Last night, several of us at YOW were discussing professional secrets, inaccuracies and omissions that are corrected via apprenticeship but rarely in writing. We were arguing over whether these secrets were the result of conspiracy or laziness. Do people deliberately conceal information to keep the uninitiated from really knowing what’s going on, or do they wave their hands because being precise takes too much energy?
I argued for the latter, a sort of variation on Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In this case, I didn’t want to attribute to conspiracy what could adequately be explained by laziness. Sins of omission are more common than sins of commission.
Brian Beckman’s comment on Hanlon’s razor was that there is a sort of quantum superposition of malice and stupidity. That is, you have some indeterminate mixture of malice and stupidity (or in the context of our conversation, conspiracy and laziness) that leads to the same results. This closely resembles Grey’s law that any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. Being a physicist, Brian used a physical metaphor. He commented later that it may be possible in retrospect to determine whether some action was malicious or stupid, collapsing a sort of wave function.
Related post: Hanlon’s razor and corporations
6 thoughts on “Quantum superposition of malice and stupidity”
The problem with collapsing to one or the other is that they are often in a circular feedback loop. Malice and stupidity cannot not only be mixed but can each be the cause of the other; all the way down. Dunning–Kruger at its worst.
Well now wait a second – four years ago you posted a link to an essay of Jaynes’ in which he argues against the Copenhagen interpretation. So which is it – do you agree with the Copenhagen interpretation, or some sort of Bayesian interpretation of quantum mechanics?
I bet you didn’t think that was going to get brought up. :)
Enjoy your trip to Australia!
Matthew, maybe there’s a many-worlds interpretation in which the universe branches with each action into a continuum of universes, each with a different causal mixture of malice and stupidity. I love the idea that, in such an interpretation, in each branch the outcome determines the cause rather than the other way around.
Dave, does that mean that there is a world-line that is maximally stupid? Besides the one we live in?
Elementary, dear Watson!
If Sherlock Holmes had written a book about detective investigation, he would probably omit a lot of things which he considered being obvious to everybody who has eyes and a brain.
So there is maybe no laziness nor malice, but simply an assumption of obviousness.
Or as Colonel Stuart (Die Hard 2) has put it: “In the beginning of every disaster, there is a damned assumption.” (I don’t know precise wording, but I like the sense.)
Quantum mechanics itself is an interesting example of this. The standard textbook quantum theory is gibberish; how can a fundamental theory attribute actions to measurements? What the heck is a measurement (e.g., Schrodinger’s cat paradox)?
I doubt there is any physicist that actually believes in that stuff. They think and talk about electrons as if they are little balls moving about. And it is perfectly fine to do so; Bohmian mechanics says so. At the very least, one should talk about GRW collapse theories (collapse is a random event) which is as close to standard QM as one can get in a coherent fashion though at the price of breaking Schrodinger’s evolution equation (something had to give).
The interesting thing is that Bohmian mechanics is trivial. One just assumes there are particles with positions and the positions change based on how the wave function evolves. It is trivial to derive the equation from multiple points of view and it is rather easy to argue that it gives the same answers as the standard nonsense (when the nonsense makes sense). One can actually *prove* global existence of solutions except for a set of measure zero relative to the psi-squared measure of the wave function. Operators as observables, collapse, spin, Bell’s inequality, identical particles, all of that can be handled easily and with clear insight.
And yet this theory is pretty much ignored, sometimes vilified. It is not from incompetence since this is an easy theory to understand nor is it about hard work (it’s easy!). I think it is in part because physicists delight in having a mysterious, magical theory to talk about. A side effect of this is that only those willing to accept the nonsense become physicists. Bohr had a philosophy that predated quantum mechanics which closely resembles the philosophy of standard quantum mechanics. He got some right answers, had some other people around him that accepted his views, and then funding power entrenched the doctrine (Copenhagen).
What’s most interesting is that Schrodinger, Einstein, and de Broglie, big names in early quantum mechanics, routinely disagreed with the standard nonsense. Unfortunately they did not rally behind Bohm (despite de Broglie having come up with it almost at the beginning of QM). Bohm is widely regarded as having written a great standard quantum mechanics textbook and is the Bohm of the Bohm-Aharanov effect. But when Einstein mentioned the fault in Bohm’s “impossibility theorem” in the textbook, Bohm came up with his theory. And his theory (presented poorly, admittedly) was met with silence and/or hostility. Except by Bell. He was inspired to prove his famous inequality based on Bohm’s work. And Bell himself became a lone voice in support of the theory despite people misinterpreting Bell’s work as an argument against Bohm!