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Rob Sheldon responds to Sabine Hossenfelder’s loss of faith in science


Readers may recall that we covered her comments a couple of days ago: She asks in her vid intro: “Why do particle physicists constantly make wrong predictions?

Experimental physicist Rob Sheldon writes to us to say,

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Sabine is building up a quite a following because she is willing to say “the emperor has no clothes” about her very smart colleagues. As she reports, this doesn’t make her popular with fellow particle theorists, and accordingly she has switched fields to “foundations of quantum mechanics”. But she still gives seminars on why particle physicists are barking up the wrong tree. It is worth watching the video to hear her explain what is wrong with particle theory. There’s a very nice discussion of the difference between “valid theorizing” and “curve fitting”. It’s a discussion we never had in grad school, but should have. And this is pretty general, it is true in “magnetospheric physics” which is my specialty, it is true in “gamma ray bursters” it is true in “x-ray binaries”, “big bang nucleosynthesis”, “galactic formation” and I could go on. Sabine, however, doesn’t generalize to the malaise affecting all science, but only focusses on the problems in her specialty, theoretical particle physics.

She explains why particle physics has been wrong for 40 years–they are making up pseudo-problems for their extra complications to solve, when the simple model works perfectly fine. She says there are only 2 reasons to make a new theory: a) data contradiction, b) internal inconsistency. But pseudo problems are neither of these things.

Sabine doesn’t mention it, but many of the “pseudo-problems” of the past, did turn out to be real problems, which in her video she calls “Necessary”. It is easy to call something “inevitable” or “necessary” in hindsight, but how does one do this in foresight? She says “a) data contradiction, b) internal inconsistency” but neither of these criteria apply to “extrapolation” which is what her toy example with Bob is all about.

What is extrapolation? Predicting the future, where we don’t have data yet. In other words, Sabine says we shouldn’t make new models to predict the future—that isn’t useful science.

Then she launches into a rebuttal of the 4 reasons her former particle theorist colleagues say that Sabine is wrong:
1) “Nothing is broken. The field is doing fine.” Sabine says 40 years of lack of progress, with 40 years of wrong predictions is not normal, and we should not normalize it. (The field is losing graduate students, which means the end is nigh.)
2) “Being wrong isn’t a big deal, e.g. Edison tried 2000 materials for his incandescent lightbulb” Sabin says that resources are limited, and billions of $ have been spent on fruitless searches for dark matter, axions, SUSY, sterile neutrinos, etc, that could have been more fruitfully used. We have built a lot of useless equipment, and used up our good will with government to no purpose. “And besides”, she says, “in what other area of science do we falsify 1000’s of wrong predictions and say `it doesn’t matter’?”
3) “Serendipity—we might find something else there.” Sabine says, “that’s a poor strategy, because in fact, it doesn’t work. But if that is the motivation, they should put it in their proposals” (which they don’t because it would look silly.)
4) “It worked in the past”–that is, building a bigger particle collider always found new particles in the past. Sabine objects, and says that past breakthroughs were necessary problems, not pseudo-problems.

What do I think? Sabine is too restrictive on giving only 2 reasons for a new theory. Einstein’s famous paper about QM was entitled “Is a QM theory incomplete?” For Einstein, there also existed metaphysical reasons for a new theory. And while I agree with points (1) and (2), her analysis of (3) and (4) miss the mark.

Serendipity DID work in the past. The cyclotron was invented “because we could” not because we had a theoretical problem to solve. Theorists were funded AFTER experimentalists. Today it is backward, no one builds a new collider until there are thousands of (wrong) theory papers begging for it. This “cart before the horse” is a consequence of government funding. As an experimentalist, I would build a new particle collider if I could without writing a single government proposal or making a single wrong theory. She is focussing on the wrong results of theory, without seeing that it was governments who made that step necessary. In the best of all possible worlds, the theorists would wait for the data from the new colliders before making a theory. But we don’t live in that world.

The real problem or real question is why new particle colliders have failed to turn up any new particles. That’s the question that needs addressing. Sabine thinks it is because the Standard Model is complete—but if so, what does that say about the “end of particle physics”?

Sabine gives the impression that she can easily tell a pseudo problem from a necessary problem, but I would beg to differ. This ability to distinguish takes discernment, and while Sabine is generally a very sharp cookie, she demonstrates her lack of discernment when it comes to global warming, Covid-19, genetic technology, and the like. What Sabine’s analysis lacks is a genuine interest in metaphysics—why we make some problem important, what makes a theory a pseudo-problem. It’s more than “unnecessary complications”, because that begs the question “what makes it unnecessary?” She really needs to up her game on metaphysics, which clearly she is loath to do. And for good reason—it doesn’t sell videos, nor please her implicit “objective scientism” metaphysics.

Her criticism of Popper (or perhaps, a criticism of Popperism) shows that she is vaguely aware of metaphysics. She even says something nice about Feyerabend in her blog. But that’s about as far as her scientism can go.

