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Post-Empirical Science? (aeon.co)
30 points by neonate 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments





The author would do well to read more philosophy of science. Popper's over a century old; Quine's only just recently closer to Popper than to us! And the author doesn't even know about Quine.

Edit: In particular, while Popper was very concerned with falsifiability and how to reject pseudoscience, Quine was concerned with compatibility and how well different theories fit together. Quine's view is useful for physics because it immediately highlights that relativity and QM work very well within themselves, but not with each other; therefore we know exactly where the interesting scientific discoveries ought to be found.


Popper led us astray into a reductive outlook on science that led us directly to the replication crisis in the social sciences, Amy Cuddy and power poses and much more. People act like this is a mathematical problem and it can be fixed moving beyond p-values but it isn't.

Quine had the better thesis, if only for the word "confirmational holism". Science must be holistic -- it must be one across all fields or at least hope to -- or it's a credentials game. As it stands now you can get credit for social science that contradicts physical anthropology directly and doesn't apologize for it.

None of the truly great achievements of science were done through atomized conjectures and refutations. Newton, Lavoisier, Mendeleyev, Darwin -- they all posited entire worldviews that were supported by a patchwork accumulation of evidence. The challenges to Newtonian or Darwinian theory couldn't be merely empirical, they had to embody a whole philosophical attack on this worldview (preferably with evidence of its own -- but challenges to the evidence would never be enough to bring down Darwin in his time).

Quine's confirmational holism might have highlighted the dissonance between GR and QM, but it might also have highlighted the differences between mid-19th century geology (which was beginning to discover deep time) and taxonomic biology. OTOH literally no experiment could be set up to evidence the importance of deep time in biology. Not without the fundamental insights of Darwin (and likeminded, less-accomplished contemporaries).

We need to bury Popper.


> Popper led us astray into a reductive outlook on science that led us directly to the replication crisis in the social sciences

I don't think that's the issue. Popper's falsifiability works fine, assuming you prioritize negative results and replication studies in equal measure to publishing new results. That's the real problem with the replication crisis. The so-called "harder sciences" are better on all of these measures.


I don't think this is correct. It wasn't Popper who came up with that bizarre misunderstanding of statistical testing theory that haunts social sciences.

I myself had reservations towards Popper for quite some time (for similar reasons you mentioned) but recently I came around thinking that he was actually a quite interesting person. Today I also think that his stance towards science and society is very called-for.

BTW Popper died several years ago and thus already is buried. :-) You should actually start reading his books.


> replication crisis in the social sciences

There is no replication crisis, just tons of crap studies with bogus results.

Replication is not the problem, but bogus results cannot be replicated.


"None of the truly great achievements of science were done through atomized conjectures and refutations." - that is kind of tautology - only the big steps are called truly great - the small steps are just small steps.

I don't think it's a tautology. The question is whether those "small steps" ever add up to anything "great." When many people think of scientific progress or "the scientific method," they imagine innumerable scientists working across the world, each making incremental contributions to a shared body of knowledge, one peer reviewed article at a time. There's something that seems even virtuous about this picture, which I imagine is part of its appeal.

The question is what do you call "great" and my hunch is that "great" means "impressive" or "surprising" - and when you see lots of small steps they don't seem impressive and they don't surprise.

> Popper led us astray into a reductive outlook on science that led us directly to the replication crisis in the social sciences, Amy Cuddy and power poses and much more. People act like this is a mathematical problem and it can be fixed moving beyond p-values but it isn't.

Popper's philosophy is baked into how physics is taught, possibly more so than any other field. The great majority of physicists wouldn't recognize the name, but would agree completely with the ideas. And we don't have a replication crisis.


> Popper's philosophy is baked into how physics is taught, possibly more so than any other field.

Sounds ad-hoc. Please explain.

Physics is a subject where for almost every topic (be it classical mechanics, optics, quantum physics, etc) there are several different frameworks (which are equivalent but distinct), and none of which can be "falsified" because they are all right, and deal with the same reality in different ways.

