What Am I Even Talking About?
I love quantum mechanics and always have done. You might not have guessed it though, because I don't talk about it online much. There are two good reasons: 1) Once I get started I won’t be able to stop. 2) It’s too big to trivialise with a 5-minute youtube video or an Instagram post. It would be like trying to sum up the rise and fall of the Roman empire in a single hashtag. #Greedfollowedbycorruption
Quantum mechanics is probably the most important discovery since evolution. More fundamental than relativity, more shocking than the Big Bang Model. It is the framework we rest modern Science on and it’s gosh-darned fascinating!
What I really want to talk about today though is "quantum spirituality". You may have come across it. If not, go to Instagram/twitter etc. and type in any of the following terms: quantum, quantum theory, quantum physics or quantum mechanics. What you'll no doubt find is associations with Buddhism, Hinduism, vegetarianism, yoga, mysticism, alternative medicine, cannabis, crystal healing, left-wing politics, exercise, healthy eating, positive mindsets and, more than anything else, “consciousness.” Now, let me be clear just so nobody thinks I'm attacking them:
1) Consciousness has played a part in quantum mechanical theory.
2) We'll get to that bit shortly.
3) I think it's good to talk about the human mind and its potential.
4) I’m not against philosophical or religious discussion at all.
I also know why a lot of people associate these things with quantum mechanics. It’s down to one person (who we’ll get to shortly) but, and I'm afraid this is crunch point - some of this stuff isn’t anything to do with quantum mechanics. Remotely.
Again, understand my intentions here. I don’t want to dismiss anybody’s opinions about the meaning of life. I’ve got no business doing that. But as a Science educator, it is my business to make sure people have a good understanding of quantum mechanics. So strap yourselves in folks, we're going to get it right.
Why do I have to ruin it?
I probably sound like the kid who tells all the others that Santa Claus isn’t real. Can’t I just let people go on believing in Santa Claus? I understand that point of view, really. But if I may offer a counter-argument?
Believing in Santa is comforting and fun but when you learn the truth, that your loving parents have gone to the trouble of getting you Christmas presents, haven’t you learned something even better? Yes it can be painful to let go of cherished beliefs, but surely it’s better to know the truth than a lie, no matter how self-comforting that lie is.
I want to educate people because the real quantum mechanics is so much bigger and cooler than what you’ve probably been told. You might think quantum spirituality is interesting but trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
I also think it’s important to get Science right because a lack of education can be dangerous. To quote Professor Hawking: "the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge". The point he's making is that it's very hard to teach someone if they think they already know everything. Teaching quantum mechanics is difficult (trust me, I know) but it's even harder when people already have a crooked version in their heads. Frankly, I think people deserve the truth. You wouldn't accept a substitue diamond ring, so why accept a substitue version of quantum mechanics?
Defining Words Differently?
Let me ask you something. When you looked at the above photograph and saw the caption underneath, did you think: "He's got the wrong band there" or maybe "he's telling some kind of joke"? Well, it's actually neither. I wasn't making a joke and I'm not getting confused. That's a picture of The Beatles. I'm being quite serious. I believe that's a picture of The Beatles and you have no right to tell me different. You can probably see where I'm going with this.
Just imagine you’re a Beatles fan. You’ve got t-shirts, books about them, the whole works. Then one day you go online and search The Beatles. You find someone saying how much they love the Beatles, except the band they’re posting pictures of aren’t the Beatles. It’s Nickelback.
It’s a bit puzzling, but everybody makes mistakes sometimes! So you message the person not trying to be critical, saying “hey there pal, I think you might have uploaded the wrong picture by accident!” But, rather than going “whoops, cheers dude” this person responds with “yeah, well it’s my blog and I’ll post what I want!”
The next day another person does the same thing, labelling another picture of Nickelback as "The Beatles". So you ask them if they want to learn a little Beatles history. They say yes, but then about 30 seconds later they start saying “well that’s just your definition of the Beatles, I define it differently”.
Now imagine you youtube your favourite Beatles song but instead of Eleanor Rigby you get that infuriating “How you remind me” song, mis-labelled as The Beatles. Then people start posting pictures of Iron Maiden and labelling it The Beatles. And then pictures of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as The Beatles.
You don’t mind these bands at all, they’re fine. But they aren’t the Beatles! The problem is that every time you talk to someone about it they accuse you of being picky, or petty, or narrow-minded, or a hater. Then it gets ludicrous.
