“[S]he raises concerns about physicists being led astray by philosophers (Richard Dawid is mentioned as an alleged culprit [...]) into thinking that observation and testability through experimentation can be dispensed with. According to her, it may be alright for mathematicians and philosophers to pontificate about the structure of the universe without experimentation, but that, she says, is not what scientists should be doing.”The internet has a funny way of polarizing opinions. I am not happy about this, so some clarifications.
First, I didn’t say and didn’t mean that philosophy is “bad science,” I said it’s not science. I am using the word “science” here as it’s commonly used in English where (unlike in German) science refers to study subjects that describe observations, in the broad sense.
Neither am I saying that philosophy is something physicists shouldn’t be doing at all, certainly not. Philosophy, as well as the history and sociology of science, can be very helpful for the practicing physicist to put their work in perspective. Much of what is today subject of physics was anticipated by philosophers thousands of years ago, such as the question whether nature is fundamentally discrete or continuous.
Scientists though should in the first place do science, ie their work should at least aim at describing observations.
Physicists today by and large don’t pay much attention to philosophy. In most fields that doesn’t matter much, but the closer research is to fundamental questions, the more philosophy comes into play. Presently that is mostly in quantum foundations, cosmology and quantum gravity (including string theory), and beyond-the-standard-model physics that relies on arguments of naturalness, simplicity or elegance.
Physicists are not “led astray by philosophers” because they don’t actually care what philosophers say. What is happening instead is that some physicists — well, make that string-theorists — are now using Richard Dawid’s arguments to justify continuing what they’re doing. That’s okay, I also think philosophers are better philosophers if they agree with what I’ve been saying all along.
I have no particular problem with string theorists, most of which today don’t actually do string theory any more, they do AdS/CFT. Which is fine by me, because much of the appeal of the gauge-gravity duality is its potential for phenomenological applications. (Then the problem is that they’re all doing the same, but I will complain about this another time.) String theory takes most of the heat simply because there are many string theorists and everybody has heard of it.
Just to be clear, when I say “phenomenology” I mean mathematical models describing observations. Phenomenology is what connects theory with experiment. The problem with today’s research communities is that the gap between theory and experiment is constantly widening and funding agencies have let it happen. With the gap widening, the theory is increasingly more mathematics and/or philosophy and increasingly less science. How wide a gap is too wide? The point I am complaining about is that the gap has become to wide. We have a lack of balance between theory disconnected from observation and phenomenology. Without phenomenology to match a theory to observation, the theory isn’t science.Studying mathematical structures can be very fruitful for physics, sure. I understand that it takes time to develop the mathematics of a theory until it can be connected to observations, and I don’t think it makes much sense setting physicists a deadline by which insights must have appeared. But problems arise if research areas in physics which are purely devoted to mathematics, or are all tangled up in philosophy, become so self-supportive that they stop even trying to make contact to observation.
I don’t know how often I have talked to young postdocs in quantum gravity and they do not show the slightest intention to describe observation. The more senior people have at least learned the lip confessions to be added whenever funding is at stake, but it is pretty obvious that they don’t actually want to bother with observations. The economists have a very useful expression that is “revealed preferences.” It means, essentially, don’t listen to what they say, look at what they do. Yes, they all say phenomenology is important, but nobody works on it. I am sure you can name off the top of your head some dozen or so people working on quantum gravity, the theory. How many can you name who work on quantum gravity phenomenology? How many of these have tenure? Right. Why hasn’t there been any progress in quantum gravity? Because you can’t develop a theory without contact to observation.
It is really a demarcation issue for me. I don’t mind if somebody wants to do mathematical physics or philosophy of science. I just don’t want them to pretend they’re doing physics. This is why I like the proposal put forward by George Ellis and Joe Silk in their Nature Comment:
“In the meantime, journal editors and publishers could assign speculative work to other research categories — such as mathematical rather than physical cosmology — according to its potential testability. And the domination of some physics departments and institutes by such activities could be rethought.”