Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential run-off on May 7 is one of the signs the pendulum may be swinging back from populism. Photo: AFP

How fake news and alternative facts signal a paradigm shift in global quantum reality

Andrew Sheng says polarisation is the only certainty in a complex world that offers few simple answers amid shifting notions of reality, but change is in the air

Bombarded daily with shocking news about turns in global events, we no longer know who or what to believe. Last year was all about the rise of populism with Brexit and Donald Trump; this year, a centrist has just been elected French president and South Korea also voted in a new moderate leader. The mood is swinging from fear to calls for stability.
Meanwhile, with “You’re fired” being applied regularly in Washington, we no longer know whether we are watching a comedy or reality show, with both sides crying truth or alternative fact.

We are taught to believe in experts, in rational and logical thinking based on facts. But when so many events have proved the experts wrong (such as economists’ failure to predict the financial crisis and pollsters being wrong on Brexit), and with Washington making big decisions based on alternative facts, is the paradigm changing?

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Albert Einstein said: “The world as we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Perhaps our way of thinking (scientifically called a paradigm) is changing, so we need a new paradigm.

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Most mainstream experts trained in Western science and social science have learnt that their discipline is becoming rapidly outdated thanks to groundbreaking new scientific discoveries.

Current mainstream economic thinking is still Newtonian in perspective, modelled on physics that has already moved on to quantum mechanics. The former tends to be linear and mechanical, and claims optimality, but the latter is non-linear, dynamic and complex. In practice, quantum physics and mathematics have spread to biology, psychology and even computing. So current mainstream economics, which suffers from physics-envy by trying to be quantitatively precise and predictive, cannot cope with radical uncertainty and quantum complexity. The quantitative “queen of social science” is being constantly trumped by politics, which is more an art than science.

If what we get is fake news, as claimed by Trump, we may be making wrong decisions and judgments

Social science is not like natural science because it deals with the interaction between human beings and with nature, neither easily predictable. Neo-classical economics reduced this complexity to an assumption that is now proved to be wrong – that man is a rational being and that mass behaviour can be predicted from rational individual behaviour.

Neo-classical economics is fake news. It gives you false certainties, when there are none.

Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, starts with very weird behaviour at the basic particle (sub-atomic) level. A particle can be both here and there at the same time: take Erwin Schrodinger’s paradox on quantum physics – is a cat in a radioactive box both dead and alive at the same time? But quantum theory has reached the stage of application in quantum computing which can carry out data crunching far better than conventional computers.

So, to many economists, data is now more valuable than oil. With the right big data and artificial intelligence come better predictions and decisions. This is true for large companies that have such data, but most of us have to believe what the internet and news organisations provide. However, if what we get is fake news, as claimed by Trump, we may be making wrong decisions and judgments.

The trouble with data is that it is only valuable when we know how to draw lessons, patterns or conclusions from them. Our paradigm (concepts, theories, algorithms, conventions or intuition) helps us make the crucial decisions of fight, unite or flight.

A “Fishing for Leave Flotilla” of trawlers sails up the River Thames next to the Houses of Parliament in London on June 15, in the lead-up to the EU referendum. Photo: EPA

When we are faced with radical uncertainty, where our theories or experience cannot guide us, and we don’t know which fact or alternative fact to believe, we do nothing. Procrastination is often the default option when we don’t know what to believe.

The quantum reality is that the world is simultaneously good and bad, depending on how you look at it

The quantum reality is that the world is simultaneously good and bad, depending on how you look at it. Newtonian economics is “either/or”, with optimal paths and solutions. What is going on today is a big fight over complex issues where there are no simple solutions, only complex outcomes.

Each side is picking information that argues their case, which the other claims to be fake news.

Polarisation is the dominant factor in today’s quantum reality. That reality is being manipulated with information that is more likely to be confusing.

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Polarised views arise because of too many game changers in the form of demographics, disruptive technology, climate change, urbanisation, social inequality, terrorism and geopolitical rivalry. Many hold extreme views, blaming others for all the ills and unsatisfactory conditions. Amid this radical uncertainty, it is not surprising that the elections show many care about the need for change, without understanding what changes can be made – on the belief that any change is better than the status quo.

All leaders need to remember Winston Churchill’s saying: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

For the rest of us mortals, quantum decision-making looks like more muddling through.

Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Muddling through the quantum reality of alternative facts