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Science

Physicists (String Theorists) and Philosophers Debate the Scientific Method 383

StartsWithABang writes: One of the most damning, albeit accurate, condemnations of String Theory that has been leveled at it is that it's untestable, non-empirical, and offers no concrete predictions or methods of falsification. Yet some have attempted to address this failing not by coming up with concrete predictions or falsifiable tests, but by redefining what is meant by theory confirmation. Many physicists and philosophers have jumped into this debate, and a recently completed workshop has produced no agreements, but lots of interesting perspectives being live blogged by a physicist. Also weighing in is a philosopher in three separate parts.
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Physicists (String Theorists) and Philosophers Debate the Scientific Method

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  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @07:22PM (#51097927) Journal

    When it comes to the "scientific method", you may be surprised that it's more useful and illuminating to query the philosopher than the scientist.

    • by Oligonicella ( 659917 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @07:29PM (#51097949)

      Indeed, I would be incredibly surprised.

      If you can't show me how to test your hypo, it's parlor talk (philosophy).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by PopeRatzo ( 965947 )

        If you can't show me how to test your hypo, it's parlor talk (philosophy).

        Did you read the article?

        • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @08:32PM (#51098189) Journal
          Yes and it is full of tripe like the following:

          Gross proposed to distinguish among frameworks, theories, and models. Classical mechanics, quantum mechanics and string “theory” are not theories, but rather frameworks. Theories are something like Newton’s or Einstein’s theory of gravity, or the unfortunately named Standard “Model.” Theories can be tested, frameworks not so much. Models include the BCS model of superconductivity, or BSM (Beyond Standard Model) models.

          Unfortunately classical mechanics and quantum mechanics can and have been tested. Frameworks in his definition seem to be multiple applications of the same fundamental, physical principles to different situations. These can easily be tested and, for two of the examples given, have been. Then we get gems like:

          According to Gross, since physical phenomena scale as the log(energy), physicists can extrapolate theory to very high energy. Unfortunately, experiments scale only as energy^2, which means that they cannot easily be extrapolated to very high energy.

          which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Just off the top of my head there are the corrections to the Higgs mass which scale as energy squared (which is theory) and I've no idea what it means to say that an experiment scales with energy-squared since, for many experiments, increasing the energy is irrelevant and for others, e.g. a linear accelerator, the energy increases linearly with size.

          • by Pseudonym ( 62607 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @09:25PM (#51098365)

            Classical mechanics, quantum mechanics and string “theory” are not theories, but rather frameworks.

            This is an accurate statement. "Quantum mechanics" isn't a theory by itself. It's a framework in which to construct theories. So, for example, the Dirac theory of the electron is a theory built out of quantum mechanics. Quantum electrodynamics is a theory built out of quantum field theory, and so on.

            The word "theory" in "quantum field theory" or "string theory" is more like the word "theory" in "group theory". Physicists use group theory, but group theory is not a scientific theory in the sense that hard sciences like physics use the term.

          • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Friday December 11, 2015 @12:03AM (#51098825)

            Yes and it is full of tripe like the following:

            You do realize that the quotations you give have to do with a talk by David Gross [wikipedia.org], a Nobel Prize winning particle physicist, right?

            The report you quote is by a philosopher who participated in the conference, but the ideas you mention in the quotation come out of a talk by a PARTICLE PHYSICIST.

            You want to complain about them? Fine. Just be clear that the "tripe" you're citing came from a paper by a physicist talking about the scientific method.

            Oh, and in case you want to question the credentials of the "philosopher" who is reporting on the physicist, the philosopher who wrote the blog is Massimo Piglucci [wikipedia.org], who holds THREE doctorates: a doctorate in genetics, a Ph.D. in biology, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of science.

            He's hardly an ignorant idiot who knows nothing about how "science" is done.

            • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Friday December 11, 2015 @03:29AM (#51099129) Journal

              who holds THREE doctorates: a doctorate in genetics, a Ph.D. in biology, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of science.

