Whatever Happened to the Nonsense Merchants?

I was recently reminded that Michio Kaku exists.

In the past, Michio Kaku made important contributions to string theory, but he’s best known for what could charitably be called science popularization. He’s an excited promoter of physics and technology, but that excitement often strays into inaccuracy. Pretty much every time I’ve heard him mentioned, it’s for some wildly overenthusiastic statement about physics that, rather than just being simplified for a general audience, is generally flat-out wrong, conflating a bunch of different developments in a way that makes zero actual sense.

Michio Kaku isn’t unique in this. There’s a whole industry in making nonsense statements about science, overenthusiastic books and videos hinting at science fiction or mysticism. Deepak Chopra is a famous figure from deeper on this spectrum, known for peddling loosely quantum-flavored spirituality.

There was a time I was worried about this kind of thing. Super-popular misinformation is the bogeyman of the science popularizer, the worry that for every nice, careful explanation we give, someone else will give a hundred explanations that are way more exciting and total baloney. Somehow, though, I hear less and less from these people over time, and thus worry less and less about them.

Should I be worried more? I’m not sure.

Are these people less popular than they used to be? Is that why I’m hearing less about them? Possibly, but I’d guess not. Michio Kaku has eight hundred thousand twitter followers. Deepak Chopra has three million. On the other hand, the usually-careful Brian Greene has a million followers, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, where the worst I’ve heard is that he can be superficial, has fourteen million.

(But then in practice, I’m more likely to reflect on content with even smaller audiences.)

If misinformation is this popular, shouldn’t I be doing more to combat it?

Popular misinformation is also going to be popular among critics. For every big-time nonsense merchant, there are dozens of people breaking down and debunking every false statement they say, every piece of hype they release. Often, these people will end up saying the same kinds of things over and over again.

If I can be useful, I don’t think it will be by saying the same thing over and over again. I come up with new metaphors, new descriptions, new explanations. I clarify things others haven’t clarified, I clear up misinformation others haven’t addressed. That feels more useful to me, especially in a world where others are already countering the big problems. I write, and writing lasts, and can be used again and again when needed. I don’t need to keep up with the Kakus and Chopras of the world to do that.

(Which doesn’t imply I’ll never address anything one of those people says…but if I do, it will be because I have something new to say back!)

6 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to the Nonsense Merchants?

  1. Brad

    It’s funny you should write this article. Of course, like most when I got really interested in quantum physics, which links to spirituality for me I binged on anything and everything I could. I agree with everything you said. Over time I saw Deepak and Michio as providing fewer facts and more showmanship. Don’t worry. The crap floats to the top or sinks to the bottom depending on how you look at it. I think Neil Degrasse Tyson is another IMO. What will shine through is the real science and discoveries. Until that happens all we can do is take the leap from physics and math and in our own minds link it to what reality truly is as a conscious being. Once we all go on that last journey will we truly know.


  2. David Bartell

    More important than accuracy these days is the picture these people paint of science and scientists. (Full disclosure, I was on a TV show with Michio, back when he made more sense.)


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      I’m not sure you can separate the two. When you’re inaccurate enough that some people notice, that erodes people’s trust in science, they think oh, those scientists, always bullshitting. If it’s inaccurate in a way that only the experts notice, that’s different, and more akin to the kinds of simplifications people need to make when teaching (the “lies to children” concept I linked to a post on).


  3. Phil Cannata

    The problem with physics goes much deeper than just the populizers. If you read anything about modern physics these days, you’ll be told something like this – quantum mechanics is the best theory ever developed by scientists. “It’s a stunning success. Not a single prediction of the theory has ever been wrong. One-third of our economy depends on products based on it.” (Rosenblum & Kuttner, 2011) [Preface]. “Essentially all of chemistry is a matter of applied quantum mechanics. … Quantum mechanics is the deepest, most comprehensive view of reality we have. As far as we currently know, quantum mechanics isn’t just an approximation of the truth, it is the truth. . .. Every version of quantum mechanics (and there are plenty) employs a wave function or something equivalent.” (Carroll, 2019) [pp. 2, 32].

    But, how much of “quantum behavior” can be modeled without the need to employ the notion of a wave function? Actually, most of it! And how “deep” is it really? The models that explain the quantum behavior of the hydrogen atom and those that are the basis of chemistry, quantum computing, quantum field theory, and cosmology are trivial and do not employ a wave function. They can be taught to children in grade school. And once they learn them, even they can see that they don’t convey much about “reality” and they contain very little “truth”.


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      For the record, this is very close to what I would classify as a spam comment due to the extent to which it is off-topic. “You know what else is misinformation, X!” is a really thin excuse. As a rule of thumb, if a family member would get annoyed with you for hogging the conversation if you changed the topic that way at the dinner table, it’s not appropriate as a comment on a blog. I’m not deleting the comment because so far you haven’t made a habit of this kind of thing. Feel free to discuss the problems with how mainstream physics presents QM when it’s relevant, but not when your excuse to bring it up is this thin.



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