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Did Karl Popper really kill particle physics? Would a jury convict him?

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Karl Popper (1902-1994)

From Sabine Hossenfelder at Backreaction:

Popper is dead. Has been dead since 1994 to be precise. But also his philosophy, that a scientific idea needs to be falsifiable, is dead.

And luckily so, because it was utterly impractical. In practice, scientists can’t falsify theories. That’s because any theory can be amended in hindsight so that it fits new data. Don’t roll your eyes – updating your knowledge in response to new information is scientifically entirely sound procedure.

But she qualifies:

Even in his worst moments Popper never said a theory is scientific just because it’s falsifiable. That’s Popper upside-down and clearly nonsense. Unfortunately, upside-down Popper now drives theory-development, both in cosmology and in high energy physics.

It’s not hard to come up with theories that are falsifiable but not scientific. By scientific I mean the theory has a reasonable chance of accurately describing nature. (Strictly speaking it’s not an either/or criterion until one quantifies “reasonable chance” but it will suffice for the present purpose.)

She offers an example:

You’d think that scientists know better. But two years ago I sat in a talk by Professor Lisa Randall who spoke about how dark matter killed the dinosaurs. Srsly. This was when I realized the very same mistake befalls professional particle physicists. More.

Hossenfelder takes issue with Randall’s view that her thesis is scientific because it can be tested.

Yes, we remember Randall, the dark matter and the dinosaurs. Whatta film awaits…

Anyway, our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon offers to interpret:

If you delete the title, the remainder of the article is certainly both timely and apt. Sabine Hossenfelder has identified a very, very serious problem in physics that is costing taxpayers $bn in unnecessary experiments, and she needed a catchy title. In the middle of the article she exonerates Popper, but not his followers.

What constitutes a good particle physics theory? Just because it uses empirical support doesn’t make it true.

She ties her concerns with physics to the larger concern with psychology and pharmacology fields which are largely unrepeatable. As she says quite eloquently, you can’t use the same data set to construct a theory and also confirm it. But what she doesn’t say, is that this is what theoretical physics is doing!

That is, they have a summary of all known particles and fields—I even downloaded it once. This data set is then inverted to a recipe that cranks out all those particles given a set of adjustable variables. The recipe has no more information in it than the original data, but at least it has no less. Theorists can then add terms in specific locations that don’t disturb the existing particles and call it a new theory. But as Sabine says, it isn’t a new theory–it isn’t even a new hat, it’s just a gaudy hatpin. And there are just about an infinite number of such hatpins, all vying for federal research dollars. To date about $1bn has been spent on ground-based dark matter hatpins, another $1bn for future space-based DM hatpins, and that isn’t even counting the $10bn for CERN upgrades. As Sabine herself notes, this fetish with hatpins is very much like adding epicycles to Ptolemy. We can get as close to any answer we desire with enough epicycles, but it isn’t a very satisfying solution.

She doesn’t say it explicitly, but theoretical physicists need to stop trying to add terms to the Standard Model to account for dark matter. Ditto for experiments. We have had 5 or 6 liquid Xenon experiments looking for dark matter, do we really need a seventh? And the justification, often attributed to Edison that “we now know 9900 materials that don’t work for light bulbs”, won’t work for particle physics because unlike filaments, there are an infinite number of theories, so eliminating one more is not diminishing our ignorance one iota!

I’d like to broaden her concern to include biology, linguistics and chemistry—that we are using a bad method for constructing new theories. Why should we accept the existing recipes as valid? Why are we so willing to accept the existing data sets as error-free? The transition from Ptolemy to Copernicus required a completely new approach that initially was less accurate than the original. It even undermined the metaphysical perfection of a circle, replacing circular orbits with ellipses. (“Right, Kepler, put one of those on your cart and drive it! And if you don’t like it, why should God?”) The point made by Thomas Kuhn (and many others), was that metaphysics drives our meta-theory theorizing. We have to be willing to trash the whole system, theology and all, if we want to find something better. Adding one more item to the recipe is not even good cooking, much less good metaphysics. Kuhn likened it to sweeping the floors of a metaphysical skyscraper, when what we need is a new building.

And that is precisely what Sabine doesn’t know how to do. But that is what ID does. Surely if we can help biologists get past Darwin, we can help Sabine get past the Standard Model.

