The problems with post-empirical science

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?

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67 Responses to The problems with post-empirical science

  1. paultorek says:

    Not only is speculative science still science, but the line between speculative science and settled science is not a line. It’s too fuzzy to be a line. An optimist would say that there are a spectrum of probabilities. A pessimist would point out some of the conceptual difficulties around probabilities for events which fall into many categories at once. (The same scientific theory can be: a scientific theory, a theory of complexity K as measured in language L, a theory that has passed N tests, a theory that has passed N tests against a null hypothesis at 0.01 level or better,…).

    In my view, the best we can do is come up with rules of thumb that approximate Solomonoff Induction, then follow them, and tweak them as more evidence comes in.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What would be examples of theories generally regarded as settled that are more speculative than people suppose, or theories regarded as speculative that are more settled than supposed? And what about them makes the difference?

      Solomoff Induction sounds interesting, but I agree with Baggott that Bayesian fremeworks often just add a veneer of objectivity to an otherwise subjective enterprise. The debate on Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog about the measurement assumption of the MWI being equivalent to the one in Copenhagen seems like a case in point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • James Cross says:

        “What would be examples of theories generally regarded as settled that are more speculative than people suppose?”

        The Big Bang would be my choice. I suspect it will be discarded eventually. The initial inflation is just too far-fetched to be believable but without it the universe should have collapsed. Something’s wrong somewhere. It might be salvaged in some modified form.

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        • In terms of cosmic inflation, I agree, but not because it’s too far fetched, but because the evidence for it seems circumstantial, at best. But it’s worth noting that inflation is an add-on to the overall big bang cosmology. Short of there being no objective reality (in which case all bets are off), it’s hard for me to see that cosmology being replaced with something that doesn’t at least look like it.

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      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        I agree with James. The Big Bang is as untenable for the institution of science as celibacy is untenable for the Catholic priesthood. If we are looking for a short list, I would start with gravity. The current model states that gravity is a self caused cause which is an absurdity. How can mass be the cause of gravity and then turn around and state that mass is subject to it’s own cause. There is no question that our observations point to that conclusion, nevertheless, the conclusion is wrong.

        The larger question is: Why is the institution of science bogged down in an intellectual quagmire? The short answer is simple: It’s bigotry. The institution of science makes its living on the backs of philosophers and metaphysicians. In spite of this long forgotten symbiotic relationship, metaphysics and philosophy have been demonized by the very institutions which rose from those disciplines. If there is any questions that my analysis is incorrect, read the latest exchange between myself and Stephen Wysong. Furthermore, Sabine Hossenfelder is equally hostile towards metaphysics as well as are most scientists. That conclusion is blatantly obvious within the critique of her own comments on her blog.

        As a consequence of this hostility and subsequent persecution, there are no real philosophers or metaphysicians within the academic and scientific communities. The future of scientific progress will only see a renaissance with the resurgence of real philosophy and metaphysics. Those discoveries will not be made by any of our institutions, they will be made by a philosopher or metaphysician working in obscurity and on their own. But even then, will their voices be heard even if they were willing to speak? Not likely….

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        • BeingQuest says:

          The institution of science makes its living on the backs of philosophers and metaphysicians.”

          A simplification.

          “In spite of this long forgotten symbiotic relationship, metaphysics and philosophy have been demonized by the very institutions which rose from those disciplines. If there is any questions that my analysis is incorrect, read the latest exchange between myself and Stephen Wysong.”

          Another of different sort. Just my observation, but if you think at cross purposes to another on some point, it’s an advantage or disadvantage of perspective I see, not so much the conclusion you here both assume and maybe adore. We’ll not all be so quick to Conclusion, is my guess.

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      • paultorek says:

        I’m not entirely clear what “subjectivity” means in the case of Bayesian frameworks. The fact that people disagree? But people disagree about objective facts all the time. The fact that Bayes’s Theorem allows prior probabilities to differ between individuals? But compare propositional logic: it doesn’t tell you which propositions to start with, either; it just tells you what follows or doesn’t follow. Does that make propositional logic subjective?

        But supposing for the sake of argument that nothing else in epistemology rules out the subjective variation that Bayes fails to rule out – well, you can’t just wish it away, then.

        Speaking of fuzzy lines – the “multiverse” description of Everett’s interpretation is itself a fuzzy concept. From some useful standpoints, the whole Everettian ensemble (is that the right term?) is still “one universe”, but from other very useful standpoints it’s not.

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        • What is an objective fact but a subjective one that most of the relevant people agree is objective? If Bayes is being fed facts that don’t have that consensus, then throwing in a lot of mathematics only puts a facade on what is essentially opinion.

          I totally agree on the fuzziness of “multiverse” and “universe” when discussing Everettian physics. From a point of view, the terminology is accurate. Separate branches are, for all intents and purposes, so separate from each other that they amount to other worlds. But from another perspective, it’s all part of the same universal wave function.

