Wednesday, 10 October 2012

It looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck. But it is actually a piece of shit.

Hi rats,

I was pondering what could the first entry of this blog be, when I bumped into this Wikipedia entry on quantum nonlocality. I immediately felt the urge of discussing a paper which caused a big fuss in the Quantum Information community two years ago. I’m referring to “The Uncertainty Principle Determines the Nonlocality of Quantum Mechanics”, by Jonathan Oppenheim and Stephanie Wehner.

The paper consists in a series of lame statements, embarrassingly obvious for anybody with an interest in quantum nonlocality. However, against all oddS, the artiCle got printEd iN CErtain high impact factor journal that I will not disclose here.

Then the horror began: the authors were invited to talk about their results in several conferences in Foundations of Physics and Quantum Information (it was a featured talk at a past edition of QIP!). They were interviewed in various popular science magazines, where well established researchers praised the originality of their ideas. They were cited in respectable works in nonlocality (the paper currently has more than 38 citations, including one of mine!!! [Ah, co-authors…!]). On top of this, I suspect that they have recently been invited to write a chapter about the paper in a certain forthcoming book on Foundations of Physics…

Am I making a fuss? Could I be exaggerating? Let’s have a look at the contents of the paper.

The article deals with the otherwise interesting topic of computing the maximum quantum violation of a bipartite Bell inequality (i.e., its Tsirelson’s bound). The main idea of the paper is that, once we determine the optimal measurements of one of the parties, say, Bob, we can upper bound the maximal violation by means of what the authors call fine-grained uncertainty relations (and I and others in my small, minor community call operator norms).

And operator norms is the closest you will get to Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation in this article. Contrary to what the abstract suggests, trying to bound Bell functionals via Heisenberg-type uncertainty relations ΔAΔB≥|tr(σ[A,B])|/2 is not a very promising enterprise, because, in finite dimensions, this expression becomes trivial after eliminating the dependence on the state σ of the system (indeed, take σ to be the maximally mixed state and you will get the revealing result ΔAΔB≥0). Now, I don’t believe that the authors can derive Tsirelson’s bound from the physical principle that the product of two non-negative numbers is non-negative (if such is the case, I will eat my paper on macroscopic locality). Hence they have to resort to measurement inequalities that the bulk of the Physics community wouldn’t recognize as uncertainty relations.

Besides, and coming back to the beginning, I find problematic to determine a priori which measurements are optimal on Bob’s side for an arbitrary Bell functional. Isn’t that the main difficulty of calculating Tsirelson bounds in the first place? It seems to me that this is a paper about steering rather than nonlocality, because the knowledge of Bob’s measurement settings is taking for granted through the whole article.

But wait, there’s more. The authors go on to claim that in XOR games the bound derived through the fine-grained uncertainty relations is always tight. That is, if we knew a priori Bob's optimal measurements, we could calculate Tsirelson bounds for a family of nonlocal games for which we already know how to compute the maximal violation efficiently.

I haven’t read the Supplemental Material, but my guess is, the proof goes like this: as shown by Tsirelson, in XOR games, the optimal measurements in Bob’s side {Y_j} are of the form \sum_i c_i \sigma_i, where the {\sigma _i}s constitute a Clifford algebra and the optimal state is the maximally entangled state in whatever dimensions. Any linear combination of {Y_j}s is thus of the form \sum_i v_i \sigma_i. All Alice has to do is steer Bob’s states to positive and negative eigenvectors of the last expression in order to maximize the corresponding uncertainty relation. This she can achieve by performing a measurement proportional to \sum_i v_i \sigma_i on her side. QED.

It took me 10-11 seconds to come up with the previous argument. No wonder I sometimes have the impression that I’m wasting my time! Apparently, I could be getting six high impact publications per minute!!

Finally, the authors state the main conclusion of the article: any theory that allows Alice and Bob to violate a Bell inequality more than permitted by the fine-grained uncertainty relations requires measurements that do not respect the fine-grained uncertainty relations.

In other words: if it is raining, then it is not not raining.

Well, there you are. I have summarized the main result (and proofs) of the paper in a few paragraphs. I thus hope to have convinced you that this is NOT a deep paper. It isn’t original, either: I doubt that the “groundbreaking ideas” contained in this article (e.g., using operator norms to bound Bell violations) can genuinely surprise anyone who has thought about quantum Bell inequalities for three minutes.

Now, I do not blame the authors for submitting their article to XXXXXXX rather than the paper bin -they saw an opportunity and took it, who wouldn’t?-. I do not blame the editor who accepted the paper -the abstract contains the word “spooky”!-, or the referee who reviewed it -well, that one I blame a bit.

But I do blame the Quantum Information community. How come that this paper was accepted at QIP? Doesn’t this conference have something like referees? Didn’t those so-called “referees” read the paper? And what about all the other conferences? Is Foundation of Physics a real science, when their members cannot distinguish solid material from smoke? Most importantly: how could the audience of these conferences resist a one-hour talk about nothing? Didn’t anybody scream, try to activate the fire alarm, jump out of the window?

What makes matters worse is that I have seen good researchers referring to these results as a serious explanation of why quantum theory is not more non-local, at the same level of Information Causality or Non-Trivial Communication Complexity (see the Wikipedia entry that started this post).

