Future Tense

How Quantum Theories Took Over TikTok

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

At first glance, the video seems like an ordinary news recap. “So today the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists,” says TikTok creator Sami Moog. Then things get really trippy. “Your imagination literally makes up your own personal quantum field and it constructs every single thing around you,” he says. By the end, he’s discussed vibrationally matching your desires and manifesting changes to reality.

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Moog’s video is a classic example of quantum mysticism, which is the association of a set of metaphysical beliefs and spiritual worldviews with the science of quantum mechanics. Think of Deepak Chopra’s “quantum theory” that humans can control their pace of aging using only the power of their minds. Over the years, professional physicists have decried what they view as the misapplication of quantum physics principles to unrelated self-help topics—what Caltech Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann famously described as “quantum flapdoodle.”

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Yet content of the flapdoodle sort is proliferating on TikTok. Moog’s video “How to Change Your Quantum Field” is among the torrent of videos tagged #QuantumPhysics and #NobelPrize on the app, hashtags that have garnered more than 207 million views across the platform.  Hundreds of these “quantum” science videos claim that quantum cosmology allows humans to literally teleport between different realities or communicate telepathically with their past and future selves.

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As a TikTok user, it isn’t easy to avoid this mystical element. If you watch a video of a trained scientist explaining quantum mechanics, fringe quantum takes are likely to start appearing in your content stream. That’s because TikTok’s algorithm groups the videos within the same “quantum” umbrella. And the recent announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics has only made this worse.

On Oct. 4, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger had won for “groundbreaking experiments using quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated.” The academy noted that these experiments, which built upon the 1960s research of John Stewart Bell, cleared the way for new technology such as quantum computers. Two days later, Scientific American published an in-depth article that explained how these quantum experiments proved “the universe is not locally real.”

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By this point, TikTok creators had begun publishing their bite-sized recaps. Hank Green, the popular vlogger and bestselling author, released his own video on the topic. “I’m going to try to explain it [quantum entanglement] to you, without lying to you.” Green said in his post, which has picked up more than 8 million views. “If I succeed, you should feel very uncomfortable.” In just under three minutes, Green described how scientists entangled two electrons, each of which has a property called spin. When one such particle is measured, it begins to spin in one direction. The other instantly spins in the opposite direction, even if the two particles are light years apart. As Green says in the video, these experiments proved that Einstein was wrong and that information can pass between quantum particles faster than the speed of light.

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Scientists from around the world gave the thumbs up to Green’s video. “He did a great job at engaging viewers and articulating concepts simply without leaving much room for people to jump on misleading pop science,” said Alice O’Keefe, a science communicator who leverages TikTok and radio and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wollongong in Australia, where she makes nanoparticles for brain cancer therapies.

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But not all of the Nobel prize content on TikTok can be taken at face value. A seven-second video released Oct. 7 that features a young woman reacting with the words “The 2022 Nobel prize in physics just got announced and it literally proves that we are all connected” has gone viral with 2.4 million views. (“Tell me you don’t understand physics without telling me,” one comment on the post read.) Another video claims that quantum physics proves that an ordinary human voice can affect a star molecule on the edge of the universe. Um … what? When I asked O’Keefe about this, she said, “Like any physicist, I’m wholeheartedly against promoting quantum mysticism, or anything with totally unfounded claims.”

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It’s worth comparing TikTok’s comparatively lax approach with the way Wikipedia handles quantum mysticism. The online encyclopedia’s rules about labeling pseudoscience are much stricter. Its article on “Quantum mysticism” explains that nonbelievers with expert knowledge consider it a “pseudoscience” and also references some pejorative terms such as “quantum quackery” and “quantum woo.” That’s because respectable scientific journals—the kind of sources that are required for Wikipedia’s science articles—have not embraced these fringe interpretations.

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(A quick aside: Wikipedia editors were criticized in the past for not having articles on the Nobel laureates, which is why there was no article on Donna Strickland when she won the prize for physics in 2018. But prior to the 2022 announcement, English Wikipedia had articles about all but one of the laureates.)

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Should TikTok follow Wikipedia’s lead and flag its new-age quantum mystical videos as pseudoscience? On the one hand, there’s an argument that this puts the user on notice. Perhaps quantum mysticism is not life-threatening in the same vein as COVID-19 misinformation, which TikTok has announced it will suppress. Still, notifying users that these metaphysical beliefs are not mainstream would create more awareness about what scientists actually believe.

On the other hand, not everybody agrees on where to draw the line between hard science and spirituality, or how “pseudoscience” should be defined. Recall that seven-second viral video that purports that quantum physics “literally proves that we are all connected.” That video was made by Elif Narbay, an undergraduate student studying biochemistry, molecular biology, and neuroscience at Chapman University. When I contacted her, Narbay told me she was not familiar with the term quantum mysticism, and said she preferred to think of science and spirituality as going hand in hand. “I made a really bold statement by saying that the Nobel Prize for physics proved that we are all connected—it definitely doesn’t directly prove it but I think it does point in that direction,” Narbay said in an email. After her video unexpectedly blew up, she was taken aback by some of the mean responses. Only about ten percent of the people who watched her viral video went on to watch her follow-up video where she described her interpretation in more depth. Ultimately, Narbay said she stood by her original “philosophical take.”

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So, which is it: pseudoscience or philosophy? When I discussed with O’Keefe—the Australian science communicator and Ph.D. student—she seemed uncomfortable with a strict binary approach. “I think it’s dangerous to lean too far into scientism, which is when you see the world exclusively through the lens of whether something is backed by science,” O’Keefe said. “Science started as a branch of philosophy, and the scientific method wouldn’t be as formidable as it is today if we didn’t put theories to the test by asking the right questions.” O’Keefe told me that quantum mystics definitely take their unfounded claims too far, but that does not mean that scientists should be discourteous toward people who are more spiritually minded. She has even released a video captioned “A pragmatic defense of New-Age #manifestation” where she suggests that what some mystics refer to as ‘manifesting their reality’ could be explained by mainstream science as a (potentially useful) cognitive bias.

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Realistically, TikTok is not going to block all quantum mystical content anytime soon. Why would it? All those videos about humans claiming to “quantum jump” between realities are generating millions of page views for the breakout social platform, which generated $4.6 billion in revenue in 2021.

What matters is that users apply the tools of information literacy to gauge authority—and that means remembering what TikTok is for. Obviously, TikTok is no Wikipedia; it’s not the place to find a reliable summary of quantum mechanics the way scientists understand it. It’s essentially a platform where creators can respond to cultural events and offer their own take on it. To use a quantum-ish term, TikTok is for spin.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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