People start posting pictures of their salads with “The Beatles” attached to it. You even see people offering courses and workshops on Beatles history...courses which make no mention of instruments, John Lennon or even Liverpool!
It seems that for some people, truth really isn't a high priority and they go with the ever popular "I can define my own truth however I want" response. Shouldn't I just let people use their own words? Why do I have to go challenging them on it? Doesn't that make me a trouble-maker who's looking for a fight after all?
Well, imagine if I started posting racist terminology on my page but then said "yeah, well I define those words differently", how well do you think that would fly?
Or if I started posting pictures of dairy and meat products with #veganlifestyle.
Or if some money-loving oil corporation started posting “Namaste” on its home page.
Or if some fundamentalist hate group started posting "raise your vibration" while they campaigned against gay marriage.
Or what if someone starting hitting people and saying "yeah well in my version of reality, they don't feel pain so leave me alone and let me live me own life!"
Would you be OK with that?. Surely you’d want to educate people on what those terms really meant. You're not doing it to be a hater, you're doing it because you respect the human intellect and think people should be challenged when they are wrong, right? So, to be clear once again, I'm not here to attack you, I'm here to spread knowledge.
Quantum Mechanics in Layman’s Terms
Quantum mechanics is a nuanced theory. You have to be careful what you say because it can easily mean the wrong thing. It’s also a vast theory. QM doesn’t refer to just one idea, but a whole collection of theories, hypotheses, predictions, experiments and conclusions which form a framework for us to work in. Nobody can honestly claim to be familiar with the entire breadth of the theory. And, on top of that, it's very mathematical in nature.
I had to attend several math classes at University in order to make sense of what was going on in my QM classes. Now, as I’ve said before, anything you can say with equations you can say in words, but it takes a huge amount of time to do so and that gives you two options.
Either you take a long time to get things exactly right, during which people get bored, or you cheat and use analogies and simplifications. The explanations become sort of casual, hand-waving shorthand, which is about 90% correct but misconceptions can arise as a result.
It’s not because you want to be snobbish or deceitful and it’s certainly not because you don’t respect them! Everybody is clever enough to understand Science. But it can take time without maths. The ultimate goal is to get people to understand the beauty of the theory, so it’s better to explain “the gist” so they understand what the fuss is about.
You can imagine the mess that ensues. It’s a perfect storm of a nuanced theory which has lots of aspects, being explained in simplified ways. It’s in these poorly understood realms that pseudoscience can creep in. Perfectly intelligent people can believe things which aren’t true because it’s hard to tell Science from pseudoscience and it’s the cheap knock-offs which are trying to fool you. You have to be wary of quantum con-artists. Be smarter.
The Measurement Problem
We’re going to pin things right down and focus on one aspect of quantum mechanics which gives rise to all the discussion about consciousness and spirituality. And the best analogy I can think of is Toy Story. Yes, I'm using an analogy...even after what I said a moment ago. But we're going to tread carefully and I'll point out the limitations and strengths of the analogy in the discussion.
Imagine you place your favourite Buzz Lightyear doll on your bed and leave the room for a moment. Then, when you come back, it's somehow on the shelf. You pick it up, shake it a bit and put it back. Then, when you come back later in the afternoon, it's outside in the garden. This doesn't make sense at all, so you decide to do some measurements.
Every hour you place it on your bed and then walk away. Each time you come back it's in a slightly different place. 90% of the time it's still on the bed, 8% of the time it's on the floor or shelf and 2% of the time it's outside in the garden. There is only one logical explanation, as strange as it sounds: the toy is only a toy when it's being observed.
When you look away from it, it somehow adopts other characteristics (being alive). You can predict the probability of where it's going to end up when you finally look, but you can never be exactly sure. Ultimately, you need two sets of laws to describe the behaviour of the toy. One for when it's being an inanimate piece of plastic and another for when you're not looking and you can only measure it's probable behaviour.
This, in a nutshell, is what particles do. It's called “the measurement problem” for obvious reasons. Measuring the particle/toy forces it to behave normally but whenever we stop looking, it does something different and we lose our ability to predict its behaviour. I've been working on this blog for weeks and it was only just now that I hit upon the Toy Story analogy. Well, it was either that or these things...
