Schrödinger’s Cat

I came across a sentence in an article I was reading:

“statistics are… just cold hard facts.”

I disagreed immediately. I don’t think statistics are “cold hard facts”. I think they’re fuzzy facts. Or even elastic facts that can be stretched to cover almost every eventuality.

Hard facts are surely facts that firmly say Yes or No. But with statistics it’s always Maybe. If you have a one-in-ten chance of getting some disease, then maybe you’ll get it and maybe you won’t. It could be true that you get the disease, or it could be untrue. True and untrue can co-exist in statistics, and can swap places. It’s perfectly legitimate to believe that you won’t get the disease, and it’s perfectly legitimate to believe that you will. And one result of that is that no debate can ever be resolved. Everything is always possible. The only thing that can change is the balance of probabilities.

Veteran readers will know that I took a lot of interest in the Chelyabinsk fireball that arrived on the same day that asteroid DA14 passed close to the Earth, and I wondered if they might have been companions. NASA said they weren’t: they were going in different directions, and it was just a fluke they arrived at the same time.

But eventually I found that a rock following about 10 million km behind DA14 could have passed very close to the Earth in 2009, and been thrown into a slow wide orbit that returned to the Earth on 15 Feb 2013, going in the same direction as the Chelyabinsk meteor.

But how probable was it that a rock could have been in the right place at the right time? I estimated that the chances of a single rock following behind DA14 being within less than 1 km of the exact right place in a tube of 100,000 km radius stretching from DA14 to the Earth were in the order of 1 in 1017.


It was thus extremely highly improbable that a rock would be in the exact right place to strike the Earth. In fact it was more or less impossible.

But that’s just using one rock. If there were lots and lots of rocks trailing in an evenly distributed cloud between DA14 and the Earth, the probability of any one of them landing on Chelyabinsk was much greater.


In fact if there were 1020 such rocks, the probability of one or more of them landing on Chelyabinsk approached 1. And it was then almost certain that at least one rock, maybe more, would land on Chelyabinsk.

How likely it was that a rock trailing behind DA14 could have landed on Chelyabinsk largely depended on the [unknown] density of a rock cloud trailing behind DA14. If you think there are very few such companion rocks, then it will seem highly improbable to you that one of them would land on Chelyabinsk. But if you think there are lots of rocks, then it will seem almost certain to you that one would land on Chelyabinsk.

So with a slight change in assumptions the impossible can become certain, or the certain become impossible.

I wonder if the same is happening with the vanishingly small cancer risks associated with inhaling any concentration of tobacco smoke (bearing in mind that tobacco smoke is a sort of cloud of tiny rocks). In one presentation of the facts, the danger of any particle causing cancer can be dismissed as negligible. But with a slight change in the underlying assumptions, tobacco smoke in any concentration may perhaps be shown to invariably cause cancer.

I’m beginning to think that the problem may lie in statistics itself, and that once statistical arguments are employed for or against any proposition, the result is deadlock.

The same sort of problem applies to the use of statistics in quantum mechanics, as illustrated by Schrödinger’s cat:

a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e., a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Anyway, a few months ago I managed to ask NASA whether they thought there could be rocks accompanying asteroids like DA14, and they told me that there was no chance of any whatsoever, because only comets had companion rocks  lying along their orbits (which cause meteor showers), and asteroids had none. It appears that NASA’s definition of a asteroid includes having no companions.  So they can’t possibly contemplate any companion rocks, and this was perhaps why they declared that the two events were completely unrelated within hours of first reports of them.


About Frank Davis

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15 Responses to Schrödinger’s Cat

  1. junican says:

