can achieve if they really set their mind to it.

My touchstone for this discussion is always Capra's The Tao of Physics because so many people invest so much meaning into it. My reaction to it was similar to the reaction a friend of mine had to the movie Forrest Gump: it seems at first to have a deep appeal, but once you turn some critical reasoning on it and examine it with a more appraising kind of scrutiny, it proves to be dangerously, insidiously wrong. Capra's book has some interesting ideas, but at its base, it takes a few metaphors and mistakes them for reality, then builds upon that mistake all kinds of conclusions layered on top of other conclusions, reaching to concepts that are not only wrong-headed but dangerously, deceptively so.

I don't mean to hammer too badly on Capra because his book is far from the worst offender in this class. In fact, it stands out for having something at its heart, which most books of this ilk don't, but which can also make it more potently deceptive. Anyway, I also don't mean to hammer on Capra too much because I've already written about that book on my blog, from the perspective of how these oversimplifications can be damaging to understanding of science. But that post was more about how people who sincerely want to understand science can be misled, and how hard it is to capture the essence of science for those people.

Today, I'm more interested in the people, like the one who started the thread I spoke of earlier, who have no great interest in understanding science, just of finding reasons to conclude that it conforms to whatever ideology or symbolism they already like. At its base this is probably another case of the human pattern-recognition software going into overdrive, and as intelligent people usually have the most active pattern-recognition software, we also can be prone to the worst excesses in its overuse.

While some of the parallels discussed in that thread are ludicrous (one person went to great lengths to expound on the "telling" coincidence that string theory posits ten dimensions, while some branch of qabbalistic symbolism has ten schools of thought, in all earnestness, for instance), and the wonder here is that anyone takes them seriously (if they don't know anything about string theory, they assume the writer does, and invest them with authority), what is far more insidious is things like the observer effect "validating" psychic phenomena, since that metaphoric category error is genuinely insidious. Even people with a bit of understanding of quantum physics can fall into that one, let alone those whose only understanding of quantum physics comes from the analogies used to explain it.

If metaphors are a double-edged sword for those who really want to understand, they're even worse for the credulous. But that's not the real trouble. If we didn't have easily-overextended metaphors to confuse them, they'd just be making connections between unrelated but similarly-shaped things anyway. The real trouble is that when you try to argue with them, the fence-sitters are too easily swayed by the credulous when they point out the metaphors as if they were real connections. People are just interested enough to listen to the compelling comparisons of the credulous, but not willing to invest enough attention to follow the repudiation of those tasty morsels of nonsense.

Hopefully, though, someone will have taken my book recommendations (notably Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, the most cogent anhd understandable explanation of quantum mechanics for the layperson I've ever read, that doesn't dip too far into the deceptive metaphors) to heart, so it'll have done some good.

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