The recently published poll about the interpretations of quantum mechanics was discussed by Sean Carroll under this dramatic title:
To show his embarrassment, he picked question 12 whose results look (almost) least embarrassing to me among all the questions.
The question and the composition of answers looks like this:
How did the participants of the poll do? They did pretty well but not very well. First, the most accurate answer, Consistent Histories, was picked by 0% of the participants; an excuse is that this superior interpretation is presented in no popular books and in no undergrad classes so superficial enough "researchers" simply remain unfamiliar with it. But the second most accurate answer, the Copenhagen interpretation, was preferred by 42%, by far the largest group.
There is a lot of room for philosophical flavors which may be idiosyncratic and many of the people are saying the same thing, physically speaking. One must distinguish different degrees of wrongness. If you look at the groups that have demonstrated that they have really misunderstood something and they are sharply wrong – because they believe in the existence of effects that demonstrably don't exist – you will find out that only 9% who believe in the "objective collapse" and perhaps also 18% who believe in the "many worlds" are sharply wrong.
Some of these wrong people use a scaled-down version of the interpretations (such as MWI) from which the demonstrably wrong claims have been removed. If you look at the graph with some degree of tolerance, you will almost certainly conclude that these answers show that most of the participants may actually understand all the physical questions correctly, they just differ in their preferred language, formalism, or in their philosophical accents. (The first commenter on Carroll's blog is suggesting pretty much the same thing.)
I would find questions where the answers would show a more widespread ignorance but from a global viewpoint, the results of the poll were a pleasant surprise for me.
Sean Carroll apparently thinks that the goal of the scientific research is a consensus and he wrote an incredible amount of fundamentally wrong statements that seem to boil down to this fatal delusion of his. Let us look at them:
Inevitably some killjoy will loudly grumble that “scientific questions aren’t decided by voting!”, but that misses the point.The people who realize that scientific questions aren't decided by voting are merry, pretty people who – first of all – understand an important point about science. On the contrary, it's the people who try to criticize or sling mud on this key, refreshing, and profound finding who are obnoxious sourballs. And who are badly wrong.
The merry, pretty people aren't missing any point. To say the least, their proposition about the irrelevance of the consensus doesn't prove that they are missing a point.
A poll of scientists isn’t meant to decide questions, it’s meant to collect data — mapping out the territory of opinion among people who have spent time and effort thinking carefully about the relevant questions.The key point that Sean Carroll – and other folks – don't understand is that the poll results are not scientific data at all. At most, they are sociological data. But these are totally different things. In science, polls simply don't represent evidence. Scientific questions can't be decided by voting. Scientific questions must be decided by observations, experiments, and logical reasoning and calculations applied to these observations and experiments as well as the universal laws of logic and probability.
If 58% (or fewer or more) people at the conference (and similar conferences) failed to have found the best answer, it only suggests that the answer is too hard for many people – or that the people are just not competent enough. Or some linear combination of these two statements. But it surely doesn't mean that no one knows the right answer. It certainly doesn't imply that science is ignorant about the right answer.
I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the results of this poll should be very embarrassing to physicists. Not, I hasten to add, because Copenhagen came in first, although that’s also a perspective I might want to defend (I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person).The Copenhagen interpretation may only be called "ill-defined" by those people who don't want to learn the truth but who demand the accepted laws of physics to confirm and pay lip service to their misguided, pre-existing, intrinsically classical misconceptions. Because they don't hear any compliments about their misconceptions coming from Copenhagen, they declare the discoveries coming from Copenhagen – arguably the most important discoveries in the 20th century science – ill-defined. Needless to say, Sean Carroll is a textbook example of such an anti-quantum bigot. In reality, the Copenhagen interpretation says everything one needs to know to do physics, everything by which the framework of quantum physics supersedes the now defunct framework of classical physics. If I simplify a bit, it says that the basic sketch of physics is to probabilistically predict the values of observables in the future out of results of observations in the past according to Hilbert-space, linear-algebra-based rules it describes in detail. That's it. All of science may be reduced to this basic set of procedures, at least in principle. Every observer who knows how to deduce values of observables from his perceptions may start to verify the predictions of quantum mechanics – this intellectual skyscraper with the foundations built in Copenhagen – and be sure that everything works. Nothing is missing here. There isn't any "extra physics" outside observers, physics independent of observations. Physics is a set of quantitative rules to probabilistically relate various observations.
The embarrassing thing is that we don’t have agreement.No, this is a ludicrous usage of collective guilt. The people who choose – pretty much – the right answer have nothing to be embarrassed about. It's only the people who choose the wrong answers who should be embarrassed. In particular, I think that those 42% – and perhaps a few other groups – have no reason to feel guilt. They can't do much about their deluded colleagues' opinions – these questions, however fundamental, are simply too difficult or too conceptually new for too many people.