              As someone who's now supervised and graduated a few PhD students, I'd say that multiple PhDs, especially in related field is kind of a minus point. A PhD is supposed to teach you how to research and how to get a grounding in the field. The third aspect is actually getting that grounding in the field. You shoudn't need two PhDs in genetics and biology. If you've done one, you ought to be able to pick up the other yourself. Otherwise, you're having someone tell you what to do twice rather than doing your own research the second time.

              Sure for philosophy, it's quite different, but even so a taught masters would probably be better.

              • by Prune ( 557140 )
                Oh, the horror! Quick, let the Nobel Committee know, so they can recall the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics from this no-good Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, David Gross! Shame on him for getting three doctorates and fooling the Nobel Committee that he could have possibly developed enough depth in physics! And then, perhaps they could instead give the prize to you and Slashdot's other resident know-it-all, Roger M. Moore.
              • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Friday December 11, 2015 @07:14AM (#51099551)

                who holds THREE doctorates: a doctorate in genetics, a Ph.D. in biology, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of science.

                As someone who's now supervised and graduated a few PhD students, I'd say that multiple PhDs, especially in related field is kind of a minus point.

                As someone who also has advised and has graduated doctoral students, I'd generally agree with you. Except you need to look over the whole CV in most cases to understand what's going on. This is no exception.

                A PhD is supposed to teach you how to research and how to get a grounding in the field. The third aspect is actually getting that grounding in the field. You shoudn't need two PhDs in genetics and biology. If you've done one, you ought to be able to pick up the other yourself. Otherwise, you're having someone tell you what to do twice rather than doing your own research the second time.

                This is all true, but this specific case is perhaps different. Note that I said the first was a "doctorate," not a Ph.D. That's because it's from Italy. There's two issues there:

                (1) Terminology -- Italian "doctorates" sometimes are actually equivalent to American master's degrees, and sometimes to Ph.D.'s. I haven't looked into seeing exactly how this one would qualify, but if you just had one of the ones that would be viewed as equivalent to a U.S. master's degree, you'd want to get a "real" Ph.D. if you wanted to join academia in the U.S.

                (2) Even if the Italian "doctorate" is roughly equivalent to an American Ph.D., there are various levels of rigor at Italian universities. Many American academics are a bit skeptical of Italian credentials if they aren't familiar with the specific program. If this guy wanted to get hired in American academia, it would probably be easier to do so with a Ph.D. from an American university.

                Sure for philosophy, it's quite different, but even so a taught masters would probably be better.

                Except if you actually want to get an academic JOB as a philosopher. Recall that besides all of your stuff about "getting grounding in the field," a Ph.D. is also a credential to get a job. If you decide mid-career that you actually want to teach/do research at an American university in a very different field, a Ph.D. is the most common expected qualification. If you don't have one in that specific field, it's harder to convince a hiring committee to consider you.

                But all of this is useless theoretical consideration. My point in bringing up the credentials was not to argue that he took the most normal scientific pathway -- my guess is that he took a few turns in figuring out what he wanted to do with his career.

                Rather -- I was just trying to point out that this guy is more than a "philosopher" -- he spent a couple decades doing research in science and was for over a decade was a PROFESSOR in biology, including being tenured at Stony Brook BEFORE he became a full-time "philosopher" in his positions. He's written multiple books published by places like MIT Press and University of Chicago. Look over his CV [lehman.edu], if you want more details.

                We can argue about the reasons multiple Ph.D.'s are usually bad or unnecessary, but in this specific case, we're clearly talking about a VERY qualified SCIENTIST, who later changed careers and now has an academic position as a philosopher of science.

                Jeez. Before bitching about somebody's credentials, take a minute and read the link to his Wikipedia bio I already had put in my previous post.

          • by Prune ( 557140 )
            Who are you going to listen to, dear readers? David Gross, who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering asymptotic freedom, or Slashdot's very own Roger W Moore, who won ... a few points from intellectually lazy moderators who cheered Mr Moore's eloquent dismissal of the Nobel-winning particle physicist's ideas as "tripe" and "absolutely no sense"?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by alvinrod ( 889928 )
      In what sense?