Because scientism denies any limits to knowledge. Scientism balks at admitting an Intelligent Designer. It places human rationality as the arbiter of science—not divine rationality. It prefers “random chance” to “design of the Designer” , which often gives ridiculous numbers—like the probability of spontaneous life or the size of the cosmological constant. When Sabine hits one of these ridiculous numbers, she doesn’t invoke “fine tuning” (the ID answer) instead she invokes “that’s just the way it is” which is a showstopper answer. On the other hand, when she wants to ask a question, say, about QM entanglement which the Copenhagen school say “that’s just the way it is”, she insists there’s an inconsistency that still needs addressing. In other words, her metaphysics is arbitrarily applied, and this is supposed to explain why progress has stopped in particle physics?

Why has progress stopped, what holds scientism back from better metaphysics? Intelligent design. If we start asking “How would a good God design particle physics?” then already we have excluded some 90% of the pseudo-problems. For example, let’s try to answer the question, “why have new particle colliders not found any new (heavier) particles?” using metaphysics.

a) if the universe is designed, is it finite or infinite?
You may think otherwise, but I think only God is infinite, and all his creations finite. The universe is finite.
b) In a finite universe, is there an upper bound on the heaviest particle in it?
Yes, the heaviest particle cannot be heavier than the finite mass of the universe.
c) In a finite universe, is there a lower bound on the lightest particle in it?
Yes, since wavelength is inversely proportional to mass, a particle cannot have a wavelength larger than the universe. (Photons are a special case.)
d) if one could build a particle collider of any size, could it find an infinite set of subatomic particles?
No, the masses are bounded above and below. There is a limit reached by such a hypothetical particle collider when it will not find any more particles.
e) When will we reach that limit?
Very good question, and one worth exploring. But notice it is not the question posed either by Sabine or her colleagues.

So you see, our metaphysics discriminates between good theories and bad theories, between necessary and pseudo-problems. And ultimately, as our scientism abandons intelligent design, it finds more pseudo-problems than real problems, and progress stalls. We expend all our resources on useless experiments, to answer questions no one should have asked.

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Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II .

So you see, our metaphysics discriminates between good theories and bad theories, between necessary and pseudo-problems.
Rob, let me add to your examples. This example comes from my real-life experience. As I began my journey into physics starting almost twenty years ago, I began to reflect on what I was learning about the forces of nature. While forces could be either attractive or repulsive, as in EM, they were always proportional to the inverse of the distance squared between "particles." Now, as we know, the larger the force, the smaller the distance between particles. So, I began to ask myself how this inverse square law could continue on and on--"turtles all the way down." From a purely metaphysical perspective (that is, all that exists comes from a God who creates), it struck me that for this inverse square law to continue on and on not only didn't make sense--logically unappealing, it was "ugly." God is the Author of Beauty. The Laws He would have chosen had to be elegant. I then became convinced that at some point, forces between particles would be found to increase with increasing distance. I had heard of "asymptotic freedom," yes, but had no real understanding of what it meant. You consider what a pleasant surprise it was to find out that inside protons and neutrons, the force between quarks (mediated by 'gluons') decreases with decreasing distance, so that as they approach one another they become "free" of one another. Purely "metaphysical." And I got the right answer, didn't I? ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ What Sabine is talking about is that for over a century, particle physics has used scattering as a way of examining particle interactions. Higher and higher energies; smaller and smaller distances. More and more data; more and more confidence in the "standard model." But the point is that using the techniques of Yukawa meson theory has brought great results, but surely there's more to our physical world that this one simply model. People need to think "outside the box." That's where Einstein lived up to his "miracle year." Recently, I've begun to follow the work of Neil Turok. He's someone who thinks outside the box. He tries to keep things "simple;" just as I did with particle forces and force laws. I don't know what his metaphysics is, but I do appreciate his free way of thinking--it's not groupthink. I once had a conversation with a highly-regarded particle physicist. It didn't last long. Why? Because what I was suggesting violated the "Law of Conservation of Energy." I was suggesting a different understanding of the "vacuum" that would actually solve--at least 'qualitatively,' the problem of the vacuum energy calculation. Now here's this world-renown physicist invoking "Conservation of Energy" which ends up giving you a value for the vacuum energy that is 10^120 "greater" than the 'measure' energy. [I believe their error comes from QFT and its insistence that particles and their anti-particles (electrons and positrons) are produced by the vacuum. While they're produced "in" the vacuum, they are always produced and, as far as I can tell, only when the high energy photon (gamma ray) is "near" a nucleus. (Hint, Hint) I agree with you, Rob, that metaphysics is the purifying ointment of science. Modern science as we know it began when theologians/philosophers said that the Bible indicates something they called "inertia." Interestingly, as atheism reaches its zenith in science/physics, physics/science is falling apart. May those with eyes "see" what is happening.PaV
February 14, 2023
04:56 PM
Food for thought!kairosfocus
February 13, 2023
11:46 PM

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