The Copenhagen Interpretation
Explaining the measurement problem has been an important part of quantum mechanical theory for decades and there are many different ways of doing it. The one which is most relevant to our discussion is called The Copenhagen Interpretation, postulated in the city of Copenhagen by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli. This is by no means “the correct” explanation but it is a way to make sense of things.
Imagine you've not seen Toy Story and all you know is that your toy somehow appears in different places. What explanation would you propose? The Copenhagen proposal is that a particle given a choice will choose all options until observed. If the choice is about where to be, it will exist in all possible locations. If the choise is about what energy to have, it will adopt all possible energies. But when it is observed it crystallises into one state. That final state could have been impossible when it was acting as an ordinary particle, but since we gave it free reign it was allowed to explore every possible state and crystallise in one it otherwise couldn’t have.
Just like the toy which suddenly appears in the garden. Copenhagen says that Buzz Lightyear existed at every point in the house and garden, but when it was observed, it crystallised into one location...90% of the time that's back on the bed but every once in a while it turns up somehwere seemingly impossible.
We call the list of possible states the particle could be in “the wavefunction” (there are other ways of defining the word wavefunction but they all amount to more or less the same thing). The wavefunction is spread across many different states but when you take a measurement, it “collapses” into just one.
This raises all sorts of questions, the most obvious being: why does observation trigger wavefunction collapse? It’s as if the particle somehow “knows” it is being watched. In our Toy Story analogy this seems fine because the toys are thinking beings and they know to "play dead" when Andy comes into the room. But how does a single electron know to collapse into one place?
Consciousness Enters the Discussion
If you've ever watched Toy Story and wondered what the rules are, quantum physicists do the same thing. If we set up a camera in Andy's bedroom, would the toys come to life? Can the toys choose to enter their toy-state? What if they're being watched from behind and they don't know about it? Why do they stay in their live-state when another toy observes them? Why does the dog Buster not count? What about an artificially intelligent robot? Would a chimpanzee trigger a collapse? Can babies see them moving? What about that bit when Sid sees Woody talking?
Believe it or not, quantum physicists have to ask very similar questions about particles. If we sit a camera on our particle and watch a video feed, will the wavefunction collapse? If we put the camera there but nobody is watching it, does that count? What if we record it on a video disc and never look at it? And if observation is involved, is it the eyes, the brain, the memory? What's going on? There are no easy answers.
The first attempt at seriously tackling the question was made by the brilliant physicist John Von Neumann. In 1932, von Neumann wrote the first definitive textbook on quantum mechanics, formalising all the known laws under one framework. One chapter in particular deals with the measurement problem and in it, Von Neumann works mathematically outwards from the particle to find out what causes it to collapse.
He concluded that the “choice” part of an experiment (ie when the particle can choose which state/location to be in) doesn’t trigger a change and the particle remains “uncollapsed” after the choice has been offered. He then showed that the detector/equipment of the experiment was also not the point at which the wavefunction collapsed.
In fact, Von Neumann showed there was no obvious place which could be triggering wavefunction collapse. Anything he included in the calculation was insufficient to account for it. The only thing he couldn’t describe in full mathematical detail was the human brain itself.
Von Neumann’s next step was controversial but mathematically necessary, and certainly not one he took lightly. Since his calculations could show no possible way of triggering the collapse, he concluded it had to be hiding in the one place he couldn’t describe. The human mind was somehow the reason.
If you videod the experiment and then waited for a year, the particle wouln’t actually pick a state to be in until you watched the playback, at which point it would crystallise into existence. In other words, a video camera watching the toys in Andy's room would see them dancing around, but it's only when a conscious human mind watches the playback that everything appears normal and they just see a lifeless toy.
To be clear, Von Neumann wasn’t necessarily happy about this. He didn’t want to introduce non-testable terms into his mathematics, but he saw no alternative. The maths said wavefunction collapse couldn’t be triggered by anything in the experiment, so it had to be the observer’s brain doing it.
Eugene Wigner, another hard-nosed Scientist, agreed with his conclusion and this idea came to be known as the “Von-Neumann - Wigner Interpertation”. Consciousness, according to them, was a fundamental part of physics because there was no way, in 1932, of explaining how a particle “knew” to start existing in one certain state.
The idea is that reality is therefore anthropic. Observing a particle causes it to change its nature. And this is where spirituality gets included.
All of these ideas about consciousness being a fundamental ingredient of the Universe sound very similar to certain religious teachings. It’s completely understandable that many spiritualists would therefore endorese the VN-W interpretation. It SEEMS like physics is confirming their spiritual preferences.
