What Scientific Ideas Are Ready for Retirement?

Every year we look forward to the Edge Annual Question, and as usual it’s a provocative one: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” Part of me agrees with Ian McEwan’s answer, which is to unask the question, and argue that nothing should be retired. Unasking is almost always the right response to questions that beg other questions, but there’s also an argument to be made in favor of playing along, so that’s what I did.

My answer was “Falsifiability.” More of a philosophical idea than a scientific one, but an idea that is bandied about by lazy scientists far more than it is invoked by careful philosophers. Thinking sensibly about the demarcation problem between science and non-science, especially these days, requires a bit more nuance than that.

Modern physics stretches into realms far removed from everyday experience, and sometimes the connection to experiment becomes tenuous at best. String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms that are impossible for us to access directly. Some scientists, leaning on Popper, have suggested that these theories are non-scientific because they are not falsifiable.

The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

I’m also partial to Alan Guth’s answer: “The universe began in a low-entropy state.” Of course we all know that our observable universe had a relatively low entropy at the Big Bang; Alan is making the point that the observable universe might not be the whole thing, and the Big Bang might not have been the beginning, so it’s completely possible that the universe as a whole was never in what one might call a “low-entropy” state. Instead, starting from a generic state, entropy could increase in both directions, leading to a two-sided arrow of time. This has been one of my favorite ideas for a while now, and Alan and I are writing a paper with Chien-Yao Tseng that examines toy models with such behavior.

Here are some other interesting/provocative answers, picked unsystematically out of over 100,000 words overall. Remember that the titles are what the person wants to retire, not something they’re in favor of.

  1. Either science is a tool to answer practical questions, or it is a tool to satisfy our anxiety over the uncertainty we experience in our existence. It can’t be both. Falsifiability makes science practical rather than psychotherapeutic.

    Put another way, In deciding to spend our money, how much should we devote to speculative imagination, and how much to practical solutions? Does it really matter how well we understand string theory if its not going to be testable or yield practical applications in any foreseeable time? Are there better problems to focus on? Who gets to choose, the academics, or the indigent?

  2. I’m glad you point out this is meant to be provocative because I have a hard time believing you are genuinely against the idea of Falsifiability (assuming *your* understanding of it is sufficiently nuanced).

    Falisifiablity is as much about improving theories as it is about demarcation. I’ll take for granted you are an empiricist and believe hypothesis are only that until they can be confirmed by evidence (especially theoretical physics!). They must also have some predictive power.

    The problem with relying solely on confirmation is that many hypothesis can stand up to endless confirmation if you are only looking in one place. To really make your theory strong you need to search for evidence which could refute it. For example, edge cases. The classic example of “water boils at 100c” is a hypothesis and you can test it a million times at sea level. Every time it will be confirmed. It’s not until you take the experiment to the top of Everest and “break” (falsify) it do you truly begin to learn and find the limits of the theory.

  3. Doc C,

    Why can’t it be both, to the same person, or either to different people? I’d have thought it was both. Some people may start out in science wanting to satisfy uncertainty (curiosity rather than anxiety – why anxiety?), but in a science career can change the focus to practical questions. I guess the nature of theoretical physics/cosmology retains the quest for understanding more so than much applied science which is more about practical answers.

  4. Ron, it’s an epistemological question. Do you really “know” anything if it cannot ever be confirmed or make testable (empirical) predictions? In my opinion you cannot. Empiricism is king. Therefore if you are doing purely theoretical science that can NEVER be tested in practice I would say you are no longer searching for knowledge. At which point its no longer science.

  5. Danny Hillis : I’m immediately turned off by the phrase “we humans”…

    the rest of the links are taking an extremely long time to open.

  6. It is unclear what qualifies Nina Jablonski to urge that we ignore almost the entirety of genomics and biomedical research as people “seeing what they want to see.” A more unscientific attitude would be hard to imagine.

  7. Edge is down, but I already agree with your article. It’s worth knowing that falsification was basically proposed as a solution to the problem of induction, and is meant to replace inductive reasoning. IMO, falsification makes no progress in solving the problem of induction, and is nothing but a clunkier version of inductive/bayesian reasoning.

    The other thing is that though scientific theories must ultimately be subject to empirical investigation, I don’t think it’s necessary for this to be true of every single nut and bolt of science. Scientific practice contains both induction and deduction, and there can be entire careers which focus only on deduction.

  8. not to get off topic here, but Doc C, you can do whatever the fuck you want in life if you can find someone who will pay for you to do it.