          I don’t know that MWI advocates do themselves favors by leaning into the multiverse terminology. Some, such as Carroll, I think do it because they relish what they see as uncompromising descriptions.

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  2. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    Theoretical physics is the wild, wild West Mike. Resolving the only mystery in quantum mechanics, namely, what is responsible for the interference pattern in the double-slit experiment would go a long way in corralling the marauding cowboys…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect solving the current mysteries will introduce new ones. Any understanding we have is in terms of primitives at the lowest level that we don’t understand. Our understanding of those base primitives, if it ever comes, will be in terms of even lower level primitives, which we won’t understand. Turtles all the way down.

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      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        “I suspect solving the current mysteries will introduce new ones.”

        I’ve got to admit Mike, I’m a little disappointed with your response here. Wouldn’t you want to know what is actually causing the interference pattern in the double-slit experiment other than the current model which postulates that the particle is interfering with itself? As it stands, this is where the rubber meets the road: The wave function is the only mystery in quantum mechanics. As a result, the infamous wave function has grown into the quintessential conspiracy theory of quantum physics.

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        • Lee, I’m not saying I don’t want the mystery solved (very much the opposite), only that the history of science shouldn’t lead us to conclude it will be the end all be all.

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          • Lee Roetcisoender says:

            No, I get that part of it. I previously stated that if the talent on your blog was willing to collaborate on this mystery, there’s a good chance someone might come up with an alternative explanation which could be corroborated against the prevailing scientific evidence.

            But here’s the real problem: I don’t know what is the greater hurdle to overcome, solving the mystery of the wave function or the ability of blog contributors to collaborate. Maybe collaboration is just too big of an ask……. On the other hand, maybe contributors are just plain not interested. In the end it’s all cool. If no one is interested in solving the mystery let alone collaborating I’ll just drop it and move on….

            Liked by 1 person

          • Lee,
            Clearly it’s far more possible for us here to collaborate than to actually solve the mystery of the wave function. Let’s say that someone were to put up a billion dollars for us to split if it were determined that we were collaborating to find a solution. I’m pretty sure that we’d do our best to work together on this, and obviously with that money as incentive. But I’m also pretty darn certain that we wouldn’t succeed. Many of the world’s best minds have been working on this question for quite a while, sometimes by means of collaborations. I have no reason to suspect that we here are all that special. It’s a nice thought though.

            I don’t find it uncomfortable that the human doesn’t have a good understanding of what’s going on regarding quantum mechanics. I suspect it never will. But then I’m an epistemic solipsist — I take a modest approach regarding human understandings. You on the other hand seem convinced that we must begin from ultimate Truth in order to get anywhere. Either position will need to vanquish foes in the marketplace of ideas in order to succeed.

            One thing that I will say to support you however, is that I consider “metaphysics” to be a serious issue. I realize that many interpret the term to mean “fake physics” or various conceptions of supernatural ideas. To me that’s a bastardization of the term. Note that we can’t simply begin with “physics” and have no founding premise from which to study physical dynamics. Metaphysical premises shall thus be needed, whether explicitly or implicitly stated. For example, both naturalism and supernaturalism are metaphysical presumptions.

            So does causality fail in the end? Even some modern physicists believe that it does, or effectively “God plays dice”. While supernaturalism is potentially true, to me this seems arrogant, or that our measurements and conceptions happen to be perfect. Conversely I suspect that we’re simply ignorant of what’s actually happening.

            My only principle of metaphysics runs like this, “To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to grasp.” So either existence functions naturally, or it functions somewhat supernaturally. I’m able to present this dichotomy to others, as well as my own case for naturalism, to hopefully help science advance. Humanity should never Know the Truth either way, but science does seem to develop more and more effective positions over time.

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          • Lee Roetcisoender says:

            Eric,
            I appreciate your support on the importance of metaphysics.

            “You on the other hand seem convinced that we must begin from ultimate Truth in order to get anywhere.”

            Although this is a grounding tenet of metaphysics, that principle can be waved on this particular issue because the infamous wave function is a small slice of the greater picture, one that can be analyzed in an isolated context based upon its own merits. Looking at all of the wild interpretations of the wave function, the entire construct has becomes theoretical physics own conspiracy theory, one that keeps growing and growing.

            I believe the data is out there which will uncover the mystery shrouding our current interpretation. Theoretical physicists, just like any community of research is subject to tunnel vision, let alone being ferociously territorial in nature. Within a tribal mentality, nobody is willing to admit there might be other disciplines who have data which might be helpful. I see compelling evidence within the discipline of cosmology as well as the data of recent discoveries within NASA. All of this data can be used to connect the dots on this mystery. Personally, I’m surprised that nobody within the scientific community hasn’t connected the dots…

            Peace

            Liked by 1 person

          • Lee,
            Agreed on the potential wildness of QM interpretations. And never discount the effectiveness of a charismatic presenter — salesmanship remains huge.

