Is the Scientific Method obsolete?

Today’s issue of the NYT (June 7, 2015), in its Sunday Review section, contains a reasonably fair commentary titled “A crisis at the edge of physics,” by Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser, both respected professionals in modern physics. The authors refer back to a December 2014 article in Nature magazine, Scientific Method: Defending the integrity of physics, by George Ellis and Joe Silk, which criticizes the tendency among many modern physicists for suggesting—explicitly—that the need for the testing of theories should be abandoned in favor of some method of applying a lesser test or tests, among them something called “elegance,” and/or “explanatory power,” thus ‘breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.’

This is a position that has been argued for a number of years now, possibly, or even probably, out of despair because of the continued failure of physicists to resolve the conflicts between the two “accepted” standard models of physics and cosmology (quantum mechanics on the one hand, and General Relativity and the big bang on the other) or to make progress toward combining them into a reasonable unified theory. This resolution, of course, has been the holy grail of the past hundred years or so among theorists and has, unfortunately, been the generator of multiple speculative schools of thought and speculative theories with the common characteristic of being fundamentally untestable.

Speculation is, of course, not a bad thing in and of itself, what if? being the fundamental first step in any theoretical endeavor. The scientific argument is whether these speculations can be brought into a testable state. The last several years, however, has seen the birth of a wide range of these so far untestable scientific speculations, chief among them the various versions of string theory, supersymmetry, and the multiverse. String theory has now been around for over thirty years and its “practitioners” now number in the thousands at many universities and institutes around the world, soaking up millions of dollars in research grants and university budgets, to the dismay of its critics who point out, correctly, that it has yet to generate a single testable hypothesis. To this thinker, it has only one real virtue. It suggests that the universe is filled, that is, it is not a vacuum, and that this filling consists of tiny, as yet undetectable strings of something, which goes into making up all of the higher forms of matter and energy that we can and do detect. Why strings? That is not explained. Perhaps it is because strings can be wound up, twisted, tied in knots, to have a mechanical function, a simplistic notion that has been around for millennia.

I think there may be two reasons for this mood of despair. One is just tiredness. It’s been almost a hundred years with no progress, no connection. Let’s give up. People have believed for thousands of years that some things are just unknowable, why not this. So we have two theories that seem almost right, maybe that’s all we’re going to get. They’re both somewhat elegant and they both seem to work pretty well as they are, so let’s just—well, not exactly change the rules—just maybe move the goalposts a little bit, so we can relax a little, declare victory and go home, maybe? Besides, most people are convinced that these hundred-year-old theories are correct, aren’t they? An army of experts are usually right, after all.

That’s one reason.

But what if there is  another reason for our failure to resolve this issue? What if one of those beliefs is actually wrong? or, God forgive, what if both of them are wrong? What if we’ve been running down the wrong track all this time? They seem to work, but only if we accept some assumptions about things we’ve never seen, just assumed they must be there. I know, Einstein invented spacetime out of nothing, but it enabled him to create a beautiful theory, didn’t it? And exchanging the probability of something for real knowledge made it possible to create some gorgeous equations about the movements of tiny particles, doesn’t that count for something?

Well, no.

Let’s look at those “true” theories a little closer. Einstein must have known that there was some sort of medium out there, else light and other radiation had no medium to carry them. But the idea of an “ether” had been debunked nearly 20 years before. There were no particles in space that slowed down light, so it must be empty, and inserting something would really mess up these beautiful equations, so let’s just assume that this (hypothetical) spacetime thing is real. It gives us a neat way to describe gravity, after all. And besides, if it’s hypothetical nobody can ever prove it isn’t true, can they.

An important example.

In 1898, Ludwig Boltzmann published the second volume of his Lectures on Gas Theory, but was not optimistic about its acceptance. The theorists arrayed against his assertions, based on the particulate theories of gases, were three formidable opponents, Wilhelm Ostwald, George Helm, and Ernst Mach, who had together and separately argued for an antiatomic theory which came to be called energetics. “Ostwald believed that a grand scheme could be formulated that encompassed all of the fields of science, beginning with the energy concept as a unifying principle. He was convinced that energy fluxes and transformations determined the laws of physics and chemistry.” [1] Mach did not fully subscribe to energetics but was described as an ardent antiatomist. He did not accept the existence of atoms and molecules because he could find no direct evidence for their existence. He found Boltzmann’s explanations of the second law of thermodynamics as a consequence of molecular chaos as superficial, based as they were on unverifiable assumptions. While Ostwald later came to accept Boltzmann’s conclusions, his acceptance was based on another set of circular arguments, principal among which was the common belief that all was particles, another unprovable assumption. The proofs came from two other theoreticians, Einstein, in his 1905 paper making a gas analogy with ‘colloidal’ particles in solutions, and J. J. Thompson’s so-called “discovery” of the electron, also based on the particulate assumption. Here we have an almost exact parallel with quantum mechanics, which stands and falls on the presumed existence of particles. With these two thinkers arrayed against it, energetics fell into obscurity from which it is only now re-emerging.

What was missing from Ostwald, Helm, and Mach’s model was a physical concept of what they referred to as the world-ether and any explanation of how the rest of the ponderable universe could have arisen from it, even though they had all of Helmholtz, Hertz, and Maxwell’s work on the existence and behavior of fields to rely upon. Einstein himself finally came to believe that the ether had to have some form of substance, a level of energy to support its role as a carrier of electromagnetic phenomena, but his math had no need of it, so it was never included in his theories. And all of them were prisoners of the concept that energy must just be a quality of the real fundamental entities, the particles, rather than being a phenomenon in and of itself, out of which something resembling particles might arise and be identified.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, and on up to the hierarchy of complexity we live with today, instead of a simple unified model that can explain the entire dimensional range of objects, events, and phenomena we now recognize mas making up the real world. The step not taken was to see the ether as an electromagnetic field, a step which might have turned on the real light of discovery.

So, the second reason that the two accepted theories of physics and cosmology cannot be reconciled, and why some are ready to abandon experimental verification as part of the scientific method, is that both of those “standard theories” are simply wrong. They try to explain two separate aspects of nature based on faulty, hypothetical assumptions rather than on observable phenomena. They are based on “elegant” mathematical models not confirmable in reality. They are still rooted in a Platonic notion of the ideal, attainable in mathematics but not in the real world. Quite simply, nature, left to its own devices, is rough, not smooth,. Only the math is smooth. Plato’s smooth, perfect ideal was something given by the gods. The modern physicist’s ideal is a construct created by the math. It was wrong in Plato’s time and it is wrong today. No two snowflakes are alike, no two humans, no two galaxies. Circumspice. Look about you, not at your formulae.

[1] Great Physicists, William H. Cropper, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 198

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About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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One Response to Is the Scientific Method obsolete?

  1. pallsopp42 says:

    Chuck. Nice article! There’s a chat going on on the LinkedIn Theoretical Physics forum about mass. I’ve added a couple of comments to this but I’ve noticed that some folks tend to repeat the mantras of physics such as particle-wave duality and other bits from Newton and Einstein, but the answer to the question “What is mass?” tends to get lost…..

    Best

    Phil

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