    Bill Gates made billions in the tech industry so that he could try to eradicate diseases in arguably the most disease ridden regions of the planet. Bill Gates can do whatever the fuck he wants to do with his $50 Billion because “WE” have no say in what he does with that money. We can donate money to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation if we choose to do so, as could the government of any country.

    Since understanding String Theory doesn’t cost a damn penny, I’d say the freedom of choosing what you do with your career and/or free time is a decision that every individual is granted the right to. If you’re focus is string theory, then chances are you get paid in various other practices.

  9. Not physics, but psychology: I still see many people quoting Sigmund Freud, even though most of his findings have been shown to be wrong, or even harmful. Of all the scientists with overturned theories, Freud seems to have the longest-lasting and unwarranted prestige.

  10. If you have a location in the past, and you are trying to describe the energy that makes up that past , I think you have to keep looking even when you come up against the horizon? So the attempts to describe the interior and ways to approach it are still necessary. Confirmations have been made up to this point, and a method for examination is still recognized.

    Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

    So would we say in this respect this is non scientific? Just wondering?


  11. Karl Popper replaces the focus on the justification of beliefs with the process of forming critical preferences for theories or policies formulated to solve problems. Better theories explain more than lesser theories, predict more precisely, articulate with other theories and they stand up to tests.

    With respect to the latter, we should attempt to state our claims in a form that will invite refutation by existential statements (if true). Thus falsifiability is a logical property of a statement. Falsification is the process of demonstrating that a proposition has been falsified. Unlike the decisive logic of the process, the real-world process of falsification can never be decisive due to the Duhem problem, the uncertainty of observations and the many more or less disreputable ways that people can protect their views.

    Thus, science is that branch of the arts that presents its explanatory claims in such a form as to be testable against the world. The demarcation between science and non-science has nothing to do with methods of discovery or technologies of discovery but rather with the perpetual and normative requirement to make scientific statements logically amenable to being proven wrong, even if in practice it is a matter of decision. Furthermore, if one is asked what is the aim of science, it is to explain whatever one deems requires an explanation. It begins with problems, not with data. How can minds or their technological surrogates even perceive data if they do not possess modifiable expectations or propensities to solve problems?

    Furthermore, building tools is not the same as doing science. Scientific theories may be instruments but they are not only instruments. They explain. A shovel or an electron microscope is not true or false, a scientific theory can be; mind you any claim to be true is only tentative – otherwise it is not science! Our conjectures come first as in all arts. Let us praise imagination, but remain humbled by our propensity for error. It is the humility of science that gives us hope that we will not be consumed by technological hubris.

    Discard the norm of trying to make scientific statements able to be proven wrong if you like? What will you replace it with?

  12. Brett,
    1. You are way off topic.
    2. We all paid handsomely for the development of string theory in the taxes that went to supporting research grants and to institutions of higher education who used that money to subsidize faculty and grad students who work on it.
    3. The question I addressed regarding falsifiable science is not whether anyone can do anything they want with their money, but how groups of people who organize into a cooperative society should decide how their common pool of resources are used.
    4. The use of vulgarity does not improve an argument. It generally reveals a lack of one.

  13. Pingback: Time to ditch falsifiability? | SelfAwarePatterns

  14. You can’t prove that you’re not a BB, just like you can’t prove that you’re not dreaming, or being fed false information by a whimsical demon. Nor can you make any progress on understanding the world in reliable ways if any of those scenarios is true. Therefore, we work to develop models in which they are not true.

    This is how you previously rejected the theory that I’m a Boltzmann Brain dreaming of a non-thermal-equilibrium universe. A theory that actually satisfies both of your “definite” and “empirical” criteria. It’s “definite” because it “say[s] something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions”, and it’s “empirical” because it of “its ability to account for the data”.

    Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

    Question: If the dog didn’t bark in the night-time, should we take that as a clue, or should we get rid of it?

  15. Pure mathematics has propositions that have not been proved
    or disproved and as such are an enjoyable challenge for the professional or amateur. Number theory is replete with such unproven (e.g. Goldberg’s Conjecture) nuggets that await being proven but are yet open to being shown a counter example. But the sciences per se seem to be more susceptible to pressure from non-science agendas
    then the science’s supporting mathematics. This was true in Galileo’s time as well as now. So I see Popper’s rule as a bulwark against such pressures.

    Whenever I hear the phrase ‘the data show’ the expectation is that one cannot argue against ‘the data’, as if that itself were irrefutable and therefore the argument is moot. The old saying among statisticians was ‘torture the data until it confesses’. I have been involved in research as a support for scientists and they can get quite opinionated as any. Being rational and unbiased is an ideal goal, as difficult for the scientist as the lay person.

