Strong opinions, weakly held

Misuse of scientific laws

Andrew Brown notes that he has misunderstood and misused Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He explains:

I have thought for many years that the point of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was that you could not measure a system without disturbing it. Hence the idea that your measurement of one aspect (say, momentum) must disturb another, like position, since all measurement involves interaction. I was wrong. It turns out, at least according to John Barrow, that this is a vulgar misunderstanding of the Heisenberg principle, perpetrated as a way around the mathematical difficulties.

The uncertainly principle is specifically applicable to quantum physics but I, and many other people, have applied the vulgar definition wherever it seems appropriate. The idea behind it seems applicable to social sciences, computer science, and plenty of other areas as well. For example, it is often applied to anthropology. It is impossible for anthropologists to visit a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle to document their lifestyle without also affecting their lifestyle. Likewise, in software development, instrumenting a system for performance testing affects the performance of that system, at least a little bit.

The improper application of the uncertainty principle neatly conveys a useful idea. This misappropriation of scientific principles in other situations is pretty common. People often use the concept of inertia to describe any form or behavior that continues beyond its useful life. Evolution describes the way random genetic mutations propagate throughout a population, but it is also commonly used to describe the way systems that are deliberately designed and tweaked change over time.

I actually think this is a useful and interesting practice, but I’m sure it drives scientists nuts. I do wonder whether there’s any effort being made to document these misappropriations of scientific work.

1 Comment

  1. It sounds like it’s the use of the specific name…as you point out, observation does tend to change the results. Maybe it’s like when your mom calls up and says “the Internet is broken.”

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