As Sidney Coleman said: "The career of a young theoretical physicist consists of treating the harmonic oscillator in ever-increasing levels of abstraction.”

Physics is also the subject where one is forced to realize that reality is nuanced enough that you cannot ascribe a single value to measurable quantities (repudiation of local realism) and measurements need not always return the same value. While it's true that physics has had experienced some key falsification/discovery events (most notably Michelson-Morley and the repudiation of ether), physics also has a rich history of approximate "effective theories" which are not wrong, but just limited in their domain of applicability, and might often be more useful than exact models. This idea has also been put on firmer footing over the last half century, with the concept of renormalization group flow.

So I don't see any simplistic tie-up between Popperian falsification and physics.


> Physics is a subject where for almost every topic (be it classical mechanics, optics, quantum physics, etc) there are several different frameworks (which are equivalent but distinct), and none of which can be "falsified" because they are all right, and deal with the same reality in different ways.

Precisely. It is exactly to the degree that we accept Popperian philosophy more than other fields that we are happy with this state of affairs -- we don't care about which theory is "metaphysically true", it's fine as long as the predictions of a theory work where the theory is supposed to apply. To put it another way, the criterion of falsifiability cuts both ways. It means we should test what we can test, and not agonize too much over things we can't.

It is true that there is a simplistic, hardline reading of Popper which rejects effective theories, but I don't think that's a fair way to treat him. The limitations of the hardline view were well known in Popper's time.


I find it somewhat of a hopeless discussion. One can explore any angle of science and reach a point where it looks insane and one can indoctrinate himself or train himself beyond that point. At that point you don't know anymore if you are on the cutting edge or if you are contributing to a new religion. The cutting edge might be useful and god might be real.

I think we can humble ourselves with the idea that the unknown is so large that puny humans will never figure out a significant part of it. Our knowledge to the whole will always be near zero. This perspective makes practical things a lot more interesting or a lot more important. I think there is a sufficiently infinite amount of work left close to the applicable.

Perhaps a good analogy is to first explore the forest close to the village rather than moving in a random direction. Its great of course to hear stories of far away lands but when it comes to funding we should aim to get something in return. At the same time we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss things that seem implausible to us. There are plenty of empirical results out there that are dismissed outright and will never see publication.

I use to play with magnets just for fun, in pure ignorance. I made quite a few setups that behaved in an interesting way to me. Nothing complicated, they take 1-10 min to make. When I told some book smart people they got angry and told me I was lying. I'm not trying to accomplish or refute anything. To me the effects were less interesting than their outright rejection. My ignorance of the art was quite the advantage. All I have is my hands and my eyes. You can't convince me I cant be seeing what I'm seeing but it is damn fascinating to see people try.


slatestarcodex had a take on this recently: https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/11/06/building-intuitions-on...

Sabine Hossenfelder's work on the subject of the multiverse sums up this entire point very succinctly. I highly recommend the video linked in the article, too:

http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/07/why-multiverse-is-r...


I would agree that it isn't a scientific hypothesis, but it's an important perspective, in a similar way that heliocentrism was an important perspective as opposed to geocentrism+epicycles.

For example, if we take Hossenfelder's argument and apply it to relativity, we have the argument that talking about a region of space is quite nonsensical because at any point in time an observer can only know that things in the past up to the distance light has travelled used to exist. But it is useful to model reality as a universe that can communicate at most at the speed of light.

Now, our current experimentation and exploitation of high-particle physics is still sufficiently immature, and the computations sufficiently inefficient that we can, and have to still rely on obvious collapse events. But if you eventually wanted to talk about, say, the two systems converging to the same state or diverging from the same state, then the MWI is a useful perspective, modeling the evolution of universe-space.


Really enjoyed this article. I agree with some of the top comments, but still thoroughly the read.

Underneath the eloquent prose and the many helpful examples and showcases, this is an anti-science hit piece.

How dare theoretical physicists develop ideas about the world around us that can't be quickly and obviously supported by real-world observations? It's apparent that science is in a crisis! We might as well just throw up our hands and place our faith in homeopathy and creationism, which are no better.

