Atheist App Gets High School Physics Wrong

I have to admit I have a kind of morbid fascination for groups who are pushing anti-scientific positions: YECs, climate change deniers. But more recently a new group has stepped into the ring, the new atheists. This group is prone to conflating atheism with science, and sometimes seem to assume just because they’re atheists what they say about science is correct - even when they seemingly know little science at all.

An example is Peter Boghossian’s denial of the reality of basic physics. He’s back with installment two, the “Atheos” app. For the low, low price of $8 you too can be taught to use strawmen and long series of disingenuous loaded questions to make your conversations “better”. If you’re not facinated by an app which says it is in place to promote good reasoning, but actively tries to promote fallacies, perhaps you’ll be entertained by the app’s attitude to science.

The app is not backward in making bold claims about science,

The fact that quantum mechanics is a scientific theory doesn’t mean it’s a fully fleshed-out theory or that it’s even been consolidated into a coherent whole.

Thank you, “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science” for letting us know that quantum mechanics isn’t a “fully flested out theory”, and that it’s “not even a coherent whole”. I’m sure those supporters who paid tens of thousands of dollars to promote science feel they spent their money wisely.

These comments aren’t isolated.

Photons and Fallacies

A simple example of the app’s bad science what it teaches its users about photons.

Even in high school physics, children learn that different colours correspond to different frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation. As Einstein showed (via the photo-electric effect) light with a particular colour/frequency comes in discrete ‘packets’ energy, $E=h\nu$, which we call photons. A photon has a well-defined frequency, $\nu$, which corresponds to a particular colour.

EM Spectrum

All of which is pretty straightforward. Apparently not for the app, which sloppily implies that photons don’t have a colour/frequency:

“Photons are colorless. Light is composed of photons. Light is therefore colorless.” The fallacy is equating properties of the composition of the parts with that of the whole.

The statement is badly reasoned, but is not a fallacy for the reason the app suggests - it is badly reasoned because the premise of the argument (that photons are colourless) is false. All that is demonstrated here is that the authors - who bill themselves as “expert atheists”, whatever that means - are ignorant of high-school physics.

Composition is not always a fallacy

Not only is the science bad, but the logic is too. In alleging a fallacy of composition, the app is itself reasoning badly. Although fallacy of composition is a legitimate fallacy, it is not always applicable. Sometimes (often, in fact) the properties of the whole do depend on the parts which go to make them up- and this is the case with the light.

The colour of a coherent light source is determined by the combination of photons which go to make it up.

Why? It follows from (again, school-level) mathematics, that the sum of two waves with the same frequency, $\nu$, is another wave with the same frequency. So, therefore, no matter what wacky combination you choose, if you have combine only photons of only one colour, the resulting light will be of the same colour.

While not all light is monochromatic, it is not hard to find light which is. For example a coherent state (such as is emitted by a laser), can be represented by a superposition of photonic states:

\[ |\alpha\rangle = e^{-|\alpha|^2/2} \sum_n \frac{\alpha^n}{\sqrt{n!}} | n \rangle \]

where $| n \rangle$ represents a Fock state representing the number of photons in the mode (ie. of a particular frequency).

Opposite to what the app claims, basic science says that light containing only red photons must be red.


The conclusion is not tricky or difficult: The Atheos app makes gradiose claims running down science, but gets even basic science wrong.