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Defend the integrity of physics

This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.  As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.

read more here  :smiley:

http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

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Interestingly, the philosophy of science and attempts to define what it is have a long and complex history and the roots of the problem can be traced back to Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. One of the essential problems from a philosophical perspective is that in the ultimate analysis all theories and beliefs are regulated by some metaphysical view on the nature of reality.

This can simply be highlighted by quoting a very reasonable position in science: "I am a physicist who sees reality as composed of objects that kick back at you when you kick them. Kick a rock with your foot, and it kicks back. Kick an atom or an electron with a photon and it kicks a photon back to you. By measuring the properties of these photons, you can learn about the atom or electron." (Victor Stenger).

The scientist here wishes to argue that kicking particles and watching what happens when they kick back provides a true picture of reality, as opposed, say, to a model or map that might be instrumentally useful. This is a big metaphysical assumption, the assumption of naturalism. Even if he were right to argue this, how could he ever prove or know that he is right?

As Karl Popper wrote, "I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method."

If we agreed with Popper and his solution to naturalism by adding the demarcation of falsification, we would have to include astrology as a science by definition, for after all, it has demonstrably been demonstrated to be false :p

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This was one of the nicer articles I found on the matter. The comments are worth a read too.

http://www.science20.com/the_hammock_physicist/falsifiability_and_the_integrity_of_physics-151714

And I came across a quote that seems to fit quite well too.

 In complicated situations, fortune-cookie-sized mottos like "theories should be falsifiable" are no substitute for careful thinking about how science works. Fortunately, science marches on, largely heedless of amateur philosophizing.

http://edge.org/response-detail/25322

I don't think the integrity of science or the scientific method is in question.

Misunderstood by some perhaps?

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and to 'maybe' try and add a littte more to that already added by Qualia and JB80 ..

It matters not how or why or what we think today, our current methods, ideas, wishes, desires, feelings etc etc etc will eventually most likely not apply to far off future methods, ideas, wishes, desires, feelings etc etc etc. Although in some way they always will, due to cause and effect (past and future), so fear not, so all is not lost :undecided:

Every now and then, you just have to remind yourself that even though we may currently like the way things are at the moment, nothing stays the same, change will always happen, no matter what. Whether it's for the good, or bad (as we currently see it), unfortunately doesn't come into it, which is I know hard to accept :(

But, yes I agree, real science really ought to be based on experimental evidence. But then, where does that leave the Big Bang theory, et all?

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I get the slightly worrying notion that some science proselytisers would like

their theoretical [and other!] ideas to enjoy unquestioning acceptance,

public sympathy, infinite budgets, and a regular series with the BBC etc. :D

Some things will never be proved / understood. I sense science struggles

a bit with lack of (conventionally) exciting discoveries? Future accelerators 

can ever only liberate so much energy, compared to the Planck scale?

I fear we may have entered the "discovery desert" sometimes predicted. :o

It seems common to cite SUSY Physicists as being an "expensive luxury"?

Most I knew were (clever!) experimentalists, theorising in their spare time.

But therein, the complementary roles of theoretician and experimentalist

is underlined. If we are to find anything new, research will be painstaking.

I still have the hope that "independent" experimental proof will remain the

mainstay of science. Naked careerists move to journalism & banking? lol

Hope springs re. (recent trends) reinstating science practicals in school?

Building / maintaining "hardware" was a big (fun) part of my science... :)

Edited by Macavity
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In response to some of the posts above:

True the world changes, but the solutions to logical analyses do not (unless they were wrong and therefore NOT the solutions).

Claiming that astrology has been falsified by the scientific method does not make astrology `scientific', only the rejection of astrology for prediction is scientific.

The Big Bang Theory has no special status here, and truly is subject to criticism. 

A lot of these issues can be dealt with by use of appropriate  terminology. Perhaps we should be using phrases such as conjecture or hypotheses rather than theory in many cases, in order to distinguish between the different levels of scientific development.

We might call string theory a conjecture, super-symmetry (which is partly testable) hypothesis, and relativity a theory (for example). Then no one can claim too much regarding a complicated idea at the the limits of applicability. The big bang `theory' before inflation would be a conjecture.