Sorry, Mr. Baggott, that's a shitty argument for a target audience of stupid people.

A counter-argument could be built on science stories like Ignatz Semmelweis' ideas about hand-washing before surgery. Semmelweis suspected that _something_ was transferred from cadavers to birthing mothers via the hands of unwashed surgeons, but he had no idea what that something was, and could certainly not provide empirical proof. He was later vindicated by the work of Pasteur and Koch. Too late for poor Dr. Semmelweis, who died in a nuthouse, but today hand washing is an essential practice in modern medicine.

Mr. Baggott is telling us that science talks about things that are obviously real, like bacteria, but also things that may or may not be, such as multiverses. He's trying to convince us that because multiverses aren't obviously real, science shouldn't be talking or even thinking about them. He's implying that science is dishonest because it claims that multiverses are real. Actually, he's the one who's being dishonest, not science.

Especially in fields where it's not feasible to stick the subject matter into a test tube, hypothesis and speculation are valid tools of science. Hypotheses are proposed with the expectation that science will later refute or substantiate them. Contrary to what Mr. Baggott brings across, this is part of science's process, a process that has proven wildly successful and valuable in the past.

Most scientists are honest; and if asked by someone interested in more than a catchy headline, they'll gladly tell you which theories are solidly supported by a wealth of evidence, which are just ideas being thrown at the wall, and which are in between. People who fail to understand this are poorly informed; people who intentionally paper over the differences are dishonest. Please, let's ignore and shame that kind of people.


> this is an anti-science hit piece.

You're needlessly painting the world black and white. Very few people are against science.

This is not a hit piece. It's just a piece that you disagree with. That's fine, and I think your comment would be a lot stronger if it was formulated as such.

EDIT: removed lots of needless snark.


Here's an actual theoretical physicist, though, saying pretty much the same thing as the article not two weeks ago: https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/10/the-crisis-in-phys... :

> Instead of examining the way that they propose hypotheses and revising their methods, theoretical physicists have developed a habit of putting forward entirely baseless speculations. Over and over again I have heard them justifying their mindless production of mathematical fiction as “healthy speculation” – entirely ignoring that this type of speculation has demonstrably not worked for decades and continues to not work. There is nothing healthy about this. It’s sick science. And, embarrassingly enough, that’s plain to see for everyone who does not work in the field.

> This behavior is based on the hopelessly naïve, not to mention ill-informed, belief that science always progresses somehow, and that sooner or later certainly someone will stumble over something interesting. But even if that happened – even if someone found a piece of the puzzle – at this point we wouldn’t notice, because today any drop of genuine theoretical progress would drown in an ocean of “healthy speculation”.

> And so, what we have here in the foundation of physics is a plain failure of the scientific method. All these wrong predictions should have taught physicists that just because they can write down equations for something does not mean this math is a scientifically promising hypothesis. String theory, supersymmetry, multiverses. There’s math for it, alright. Pretty math, even. But that doesn’t mean this math describes reality.


And it's just as stupid-sounding when it comes from somebody who has training and skills. Stupider-sounding, even.

It's not like theoretical physicists have a perfect track record. Prior to modern thermodynamics, there were so many failed attempts to explain heat. Remember caloric? Phlogiston? The ultraviolet catastrophe? There have been periods of time where physics advances rapidly, and periods of time where there are long stalls and no good ideas.

Additionally, it's pretty common for a theoretical idea to turn out to be extremely practical, just in a way that wasn't obvious at first. In the past 300 years, we've gone from complex numbers being "imaginary" to being standard components of quantum mechanics. While people of Cardano's time might say that square roots of real numbers aren't real, we today understand that QM requires complex amplitudes instead of classical probabilities.

It's easy to point to where people can find interesting stuff to study. Einstein's work stemmed from noting that existing models of physics did not completely predict the solar system's behavior. Similarly, when we look at what these string theorists are aiming at, they turn out to have very reasonable idiosyncratic observations that they are trying to explain. They're examining the vacuum catastrophe, they're examining the Big Bang, they're examining quantum electronics. These are the places where our theories aren't able to explain every observation coherently; these are where we need new explanations.