            I don’t suppose that I’ll ever give up my epistemic solipsism, and you seem quite committed to your noumenalism. But let’s say that we ignore our opposition here for a while. Regardless of how I’ve derived my positions, are you able to find any faults with them otherwise? In the past this hasn’t been clear to me. But then wherever you do find such faults, well that’s exactly what I’m looking for anyway. Wherever my models fail, might improves be made? They may roughly be divided into four principles of philosophy, psychology, and my dual computers model of brain architecture. Beyond my solipsism, any specific or general criticisms?

            You may have noticed that professor Schwitzgebel has now gotten back to me on his blog. Earlier I predicted he’d go “party line” regarding morality, as well as support the standard notion that psychology remains soft because it’s simply too complex for us to grasp what’s going on. Apparently I was right. But what do you think? Is it not possible that our moral notions effectively exist as a social tool from which we may potentially do better for ourselves by supporting altruism, and so scientists fail here because they’re unwilling or unable to explicitly state that we’re instead all self interested products of our circumstances? Could this be a significant source of the softness of our mental and behavioral sciences?
            http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2019/10/what-makes-for-good-philosophical.html?showComment=1570979443669#c8921660369465912243

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          • Lee Roetcisoender says:

            Eric,

            ” Is it not possible that our moral notions effectively exist as a social tool from which we may potentially do better for ourselves by supporting altruism, and so scientists fail here because they’re unwilling or unable to explicitly state that we’re instead all self interested products of our circumstances? Could this be a significant source of the softness of our mental and behavioral sciences?”

            You should be reassured that we are on the same page with this one. Acknowledging our true nature is part of the healing process and burying one’s head in the sand doesn’t help. Asking me for critique is quite another subject. First, I understand your dual computer model of architecture which is fine, but at the end of the day it’s completely arbitrary and there is no way it will stand up under the scrutiny of analysis. I think the only reason you hang onto the model is because of your unique intuition on this “thing” called value. I am in agreement with you that value is indeed the strangest stuff in the entire universe and I think your dual computer model of architecture was created in an attempt to explain the origin of value. That’s just my take on it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • It’s good to have your support regarding the human paradigm of morality Lee, as well as that you consider “value” to exist as the strangest stuff in the universe. Then on my dual computers brain architecture, I see that you’re skeptical though haven’t yet put your finger on why. Saying that it’s arbitrary and won’t stand up to scrutiny is not quite the same as identifying a problem with it. If you do come up with any specific criticism of any of my models however, I’ll be glad to consider your perspective.

            Like

          • Lee Roetcisoender says:

            Eric,
            Your dual computer model of architecture is closely aligned with Daniel Dennett even though he does not use the specific terminology of computers per se. He also doesn’t make the correlation of the unconscious brain generating valence, plus he distinguishes our conscious experience as an illusion or fiction narrative which is generated by the brain. Other than those three specific distinctions, his model is closely aligned with your theory which postulates consciousness as emergent.

            If one were to build a model of consciousness predicated upon the paradigm of emergence, both Dennett and Frankish have done a superb job. Their models are based upon the hard science that is available today, and based strictly upon the data at their disposal. Therefore, their conclusions are relatively rock solid. But like you own model, here is what is wrong with their model: They do not have access to all of the data. It’s really that simple, which means the entire endeavor is their best educated guess.

            Arbitrary simply means that there is no real justification for a conclusion other than “I want” or “I don’t want”. This is due to the fact that there is an unlimited database of which we have no access. Therefore, the only conclusions we can reach are not really justified and are strictly arbitrary. Arbitrary means it’s a matter of preference, a preference which is predicated upon our own unique threshold or need for control. And what is behind that preference is the solipsistic self-model who stands alone at the center of the known universe. Furthermore, the solipsistic self-model is our only reference point.

            Peace

            Like

          • Lee Roetcisoender says:

            Eric,
            I really need to blow this popsicle stand and quit blogging. It’s all a bad habit, and like all bad habits the best way to quit is cold turkey. I wish you the best of luck, enjoyed our brief but spectacular discourse and if I’m ever in southern California I will give you a holler. Take care my friend…

            Peace

            Liked by 1 person

          • I actually don’t have much use for Daniel Dennett, Lee. It’s not that I consider what he says to be inherently false, but rather that he seems to gunk things up with all sorts of intellectual verbiage in order to trick people into thinking that he’s got some great answers. He’s made a career of this at least since he wrote “Consciousness Explained” in 1991. Then there’s that “illusionist” nonsense where he pretends that educated people believe phenomenal experiences such as “color” exist beyond us. Not to mention that he’s one of “the four horsemen of new atheism”. I have big ideas. What does he have? Superb salesmanship.

            If it turns out that you finally do give this stuff up for good, well good luck with whatever you find to take its place. And if nothing quite fills the void, well at least know that sometimes addictions become functional. I seem to be dealing with mine, anyway.

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        • I’ve been thinking a bit about this lately, so here goes …

          Part of the conceptual problem is indicated by the way you, Lee, just expressed it: how can a particle interfere with itself? It can’t, so maybe you’re not dealing with a particle. Maybe whatever an electron is, it’s a kind of a thing that only interacts with other things at a specific point. Like if everything was a rod, i.e., one-dimensional with different lengths, every interaction between two things would occur at (approximately) a single point, just like a particle. Consider a chalked up billiard ball hitting a rail. If all your information about the interaction is the chalk mark left on the rail, that tells you nothing about the size or mass of the ball. [okay, move that experiment to space and a wall so you cant get information from the distance of the rail to the table.]

          So what kind of a thing can interfere with itself but still be a thing that interacts at approximately a point?

          This thinking has led me to certain questions about the experiment that I cannot seem to get answers for from googling. What are the distances, esp., from gun to slits, slits to detector, between slits. What are the width of the slits? How many electrons don’t go through a slit, i.e., hit the barrier with the slits relative to how many go through? How does this ratio change, if at all, when you close one slit?

          Anybody?

          *

          Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “It can’t, so maybe you’re not dealing with a particle.”

            Indeed. In our current theory, QFT, “particles” are quanta of disturbances in the respective field. An electron, for instance, is a vibration in the electron field. What we think of as point interactions are energy transfers between these. For example, a photon interacts with (is absorbed by) an electron, which raises the energy level of the electron. That interaction is localized to the electron (which has its own location fuzziness).

            “What are the distances, esp., from gun to slits, slits to detector, between slits.”

            It varies. The Wiki article shows some of the mathematics involved in determining how those distances affect the resulting pattern. I believe the slits have to be fairly thin for a pronounced interference pattern.

            Most of the photons, electrons, or molecules, don’t go through the slits, obviously. I would assume the number is just a ratio of the area of the slits compared to the area of the mask, (factoring in off-axis falloff of the beam source — fewer “particles” off-center, generally).

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          • Actually, Wyrd, I’m more interested in the number of interactions that happen between the slits, or the area of one slit when it gets closed off. Also, how wide and how far apart relative to, say, the width of a hydrogen atom.

            *

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Oh, okay. Well, number of interactions would depend on the number of particles. In some experiments, the “particles” are sent one-by-one, and the pattern builds up slowly.

            As I understand it, experiment dimensions tend to be measured in millimeters, so many, many hydrogen atom widths. 🙂

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          • paultorek says:

            To make it really fun, remember that a “slit” is just a low zone in the electron and quark fields (mostly electron field, as electrons are primarly responsible for blocking other electrons). And a “detector” is …

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        • James Cross says:

          Regarding the double slit experiment, I am increasingly thinking this is like Rubin’s vase or any of a number of visual illusions. In other words, even though this is seemingly “scientific” and “measurable”, it might be that our mathematics and scientific observations have built-in illusions and defects just as our senses do.

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  3. Martin Cooke says:

    Speculative science is done by established scientists, philosophizing about the physical world is done by philosophers, fantasizing is done by writers of science fiction. There is probably a more serious problem related to this in the social sciences, where the scientists do have to make more of an effort to appear scientific. Are they holding themselves back from speculating enough?

    Like

    • Social scientists definitely operate under a burden that the “harder” sciences don’t face. They constantly have to prove that they’re scientists. It makes many of them relentlessly empirical. Many, but unfortunately, not all. There are segments of economics, psychology, and sociology which often do feel free to speculate wildly, often influenced by politics.

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  4. Hariod Brawn says:

    Perhaps the term ‘Science’ ought be taken with a tacit qualifier: ‘Knowledge derived only insofar as the best ape brains on planet earth are able establish on their own limited terms and perspectives, and of which limits such brains themselves remain forever unaware’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m fine with viewing theories as models useful to the hairless ape brains. Such models might be useful to an Andromedan brain, but it’s not guaranteed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Well, philosophy has utility, too — it can lead to the life well-lived, to contentedness, peace, harmony, and so forth. It may not ever provide an answer on how to get to Andromeda, but it may have the capacity to resolve the question of whether it’s worth going. Or is it all simply a matter of Because we can, perhaps?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Lee Roetcisoender says:

          I’m willing to take it to the next level Hariod: A real philosopher is the original scientist and a true metaphysician is the original scientist as well. Philosophy and metaphysics are the purest form of science, but only if science is considered a method instead of a dogma.

          There are no philosophers and/or metaphysicians within our scientific and academic communities because they have been successfully purged. What is practiced today within our institutions is philosophology. In closing: Philosophology and Science have nothing in common.

          Liked by 2 people

        • It depends on the philosophy. (Although I guess the usability of science also depends on the particular science. A lot of science is utterly obscure and of little practical value.)