Getting back to the article here, the problem with `amateur philosophy' is that if it constructs arguments which undermine the value of science in society then there will be consequences. Logical criticisms, even generated by amateurs, may non-the less be valid. We should not judge logical arguments on the basis of who those who originate them (out of the mouths of babes...).  :smiley:

Edited by Laurie61
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I agree, the Big Bang 'theory' is certainly not a theory, it's nothing more than an idea of what we think may have happened (based on our current thinking). It's untestable (so not a theory), it's not a testable prediction (so not a hypothesis), so that leaves, as you say, conjecture, as are other scientific 'ideas' that appear to be considered theory or hypothesis by the amateur community.

So long as the professional scientific community doesn't follow the amateur scientific community with it's thinking about what appears to be or not to be, then they ought to be OK - for now.

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I don't think the integrity of science or the scientific method is in question.

Misunderstood by some perhaps?

This wil be quite a long reply, so bear with me.

The example of Galileo

The common story is that Galileo check-mated Aristotle and found that all objects fell at the same rate. What some people aren't aware of is that what Galileo found was a good deal more complicated. Sometimes heavier objects fell quicker. Other times lighter objects fell quicker. However, Galileo was never inclined to reject or ammend his theory. Sure, he used experiment to test his theory, but when it didn't work out he kept his theory because of theoretical - not empricial - reasons.

Philosophers found not only Galileo's approach intriguing but were equally alarmed by the reaction against him which amounted to house arrest for life. They wondered how should science proceed and whether there was a clear method to it, so that it could not only be demarcated but just as importantly protected from pseudo sciences and ecclesiastical authority.

Induction

Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Galileo, advocated the method of induction. The idea was simple. Scientists ought to gather as much data as possible and then infer general theories from them, all the while taking care not to allow any assumptions or theories to influence the findings.  Needless to say, the idea of somehow stopping ourselves from having prior thoughts is impossible, so too with the logical impossibility of deriving general laws from facts.

Deduction

To escape these dilemmas, Newton came up the principle of deduction. First, you have an idea, a hypothesis. Then, you try to figure out the consequences of your hypothesis, a deduction. The final stage is to test these assumptions and expectations and, by so doing, verify the theory. As such, it matters not how you arrived at the theory only that it is confirmed by experiment.

Philosophers set the deductive method out in logical form and found problems with it. Newton wants to say:

Premise 1: If theory T is true, then we would expect to see a set of facts or results Q.

Premise 2: We see Q.

Conclusion: Therefore, theory T is true.

The problem here is that this is a text book example of a logical fallacy called affirming the consequent. Here's Newton's deduction method in simple terms:

Premise 1: If it rains the streets are wet.

Premise 2: The streets are wet.

Conclusion: Therefore, it has rained.

The wet streets could have been caused by a number of other reasons. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. The flaw renders the deductive method problematic to say the least.

Abduction

So we've got serious problems with the scientific method of induction and deduction. So, what exactly is the scientific method that makes a theory scientific and not otherwise?

To prevent the devastating critique that if there really was a 'scientific method', then it rested on a foundation of fallacious thinking, philosophers of science came up with the principle of inference to the best explanation. In logical form it is written thus:

P1: Facts B have been observed.

P2: The conditional, If A, then B can explain facts B.

C: Therefore, A.

This is very much like the method of deduction only that now A is the best explanation for B. Sadly, this principle doesn't come without its problems. One is how to define 'best'. Another is how it can cope with Hume's problem of causation and is/ ought (it can't).

Falsification

Such was the state of affairs as we entered the twentieth century. Scientists, of course, went about their work - many unread in philosophy - and went about it the best way they could, often with outstanding results. But this is beside the point. Philosophers were not looking at the utilitarian results of science, just as the utilitarian results of voodoo dancing wasn't of much concern, but were wondering on what foundation of knowledge science rested upon.

The British philosopher Hume had demolished any recourse one could have to a dependency on induction, on causation and generalising from facts to ground a 'scientific method' or 'scientific theory' and even if the unversed babbled on about the great principle of induction, for example, philosophically speaking, logically speaking, it was in a shambles.