I'm not sure we've read the same text. Hossenfelder explicitly acknowledges all that -- in fact, she makes the exact point you are -- and yet says that physicists today do not practice the theoretical methodology that led to success in the past.

In the past, how did we figure out Mercury's orbit? We looked for Vulcan for half a century before Einstein figured out that our maths needed another term. Was the search for Vulcan founded on "entirely baseless speculation", in Sabine's words? No, there was a strong expectation that, since other planets had been found this way, particularly Neptune, only a few decades prior!

By analogy, the string theorists did present some falsifiable guesses, not based purely on speculation, but based on generalizations of mathematical patterns which were first observed in the beginnings of QM. They guessed at supersymmetries, and we've falsified most of the low-energy (easy) possibilities. This is fine; this is science as normal. And the string theorists have reacted to an inability to design new experiments by parameterizing the swampland.

Sabine doesn't seem to care that, during this same time period, we've seen weakening of more classical symmetries too! Remember charge-parity symmetry? These days we're down to CPT, and neutrinos are even weirder than we thought, and we can't explain all of this yet, but the maths needs to become more and more flexible to model these interesting observations.

To quote Sabine from her comment section:

> This lack of careful math is basically where the idea comes from that supersymmetry solves some problem. It has never been cleanly formulated just what the supposed problem is. Instead you get this community narrative that keeps people thinking there must be something to it. And such a shared belief is basically impossible to correct once you have sufficiently many people on it.

The only problem that supersymmetry solves is the problem of experimentalists wanting to be able to falsify/verify string theory. That's it. That's the only reason that it's interesting. And we failed to verify or falsify so far. This isn't bad, but people seem to think that it's bad.

The main gripe that I have with these rants of Sabine's is that, at this point, if we're so direly "lost in maths", then what non-mathematical alternative is she putting forward? How are we going to escape? I feel like there's not really any substance to that part of her argument, just a vague suggestion that somehow we'd better find somebody with the new and ground-breaking thought experiments who can lead physics out of a dark and demented era. It reeks, even if the odor isn't offensive.

To recall the thread-starter that got you worked up:

> How dare theoretical physicists develop ideas about the world around us that can't be quickly and obviously supported by real-world observations?

How dare we guess that microscopic organisms might exist before we can see them? How dare we guess that a planet might be out there before we can see it? How dare we guess that a subatomic particle might exist before we can measure it? How dare we presume symmetries before we can test their breaking points? How dare people put dark matter, dark energy, cosmological constants, or any other grandiosely-indirect hypothetical universal information into their tiny little parochial experiments done here on Earth!?

At some point, this line of thinking breaks down into absurd skepticism of any sort of mathematical modelling. Okay, fine; so, instead of maths, what shall we use?


I am having a hard time following this, because you're not engaging with the point Hossenfelder makes, but with one she doesn't. In fact, you're trying to rebut her by agreeing with her.

She's not against mathematical modeling and hypothesizing -- quite the opposite. She's in favor of mathematical modeling of the kind that has worked so far -- as you acknowledge -- and from which physicists have strayed, at least according to her. She is for hypothesizing microorganisms and that is why she's against current hypotheses. She's against the latter because the former is works, and the latter is different.

Her point, as I understand it, is as follows. Theory and experimentation have worked hand in hand when there was a certain balance between them. But the cost, and therefore the nature of experimentation has changed, and, as a result, if theory wants to work as it has in the past, it must change as well in order to maintain this mutually-beneficial balance. In particular, she's talking about recognizing more or less promising hypotheses based on this balance. But even if she doesn't offer what you see as a solution, the lack of a solution does not imply the lack of a problem, and recognizing the problem is usually a good first step.

Pointing out that theory has worked in the past is agreeing with her, not disagreeing with her. If you actually disagree with her, are you saying that the nature of experimentation has not changed and therefore theory should not change? Are you saying that theory has already changed to maintain the balance? Or are you saying that the balance is not important? Because in order to disagree with her -- which I think is what you're trying to do -- you need to argue one of these.