It's also where a lot of aspirational philosophy gets involved. A lot of spiritual teachings suggest that you can achieve a certain state of being/consciousness, which makes the world manifest itself in a certain way. Things like the “law of attraction”, which claims if you think positive thoughts and focus on things you want, it will begin to happen. I’m paraphrasing spiritualism obviously...but that’s what many spiritualists do with quantum mechanics, so paraphrasing is obviously something spiritualists are OK with.
Quantum mechanics comes along and it appears to be saying something very similar to a lot of these spiritual philosophies. "You create your reality", "Reality manifests itself in tune with you observing it", "your consciousness is a fundamental part of the Universe", "Your mind influences reality". These are all really exciting ideas, suggesting that humans have incredible power to change the world.
I understand why so many people get enthralled by it. I really do. But, I’m afraid (and I really take no joy in doing this) that this simply isn’t the case. I am sorry if you hold these beliefs, but whoever told you that quantum mechanics supports these ideas, was either lying to you or didn’t understand it as well as they thought they did. Your spiritual beliefs may be true but they have nothing to do with quantum mechanics.
If you’d rather go on believing the cheap version of quantum mechanics then I understand, and I invite you to stop reading now. Otherwise, let’s take a look at what we actually know about the Von-Neumann Wigner interpretation.
1) You can’t determine the eigenstate
According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, before the particle is observed it is in a variety of states simultaneously, called the wavefunction. Then, when the measurement is taken, the wavefunction collapses to just one state, called “the eigenstate”. But there is something very important here: consciousness may trigger the wavefunction to collapse but there is no way of influencing which eigenstate it actually collapses into.
In the analogy of the Toys, we found that watching them forced them to crystallise into one location, but we couldn't actually influence where it was. We have no interaction with them during their living state so we can only give a probability of where they're likely to appear.
Likewise, observing a particle does tell it to pick a state, but the state has nothing to do with us. Each possible eigenstate has a “probability amplitude” associated with it, and the final state it collapses into is determined by that, not you.
So while it might be ok to say “consciously observing causes it to take form”, anything which says “you can influence” is immediately invalid. So I’m afraid all those motivational spiritual ideas about how your mind can shape reality have completely missed one of the fundamental points of QM. You're an observer, not an influencer.
So I’m afraid your consciousness can only, at best, trigger reality to form, it can’t (in any way) influence what form reality takes. The principle of "controlled manifestation" is not based on quantum mechanics at all. You can't influence reality with your mind.
2) Quantum Mechanics doesn’t apply to Macrostates
The world we see around us obeys classical laws, not quantum ones. When you’re talking about a single electron, or a single atomic nucleus, or the interaction between two neutrons, then yes you need to speak quantum. But when you’re talking about humans or plants or avocados, quantum rules aren’t directly relevant. And this is sort of obvious.
One of the reasons quantum mechanics is so surprising is because it is very different to the world we experience. The everyday world doesn’t feature wavefunction collapse. Toys don't spontaneously teleport because they are classical objects. The electrons they're made of will be quantum yes, but not the toys themselves. Any macrostate (an object big enough for us to observe directly) is already in a clearly defined eigenstate. Its wavefunction has collapsed.
This raises another fantastic question which is: where does the boundary between quantum and classical behaviour occur? The answer to this is well understood (largely thanks to Richard Feynman) but it would take us too far off topic. Point is, that boundary is there.
If a spiritual belief claims that your consciousness can trigger a wavefunction collapse of a tiny number of particles, by all means listen up. But the moment they start applying it to the everyday world, (anything bigger than a molecule really) they’re going beyond what we can actually say.
3) Observation Doesn’t Mean “Using your Senses”
The analogy of the toys is potentially misleading because it implies that me looking with my eyes is what causes the toys to pick a location, but this isn’t what really goes on. And this is why I was reluctant to use an analogy (but it was just too good to ignore). The anology helps us get the basic idea of measurement problems, but it isn't to be taken literally.
There’s a very simple demonstration of quantum mechanics I’ve used in my physics class. You set up a laser and point it at a plate with two slits. You’re giving each light particle the choice of where to go, slit A or slit B. when I do this demonstration I ask my students whether or not looking at the laser or the slits will trigger wavefunction collapse and guess what...it never does. The light particles always end up in impossible places for particles, which means looking at them actually had no effect.
