Sunday, April 01, 2012

Mitt does not play dice

Now that three different people have sent me today's New York Times oped on "A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney", I suppose I ought to respond.

As a politically engaged physicist, I certainly found it an entertaining read, and appreciate seeing Feynman diagrams in the Times.  But on further reflection, I'm not sure I agree with the premise that Mitt Romney is a "quantum politician"; I think he's still classical (though not a point particle).

Parts of the quantum model presented in the article are appropriate.  Complementarity is very fitting, especially if we get beyond the imprecise popular formulation that "light is both a particle and a wave". When we get down to it, what do we really mean by "is"?  Both "particle" and "wave" are models that make predictions about the behavior of a system.  Under some circumstances, light will behave in the way predicted by the wave model, and under other circumstances it will behave in the way predicted by the particle model.  But what light "is" is something different from what those models (on their own) describe.

Similarly, it's not just that "Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative".  Under some circumstances, Romney will behave as a moderate would, and under other circumstances, Romney will behave as a conservative would.  But the reality is neither of these:  around most issues, Romney has no principles, and therefore modeling him as either a moderate or a conservative misses the full picture.

However, the concept of complementarity is not exclusive to quantum mechanics; it can be generalized into a statement about any scientific modeling, like the story of the blind men and the elephant.  (Also, Figure 1 is a mixed metaphor.  Schrödinger's cat is about superposition of states, not about wave-particle duality.)

The discussion of probability and uncertainty is where the "quantum theory of Mitt Romney" starts to break down.  It is not true that "Mitt Romney’s political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty."  In fact, Romney's (professed) viewpoints are highly predictable and deterministic.  They can be best modeled not by the randomness of quantum mechanics, but by a hidden variable theory, where the "hidden" variable is whether he is campaigning for governor of Massachusetts or for the Republican presidential nomination in Alabama.  It is easy to predict that after he wins the nomination, he will attempt to shift his positions in the direction of the median voter, but will be impeded by other forces which are themselves deterministic and Newtonian.

So if Romney is classical (because measurements of his position are deterministic) but is not a point particle (because measurements of his position depend on the measurement apparatus), what is the best classical model to describe him?  Perhaps a polarized wave?  What do you think?

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