    Current topics that are highly politicized such as; differences between the sexes, IQ and race, the concept of race, global warming (now called climate change), et al. Can a researcher even pursue, unbiasedly, such fields without being attacked. Hardly.

    So for me, as a former practicing statistician, my concern is that the scientist has many pressures to assume a theory to be true ipso facto. To discard the Popper Rule is to weaken the scientific community’s defense from non-scientist pressure to conform to the zeitgeist.

  16. I started reading but was stopped in my tracks when I got to this in the second paragraph:

    “We knew, for example, that the electron mass is the same everywhere in the observable part of the universe, so the obvious assumption was that it must take the same value everywhere, it is just a constant of nature”.

    That’s wrong! There’s the mass deficit or mass defect. The electron’s rest mass varies with say gravitational potential. If you drop a 1kg brick into a black hole, the black hole mass increases by 1kg, no more. And on the way in the brick was moving very fast. Its kinetic energy comes from its rest-mass energy. I also noticed Freeman Dyson saying wavefunction isn’t real. He should talk to Jeff Lundeen who said this:

    “…So what does this mean? We hope that the scientific community can now improve upon the Copenhagen Interpretation, and redefine the wavefunction so that it is no longer just a mathematical tool, but rather something that can be directly measured in the laboratory.”

    I have to say Edge sounds like a promotional clique for people who want to tell everybody else that they’re the elite.

  17. Ian Mcewan is right… retire nothing …but we can reasses and think things over from new perspective.
    Much trouble in cosmology comes from years of missunderstanding …miss interpreting.
    Newton went as far as he could …or dared . Einstein did the same
    an apparent attraction … curved space time …
    all just words trying to explain observations

    We need to re think Gravity from the universal law on wards .
    What masses are doing .. in producing tjis force ..
    they do not create gravity on their own .
    Force comes from Energy .. the energy in space …from all directions .. radiations and partickes .

  18. A theist can can make the same argument about yhwh or the spaghetti monster.

    In the realm of physics, the math can support e.g. tachyons. Does it mean we need to accept them as real? If not, why not?

  19. I find the falsifiability argument very useful, for myself and in my work. At work I often get fundies arguing for Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism. My approach is to ask them if there is anything that would convince them they are wrong. They usually look suspicious (of the trick question), and agree there is not. (I think they feel this strengthens their argument.) I can then reply that there is no point in talking further.

    There are certainly things that would change my mind. If the heavens opened up and a booming voice said, “I didn’t use evolution!” – that certainly would, even though I seriously doubt it will happen.

  20. It is tempting to think that science needs the precision of philosophical analytics, as science (especially physics) make improvements that far exceed a clear path to falsifiability. This is however what makes Popper even more relevant now than when he proposed demarcation. The further we step into mathematical concepts as a pure explanation of physics without the potential for observation, the less likely we are to further fundamental truths. It is good that the best minds are working on the most complicated problems from a standpoint which is not limited to falsifibilty, however letting our notion of a physical reality float endlessly into intelligent mathematical concepts, leaves us unable to make the steps necessary to provide a practical understanding of stuff, and therefore loses experimental rigor at the expense of mathematical rigor. Both require and should have rigor. Perhaps Popper is more relevant now than ever.

  21. “I have to say Edge sounds like a promotional clique for people who want to tell everybody else that they’re the elite.”

    It certainly does have a waft of that about it.

  22. Dear Sean, I’m flabbergasted! Here’s your 2nd paragraph with only a few point modifications:

    “The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe Him directly, the Creator involved in this theory is either real or He is not. Refusing to contemplate His possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though He might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

    No further elaboration is called for. But let me only add that, unlike in mathematics, nothing in science is really definitely provable. (That rigorous proofs do exist in mathematics only highlights the fact that math is tautological in nature.) So if one exempts oneself of falsifiability, one is left with nothing but speculation. It may be a very “scientific” speculation, construed as science due to the question asked being conventially categorized as scientific, or because it uses exclusive math tools and layperson-dazzling lingo typical of science, yet it is speculation all the same.

    And one more thing. Science fights for its life—against antiscience, pseudoscience and post-modernist relativism—in the public opinion arena. This kind of transgression provides the enemy with ammo: New Agers may rightly ask “Why, then, are you any better?”

  23. Well said DEL. And Dan and Andy and Matthew and Doc and Jack.

    Sean, if you retire falsification you retire science. I’m not happy with that. And a lot of other people won’t be either. This is not going to do your career any good at all.