It wasn't Kant rising from his slumbers that could address Hume face on, but Popper. To avoid Hume's problem of induction, he suggested that science should proceed in a deductive fashion: scientists propose theories (from daydreaming, from visions, from whatever) and then try to falsify them. A theory that can withstand falsification may be wrong but it is nevertheless a good one, for the time being. A theory that is falsified is discarded. And a theory that in principle cannot be falsified is rendered non-scientific.

The debate is complex but needeless to say, Popper's principle failed to take into account very obvious practices throughout the history of science that had gone against the principle of falsification but were nonetheless scientific theories. There were also direct attacks on the principle itself and hence falsification crumbled under the philosopher's spy glass.

Back to the OP

As a result of four hundred years of intense debate on what exactly is the famous 'scientific method' and what exactly grounds it without recourse to fallacious thinking and sloppy thought, philosophers wondered if the notion itself was coherent. Perhaps there wasn't a singular and unique way of going about science afterall and that the scientific method so often used in the singular was in fact a whole host of practices, none more worthy than any other.

Indeed, it appears that the sciences were not unified after all and each branch was employing different methodologies and very often within the same field. This disunity of the scientific enterprise has gained sufficient recognition and as the OP demonstrates, many scientists and philosophers alike are generally not likely to talk about The scientific method as if there was only one.

Instead, folk are beginning to acknowledge - as many of the philosophers and scientists were already saying - that there is host of ways of bettering our understanding of reality and the universe about us and one way does not have precedence over all the others.

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That is a great post Rob and I think you have outlined quite well what the article in the OP does not.

I read this(article) early in the morning and my first impressions where quite reactionary(as per the links given), mainly because it didn't sit right with me which I will get to.

There is quite clearly a debate to be had but I don't think it is one as dramatic as the headline of the G.Ellis/Silk proposal. Well actually it may very well be one of the most important debates but I don't think the "Integrity of physics" is in question as much as the authors would like you believe.

Why?

Because I strongly feel that your last paragraph is the correct approach to take and it matches somewhat my own opinion.....

Instead, folk are beginning to acknowledge - as many of the philosophers and scientists were already saying - that there is host of ways of bettering our understanding of reality and the universe about us and one way does not have precedence over all the others.

Ellis, Silk and others mentioned in the debate clearly do not see it that way.

Now I spent a good part of the day reading up on this through various articles, comments and responses on both sides and some big players have chimed in with their opinions and I came out of it more cynical than I arrived.

Not knowing a great deal about the arguments being presented beforehand my honest first impression about the article was it is agenda driven and maybe there is a book launch in the wings. Maybe I was being too critical. After a day of reading I don't think I was being critical enough. It is clear to me as an outsider that the agenda is the same old one of trying to quash another competing theory that you may not agree with.

I guess it is a time honoured tradition so maybe it's not worth getting carried away with but I think it can do more harm than good to the advancement of scientific theory.

The article is clearly an attack and after investigation it turns out it is just another chapter in what has come to be known as the 'String Wars'. A lot of people are seriously peeved(on both sides) about it all. With Ellis and Silk leading the charge.

Like I said earlier there are certainly some important questions to be asked but the hard line stance of some in the debate is to me at least going to out yell the more moderate(perhaps) more objective debate.

I do think it is an interesting subject that I haven't really delved into here but I just couldn't get past the blinkered view in the article and my own cynicism.

At the end of this blog on the original article there are some updates with varying points of view that are well worth a read as are their comments sections. There are more linked blogs etc in the links hence how I spent my afternoon.

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=7413

Edited by JB80
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But, yes I agree, real science really ought to be based on experimental evidence. But then, where does that leave the Big Bang theory, et all?

It leaves the Big Bang exactly where it was, I think. The BB owes its origins primarily to a series of observations by Slipher, Hubble and Humason and secondarily to a theoretical model of EInstein's which accorded with them. This seems to me to be an entirely legitimate birth attended by the midwives of scientific method! SInce then the BB has been the subject of an astonishing number of hypthesis-prediction-observation tests and it has grown as a result - though we don't know that it's right. Yes, on occasion it has spawned 'fixes' like inflation but that's not new either. EInstein wanted to save Maxwell's equations because he thought them too elegant to be wrong. Maybe Alan Guth felt that the BB was too convincing to be wrong.

