My Academic Diary: Michael B. Munnik

Monday 18th July, 2016

Michael B. Munnik 
Lecturer in Social Science Theories and Methods
Cardiff University

I spend a lot of time reading stuff – in my case, about Muslims, the media, Britain and Scotland. This year, I’ve had to return to classics of social theory to prepare notes for my Masters-level course on qualitative research, which I taught for the first time. I love it, but I was given good advice during my PhD: Read broadly. Step outside my discipline. Make it a practice.

It was in that spirit that I grabbed Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed. It was abandoned on a nearby library bench. I’d heard of Al-Khalili, and as I thumbed through his intro, I decided it would be a good bolthole from my required reading. I’m glad I did – not just for Al-Khalili’s decent capacity to distill complex ideas (it is quantum physics, yo) into reasonably clear prose, but for his openness to the ambiguous, unresolved character of the field.

I was a smart kid in high school: the straight-A type. In British Columbia, Canada, they stream sciences at Grade 11, and the ones that counted for university applications were Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. I was already on an arts-and-humanities track by then, but it was obligatory to take one science (or at least so the rumours among confused high school students went). I did well in Maths, so Physics seemed the easiest of the three to manage.

And indeed it was, until midway through Physics 12, when we met quantum mechanics. I remember raising my hand and saying, “Mr. Axford, do you believe all this?”

A groan from 29 other students, “Ah, Munnik...” Shut up and let the man teach. Let’s just learn the formulas so we can do the exam and get the mark.

But Mr. Axford paused, asked me what I meant, and, when I clarified (“All of it – this quantum stuff,”) said, “Yes, I believe it.”

I didn’t.

I knew it to be proven, of course. I knew it to work. “Hiroshima,” my classmates would say – slowly, as though I were a tourist who didn’t speak English very well. Simples. Can’t argue with that. Q.E.D. in one cataclysm. I could see that it played by the rules we were being taught, but it had no connection with my daily life. The quantum weirdness Mr. Axford was alluding to seemed like an unnecessary fiction when contrasted with experience. “I don’t believe physics” was a slogan, my brash way of saying none of this mattered.

My mark dipped that term, but I scraped a respectable B at the end, got into journalism school, and didn’t worry about it anymore.

Reading Al-Khalili’s book exactly one lifetime later, I found that the confidence with which the natural sciences are so frequently articulated masks something much shakier. There are fuzzy edges to quantum mechanics, both in the properties of these particles (waves; waveforms – get it straight) and in their behaviour in controlled experiments. Even Albert Einstein was unsatisfied with the explanations of “why,” or, more to the point, the lack of explanations. And this is the man whose ideas about gravitational waves took a hundred years to verify, so his scepticism gives me some solace.

Al-Khalili does physics a service by including this part of the quantum story. As he puts it, no interpretation of what happens in quantum mechanics is “better” than another: none of them is inherently right to the point of delivering a knock-out blow to the others. “Worse still,” he says, “many believe that there is no true interpretation and that they are all equally valid ways of thinking about what is going on.”.

For an interpretive sociology guy like me, that sounds about right. But for the natural sciences, it’s all wrong. The pursuit of science is to get it right, or at least to try. To project a “right” that others can pick up and prove or disprove. Al-Khalili is basically calling all these scientists unscientific: “This view is embodied in the widely quoted ‘shut up and calculate’ interpretation, which suggests that since it has proven (so far at least) impossible to find the right interpretation, it is a waste of time talking about it.”

Shut up and calculate. Like me in Mr. Axford’s class.

Al-Khalili prefers the “shut up while you calculate” philosophy, which allows him to follow the rules of quantum mechanics while he’s doing it because they guide him to conclusions that match hypotheses, previous experiments, and (sorta) observable patterns. But away from his blackboard, he continues to worry away at the question of how it really works and why it works that way. “Just because the formalism of quantum mechanics allows us the luxury of several interpretations that we cannot (yet) choose between does not imply that there isn’t a correct interpretation.” 

I began by saying I was reading outside of my discipline, and I thought I was. But the uncertainty Al-Khalili reveals loops right back to what I’ve been discussing with my postgrads about social theory. What is a science, and can society be studied in that way? Who are the positivists (besides “the villains,” I mean) and does their dismissal of the social sciences mean that we need to raise our game and change what we do, or do we accept that we’re different and get on with our own game? What makes those scientists (merci, M. Lyotard) so sure they are the ones who get to say what science is, anyway? And, (over to you, M. Foucault), “what types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘Is it a science’?”

Al-Khalili shows that science proper is no more certain than science po-faced. My final social theory lecture concerned Critical Realism; Al-Khalili’s observation chimes with Roy Bhaskar’s ideas: the epistemic fallacy has prevented scientists from pursuing that which makes their discipline sciencey, namely the real that underpins the empirical. As his interpreter, William Outhwaite, puts it in an apposite analogy, “Theories about the electron come and go, but we know too much about electrons, and are too skilled in manipulating them to doubt their reality.” We can shut up while we calculate, but this should not lead us to thinking there is nothing to talk about.

For a pack of humanities students getting introduced to social sciences, that’s a concept I’ll borrow from physics any time.

Here's more you may be interested in: