The answer to that question will decide what science is. And scientists are asking it now.
String theory, the multiverse and other ideas of modern physics are potentially untestable. At a historic meeting in Munich, scientists and philosophers asked: should we trust them anyway?
The crisis, as Ellis and Silk tell it, is the wildly speculative nature of modern physics theories, which they say reflects a dangerous departure from the scientific method. Many of today’s theorists — chief among them the proponents of string theory and the multiverse hypothesis — appear convinced of their ideas on the grounds that they are beautiful or logically compelling, despite the impossibility of testing them. Ellis and Silk accused these theorists of “moving the goalposts” of science and blurring the line between physics and pseudoscience. “The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable,” Ellis and Silk wrote, thereby disqualifying most of the leading theories of the past 40 years. “Only then can we defend science from attack.”
They were reacting, in part, to the controversial ideas of Richard Dawid, an Austrian philosopher whose 2013 book String Theory and the Scientific Method identified three kinds of “non-empirical” evidence that Dawid says can help build trust in scientific theories absent empirical data. Dawid, a researcher at LMU Munich, answered Ellis and Silk’s battle cry and assembled far-flung scholars anchoring all sides of the argument for the high-profile event last week. More.
Natalie Wolchover has a very good article at Quanta, entitled A Fight for the Soul of Science, reporting on the recent Munich conference discussed here. David Gross sounds a little bit like John Horgan, emphasizing the problem of HEP physics getting too difficult, with an “End of Science” danger. I think he has the problem right:
“The issue in confronting the next step,” said Gross, “is not one of ideology but strategy: What is the most useful way of doing science?”
I hadn’t realized quite how radical Dawid is. He seems to have moved on from discussing theory “assessment” to theory “confirmation”. Even the most devoted string theorists like Gross may be unwilling to sign on to this, comfortable with the idea that string theory deserves a positive assessment, as a promising idea still worth working on, much less so with claims from Dawid that one can sensibly discuss string theory as a “confirmed” theory, one that belongs in our school textbooks.
Once a theory is in the textbooks, it needn’t be science at all. Popular culture takes over. Hence the drive to get to textbook. After which, the textbook, however irrelevant to reality, rules.
It becomes a religion funded at public expense.
See also: The war on falsifiability
The Dover case, John West, and intelligent design
I’m glad if the American public education scandal is no longer a big part of the ID community’s issues.
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