Even if I were wrong about the foundations of quantum mechanics – which isn't a realistic scenario at all but I still have to mention it because the validity of some claims about quantum mechanics is an independent question from the validity of claims about the consensus – it would still be almost certainly true that at least one group of the participants has nothing to be embarrassed about. And it's the people who are right who matter in science. They're the roots of a ramified tree of science that will exist in the future. People who are wrong today are just dead ends whose impact on proper science will converge to zero. There's no "equivalence" between the truth and untruth in science.
We may discuss whether it's because most people are too intellectually limited or stubborn or because the insights are objectively too hard and new but obviously, we don't have a method to answer which of those answers is right. Only the relative sociological statement, "foundations of quantum mechanics are too hard and new for most people", may be defended by referring to similar polls.
Think about it — quantum mechanics has been around since the 1920′s at least...Right.
And yet — we don’t understand it.No, there is no evidence that "we" don't understand it. Indeed, this statement is wrong. Instead, what the diversity of the poll results show is that "at least some groups of people don't understand it". But the diversity of the results doesn't mean that no one understands it! In the U.S., about 50% of the people believe that the biological species were created by a Creator or a Creation Operator or whatever was Her name within several days. But this fact doesn't mean that we – scientists et al. – don't understand that the right explanation of the origin and diversity of species is Darwin's evolution. Of course we understand it. People who say wrong things can't "eradicate" the understanding by those who actually do understand an issue. They can't do it, not even if they call themselves scientists, not even if their environment calls them scientists, not even if they really try to be scientists! It just doesn't matter. What matters is that someone has accumulated and processed the evidence correctly and deduced the right conclusions – which may the case whether or not this individual or these individuals enjoy a prestigious status within the society.
I put it this way: here in 2013, we don’t really know whether objective “wave function collapse” is part of reality (as the poll above demonstrates).Again, this is nonsense. We do understand whether an objective wave function collapse occurs. It doesn't. Heisenberg and others have understood it doesn't since the beginning in the mid 1920s. The poll can't demonstrate anything else. Quite generally, and we have already said it, polls can't demonstrate anything about questions in natural science. Only scientific evidence may have certain implications for the truth values of propositions about science. By repeated proclamations of the kind above, Sean Carroll proves that he has nothing in common with science. He is just a sleazy slick jellyfish swimming among genuine scientists in the scientific institutions (and among other jellyfish) that is emulating statements by others in such a way so that he optimizes his own benefits. He's an immoral jerk. But every scientist knows that the diverse results of a poll don't imply that science doesn't understand the corresponding question. Genuine science just doesn't give a damn about polls – and just to be sure, this is the good news and only sourballs may doubt it.
I’m optimistic that we will, however. And I suspect it will take a lot fewer than another eighty years. The advance of experimental techniques that push the quantum/classical boundary is forcing people to take these issues more seriously.I don't think so. Similar experiments that demonstrate that quantum mechanics really works, including all of its counterintuitive predictions – and I mean the Copenhagen quantum mechanics and/or any other intrinsically probabilistic scheme using the maths of quantum mechanics to determine probabilities of some propositions about Nature – and that none of the proposed new effects implied by the candidate "replacements of the proper Copenhagen quantum mechanics" exists have been around for more than half a century, too. Even the "tests of EPR phenomena" that were accompanied by pretty much the current formulations and motivations have been done since 1976 or so. And lots of directly relevant experiments have been done since the 1920s – and some of the key "smoking guns" proving that quantum mechanics is right and its (more or less) classical competitors are wrong are even older.
The objects for which quantum mechanics was shown to hold are already so large, complex, and diverse that it makes really no sense to try to increase this cutting edge further. Nevertheless, you will still find crackpots who will tell you, for example, that the Copenhagen interpretation is ill-defined. They say such cosmically preposterous things because quantum mechanics doesn't really agree with their basic world view, with their ideology that underlies everything they want to know or learn. So they will just never accept it, regardless of the progress in experiments that study the foundations of quantum mechanics, regardless of any amount of indisputable evidence or rigorous proofs.
In other words, Sean Carroll and many others are hopeless bigots who can't ever accept quantum mechanics in its genuine, fundamentally non-classical form. I find it very likely that such people will be around in 80 years from now, too. Their percentage in various institutions may even be higher than it is today. But that doesn't imply that science will cease to exist. Science is done by those who do it right and who are not bigots, however small the set of these people is.
And that's the memo.