          And, of course, our philosophy of science has an effect on how science is done. The Copenhagen interpretation probably wouldn’t be what it is if the logical positivism hadn’t been a movement when it was being formulated.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Ruis says:

    I think science distilled to its essence can be described as “conjecture and criticism.” We need to distinguish between conjectures and things like facts and theories. I find that a name like “Multiverse Theory” is misleading as it is not a theory, it is a conjecture. Theories, scientific theories, that is, have been tested and passed those tests to earn the label “theory.” So, the Multiverse Conjecture is a more honest label. So far, only the conjecture has been critiqued and clarified and developed, but the criticism (scientific criticism) cannot begin in full until tests can be devised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a common sentiment from the skeptic community. But historically usage of the word “theory” hasn’t been that precise. Theories are often thought of as models, some of which may be more attested than others. Einstein’s special theory of relativity was a theory from its publication, even though it wouldn’t be possible to test it for several years.

      That’s not to say that all multiverse notions are rigorous enough to deserve the “theory” label. But many are predictions of theories constructed to solve observable issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I have no trouble with “theoretical” physics and mathematics — so long as we’re clear what that means. The trouble comes, per a recent post you wrote touching on the subject, from people being clueless about science. In many cases, they are so clueless as to not be capable of understanding how clueless they are, and so we get all sorts of nonsense. Science for most people is an example of Clarke’s Third Law.

    Carl Sagan (over twenty years ago):

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1995)

    Throw in our post-modern proclivity to deconstruct and distrust everything, including empiricism, and science seems a dim candle in the growing dark.

    Liked by 2 people

    • On the Sagan quote, that’s both the blessing and curse of modern civilization. Few of us have any knowledge on how to grow our own food, prepare something like hard grains for consumption, defend ourselves against an attacker, build a house, etc.

      Science, technology, and medicine are particularly difficult because they’re so vast, not even a scientist can understand all of it. Most physicists, for instance, have, at best, a layperson’s understanding of biology, and vice versa. I’ve noticed that many scientist quacks are people crossing into another field without taking the time to learn the new field sufficiently.

      The problem is, I’m not sure what the alternative is. How to we reap the benefits of specialization without the drawbacks?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “Few of us have any knowledge on how to grow our own food,…”

        Absolutely. The key is in knowing the basic fundamentals, not the many details. Knowing enough to be able to do something can require the infamous 10,000 hours, but knowing enough to be able to follow how it’s done is a vastly smaller task.

        As one example, I’ve heard the complaint about climate change, that one doesn’t have the science background to understand all of it. Of course not; few do. But anyone can understand some of it, and the more science fundamentals one has, the greater the foundation for that understanding.

        For example, knowing just a little about CO2 informs one’s opinion about carbon issues, and prevents one from saying stupid things in public. (Such as, “What’s so bad about carbon dioxide? Plants love it!”)

        (There is also that, as citizens of a democracy, we’re ruled by our opinions and convictions. So, now more than ever, we’re ruled not just by the quality of those ideas, but by the quality of the formation of those ideas.)

        The Sagan quote isn’t to suggest that technology is bad, but that we need to maintain enough common knowledge about it to avoid Clarke’s Third Law. For far too many already, their gear amounts to magic boxes. Sagan is saying that’s a perilous dependency.

        “I’ve noticed that many scientist quacks are people crossing into another field without taking the time to learn the new field sufficiently.”

        There’s the arrogance of knowledge, which is a whole other subject, but it makes it easy to assume one is competent in a new area if one is proven competent in some other area. (One characteristic of true knowledge is knowing how much one doesn’t know — knowing the boundaries of one’s knowledge.)

        I’ve found moving into other fields quite humbling. Doesn’t matter whether it’s baseball or the mathematics of rotation — there’s always a whole world of new stuff to learn. Every hill turns out to be a foothill to the mountain range behind.

        But a good grounding in fundamentals — a basic understanding of science — gives one a pretty decent compass. (For example, FTL neutrinos? Almost certainly not; look elsewhere.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I recognize that my knowledge of climate change is pretty high level and non-technical. But as you noted, I understand the broad basics enough to see how the experts are reaching the conclusions they do. I general, I find it best to trust the expert consensus, at least in fields that are respected by other scientific fields, including the ones I’ve done a deep dive into.

          I agree FTL neutrinos should be viewed suspiciously. I’m prepared to accept their existence, but only on evidence. I wouldn’t be able to assess that evidence, but I can see if a substantial portion of the physics community, who can assess it, are convinced.

          I’ve had people accuse me of being closed minded for using that strategy. But we all have limited time, and I’m not willing to invest mine in that type of claim until the people who can really assess start buying into it. It means I won’t be a pioneer in accepting a real case of telepathy, telekinesis, or UFOs. I can live with that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Likewise. Our theories gain credence over time when experimental results appear unanimous, but future facts may turn up black swans. So it makes sense to give new ideas time to gather evidence.

            Especially those ideas that seem to defy science basics — perpetual motion being a canonical example.