That’s depressing, rats. Nobody in the community gave a damn about the article before it got published in Sci... the famous journal. The minute it got accepted, people started praising the “discovery” like the invention of penicillin, the cognitive schema being: “the paper appeared in _____, which is a sound journal. Therefore, the results are sound” [compare with: “Barbra Streisand plays hot women in movies. Therefore, she’s hot”].

So conference organizers, wikipedists, nonlocality researchers and book editors, this is my message to you: come on, guys. The article has three pages. It would have taken you ten minutes to read it critically and decide by yourselves that it was a piece of shit. Instead, you chose to inhibit all frontal lobe activity just because some editor of Tralala magazine had a weird day. Well, that is the past, and you cannot change it (I think). In the future, though, listen to your own criterion*.

Yours truly,

Schroedinger’s rat

*Your criterion is this little gentleman who lives inside your head and tells you: “this is good, that is bad”. He doesn’t work for Nature, Science or PNAS.


  1. I do agree that there is a problem in the perception of high impact journals in the community. Nonetheless I would have probably expressed the criticism in a different way. Although you do not directly attack the authors I suspect that they might take it personally.

    ...and the title is epic (as much as it might be seen as offensive)...

    1. Well, I hope that the authors don't take it as a personal attack, that was definitely not my goal when I wrote the post. Everybody has a bad article, not just them. And sometimes a bad article can make its way into a high impact factor journal.

      What I find absurd is that a bad article gets highly cited, that its authors are invited to discuss it at important QI meetings and that different personalities in QI publicly praise it. That is a wrong reaction of the QI community (the community, not the authors!) to a bad paper, no matter where it got published.

      I believe that reactions or tendencies like that can harm our field in the long run, and this is the reason I'm writing this blog.

      About the language, yes, I agree that there are other ways to express the same idea: stool, feces, excreta, dung... In writing this post I decided to focus on the message, though. If you value more the form, I recommend you to visit any of these other blogs.

  2. You chose a good article!! I told u once!!

  3. Yes, shit is a very important part of our lives,
    yet very underappreciated, esp. in the so-called
    "higher culture" and science. I'm glad you've
    found & exposed so nicely a piece of it in the
    latter. Keep looking!

    1. ...Bell-Caganer Experiment:

  4. I'm waiting for a post on Vedral's work... come on, there's a lot of material there...

    1. Wait a moment...! Is it you, Fernando?

    2. No, no Fernando here. But from your comment, it looks like I share some ideas with this Fernando...

  5. Really that jealous? It would help if you got your facts right at least..

  6. Did she turn you down again?

  7. Hey, you mentioned PNAS---is it also considered good? Should I be trying to publish there????

  8. Why don't you just sent a "Comment" to Science? I do not know whether I should like this way of criticizing other people's work.

    1. >Why don't you just sent a "Comment" to Science?

      And what should I tell the Science editors? "The paper is correct, but pointless"?

      >I do not know whether I should like this way of criticizing
      >other people's work.

      If you don't like reading critiques, this blog is definitely not for you.

    2. He doesn't like THE WAY of criticising, not the critiques. His message was pretty clear.

      And yes, you can send a proper comment where you explain why paper X of author Y is crap.

      Also, if you feel that your research is much better than the "shit" reported in Nature Physics/Science, then submit it to them. You work in a very respected institution hosting world leaders in their field: editors will be happy to consider your results with careful attention and discard all the bullshit.

    3. >He doesn't like THE WAY of criticising, not the critiques.

      I'm following the standard in movie critiques: honest, clear and brutal (but never insulting). I understand the shock, since in QI we are not used to people openly criticizing anything. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with my style.

      >And yes, you can send a proper comment where you explain
      >why paper X of author Y is crap.

      The only comments I've seen published in Science are refutations, i.e., letters that explain why article X is wrong (correct me if I'm mistaken).

      In any case, the fact that the article was published in Science is anecdotical: this post is about the inappropriate REACTION of the QI community to a Science publication. I would have never written this post if the article had been deservedly ignored by the community after acceptance in Science.

      As a matter of fact, the reason why I criticize the paper in the first place is to make the case that the reaction of the community is solely a consequence of where it got published, and not its quality.

      >Also, if you feel that your research is much better than
      >the "shit" reported in Nature Physics/Science, then submit
      >it to them. You work in a very respected institution
      >hosting world leaders in their field: editors will be
      >happy to consider your results with careful attention and
      >discard all the bullshit.

      Thanks for the advice, but I have ideological reservations about submitting to Science, Nature or Nature Physics. As you hint in your message, the "imparcial" editors of such journals verify certain details, like the affiliation of the authors, their h-index, seniority, etc. before deciding to even CONSIDER a paper for publication (why should my institution or the identity of my workmates make a difference?). But this is a topic for another post...

    4. 1) Since you are criticising a scientific paper/field and not a movie, maybe it is more appropriate to do it scientifically, e.g. as Marco did it some months ago on arxiv. IMO you would support your case more effectively.

      2) I have never been an editor of such journals, I don't know how things work :)

    5. >1) Since you are criticising a scientific paper/field and
      >not a movie, maybe it is more appropriate to do it
      >scientifically, e.g. as Marco did it some months ago on
      >arxiv. IMO you would support your case more effectively.

      This post contains several paragraphs where I argue scientifically why the paper is worthless.

      Do you disagree? Refute them.

  9. It is very exciting blog post for more information

    fantastic fire alarm

  10. I think I may bet that most of the people working in QI are NOT physicists. Does this explains anything?