Jim Baggott has a pretty good piece at Aeon on the problems with post-empirical science. I’ve highlighted Baggott’s views before. Along with others like Sabine Hossenfelder and Peter Woit, he calls attention to a serious issue in physics, the rising acceptance of theories that show little promise of being testable in the foreseeable future. In many ways, this piece is a reaction to Sean Carroll’s new book, Something Deeply Hidden, which champions the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.
Rhetoric in this debate often gets pretty heated, but Baggott is relatively restrained. After describing examples of physicists who express certitude in the existence of things like the multiverse, he wraps up his piece with this:
Perhaps we should begin with a small first step. Let’s acknowledge that theoretical physicists are perfectly entitled to believe, write and say whatever they want, within reason. But is it asking too much that they make their assertions with some honesty? Instead of ‘the multiverse exists’ and ‘it might be true’, is it really so difficult to say something like ‘the multiverse has some philosophical attractions, but it is highly speculative and controversial, and there is no evidence for it’? I appreciate that such caveats get lost or become mangled when transferred into a popular media obsessed with sensation, but this would then be a failure of journalism or science writing, rather than a failure of scientific integrity.
Many physicists who discuss things like multiverses, when read at length, are careful to provide these kinds of caveats. But that can be hard to remember when reading an entire book on multiverse concepts.
I do think scientists need the freedom to speculate in these types of realms. They shouldn’t necessarily be constrained by what can be tested today. It’s always possible someone will find a way to these these propositions in the future.
For example, when Albert Einstein and co-authors wrote about the EPR paradox, many condemned it as hopeless metaphysical navel-gazing speculation, but decades later John Bell figured out a way to test it. Our knowledge of entanglement, along with related concepts like decoherence, was built on this early purely theoretical speculation.
On the other hand, science has credibility because it produces reliable knowledge. It seems like there should be a clear divide between the well tested theories that make up that reliable knowledge, or in many cases the well tested aspects of a theory, and the speculative stuff.
I don’t think it’s fair to call this stuff “non-science” or “pseudoscience.” It’s often formulated by working scientists using the same logic and mathematics used to derive well tested theories. It’s compatible with known empirical data. Unlike actual pseudosciences, like astrology, cryptozoology, or parapsychology, which ignore the fact that they were long ago falsified, speculative science remains possible, at least in principle.
Maybe we could call the reliable stuff “empirical science” or “settled science” and the speculative stuff, well, “speculative science”?
(Baggott himself in his book, Farewell to Reality, used the phrase “Authorized Version of Reality” for reliable knowledge, which I thought was a terrible name, seeming to imply that there was a council somewhere authorizing theories. Thankfully, he appears to have moved past that phrase.)
In the end, it doesn’t really matter which labels we use, so long as the distinction is made.
What do you think? Does theoretical speculation deserve the name “science”? If not, then were Einstein and his co-authors doing science or something else when they published their EPR paradox paper? Does it matter how far it is from empirical verification? Or how many assumptions are being made beyond reliable knowledge? Where do we draw the line?