      If you don't accept that the scientific method is a viable approach to uncovering the manner in which the universe behaves, I would ask why you don't step off the ledge at the top of a tall building. If you believe that experimentation or empirical data is unnecessary to establish the veracity of some claim I would ask why you would not purchase from me a potion for the sum of $100 that I claim will make you $10000 richer on the morrow.

      Someone might be able to talk a commendable piece of
      • If you don't accept that the scientific method is a viable approach to uncovering the manner in which the universe behaves

        I don't think anyone is saying that the scientific method isn't a viable approach to uncover the manner in which the universe behaves. I think the implication is that the scientific method may not be the best approach to uncover the manner in which the scientific method behaves.

        ...I would ask why you don't step off the ledge at the top of a tall building.

        This is a terrible example. The scientific method is entirely unnecessary to decide whether to step off of a tall building. People knew not do do that before the scientific method was codified. I doubt anyone has ever done a rig

        • by sjbe ( 173966 )

          I think the implication is that the scientific method may not be the best approach to uncover the manner in which the scientific method behaves.

          That is a great example of begging the question [wikipedia.org].

          The scientific method is entirely unnecessary to decide whether to step off of a tall building. People knew not do do that before the scientific method was codified.

          You don't have to codify the method of study to use it. People who discovered the effects of falling off tall buildings WERE using the scientific method whether or not they were aware of that fact at the time.

          • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Thursday December 10, 2015 @09:42PM (#51098441) Homepage

            That is a great example of begging the question [wikipedia.org].

            Again, it seems you have no idea what you're talking about. I wasn't begging the question, I was rephrasing for the benefit of someone who appears to be pointless. There's no significant argumentation happening here on either side, so we aren't even to the point where we can claim that someone's argument is bad or invalid.

            You don't have to codify the method of study to use it.

            The "scientific method" is precisely the codification of reasoning techniques that were in use long before. Observing something falling from a significant height, seeing it get damaged, and deciding, "I don't want that to happen to me," is not science. Science is a process involving a hypothesis, experimentation, and collection of reproducible empirical evidence. You might believe any number of rational and true things, but without engaging in some kind of experimentation or testing, those beliefs aren't science.

            And that's what this whole discussion is about. People are discussing the extent to which current theoretical physics can be considered "science", since there may not be any way to directly test the models that theoretical physicists are creating.

        • This is a terrible example. The scientific method is entirely unnecessary to decide whether to step off of a tall building. People knew not do do that before the scientific method was codified.

          "Science" is a branch of philosophy, natural philosophy to be precise. The "scientific method" is a process. Refusing to jump off a building is common-sense, the scientific method is formalised common-sense. They are very much the same thing at a philosophical level.

          As for TFA, any competent physicists/cosmologist should be able to rattle off a handful of completely different theories that predict the same result (eg: string theory and the standard model). Until such time that one of them correctly predi

      • In what sense?

        In the sense that the scientific method is more philosophical than scientific.

        The scientific method was not a product of science, but rather of philosophy. Roger Bacon was a philosopher. A Franciscan monk in fact. He's the guy you can thank (at least in the West).

      • Yeah, let's trust ethics and morals on priests and ulemas, where they belong.
        What a waste of time, philosophy...

        • Yet another HHGTTG moment, when Deepthought is told the philosophers threaten go on strike, he replied
          "Whom would that effect?"

    • We know the scientific method is valid because we have empirical evidence that says it works! /sarcasm
      • We know the scientific method is valid because we have empirical evidence that says it works! /sarcasm

        Well... we have light bulbs.

        How many years before the industrial revolution did the Catholic Church have to come up with revealed knowledge that would enable them to create working light bulbs? How long following the industrial revolution and wide adoption of the scientific method did it take someone to come up with working light bulbs?

        So yeah... light bulbs.

        • And you missed the point entirely. Validity of the scientific method is the wheelhouse of philosophy, not science.
        • by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @09:04PM (#51098291)

          A poor example. The Catholic Church was never in the business of exploration or investigation. It got involved in science as far as it did because it had some political and social implications. Not to mention that science and every other pursuit would be subordinated to the revelation of God.