In a nutshell I think it would be overstating the case against the BB to say that it was advancing without observational evidence. It is the subject of massive investigational investment. That doesn't make it a certainty by a long way but it can hardly be said that it hasn't been tested experimentally.

Olly

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...my honest first impression about the article was it is agenda driven and maybe there is a book launch in the wings. Maybe I was being too critical. After a day of reading I don't think I was being critical enough. It is clear to me as an outsider that the agenda is the same old one of trying to quash another competing theory that you may not agree with.

Brilliant reply, Jarrod and thank you. Seriously, thank you. You've made a lot of wonderful insights, in particular the one quoted :grin:

As always with complex issues, it is never a case of just black and white, the good and the bad, and sadly - in my opinion - the linked reference did not do justice to the complexity of the issue. As you say, critique and questioning is a time honoured and respectable practice that I believe has helped mankind move from the dark ages and an obsequious obedience to prevalent dogma. 

Driving my own reaction to such debate is always the sagacious insights of John Mill. Namely, that by shouting down, limiting or censoring legitimate and sound arguments prevents us from correcting errors by critical discussion. If forbidden opinion turns out to be 'true', we lose the opportunity to learn from its truth. And if the forbidden opinion turns out to be false and unsound, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is so.

Thanks again for your lovely reply. 

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I agree, the Big Bang 'theory' is certainly not a theory, it's nothing more than an idea of what we think may have happened (based on our current thinking). It's untestable (so not a theory), it's not a testable prediction (so not a hypothesis),

Actually, it has been tested, a number of times, and it seems to be the best fit for what we observe. The evidence is pretty copious and includes:

The Cosmic Microwave Background

The abundance of lighter elements

The Tolman tests

The Sachs-Wolfe effect

It's a very common misconception that the BB concerns itself with the origins of the Universe. It doesn't. It concerns itself with the expansion of the Universe AFTER the initial expansion. And it is most certainly a theory, to describe it as "nothing more than an idea" is incorrect.

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Great post I think- we discuss areas that are at the edge of understanding -John  Dobson could not accept the Big Bang -"no school child would accept everything from nothing" -and we invent theories to cover the unexpected acceleration of the Universe - The Big Attractor etc -which is entirely acceptable as a hypothesis but in the realms of speculation - the wonder is that so little is clear and yet to be understood which in our science is great!  -all is transient strange and passing- thank goodness - Tony

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I've taken a bashing on this one lol. Although it may not have changed my thoughts on how we as a lifeform are currently going about things, we each never stop learning.

So the reminders that the big bang 'theory' does not apply to the initial burst of existence of the universe (as we apparently see it) is greatefully received.

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I've taken a bashing on this one lol. Although it may not have changed my thoughts on how we as a lifeform are currently going about things, we each never stop learning.

So the reminders that the big bang 'theory' does not apply to the initial burst of existence of the universe (as we apparently see it) is greatefully received.

Not a bashing!  :grin:

Olly

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I've taken a bashing on this one lol. Although it may not have changed my thoughts on how we as a lifeform are currently going about things, we each never stop learning.

So the reminders that the big bang 'theory' does not apply to the initial burst of existence of the universe (as we apparently see it) is greatefully received.

No bashing here Cath! :smiley:

Here's a good site on the BBT

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/astronomy/bigbang.html

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Surely science is a means of exploring nature.  Science involves testing a hypothesis against real events to see if the hypothesis can be disproved.  Any means of explaining nature that is not tested or testable is just conjecture - it ain't science.

Thus it surely follows that anyone who tries to explain nature purely by conjecture is a philosopher, not a scientist.

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Surely science is a means of exploring nature.  Science involves testing a hypothesis against real events to see if the hypothesis can be disproved.  Any means of explaining nature that is not tested or testable is just conjecture - it ain't science.

Thus it surely follows that anyone who tries to explain nature purely by conjecture is a philosopher, not a scientist.