And by the way, the existence of microorganisms was experimentally verified, and in many experiments, well before -- or separately from -- direct observation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease)


I don't buy the bullshit that there's some sort of good math vs. bad math in physics, or that there's some necessary balance between theory and experiment. It all sounds like an attempt to forget that mathematics is harder than any hard science.

I'm saying that we have no reason to expect that we are somehow doing science any more wrongly than we used to do science. This is why I find the "Lost in Maths" critique so empty: It wants to discard all of what has worked, for no reason other than discomfort with what people are doing based on what has worked, and offers no compelling replacement bedrock.


> I don't buy the bullshit that there's some sort of good math vs. bad math in physics

Good, because no one is saying that the math is intrinsically either good or bad. Hossenfelder says that math (in physics) works best when it focuses on things that are at least aspirationally testable. Your examples agree with her.

> I'm saying that we have no reason to expect that we are somehow doing science any more wrongly than we used to do science

Hossenfelder gives a reason: there needs to be a certain balance between experimentation and theory because that's what works, experimentation has changed, therefore theory needs to change but it hasn't. If you want to argue with the actual argument she's making -- rather than an argument you've made up and put in her mouth -- you need to challenge her premise or her conclusion, yet you're doing neither.

> It wants to discard all of what has worked

Quite the contrary: She argues that theoretical physics today is what's discarding all that has worked. She wants to continue all that has worked and discard a new approach that hasn't. Again, you're not disagreeing with anyone as you don't seem to engage with the actual argument.

> and offers no compelling replacement bedrock.

She does offer a "replacement": maintain the balance that has worked. You may not find it specific enough, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a problem, and that doing something that hasn't worked is the best we can do just because we don't know how to do what worked before.

Again, I find hard to keep this up because you seem to be responding to an argument that no one has made, and completely ignore the actual argument made. You keep saying what she says is silly, yet don't raise a single argument against her actual point. In fact, you call what she says "bullshit" and then vehemently agree with her. To actually make a couterargument you need to either say that experimentation hasn't changed, that theory has maintained its balance with experimentation or that the balance isn't important. Anything other than those three positions is irrelevant here, and certainly isn't in disagreement with Hossenfelder. I'm not a physicist, but I know a thing or two about logic, and I am honsetly interested in seeing one of these points made, but you're just lashing out without arguing anything. Which of those three possible counterarguments are you trying to express?


I'm saying that balance isn't important.

Science progresses by refinement of mathematical models, by crafting of narratives, by thought experiments, and by the simplifying and compressing actions of institutionalization and education.

It's irritating to be accused of not reading. Sabine's not exactly easy reading, but let's start at the top:

> In the foundations of physics, we have not seen progress since the mid 1970s when the standard model of particle physics was completed. Ever since then, the theories we use to describe observations have remained unchanged. Sure, some aspects of these theories have only been experimentally confirmed later. The last to-be-confirmed particle was the Higgs-boson, predicted in the 1960s, measured in 2012.

Oh, and why did it take half a century to confirm the Higgs? What is glossed over is that the confirmation of the Standard Model required particle accelerators, either ones we built or ones we improvised using Sol as a radiation source. We theorized, we imagined, and then we experimented and confirmed. Along the way, we discovered multiple different supporting reasons why things are the way that they are, and demolished various optimistic hopes that the answers to our questions would be simple.

To zoom out, Sabine has been slowly building up a campaign of doubting gravitational-wave observation technology. I feel like her position is that any big-science expenditure is a poor use of public funds, and that she is willing to work backwards from those conclusions.

Protip: When somebody argues against a specific thing that people are doing, but otherwise argues for the status quo, to "continue all that has worked" but "discard [a] new approach that hasn't", they are really arguing for exclusion of that specific thing. Okay, fine, but why and to what end? I feel sometimes like this is an argument that particle accelerators are a waste of public funds. (See also: top of thread.)