          Of course, as other people pointed out, the scientific method, in the West, was in large part was pioneered by Catholic clerics. So, perhaps the answer to your question is that it took approximately 1,875 years for the Catholic Church to invent the light bulb. And 1,945 years to invent the Atomic Bomb.

          Or perhaps comparing a serious philosopher interested in science to the meddling of the Catholic hierarchy is silly. Religion may contain philosophy, but philosophy is not confined to religion.

          And you could certainly invent light bulbs even if you had an imperfect, even fallacious understanding of electricity. All you have to do is manage to replicate the rules allowing a light bulb to work, often through brute force observation and trial and error. Your backing theory doesn't have to be right if you blunder into the correct implementation.

          Anyway, science clearly has legitimacy because it does manage to produce things. That much is true.

          However, the investigation of science has gone far beyond what we could experiment on directly with the energies available to us. So, for that reason the string theorists and philosophers may have a point.

          • So, for that reason the string theorists and philosophers may have a point.

            As soon as you go past a point at which your story is falsifiable through any conceivable experiment, it's just a story: it's no longer a scientific theory. Theories must be falsifiable, or they are invalid.

            • by arth1 ( 260657 )

              As soon as you go past a point at which your story is falsifiable through any conceivable experiment, it's just a story: it's no longer a scientific theory. Theories must be falsifiable, or they are invalid.

              That's the slashdot version, and thankfully, reality is a bit different. Parts of quantum mechanics wasn't thought to be falsifiable until some 40 years after the theory arrived, and then 20 more years before attempts to do so could be made. It worked, explained previous problems, and there were no alternative theories that would fit the data. Einstein had hoped we would find other explanations, but even he acknowledged it as a theory.

              It is more correct to say that a theory either has to be falsifiable,

    • While the philosophers have a point, it is highly unlikely any breakthroughs in fundamental science will be made by someone educated purely in academic philosophy.

      • While the philosophers have a point, it is highly unlikely any breakthroughs in fundamental science will be made by someone educated purely in academic philosophy.

        Let me ask a question - maybe this can help. Could a philosopher come up with the scientific method?

        All philosophies are not the same, and philosophers did come up with the scientific method.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        • No-one is disagreeing about the origins of the scientific method. Did you think that it somehow refutes the point of mine that you quoted?

    • Really? My thought was that if we are going to listen to the philosopher on this we might as well ask the theologian as well.
      • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @10:38PM (#51098593) Journal

        Really? My thought was that if we are going to listen to the philosopher on this we might as well ask the theologian as well.

        If the philosopher you ask is Roger Bacon (who advanced the scientific method), then you would definitely be also asking a theologian.

        I can't believe how bloody-minded some people are.

        • Aside for being one of the greatest scientific mind to have ever lived, Newton was also a respected theologian and closet alchemist. Most of his writings are about philosophy and religion (eg: he wrote almost a million words on the numerology of 666). Nobody remembers him for his eccentric philosophical/religious speculation, we remember him for his scientific and mathematical contributions.
        • by arth1 ( 260657 )

          I can't believe how bloody-minded some people are.

          Aren't there philosophies explaining that?

          Both the bloody-mindedness and your disbelief.

    • This reminds me... some time ago (around the turn of the century) I saw a PhD graduate in Philosophy on the local news. He was in a dead end job making minimum wage and managed to get air time with a local reporter to complain about this, his huge student loan debts for a very expensive private school, and the complete lack of jobs for one with a PhD in Philosophy. He didn't really explain if somehow there had been a high demand for Philosophers when he started his studies that suddenly vanished or if he ha
    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      To my mind, my degree is in Applied Mathematics, and to the minds of many others - the highest order of mathematician is, indeed, the Philosopher of Mathematics. They carry that name for a reason and one might say that mathematics is the highest order. There are still a few Philosophers of Mathematics kicking around. In fact, I started reading a paper from one not too long ago and, true to form, I stopped not long after the abstract and fell asleep. For the life of me, I've no idea what it was about and I d

  • by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @07:31PM (#51097953)

    String theorists are not physicists. They are mathturbators, at best.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      I would also add "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy" are the aether of the 21st century.

      • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @09:21PM (#51098347)

        I would also add "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy" are the aether of the 21st century.