This is with a classroom of 20 students and myself staring at it from all angles. We are clearly observing the particles but they aren’t collapsing.
When we talking about “taking a measurement” we mean shrinking down to the quantum level and taking a measurement there. Collapsing the wavefunction is actually very hard. It’s not really “looking at the two slits” it’s a complicated series of prisms and mirrors which can detect which slit a particle went through.
Yes, this form of observation and measurement does collapse the wavefunction. And yes it’s still extremely spooky, but the collapse doesn't occur through consciousness alone. You'd need a carefully set up, simple, quantum mechanical experiment as well as your mind to trigger it.
So any spiritualist who talks about your consciousness collapsing wavefunctions needs to point out that this only counts if what your consciousness is doing is reading the results of a very complicated experiment, not ooking around with the five senses.
4) The Brain is Part of the System
The reason von Neumann was forced to propose consciousness was because it was the only part of the system he couldn’t describe. It was the black-box of mysteries. To be clear, the human brain is still mysterious, but mysterious doesn’t mean "outside of the normal laws of nature". It just means we don’t know the details yet. But we know that the brain is composed of particles and those particles follow the same laws as the particles in the experiment.
Von Neumann showed that no part of the experiment was obviously the cause of wavefunction collapse, but many people pointed out that the brain couldn't be the cause of the collapse either because wouldn't the brain have to observe itself in order to collapse its own wavefunction? For the brain to obseve the paticle, it must be in one particular state, meaning it too needs to be observed. Wouldn't this require a consciousness within a consciousness, and so on to infinity.
The brain differs only in completxity, not in character. It’s still a particle detector, just a more elaborate one. So I’m afraid invoking consciousness doesn’t help us explain wavefunction collapse at all. Unless you want to take things to infinity.
5) The Copenhagen Interpretation isn’t Necessary
A lot of spiritualist teachers imply that ALL physicists agree with Von Neumann's idea, or that it is a widespread belief among quantum physicists. It isn't, even remotely.
John von Neumann's Idea is very interesting and certainly worth discussing, but there aren't labs full of quantum theorists talking about consciousness. Consciosness is invoked in ONE version of the Copenhagen Interpretation but the Copenhagen Interpretation isn't the only game in town. There are other explanations of the measurement problem which account for the data just as well. The Copenhgen interpretation is a propsal, but it's not a necessary one. Quantum mechanics works without it.
Erwin Schrodinger himself (the man who essentially gave us the first law of quantum mechanics) thought the Copenhagen interpretation made no sense. And that’s saying something because Schrodinger was known for his spiritual beliefs and interest in Eastern religious philosophy.
His famous “cat” thought-experiment is actually a powerful disproof of the Copenhagen interpretation because the idea of a particle existing in many states and then suddenly not, is ludicrous.
Einstein and deBroglie (who also won Nobel prizes for their work on quantum mechanics) favoured an interpretation which talked about hidden properties that couldn’t be detected by us. They basically thought the Toy Story version was correct - the reason particles end up in impossible places isn't because they're everywhere simultaneously, but because they had characteristics we didn't know about, and could never know about. In other words, the very opposite of the Copenhagen interpretation – that human consciousness could never play a part in what the particle does because we can never observe the whole system.
Then there is the most famous alternative to Copenhagen; Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation. In that, rather than having the wavefunction collapse into one specific eigenstate, eigenstates separate from each other and become associated with different versions of the same observer i.e. the wavefunction never collapses it just decoheres, describing different versions of the system.
Nobody knows which of the many interpretations is correct. Granted, many physicists adopt the Copenhagen, and a few consider von Neumann’s take to be relevant. But when you have competing explanations, you don’t just pick the one you like most, you reserve judgement.
Will we ever know?
As with any claim in Science, the answer to the measurement problem will have to wait until there is evidence favouring one of the interpretations. If we can devise an experiment that gives evidence for one interpretation over another then we might get somewhere. At the moment there is no experiment anyone has devised which will conclusively resolve the problem. Although there are whisperings.
Work carried out by Dylan Mahler provides some hints that the idea of "hidden variables" may be the correct interpretation, as was favoured by Einstein. David Deutsch has claimed that quantum computing may be pointing to the "many worlds" interpretation as being correct. And Lucien Hardy has even proposed experiments which might rule out consciousness once and for all (although the design is far from perfect). But until someone can come up with a testable idea to explain the measurement problem we're stuck with interpretations rather than theories.