    I guess that you have only just published this post! I’m off to bed in a minute.
    I think that the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment had a specific objective (as I recall). It was to show that ‘observing’ affected the outcome. The thought experiment included this idea: The cat was placed inside the box. Also inside the box was a radioactive particle which could decompose at any time and kill the cat. Thus, no one could know whether or not the cat was alive or dead at ant time after it was placed in the box. Further, if anyone tried to open the box to look inside to see if the cat was alive or dead, the particle would immediately decompose and kill the cat.
    Schrödinger’s thought experiment was intended to illustrate that when we take some action to investigate, even if it is just shining a light on something, we alter the conditions and affect the outcome. (That is not the same as just seeing the light emitted by stars, etc – those are ‘free’). But it is also true that merely ‘opening the box’ has consequences. Opening the box allows internal activities to escape. Thus, if you open the box, you cannot know what the internal activities were since those activities cease or become more active when the box is opened. IE, The cat may be dead when it should be alive, or the cat may be alive when it should be dead. That is the meaning of ‘alive and dead’ at the same time. The thought experiment is not intended to be take literally. It is intended to show that our actions to find out what is happening in nature affect what happens. For example, if you go fishing in a lake and remove N number of mature fish in order to count the number of fish, you create space for younger fish to thrive.
    It is a pity that Schrödinger was killed on the Russian front in WW2.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Further, if anyone tried to open the box to look inside to see if the cat was alive or dead, the particle would immediately decompose and kill the cat.

      That bit wasn’t in the accounts I read. And in fact it doesn’t make sense.

      As I read it, the point of the idea was not to show that observing an event had an effect on it, but rather that, at any one point in time, that cat might be either dead or alive, or both dead and alive,

      Schrödinger wrote:[1][10]

      One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

      It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

      And according to his Wikipedia entry, Schrödinger died aged 73 in Vienna in 1961, rather than on the Russian front in WW2. Unless perhaps, much like his famous cat, Schrödinger was both alive and dead after WW2.

  2. junican says:

    Further, the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment can apply to many other things, and it can be reversed. The living cat might open the box and kill itself – or it might not, because the radioactive particle might not decay when the box is opened from the inside. A lid opened to the outside reduces pressure inside, whereas a lid opened to the inside increases pressure inside.

    In general, we have a reasonable right to know how SURE the medical profession is about the consequences of enjoying tobacco. The pronouncements of Zealots are akin to DENYING Schrödinger’s cat. That is, the Zealots have been denying the influence of pure chance.

    What is the point of electing politicians if they simply obey the instructions of quangos, the EU, the WHO, and the UN? Perhaps we would all be better off if we kicked them all into touch and reverted to the Common Law of England. Sod the Welsh and Scots – they have to invent their own Common Law.

  3. roobeedoo2 says:

    I’ve thought about the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment too. But this cat has a lot to do today, so I hope you won’t mind if leave a link:

  4. rauchen says:

    A university roommate of mine was a psychology major. One of his assigned books was “How to Lie with Statistics”. (It was not an actual “how to” book, but an instruction in how “cold,hard facts” can be manipulated for and end.).

  5. harleyrider1978 says:

    Junk Science – a term used to describe false or misleading research that is offered as real science, but which was not obtained using the accepted scientific method . The term “junk science” is often applied to deceptive environmental and health studies.

  6. slugbop007 says:

    Here is an example of a antitobacco zealot masquerading as a concerned citizen on the comments page:

    There is a crucial need to
    Submitted by Judith Mackay on Sun, 04/26/2015 – 02:47

    There is a crucial need to address the economic arguments on tobacco, and the involvement of the World Bank is vital.
    The tobacco industry and its allies use identical economic arguments globally to subvert tobacco control measures, in particular tobacco taxation and tobacco control legislation. The industry argues that tobacco control will lead to job and business losses for farmers, factory workers, retailers, the hospitality industry and other businesses, and governments, e.g :

    1. The creation of smoke-free areas will cause loss of income for restaurant owners;
    2. Bans on advertising will severely affect the advertising industry and cause job losses;
    3. Increasing tobacco taxes will not only harm the poor but will also lead to significant increases in illicit trade with loss of income to government; and
    4. Even that if tobacco control is successful, it will lead to an increasing elderly population that will become an economic burden to the state.

    Many governments echo these concerns, to the extent that these mistaken economic arguments are the major obstacle to tobacco control.

    The reality could not be more different, as we have shown in the 5th edition of the Tobacco Atlas. Many countries have now undertaken economic surveys, showing that tobacco control is good for the wealth and well as the health of nations.

    This is Judith Mackay unmasked:
    Judith Mackay
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Judith Mackay
    Dr Judith Mackay.jpg
    Judith Mackay OBE
    Born 1943
    Yorkshire, England
    Residence Hong Kong
    Citizenship UK
    Fields Health

    Judith Longstaff Mackay, SBS, OBE, JP, FRCP (Edin), FRCP (Lon)(born 1943, Yorkshire, England) is a British-born and Hong Kong–based medical doctor and international anti-tobacco advocate who led a campaign against tobacco in Asia from 1984 onwards, campaigning for tax increases to discourage youth smoking, for the creation of smoke-free areas, and against tobacco promotion. Her main interests are tobacco in low income countries, tobacco promotion aimed at women, and challenging the transnational tobacco companies.