        Dark matter is a highly scientific and technical term that means "We don't know"

        Seriously.

      • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
        Aether was something some people made up and tried to make science fit it. Dark Matter is something that we're currently observe. Dark Energy, well, when a galaxy is moving away from your 2.5x the speed of light, either Relativity the First Law of Thermodynamics are both wrong, or Dark Energy exist.
    • Oh, shut up Sheldon, or I'll call your mother again.
    • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @08:59PM (#51098273) Journal
      We have a name for this already, going back a long time: Metaphysics.

      Of course, there is a place in the world for metaphysicists, but let's be honest: if something isn't testable, it isn't science.
    • Would you rather them muck up real science instead?

      Why, they ask, do scientists trust theories that have not been experimentally tested? Worse, in some cases, these theories cannot even been tested in principle. Is this still science?

      When Einstein worked with pretty much just math to predict a bunch of stuff, that was science. Gravitational waves still haven't been detected, so is that just hogwash until empiricism confirms it?

      One of the basic needs of string theory seems to be the graviton, which is funda

      • They didn't complicate the math unnecessarily. In fact at first string theory was pretty simple and elegant. The math became complicated by necessity. As time went on, each new 'solution' opened up a hundred new problems, with more and more math piled on in an attempt to fix those problems. Each time string theory seemed to be coming close to reaching the answer, there was a several-years-long flurry of activity with optimistic predictions that the "theory of everything" was near at hand, only for people to

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @09:08PM (#51098301) Journal
    The 'new' tests for measuring the quality of a hypothesis are quoted here from the article, and I think they certainly have value:

    This method is used during the development of a theory and is based on collecting indications which increase the physicists’ confidence that a theory describes nature. These indications are, for example, the amount (or absence of) alternative solutions to a problem, the degree by which a theory is connected to already confirmed theories, and the amount of unexpected insights that the theories give rise to.

    However, the reason you should read the article is because it manages to reasonably work this image into the discussion [forbes.com].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The scientific method requires that a hypothesis make definite predictions that can, in principle, be tested and falsified. As long as there are definite predictions that can be falsified, it's a valid hypothesis. Whether we have the ability to test that hypothesis at the present time or near future isn't relevant to its validity as a hypothesis. There are plenty of hypotheses that couldn't be tested when they were developed but have later been tested and are very useful to us today. General relativity was

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      All well and good (well, you don't understand the difference between theories and hypothesis but that's a minor flaw that doesn't impact the general outcome), except for one thing: what you call "scientific method" is not *the* scientific method but "popper's scientific method". The point here is if other things can be added to it that add positive value to the construction of Science.

      And that point is trivial to demonstrate by Gedankenexperiment: just imagine you have two disconnected theories each of whi

  • While I am a dyed in the wool empiricist, and firmly believe in the fundamental importance of understanding the Universe in terms of what we can observe about it... the Universe does not give us any guarantees that a correct mathematical model of its structure necessarily must produce specific observable confirmation.

    Or, perhaps observable confirmations are possible in principle but will never be observable in practice. For example, any experimental confirmation that requires direct manipulation of a super

    • The Universe might behave according to string theory. But in the absence of empirical data, is string theory worth discussing?

  • Other views (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Thursday December 10, 2015 @10:18PM (#51098537)

    Massimo Pigliucci did a very nice blog of the Conference, with separate posts for day 1 [wordpress.com], 2 [wordpress.com] and 3 [wordpress.com].

    There is also Joseph Polchinski's String theory to the rescue [arxiv.org] paper, which has a ridiculously bad probabilistic argument in Section 3. (Peter Woit thought it was a joke, but apparently not.)

    For myself, I favor loop quantum gravity, which as far as I can tell wasn't represented at the conference at all.

  • There are different takes on the scientific method. Poppers view is the gold standard but there others like Feyerabend, (from whom I could myself attend lectures as a student at ETH) who similar than Lacatos had a more liberal point of view: science also allows chaotic, anarchistic developments. The hype of parallel universes is maybe just the troll which is needed to value what is science really is and what is just speculation or belief. Similarly as political trolls, they remind us what values we really

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