Y'know, you are the only person saying that I'm agreeing with you and Sabine, and then you gripe that I'm somehow saying nothing. I feel that I'm directly addressing your attempts at communication. You aren't going to make progress by accusing me of failing to commit to a position when I've been pretty open about my position from the start and when your position is framed in opposition to the thread-starting comment.


> I'm saying that balance isn't important.

Ok, now I finally understand your disagreement with Hossenfelder. BTW, I neither agree nor disagree with her. I'm not a physicist, I just don't think her argument, if her description of the facts is reasonable, is so obviously silly, so I'm interested to know what those of her fellow physicists who disagree with her argue.

So if I understand you correctly, you agree with her premise that the gap between hypothesis and experiment is widening, but you think it's OK. She says that this view is overly optimistic, and clearly you disagree with that conclusion. I'm curious to know how you justify this optimism. Is it just because you think there is no other way or do you see some more concrete reasons for optimism?

> What is glossed over is that the confirmation of the Standard Model required particle accelerators

I don't think it's glossed over at all. I think her point is that the rising cost of experimentation should have an impact on theory as well.

> We theorized, we imagined, and then we experimented and confirmed.

Right, and I think she would say that a great percentage of the work being done now has no feasible plan for experimentation within a century, so instead of spending that time on speculation, why not let the feasibility of experimentation at least educate the theoretical focus?

> To zoom out, Sabine has been slowly building up a campaign of doubting gravitational-wave observation technology. I feel like her position is that any big-science expenditure is a poor use of public funds, and that she is willing to work backwards from those conclusions.

You may well be right about this. Not being a physicist, and not knowing her record aside from that one article, which I found to be very well-argued, I have no additional knowledge on the matter.


The orthodoxy says that "science is the scientific method", but I think we need to decouple core science as a humanitarian enterprise from the academic adventure.

We should be able to deeply criticize science to its very core without losing a rhetoric that defends vaccines and so on.


Post-modern crap.

Opening words are "There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience [...]"

Instantly wrong. Reproducibility and testable predictions are the distinctions.


Galileo's heliocentrism was unfalsifiable. As I understand it, the Church fathers were willing to accept a compromise view, that the planets go around the sun, and the sun around the earth. Galileo could propose no empirical test for his view that the sun is at the center.

Such a test would have to wait for Newton, and then it became apparent that neither the sun nor the earth were necessarily the center.


Well, from memory the church believed everything revolved around the earth. Galileo found the moons of jupiter clearly did not. This falsified the church's belief, or would have though they reportedly refused to look through the telescope.

Unfalsifiability of heliocentrism... I'll take your word for it, point accepted.


As it turns out, the story about refusing to look through the telescope is a myth. Galileo came under fire from lower officials who may have used that rhetoric. The church hierarchy was coming under political pressure for being "soft on heresy" if you will, in the wake of the Reformation. But the astronomers at the Vatican actually bought a telescope from Galileo, and confirmed his observations. And the Church Fathers at least claimed that they were willing to change their beliefs in the face of evidence.

Apparently, Tycho Brahe had proposed a model where the planets go around the sun, and the sun around a stationary earth. This satisfied the telescopic evidence without introducing new problems such as why everything doesn't just get flung off the earth.

I figure Galileo took his theory as far as it could be taken in his time, and it became more than just an interesting philosophical debate because of what we might now call the "geo-political" climate of the day. An amusing factoid is that Galileo had terrible eyesight, and his telescopes actually worked quite badly, so the observational work he did was difficult.


Thanks for a comprehensive answer, clearing up some misconceptions etc. Much appreciated.

Darwin's "On the origin of the species" meets neither.

An actual reply instead of a no-op downvote, thanks.

Ok then, why does it not? I've not read it but this from wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/On_the_Origin_of_Species )

"It presented a body of evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. Darwin included evidence that he had gathered on the Beagle expedition in the 1830s and his subsequent findings from research, correspondence, and experimentation."

There is a further section that presents facts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Origin_of_Species#Summa...) which is a bit long to quote here.

So, are you saying OTOOTS presents evidence but not the necessary reproducability, in which case I may agree, and the book is not scientific theory but a precursor to one? Or something else?




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