    She completed her medical training in Edinburgh and is now a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and London. She holds professorships at the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing, the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.,[1] and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a Senior Policy Advisor to World Health Organization (WHO)

    In 1989 she started the Hong Kong–based Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control and worked unpaid for 20 years devoting herself to Tobacco Control matters.[2] Currently she works for World Lung Foundation, partner of the Bloomberg Initiative to reduce tobacco use in low- and middle-income countries.[3]

    She has published over 200 papers and spoken at 480 conferences on public health, especially tobacco control, and serves as advisor or is on the board of many international health organisations.

    AWARDS: In 1988 she was awarded the World Health Organization Commemorative Medal, in 1989 the US Surgeon General’s medallion, and in 1992 the APACT Presidential Award. In 2000 she was selected by her peers for the Luther Terry Award for Outstanding Individual Leadership. In 2006 she was awarded Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Network of Women Against Tobacco, the Silver Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong government, and the 60 Asian Heroes Award by TIME Magazine. In 2007 she received the Time 100 award for her work, in 2008 an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, and in 2009 the first-ever British Medical Journal award for lifetime achievement. She has received an award from His Majesty the King of Thailand for her work in Tobacco Control.[4][5] In 2010, her work was profiled by CNN.[6] She has been named as one of the three most dangerous people in the world by the tobacco industry.[7]

    She plays golf and practices taichi, her favourite being the 56-sword programme.

    One of the three most dangerous? Who is Number One? You are Number Six.

    • Rose says:

      It strikes me that the World Bank has been involved quite enough already.

      May 18, 1999

      “The announcement comes on the day that a report from the World Bank revealed that a 10 per cent increase in the price of cigarettes worldwide would save millions of lives.”

      “The World Bank stopped lending money to countries to finance tobacco production in 1991, and the report estimated that the number of smokers worldwide would rise from 1.1 billion now to 1.6 billion by the end of 2025.

      It suggested that by 2030, tobacco was likely to be the single biggest cause of death in the world, and called for countries to ban tobacco advertising, and offer nicotine replacement therapy for smokers.”

      1943, shouldn’t she have retired by now, or is that why she considers herself a mere citizen?
      I have news for her, no one ever listens to we mere citizens.

      • nisakiman says:

        “It suggested that by 2030, tobacco was likely to be the single biggest cause of death in the world”

        In other words, they haven’t got a fucking clue, but they know that if they insert a few weasel words into the hysterical lies, then their arses are covered. Meanwhile, it reads like fact, and the MSM will run with it, producing headlines such as “TOBACCO BIGGEST CAUSE OF DEATH BY 2030!” followed by “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!”

        And the politicians (who, not being very bright, will swallow the whole lot hook, line and sinker) will think they need to pass more laws restricting smoking, because they don’t want to be remembered as standing idly by while the world is decimated by the evil weed.

        You have to hand it to them, the zealots. They’ve really got this hyperbolic propaganda stuff down to a fine art…

  7. slugbop007 says:

    Here is the link to a World Bank article published earlier this year that Ms Mackay commented on:
    I bet that if I checked the academic credentials of all those who commented on this article I would likely find other zealots masquerading as ‘private concerned citizens’. It would be a real treat to somehow throw a wrench in their global network chain.

  8. slugbop007 says:

    Stan Shatenstein is a anti-smoker zealot who regularly pops up in the Montreal Gazette every month or so. Lately he referred to one Sunday Azagba, who just dropped by from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (Propel) to take some tobacco smoke measurements at an outdoor patio this past May, as ‘one of Canada’s leading researchers’. I checked Mr. Azagba’s academic credentials and discovered that he has a PhD in Economics from Concordia University, Montreal. Stan Shatenstein claims to be a freelance journalist but he writes more like a sixth grader. He, too, was a recipient of the Luther Terry award. Just like Ms Mckay, and countless other propagandists, Public Health Policy makers, Social Behavior zealots, closet Eugenicists, administrators, liars, charlatans and frauds around the globe. Time to break up their network.

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