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Quantum mechanics is not going to do away with all of science

UPDATE, 12:47 PT: I've been asked to clarify this post a little more, as it may not be immediately evident what it has to do with massage therapy.

The issue arises whenever anyone points out that some of the mechanisms proposed to explain some things that some MTs do would, if they were true, violate our understanding of well-established physical laws. Very often, rather than saying well, there must be some other explanation then; let's keep looking and figure this out, the adherents of those explanations explain that quantum physics somehow means that the laws of physics no longer apply, that everything you ever learned is wrong in some unspecified way, and that someday, science will catch up to what the person speaking already knows.

There are very many people who want to make that claim, and sell it to people who want to buy it--you can easily find them by Googling--and if that is what you want, I wish you well in finding what you are looking for. But if that is what you are in the market for, then I don't think you will find the discussions at POEM very satisfying. We take a very different path, as the following post explains.

POEM is more of a home for students like the one who wrote the following post I found on the Internet [paraphrased, because I don't have their permission to attribute it to them]:

I've literally walked out of continuing education workshops that insulted my intelligence. I attended workshop XXX by YYY in ZZZ City. It was a total scam. He gave us handouts that attempted to explain all he did with quantum physics. When I read it, I rolled my eyes. I couldn't believe people were buying this stuff without any questions at all. They simply didn't understand it, so they thought his teaching was way over their head, and so it must be true. Anytime "quantum" anything is mentioned in the field of massage therapy or healing, I immediately know that what follows will be full of inaccuracies and hand-waving, instead of clear explanations. The problem is, if the basis is wrong, everything that follows will be as well.

Here, we think the best way to serve the stakeholders of massage is to get the explanations right--or to admit honestly when we don't know something--so that we can pass on good information. If that's a value you share--no matter where you are along the path of your learning process--you'll find resources and companions here to share and help you along your journey.
That, then, is the connection between MT and this post that makes it relevant to the mission of POEM. --RST

As a teacher, it makes me very sad to hear students' stories of bad teaching they received in their formative years.

Education is a human right, and every child deserves a good foundational education. If a child has such bad experiences that they come away from it hating and fearing science and mathematics, then the child has not failed; their education has.

And I see a lot of people everyday whose education has failed them. That's why the overarching philosophy at POEM is "No blame, no shame".

You are absolutely not to blame if the adults in your life did not provide you a solid education when you deserved one, and if you are genuinely trying to learn, even years later, no one here is going to shame you for not already knowing something that's part of that good general education.

It makes me sad, but I understand why people who had bad experiences with education go on to reject education and knowledge in later life. It is totally understandable that someone whose experiences with science and math involve frustration and humiliation would reject anything that has to do with those subjects.

The problem is, by doing so, they are going down a dead-end, and further compounding the wrong that was done to them earlier. And that is tragic, in the classical sense.

Around here, the standard practice is that if you make a claim, you connect the dots to back it up. I'm claiming that people who throw around the term "quantum" in the hope that it's going to prove all of established science wrong are going down a dead end, with a tragic waste of time and emotional energy resulting from that hope that is never going to come true.

Source: accessed 9 October 2011


So since I'm claiming that, it's my job to back up that claim, and here's what I base it on.

First of all, there is something inherently contradictory about trying to use science to disprove all of science. It would be much more honest, if someone rejects science, to just come out and say "I reject science". To say, in effect, "I reject science except for this one tiny area of science that I accept because I think it will make all the rest of science invalid" is a form of cherry-picking. I don't think it's necessarily intentional, but it's cherry-picking all the same.

Science is a whole integrated tapestry of knowledge, with multiple lines of evidence from many diverse disciplines, and picking one thing out of context can give a very skewed, biased, and incorrect idea of what the body of scientific knowledge really is.

Second, quantum mechanics is a very specific and limited scientific area dealing with the behavior (position and speed) of submicroscopic atomic particles. To think that that translates exactly to complex and nuanced behavior in the world of things that are large enough to be visible is a mistake that I like to call "vending-machine science". It's a form of thinking that's too simplistic to be useful in crossing different levels of analysis, from the submicroscopic level to the population level.