Quantum Mechanics may, possibly, need to talk about consciousness at some point in the future if the other interpretations get ruled out. If that happens that would be amazing. I'll be the first person to say "wow, guess consciousness does cause wavefunction collapse"! But even if consciousness is part of the discussion, it applies under very specific conditions and you have almost no control over it.
I think spiritualists are often trying to do good things. They want to improve the world, and improve people's self-image. This is wonderful. But please, please, please don't start talking about things which are irrelevant. We don't understand why humans have eyebrows but you don't suddenly say that reality itself is determined by eyebrow evolution. That's another part of Science which is just as poorly understood. Don't put the word "quantum" in your belief because it sounds cool!
Try and make yourself a better person yes, but that doesn’t mean “trying to force the Universe to behave the way your mind wants it to be”, in fact it means the exact opposite. If you really want to better yourself, or the world, then go out and buy a book on quantum mechanics written by a Scientist who has studied it and start there. I guarantee it will blow your mind. And so...
consciousness brain art: ytimg
White flag: beforethecross
The Beatles: blastro
Schordinger's Equation: viswakeerthy
Weeping Angel: vignette2
Wavefunction Collapse diagram: afriedman
John von Neumann: wikimedia
Slit Detector: Scienceblogs
Buzz Lightyear: cloudpix
Charlton Heston as Moses: imgflip (Image originally owned by Paramout Pictures)
Don’t you just hate good-looking people? Of course you do. They’re the worst. Especially when they’re good at stuff. How dare they be attractive and talented at the same time, it’s just an abomination. Glad you all agree. Right, let's get on with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across an interesting journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that people tend to evaluate others based on their looks. In other news - triangles have three sides.
It's hardly a shock to say people judge each other on appearances. I mean what else are you going to judge them on? The quality of the character and their personal achievements?! Please!
What was really interesting about this particular study was that it correlated beauty with one parameter I’m very interested in: whether you are trusted as a Scientist. It claimed that people are actually less likely to take you seriously in a Scientific context if you are good looking. When it comes to Science, apparently we want our experts ugly.
It’s good news for me because I look like a potato with a beard, but I can imagine somebody attractive finding it a problem. Thing is I'm very fortunate and I get taken seriously as a Scientist. I have my own quantum-mechanical equation, my own chemical and I've got a book coming out in July 2018, but it has to be said that at my graduation ceremony nobody asked for my number. Imagine being a Scientist where your ideas got dismissed simply because you look good in a lab coat? Actually, what am I talking about…everyone looks good in a lab coat.
Conducted by Ana Gheorgiu at Cambridge University, the study showed people photographs of Scientists and asked them to rate each one for looks, perceived competency as a Scientist, and whether they looked interesting.
One of these tests gave a fairly expected result: we’re more likely to be interested in a person’s research if they are attractive, but here’s the kicker…we’re less likely to trust the actual Science they write.
As if that wasn't puzzling enough, she took things a stage further. She gave another group of people an article with an author photograph beside it. When the author was one of the “ugly” Scientists, the article was praised. When the author was “pretty” the same article was suddenly criticised as being sloppy. The lesson here is obvious…use pretty people to get funding for your research, but don’t let them do educational TV shows.
This discord between a Scientist being “interesting” and “competent” implies that while we might tune in to watch the charming features of Brian Cox, we don’t actually trust him as a Scientist. I mean just look at him with his perfect hair and rugged features. What an idiot he obviously is.
Are we hard-wired to mistrust attractive people? Of course not. The exact opposite in fact. In 2016, Fengling Ma from the Wenzhou Medical University showed a group of children 200 faces and asked them to rate each one for trustworthiness. Two months later they came back and rated the same faces on how attractive they were. Overwhelmingly, the children associated good-looking people with trustworthiness.
Maybe it's hard-wired? After all, we usually think highly of someone because they’re gorgeous. So often does our culture praise beautiful people and ask them for opinions on things they aren’t qualified to talk about.
I’ve written before about cognitive biases, but it seems there is a subtlety to this particular one. Our natural inclination is “pretty = trustworthy” but there is an important qualifier “unless you’re a Scientist.” Where does that come from? I’m going to put forward a hypothesis. See what you think. Also, here's Kat Dennings, my pick for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Annoyingly Perfect People
The cultural stereotype of Scientists is that they are intelligent. What I propose is that this is over-ridden by an older and more engrained stereotype: attractive people are supposed to be dumb.