            Liked by 2 people

          • BeingQuest says:

            HAHA* “I can’t live with that!”, he says…as if he ever tried.

            Like

          • BeingQuest says:

            Stranger things these men have done, than believe in the impossible….but such things whereupon even Angels fear to tread. (that would be a quote)

            Like

        • BeingQuest says:

          I love these last three paragraphs. A welcomed thought deserves another. Thanks!

          Like

      • BeingQuest says:

        BY organizing ourselves closer to home, on local continuities first, and expansive, more inclusive continuities next. First things first, should be the Principle. Thus emerges a spontaneous autonomy in the Person, and they act by the instinct of their long history of Social Evolution to Make IT Work. Necessity is a harsh mistress, but keeps company with ancient Limit to rule both presumptive gods and men.

        Like

      • BeingQuest says:

        BTW…you must remember how I wake every day to the same Cycle of Events, from milking Cattle to the care of Stock, having a life of its own. (excellent piece, this…with commentary the while (still reading))

        Liked by 1 person

    • BeingQuest says:

      Oh boy* You couldn’t be more right…and it rather unnerves my hope’s fondest aspirations. Then again, maybe I can find my own Space for All I own, and bypass such ultimate reductionism. I’d sooner fiddle with AI as a Conscious Construct.

      Like

  7. Swarn Gill says:

    It seems to some degree that we already have some language here: Hypothesis vs. Theory. I think it’s safe to put the multiverse into the hypothesis category, that’s not to say it is built on nothing, but it can’t possibly move into the theory category until there has been a rigorous build up evidence. Of course the confusion in the public over what hypothesis and theory means can also cause problems. I like your suggestion, but if we move into the social sciences it all becomes speculative science perhaps.

    Ultimately I think it does come down to having journalists who are scientists themselves and can better translate what journal articles are saying before relaying this to the public. This however would require us to A) Not live in an attention economy with the flashiest headlines get the clicks and B) Those journalists would have to make some salary commensurate to what they would have made if they stayed a scientist. Both of these are hard bridges to cross, but we need effective communicators who can take peer-reviewed journal articles and can effectively communicate findings as well as be honest about the associated uncertainty. Too often I see journalists writing articles about papers where they didn’t really understand what they were reading, and if they addressed uncertainty, it was buried at the end where few were likely to read to that point. Communication of science is a huge issue and one that we are going to have to figure out because it feels like we are losing the battle to value science in society.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The hypothesis / theory divide is a common sentiment in skeptic circles. It comes from creationists and intelligent design advocates saying evolution is “just a theory.” But it doesn’t really match the historical usage.

      Usually “theory” refers to a rigorous model. The theory might be utterly speculative, or it might be heavily attested. But a theory is a theory from the moment it’s formulated. A hypothesis is usually a simpler concept, generally a prediction that hasn’t been tested yet.

      That said, the skeptic usage has gotten into academia, and some theory-like constructs are referred to as hypotheses, particularly in historical circles.

      From what I understand, most scientists don’t make that much money. Although maybe they make a lot compared to journalists. I haven’t looked into it. But with the glut of applicants for university positions in many fields, science journalism might represent a safety net for a lot of people.

      Lamentably, the public relations people at universities don’t appear to be trained scientists, and they tend to be among the worst offenders in sensationalizing studies.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Swarn Gill says:

        Thank you for the clarification on theory. I guess I’ve always seen theory as something that needs to have some empirical support, but perhaps that’s not correct if you have sufficient mathematical support.

        I think the problem with journalism is that while it can pay a decent amount of money it takes time to get to that point, and the starting point is very low. I do think we need more science journalists out there to communicate better than, as you say, the PR people at a university. Reading the actual journal article by the scientists and what get’s written in the news about such studies is often painful. And journalists will want to do a story about whether or not the farmer’s almanac has value, or whether the moon makes you crazy, and then I get asked to be the science side of the argument. But this is the level of scientific understanding of most journalists. We need more journalist who can digest scientific journals, who can accurately understand what the scientists are saying, and report that information clearly to a public that needs it in a simpler form and then put it in correct context of consensus and uncertainty. Of course that in itself rubs against the clickbait nature of journalism today.

        Liked by 1 person

    • BeingQuest says:

      “I like your suggestion, but if we move into the social sciences it all becomes speculative science perhaps.”

      And, or, what happens when the Methods of Social Science overcomes the boundaries of Metaphysics, perhaps enabling instead of disabling ‘science’ itself?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    Your one time resident metaphysician would like to close with a quote form Sabine Hossenfelder: “We’ll all fucking die from our own fucking dumbness and you can see it right here, in the comments on this blog.” That observation was made by someone I would consider to be on the verge of genius if it were not for her being lost in the prism of materialism. It’s quite a visionary statement actually.