You can't say that a photon's speed and behavior under very specific circumstances in the laboratory exactly dictates every single thing that you do in a massage session, any more than you can say that the fact that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime means that you can point to any one specific woman that you know and say that she will definitely go on to be one of those 1 in 8 women.

The claim is often made that quantum mechanics will "transform our understanding" by doing away with, or reversing, all previous scientific knowledge. It's a dramatic claim to be sure, but the reality is much more mundane.

Newtonian physics is sufficient for most of what we observe in everyday life. If it were not enough, then the Wright brothers could never have gotten their plane off the ground.

Source: accessed 9 October 2011


The first manned, heavier-than-air engine-powered machine flight took place in 1903. The Wright brothers had access only to Newtonian physics, because quantum physics was not developed until 20-30 years later (the 1920s and 1930s).

If quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics, then the Wright brothers would not have been able to get off the ground, and they could not have been able to understand why they failed, since the explanation would not have come along for another few decades. Since the world in which we do massage is at the same level of perception as the world in which the Wright brothers took their first flight, it's reasonable to say that Newtonian physics is mostly sufficient for that level of perception as well

Third, science was not overturned by quantum physics, but rather, integrated it into previous knowledge. Planes have flown since the Wright brothers' first flight, but the GPS that they now use for satellite navigation could not be developed until the last couple of decades, when advances in quantum physics made it possible to understand the space-time micro-corrections necessary.

The fact that the plane is using quantum physics for its GPS and Newtonian physics for its flight does not cause it to fall out of the sky because the quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. Rather, they are integrated, and each is applied as appropriate at the correct level of analysis.

Fourth, quantum physics does not look like random things happening in front of our eyes all the time, despite how flawed media presentations (movies, popular television) sometimes depict it. The physics of the level of the everyday, visible world are actually pretty well-understood--not perfectly, of course, but enough to make a lot of things work as expected.

Rather than life-size things appearing or disappearing at random in our visible world, quantum physics occurs at a level far too small to see, or almost even to imagine, and looks more like this:

and that's not even one of the most complicated equations.

I like math, and I'm fairly good at the kinds of math that I know. But this math is too advanced for me. So rather than making a laughingstock of myself and exposing myself to ridicule from people who do know how to do the mathematics, and who have done the work, by making extreme, yet testable claims based on that mathematics, I prefer to examine the evidence and see if it makes sense.

For decades now, people have been predicting that quantum physics will overturn established scientific knowledge. Yet, like Godot in Beckett's play, that eagerly-awaiting overturning has not come along in all those decades, and in the meantime, biological and other scientific knowledge has been increasing by leaps and bounds.

At POEM, we consider that the best return on investment of our time and emotional energy is not to make sweeping, testable claims of how someday quantum physics is going to prove all of science wrong. We understand why someone's previous bad experiences can cause them to reject mathematics and science, but unfortunately, the reasons behind that decision do not make that decision any less of a dead-end. Rather than debating that dead end, I think that time would be better spent actually doing massage.

We prefer to follow the evidence where it leads, and to support each other along the way in our learning journey. The process, although it has honesty and integrity, will not always be easy, and in fact, I predict that we are in for confronting some very difficult truths along the way.

However, you are not alone on that journey, and we are here to support you. No blame, no shame for not already knowing something--all you need to bring is an open mind, and a willingness to learn. And if something is difficult or painful for you, there's no shame in admitting that. We've all been there at one time or another, and we'll stand by one another.

I personally have a great deal of admiration for Julie Onofrio, who I think embodies this idea of courageous engagement when she wrote:

Having an open forum and getting some help in analyzing research is really needed in our profession. Yes, I have to say it disturbs me when the researchers say things like traditional modalities don't work--it's like a slap in the face to all who are doing energy work, or reiki, or Rolfing, and having results and success. It's very hard not to take it personally, but also to set emotions aside and remain in communication. But that is why I support it. I want to learn more and to support the profession in understanding research.
This willingness to remain engaged, even when it's difficult, is nothing short of admirable. It's truly in the spirit of POEM: rather than waiting another few decades for a promised revolution that never arrives, we'll all be here for each other in the process of engagement and learning in the here and now.
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