People often regard beautiful women as air-heads or bimbos, while attractive men are meant to be vain and shallow. Since these people are more likely to get favourable treatment in life, the assumption is that they never have to work hard intellectually. Is it true? Can beautiful people be smart? Obviously they can.
I have two instagram friends who are, by anyone's standards, physically attractive. One of them is a former beauty queen who used to do pageants, has appeared on Jay Leno and did some commerical work as a bikini-clad model. Let's be frank, you don’t get to do those things unless you look good. Today, she is a bilingual NASA intern who runs her own business. How's that for a stereotype.
The other is a pre-med student (ie clearly smart) who posts photographs of herself looking attractive. What’s really baffling is that she receives hate mail about it. People actually criticise her for posting images where she looks nice. What's the point? Nobody criticses me when I post a picture of an equation.
What's more, when you talk to both of them, they are intelligent, confident, Scientifically literate and (shock horror) nice, friendly women...they just happen to look good as well. Apparently, this makes many people uncomfortable - as if it’s unfair. There seems to be an unspoken belief that nobody should be good at too many things, so somebody who is smart, friendly and good-looking needs to have something wrong with them to balance the Universe out.
But life isn’t a game of The Sims where each human gets a certain amount of points to share among ther personality traits. People can be good at everything and look amazing while doing it. Same way you can be dumb and ugly at the same time.
There might be a certain amount of misogyny going on here. I’ve written before about why we need more feminism in Science so I won’t bang on about it, but I think sometimes society assumes a woman’s job is to look pretty and smile. Only the ugly ones are supposed to go into Science.
But this is the real world and it’s not filled with stock-characters from 1950s sitcoms. People are allowed to be talented, smart and good-looking simultaneously. Be jealous of them, sure. And by all means do mocking impressions of Brian Cox in front of your physics class (just…you know…if that’s like…what you wanna do) but don’t hold it against them. Hating someone for being good at things is forgivable, treating them differently is not.
By the way, I’m very aware that I’m focusing slightly more on women here. That’s because as a heterosexual man I find it easier to comment on whether a woman is good-looking or not. So my apologies for giving a one-sided perspective of this debate. I'm just not as good when it comes to spotting an attractive man.
Running the Numbers
Now, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, let’s consider whether or not the stereotype has any foundation. Are pretty people less likely to be intelligent? Well, on cold statistical grounds there might be an arbitrary correlation, but it doesn’t imply what you think.
Beautiful people constitue a small sample of the population, as do intelligent people. The chances of a person falling into both categories is potentially smaller still. So yes, a person being both gorgeous and intelligent is less likely than them being one of those things exclusively. But, and here is the crucial point, this is an incidental relationship, not a causal one.
The number of people who like cactuses is small. So is the number of people who like Nicolas Cage movies. So if we meet a Nicolas Cage fan who also collects cactuses they are probably quite rare. But those two things are completely unrelated. The fact they like Nicolas Cage movies has nothing to do with their liking of cactuses. They obviously just enjoy punishment.
A Nicolas Cage-loving cactus collector is rare but we shouldn’t meet a Nicolas Cage fan and assume they therefore don’t like cactuses. There is no causal nexus between the two. Likewise, if a person is pretty it doesn’t mean we should assume they are dumb. Or act surprised when we find out they are clever.
It also doesn’t mean if you’re good at Science you’re unattractive. Neither is it true that if you’re gorgeous you’re doomed to fail your exams. The truth is that your brains and your beauty are completely uncoupled from each other. If you care about appearances then you primp and preen yourself as much as you want. If you don't care about your appearance then leave the house wearing a crumpled sack if you want. There's no correct way for a Scientist to look.
So, there’s my hypothesis. Because we tend to associate hot with dumb, we’re less likely to trust a hot Scientist because it implies a contradiction. Now, like all hypotheses, it needs to be criticised and tested, so let me know what the problems are and let’s see if we can disconfirm it!
Ultimately, what the study highlights is how wrong we can be when we make snap-judgements, especially about how intelligence relates to looks. We might as well ask people to predict a person’s favourite sandwich from what colour their eyes are. If you are ever asked to judge someone’s competency as a Scientist from a photograph, that photograph had better be of their research thesis!
Right, I’m off to buy an eye-patch.
I love science, let me tell you why.