March 29, 2010

Look, ... that's just annoying.

Well, I got annoyed the other day at the argument that 'alternative & complementary medicine' is today's necessary revolutionary response to the failures of 'standard' medicine, just as, in the early 20th century, modern physics was the necessary revolutionary response to the failures of 'classical' physics. And that, therefore, as a physicist, I should support 'alternative & complementary medicine'. Said this fellow to me.

I got annoyed with that analogy, and especially the suggestion that it compelled my support for a field rife with low standards, cranks, quacks, and junk science. Not because the idea that quantum physics was developed in 'response to the failures of' classical physics has been oversold (e.g., Planck's Law has been presented as 'the solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe', but appears to have been no such thing, its development having been motivated by rather separate concerns). No, I got annoyed because of the implication that it would have been, back then, necessary for those pioneering thinkers to leave the academy, to give up on the normal journals & symposia, and to enter instead a parallel universe of institutions devoted to their great 'alternative & complementary' revolution.

Look, I said, back then, early in the 20th century? The big worry over the Rayleigh-Jeans prediction (that bodies emit infinite radiant energy)? And then figuring out how to fix it (by quantizing the possible energy)? That all happened in the major scientific journals of the time. No one needed journals of 'alternative & complementary physics' to get that stuff out there. Read the key early papers in quantum mechanics and relativity – they were all published in the main journals!

Look, I continued, whether you call quantum mechanics a discovery or an invention, it's something people did, that helps us to understand how stuff works. It is an important success; we use it for all kinds of cool things! I happen to believe that 'alternative and complementary medicine' does have some utility & validity. But stop telling me that quantum physics – which was developed within the academic 'mainstream' – compels my support for 'complementary and alternative medicine', because it's just like physics, because that's just annoying.

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