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Could the evolution of theoretical physics harm public trust in science?

9 June 2015
Conflicting opinion pieces illuminate not just intellectual but technopolitical questions about departing from testability.

Consider a pair of pairs of dueling commentaries in the media. In each pair, an essay in a major national newspaper disputes another essay from a major international science weekly. Taken together, the four opinion articles cast light on the seriousness of mid-2015 public skepticism about science’s special authority.

In December, two scientists argued in a Nature commentary against calls for breaking away from science’s centuries-old empiricism mandate in an era of string theory, supersymmetry, and the multiverse. George Ellis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Joe Silk, professor of physics at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics and at Johns Hopkins University, declared that “a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.” They insisted that elegance and explanatory power can’t exempt a theory from experimental verification. They asserted that theoretical physics “risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics and philosophy that does not truly meet the requirements of any.”

Ellis and Silk issued not one but two kinds of warning. They see a “battle for the heart and soul of physics ... opening up at a time when scientific results—in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution—are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists.” They emphasized that not only is post-empirical science an oxymoron, but that only with adherence to testability can science defend itself “from attack.” They fear damage not only to physics but to “public confidence in science.”

On 7 June, two physicists writing in the New York Times disputed Ellis and Silk, arguing that the “growing controversy at the frontiers of physics and cosmology suggests that the situation is not so simple.” Physicists Adam Frank of the University of Rochester and Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College declared that “our most ambitious science can seem at odds with the empirical methodology that has historically given the field its credibility.” They summarized what has happened:

How did we get to this impasse? In a way, the landmark detection three years ago of the elusive Higgs boson particle by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider marked the end of an era. Predicted about 50 years ago, the Higgs particle is the linchpin of what physicists call the “standard model” of particle physics, a powerful mathematical theory that accounts for all the fundamental entities in the quantum world (quarks and leptons) and all the known forces acting between them (gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces).

But the standard model, despite the glory of its vindication, is also a dead end. It offers no path forward to unite its vision of nature’s tiny building blocks with the other great edifice of 20th-century physics: Einstein’s cosmic-scale description of gravity. Without a unification of these two theories—a so-called theory of quantum gravity—we have no idea why our universe is made up of just these particles, forces and properties. (We also can’t know how to truly understand the Big Bang, the cosmic event that marked the beginning of time.)

This is where the specter of an evidence-independent science arises.

Like Ellis and Silk, Frank and Gleiser address string theory, supersymmetry, and the multiverse. They end by suggesting that the testability controversy could soon intensify:

Just a few days ago, scientists restarted investigations with the Large Hadron Collider, after a two-year hiatus. Upgrades have made it even more powerful, and physicists are eager to explore the properties of the Higgs particle in greater detail. If the upgraded collider does discover supersymmetric particles, it will be an astonishing triumph of modern physics. But if nothing is found, our next steps may prove to be difficult and controversial, challenging not just how we do science but what it means to do science at all.

What Frank and Gleiser don’t address, however, is the second of Ellis and Silk’s concerns: possible damage to public confidence in science. This lacuna invites attention to the second pair of dueling commentaries.

In late May, the essay “Congress’s attacks on science-based rules” appeared in Science magazine from 15 well-known authors, including the physicists and national technoscience leaders Lewis M. Branscomb and Neal F. Lane. The commentary opened with an accusation: “There is a growing and troubling assault on using credible scientific knowledge in US government regulation that will put science and democracy at risk if unchecked.” It also charged that certain bills in Congress “employ insidious, albeit creative, approaches to weaken the ability of science to inform federal rule-making.”

This Science essay had nothing directly to do with the “elegance will suffice” controversy engaged in the first pair of dueling commentaries. But like empiricism defenders Ellis and Silk, it stressed the foundational importance of evidence and empiricism. “Public trust in science increases,” it declared, “when we all have access to the same base of evidence.”

One passage in particular asserted the vital need for technical experts in interpreting centrally important empirical data to guide policymakers wisely:

Or take the Sound Science Act. Introduced in the House last year and likely to resurface in the current Congress, the legislation is ostensibly designed to improve the scientific basis for regulations. The bill requires agencies to hold additional public comment periods specifically on all scientific findings throughout the process and each time a new finding is considered. Furthermore, agencies must give “greatest weight to information that is based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data.” But, as scientists know well, and as AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science) has noted, some good science cannot be easily subjected to reproducible experiments. Should modeling studies be excluded? Is qualitative information not to be considered? The decision about how to weigh different types of information should be a scientific decision, not a political mandate. Although, in many cases, such weighting may be appropriate, this decision should be left to technical experts who understand how to interpret the data. Otherwise, decisions might not be based on the best understanding of the scientific evidence.

On 6 June, a Wall Street Journal editorial responded under the headline “Scientific fraud and politics: Look who is lecturing Republicans about scientific truth.” Much in the editorial implicitly emphasized the editors’ view that the technical experts advocated by the 15 Science essay authors sometimes function instead as biased mandarins. The opening paragraphs confronted the 15 with this spring’s scandal at Science:

A press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists recently hit our desk titled “Science leaders decry congressional attacks on science and science-based policy.” It flagged an op-ed in the journal Science that laments “a growing and troubling assault on the use of credible scientific knowledge.” Hmmm. Is this about science, or politics?

Since the scientists brought it up, which is the greater threat to their enterprise: the Republicans who run Congress, or the most spectacular scientific fraud in a generation, which was published and then retracted by the journal Science?

The WSJ editors, well known for scoffing at scientists’ climate consensus, stipulate that “scientific misconduct does seem to be mercifully rare.” But they go on to advocate “more humility amid the illusion of scientific omniscience.”

Across the media it’s easy to find not just their kind of selective, limited science skepticism, but outright cynicism. Whatever is to be said about the intellectual consequences of a move beyond empiricism in theoretical physics, would such a move prove Ellis and Silk right about damage to public confidence in science?

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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