    I float ideas on this blog much like a fisherman would cast a fly into a stream to see if a fish will bite. Then when I introduce an idea and/or concept that is completely new or profound, I either get a deer in the headlights look, angry disparaging comments or no comments at all. I try to learn something new every day, it’s the only reason I blog. And most of that knowledge is about human behavior and human nature. This is what my research has taught me: As intellectual patterns ourselves, our own unique structural qualitative properties are determinate and there is only a very limited degree of self-determination built into that model. This is true for all discrete systems. There is no such thing as the notion of law, the laws of nature and/or the laws of physics, it’s sentience all the way down.

    I’m reminded of a profound statement I once heard from a young British man who was a twin and during the circumcision procedure, he had his penis torn from his body. The “professionals” convinced the parents to surgically transgender the infant into a girl, raise the little boy as a girl and everything will be just fine. Long story short: It wasn’t just fine, and after a tumultuous childhood, adolescence and early adulthood everyone came clean and finally told the young man the truth. He surgically transgendered back into a male, but in the end committed suicide at a young age. It was well documented case study and made into a documentary. I will never forget his words, he said: “Sooner or later, you are going to be who you are.”

    Peace

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda says:

      I try to learn something new everyday too. I feel like this is the place where I can do just that, without the disparaging comments. I get questions, but I don’t mind questions at all

      Liked by 1 person

    • BeingQuest says:

      So true. Allow me to congratulate you on your several suspicions of our human nature, which prove to be true time, and time again, no matter the happenstance of your birth. I must commend you upon your Vision, being mostly true, and thank the day I had when first your entered here, despite or atop those things which contest here invokes and has displayed, with amusement to myself and others.

      So we thank you, and more especially I and some Wysong whose company, together I, personally, have much enjoyed. May it be that your former Grace may extend to some other quarters of this Sphere, and relay what good you have so much, thus far accomplished. I AM not hard to find, but must admit in the end that I speak for myself, alone.

      Like

  9. Linda says:

    “I float ideas on this blog much like a fisherman would cast a fly into a stream to see if a fish will bite. Then when I introduce an idea and/or concept that is completely new or profound, I either get a deer in the headlights look, angry disparaging comments or no comments at all.”

    While I fully understand people’s frustrations regarding many others getting overly excited and having the tendency to rush away from alternative or rational explanations for certain things, or vehemently refuse to hear and consider them in order to keep reinforcing their beliefs ( religious, spiritual, and/or supernatural ) so they can sleep better at night, I think I need to say this:

    That’s no excuse for incivility.
    It’s one thing to say nothing at all, if you really don’t know what to say, how to respond, or just don’t won’t even bother. So I understand receiving no comments.
    But angry disparaging comments are extreme. It’s tiring, and it’s not good for my delicate immune system ( especially during cold and flu season ) to keep going through that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Linda,
      I agree on incivility. Things are a lot more pleasant when people can disagree in a friendly manner. Unfortunately, when people are passionate about what they’re discussing, they tend to see even polite disagreement as hostile, so they respond aggressively, and things escalate from there. Personally, when things start getting hostile, I’ve learned to either ignore the points made with invective, or move on from the conversation entirely since it’s productive phase is usually over.

      Like

      • Linda says:

        I’m with you on that for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

        • BeingQuest says:

          I don’t tend to depart or go silent, particularly had I more comments on my own blog…which nobody dares engage…let alone on another’s (blog). But I DO love certain things more than others, and will not be absent in the breach of urgent things, whether to the heart or mind of Man or Memory under Heaven. Amon*

          Like

      • BeingQuest says:

        …and in the end, perhaps, forsake the opportunity to lend a hand to the conversation in a way that comports with agreeableness, generosity and good humor? I think not. I shall ENGAGE, and defend, justify and embolden the best sentiment I may, or the witness of the gods, conjure. Let Heaven remember.

        Like

  10. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    Why do we even need to draw a line?

    How do you draw one without invoking some form of thought policing?

    To argue that a person with a new idea should write “I acknowledge this is highly speculative and controversial and there is no evidence for it” seems like invoking a death knell to freedom of thought. One could just as easily write, about the MWI, that “it is supported by a minority of tenured academics and is consistent with all experimental data known to date.”

    We don’t need lines. We need freedom of thought. And I think we need less tribalism in scientific funding mechanisms. When well-intentioned people are placed into a beauty pageant over funding, they are not doing their best work on the average. And when those giving out the funds are less able to understand the scientific realities than the scientists themselves, you have a fraught system.

    I don’t know if I have an answer, but drawing more lines seems like a very poor one.

    Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Michael,
      I mentioned the reasons why I thought the distinction is important in the post. I come at this from the perspective of a skeptic.

      But I’m curious on what you see as the scope of free thought. Are there any limits to what should be included? For instance, if astrologers want a place in academia, should we let them in under free thought?