Nail

Head

:icon_salut:

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Science involves testing a hypothesis against real events to see if the hypothesis can be disproved.  Any means of explaining nature that is not tested or testable is just conjecture - it ain't science.

Thus it surely follows that anyone who tries to explain nature purely by conjecture is a philosopher, not a scientist.

I'm not convinced it's as simple as that Michael. This will be quite tricky to fire out in a few words but superficially, we could agree that there is a natural boundary between statements derived from theoretical considerations (conjecture) and those resulting from the unbiased experience of the world available to us through the senses (testable real events).

However, this picture breaks down when we consider it in more depth. Observation is not merely perception. It is a cognitive action that involves perceiving that something is or is not the case. This is to say that observations and experiences of 'real events' and putting them to some test have had to be already-always interpreted to be meaningful and it is this unavoidable involvement of the theoretical dimension that renders the idea of transparent impressions of 'real events' received by a passive mind testing a hypothesis an unsound argument.

On a more rudimentary level, if we were to repeat an experiment, we would repeat all the features of the experiment which a given theory determines are relevant, so we find ourselves repeating the experiment as an example of the theory :grin: .

In either case, theoretical considerations go all the way down.

Rather than being a body of mere 'testable facts', science per se is more a body of knowledge and as such a dynamic process which aims at building a coherent and powerful framework of knowledge reliant and dependent on many factors, not least theoretical, sociological, historical, and yes, emprical evidence.

So much for philosophy :p

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I think there's a difference between the OP's link to an assertion that pure theory can be asserted without observation and still called science, and the realization that observation is compromised by the act of interpretation.

Observationally tested science builds a different kind of picture of the world to purely conjectural approaches. We cannot assert that it is more likely to be truer to reality (though I think it probably is) but we can, at least, assert that it is truer to the world with which we interact in the manner that we do interact with it. This makes it more interesting (to me) since while I realize that there may be nothing more to science than a model of reality as reality interacts with us, I still prefer that to a model without regard to how reality interacts with us. It's the best we can do. Direct access to reality without any interpretation by us is...not very likely to go on the market! (And if it did, how would we know??  :grin: )

Olly

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Observationally tested science builds a different kind of picture of the world to purely conjectural approaches. We cannot assert that it is more likely to be truer to reality (though I think it probably is) but we can, at least, assert that it is truer to the world with which we interact in the manner that we do interact with it.

Interesting point.

There is debate out there that science does describe reality, especially in mathematics. Maths has been described as a Universal Language, whereas a conceptual description of the Universe is dependant on the describers cultural leanings, language and so on.  I personally think that assigning an equal validity to a "theory" that is asserted without evidence. To me, that seems to be wandering into the world of philosophy (lets face it...how many jet aircraft have been built as a result of philosophers arguing???). It's also easy to slip into solipsism. You can argue all you like and however eloquently that gravity doesn't exist, but you'll still smash yourself up if you step out of the 4th storey window....

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To me, that seems to be wandering into the world of philosophy (lets face it...how many jet aircraft have been built as a result of philosophers arguing???).

Wasn't it Aristotle who theorised men have more teeth than women? Since he successfully argued it must be so (for reasons I either forgot or never bothered reading) it was accepted men did indeed have more teeth than women. If only he bothered with a simple experiment of counting teeth...

To me that pretty much sums up theories...they are so much more convincing if there is at least some attempt at providing supporting evidence, otherwise its just philosophy, and even great philosophers can be wrong.

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Wasn't it Aristotle who theorised men have more teeth than women? Since he successfully argued it must be so (for reasons I either forgot or never bothered reading) it was accepted men did indeed have more teeth than women. If only he bothered with a simple experiment of counting teeth...

To me that pretty much sums up theories...they are so much more convincing if there is at least some attempt at providing supporting evidence, otherwise its just philosophy, and even great philosophers can be wrong.

Indeed. It's a bit like medieval physicians blindly throwing out anything that contravened Galen's teaching.

There's an important point to be made here. When the general public uses "theory" they tend to mean speculation or conjecture. In science, "theory" has a very specific meaning.  A theory is Internally consistent and compatible with the evidence, firmly grounded in and based upon evidence, tested against a wide range of phenomena and is effective at problem-solving.

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