<em>Teapot</em> Cobalt Blue Our ID 800 number is sure to be online somewhere. 😉 No bots.

See also: Karl Popper on “adaptive” as a tautology

Dark matter killed off the dinosaurs


Question for multiverse theorists: To what can science appeal, if not evidence?

5 Replies to “Did Karl Popper really kill particle physics? Would a jury convict him?

  1. 1
    FourFaces says:

    One thing is certain. Karl Popper killed Einstein’s physics. The following is an excerpt from Conjectures and Refutations in which Sir Karl compared Einstein to Parmenides of Elea who, along with his more famous protégé, Zeno, used a series of clever thought experiments to support their claim that change and motion were impossible:

    At the same time I realized that such myths may be developed, and become testable; that historically speaking all — or very nearly all — scientific theories originate from myths, and that a myth may contain important anticipations of scientific theories. Examples are Empedocles’ theory of evolution by trial and error, or Parmenides’ myth of the unchanging block universe in which nothing ever happens and which, if we add another dimension, becomes Einstein’s block universe (in which, too, nothing ever happens, since everything is, four-dimensionally speaking, determined and laid down from the beginning). I thus felt that if a theory is found to be non-scientific, or “metaphysical” (as we might say), it is not thereby found to be unimportant, or insignificant, or “meaningless,” or “nonsensical.” But it cannot claim to be backed by empirical evidence in the scientific sense — although it may easily be, in some genetic sense, the “result of observation.”

    Popper is saying that spacetime is a block universe and that nothing can move in it, regardless of the claims of a billion relativists. In Objective Knowledge, Popper also wrote disparagingly regarding relativity theory:

    There was also another intrusion of the subject, or of the observer, when Einstein brought in the observer in a number of imaginary thought experiments intended to elucidate relativity; but this is a field from which the observer was exorcised, slowly but steadily, by Einstein himself.

    Most of physics is a farce.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Useful science either solves a real problem or answers a puzzle. Problem: How do we increase soybean yield in droughts? Puzzle: How do pigeons navigate?

    Neither of these activities has ANY use for theories. Theories only solve one problem: “How do I get more prestige and a bigger grant?”

    Abandon all theories.

    Follow Carver:

    LOOK about you. Take HOLD of the THINGS that are HERE. TALK to them. LET them talk to you.

  3. 3
    Bob O'H says:

    polistra – how can you breed for drought resistance in soya beans without a theory of inheritance? You may not be aware, but a lot of plant and animal breeding relies on quantitative genetic theory. If a trait is controlled by several genes, then with good breeding designs, breeders can calculate the genetic worth of an individual (its breeding value), from which they can predict the breeding value of its relatives, and thus what their phenotype (e.g. drought resistance) would be. In order to do this, they need a lot of mathematical theory – quantitative genetics – which shows how phenotypes can be predicted from genotypes, and how genotypes (and this phenotypes) are inherited.

  4. 4
    vmahuna says:

    Bob O’H @ 3

    One of the strongest critics of Darwin was Luther Burbank, who practically invented the science of reliably producing plant hybrids. Like Mendel before him, Burbank worked by experimentation with real live plants and took note of what actually worked and what did not.

    Mendel and Burbank produced some theories at the end, but their empirical work was much more useful. That is, anyone can produce hybrids in their garden without ever learning any of the technical science. The technical science is mostly of interest to people who want to get paid for never leaving the lab.

  5. 5
    Bob O'H says:

    vmahuna – you’re right that anyone can produce hybrids in their garden, and indeed that’s what Mendel did. The reason his work was ignored for so long is because he interpreted it in terms of hybridisation. i.e. he didn’t realise what his results meant because he was using the wrong theory.

    The technical science is mostly of interest to people who want to get paid for never leaving the lab.

    Um, no. Practical breeding relies on the technical science: breeding designs and pedigrees are used to estimate breeding values (and more recently also using DNA markers for marker aided selection), and experiments are run using properly designed field trials so that the yield (and other characteristics) are well estimated. This is simply how things are done in animal and plant breeding. Just producing hybrids and hoping some are really good is a really inefficient approach.

    It’s not wholly irrelevant to note that a lot of the early development of these methods were done by a committed Christian.

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