      If there are limits, what would you suggest as the criteria?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Michael says:

        Hi Mike,

        I read the post again, and don’t see a reason behind the assertion, really. I think your statement that science produces reliable knowledge is about as close as I’m able to come to a reason for suggesting that some sort of formal line be drawn between some thoughts and others. Presumably without this demarcation line science would be less reliable?

        I think that when science as a whole is confronted with theoretical difficulties that are difficult to resolve, then it is natural for the field to become more speculative. It’s kind of like casting a wide net when a particular thread has begun to stall.

        My opinion is that drawing lines as you indicated may not be as fruitful as testing an open-ended set of solutions, even if in the end most don’t work, or don’t at first yield obvious experiments. I understand that without the ability to test them, the short-term utility of casting a wide net may not be there. But to the point you made in your article, understanding how to test various ideas may come later.

        We’ve been unable to resolve the underlying differences between quantum mechanics and general relativity for about a hundred years now. It seems to me that often breakthroughs involve an overhaul of our past perceptions. Things we once wouldn’t have dared to consider eventually become commonplace.

        I may have told you this before, but I once became intrigued by the ideas of a physicist that I stumbled across, Mendel Sachs, who was working to unify GR and QM. He showed in his body of work that a particular formulation of GR, with some symmetries removed that Einstein was reluctant to remove–for sentimental reasons Mendel thought–reduced to the basic equations of QM when one made the assumption of a flat spacetime in the locality of QM experiments. This was intriguing to me because, you know, it’s often the case that a complex set of relationships reduces to a simpler one when simplifying assumptions are made. Bernoulli’s equations of fluid mechanics, for instance, are a simplification of the Navier-Stokes equation and useful for most things we need to determine on a regular basis in our piping systems. So to my very simple mind, the notion that a form of QM could fall out of an expanded formulation of GR under particular, local assumptions was interesting. I could be dead wrong on this, as I’m not a physicist, but the classic QM experiments seem to me to be taking place on very small distance scales and energies. The double-slit experiment for instance, and all of its more intriguing successors such as the delayed choice quantum eraser, seem to involve relatively low energy particles moving in very local areas where a flat spacetime assumption may make sense. Is that true? We’d have to ask a physicist.

        At any rate, Mendel lived close to where my mother lived, and so when I went on a visit I asked by e-mail if he would meet with me, and he graciously agreed. We had a lovely conversation, and he was a teacher at heart, I’d say. Part of why I responded to you as I did is that in in my conversation with Mendel he noted that when he was teaching at Boston University, (during which time Paul Dirac invited him over to Cambridge University to work on his ideas), a grad student from another, perhaps more prominent Boston University, used to visit him during his office hours because he was interested in Mendel’s ideas and papers. This grad student was told by his faculty that if he visited with Mendel again he would be washed out of the physics program he was enrolled in at the time.

        I’m not sure all of Mendel’s ideas panned out. I’m also not sure anyone really followed the thread. It’s all above my pay grade, frankly. I was a twenty-something full of curiosity. I think Mendel’s ideas may have led to predictions that didn’t hold up at higher energy testing that was later done at CERN, but I’m not 100% sure on that. If that did occur, it would have occurred after the events above. Regardless, it was clear to me that Mendel was a dedicated scientist, that he met with considerable resistance to his ideas that wasn’t all exactly scientific, and that clearly political forces are at work in the heart of the scientific establishment. So this is one of my reference points. There are factions and power structures in science as there are in most any human communities, and it is my opinion that because of this, trying to draw lines in the way you have suggested may not produce the best results, or at minimum, would slow us down.

        Certainly emphasis should be placed on reconciliation with empirical data. I wouldn’t disagree. That is the heart of the scientific method. But we’re at a juncture where a hundred years of serious effort has yet to reconcile two of our most empirically tested theories ever. Are there any current hypotheses on quantum gravity that are testable? I’d be interested to learn more about them if so…

        Michael

        Liked by 2 people

      • Michael says:

        Also, just in case the pseudoscientist alarm goes off, Mike, this summary of Mendel’s career is on the Physics Today site.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Hi Michael,
          Reliability, and the associated credibility, were the main reasons I was referring to. I think that credibility is important for our civilization. If people start to get the idea that science is just what scientists make up, that will have consequences for things like climate change acceptance, vaccination rates, or creationism in public schools.

          I don’t think simply making a distinction between reliable settled science and speculative science is as problematic as you imply. There’s nothing stopping people from doing whatever exploration (with rigour) that they want. It only requires being honest about the status of their propositions.

          On Mendel, I’m not familiar with him or his work, or have any idea why a grad student might have been told not to visit him. But there are a lot of stories like that in physics. I’m obviously not advocating for anything like that attitude.

          Just because one extreme is wrong, doesn’t mean the only alternative is the other extreme. We need to find a healthy middle ground, where we’re honest about the epistemic status of our ideas, but feel free to explore them. (Again, within reason. If someone wants to mix in theology or known pseudoscience with their science, then I think it’s right to question their competence.)

          Like

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