|Popper, upside-down. |
And luckily so, because it was utterly impractical. In practice, scientists can’t falsify theories. That’s because any theory can be amended in hindsight so that it fits new data. Don’t roll your eyes – updating your knowledge in response to new information is scientifically entirely sound procedure.
So, no, you can’t falsify theories. Never could. You could still fit planetary orbits with a quadrillion of epicycles or invent a luminiferous aether which just exactly mimics special relativity. Of course no one in their right mind does that. That’s because repeatedly fixed theories become hideously difficult, not to mention hideous, period. What happens instead of falsification is that scientists transition to simpler explanations.
To be fair, I think Popper in his later years backpedaled from his early theses. But many physicists not only still believe in Popper, they also opportunistically misinterpret the original Popper.
Even in his worst moments Popper never said a theory is scientific just because it’s falsifiable. That’s Popper upside-down and clearly nonsense. Unfortunately, upside-down Popper now drives theory-development, both in cosmology and in high energy physics.
It’s not hard to come up with theories that are falsifiable but not scientific. By scientific I mean the theory has a reasonable chance of accurately describing nature. (Strictly speaking it’s not an either/or criterion until one quantifies “reasonable chance” but it will suffice for the present purpose.)
I may predict for example, that Donald Trump will be shot by an elderly lady before his first term is over. That’s compatible with present knowledge and totally falsifiable. But chances it’s correct are basically zero and that makes it a prophecy, not a scientific theory.
The idea that falsifiability is sufficient to make a theory scientific is an argument I hear frequently from amateur physicists. “But you can test it!” they insist. Then they explain how their theory reworks the quantum or what have you. And post their insights in all-caps on my time-line. Indeed, as I am writing this, a comment comes in: “A good idea need only be testable,” says Uncle Al. Sorry, Uncle, but that’s rubbish.
You’d think that scientists know better. But two years ago I sat in a talk by Professor Lisa Randall who spoke about how dark matter killed the dinosaurs. Srsly. This was when I realized the very same mistake befalls professional particle physicists. Upside-down Popper is a widely-spread malaise.
Randall, you see, has a theory for particle dark matter with some interaction that allows the dark matter to clump within galaxies and form disks similar to normal matter. Our solar system, so the idea, periodically passes through the dark matter disk, which then causes extinction events. Or something like that.
Frankly I can’t recall the details, but they’re not so relevant. I’m just telling you this because someone asked “Why these dark matter particles? Why this interaction?” To which Randall’s answer was (I paraphrase) I don’t know but you can test it.
I don’t mean to pick on her specifically, it just so happens that this talk was the moment I understood what’s wrong with the argument. Falsifiability alone doesn’t make a theory scientific.
If the only argument that speaks for your idea is that it’s compatible with present data and makes a testable prediction, that’s not enough. My idea that Trump will get shot is totally compatible with all we presently know. And it does make a testable prediction. But it will not enter the annals of science, and why is that? Because you can effortlessly produce some million similar prophecies.
In the foundations of physics, compatibility with existing data is a high bar to jump, or so they want you to believe. That’s because if you cook up a new theory you first have to reproduce all achievements of the already established theories. This bar you will not jump unless you actually understand the present theories, which is why it’s safe to ignore the all-caps insights on my timeline.
But you can learn how to jump the bar. Granted, it will take you a decade. But after this you know all the contemporary techniques to mass-produce “theories” that are compatible with the established theories and make eternally amendable predictions for future experiments. In my upcoming book, I refer to these techniques as “the hidden rules of physics.”
These hidden rules tell you how to add particles to the standard model and then make it difficult to measure them, or add fields to general relativity and then explain why we can’t see them, and so on. Once you know how to do that, you’ll jump the bar every time. All you have to do then is twiddle the details so that your predictions are just about to become measureable in the next, say, 5 years. And if the predictions don’t work out, you’ll fiddle again.
And that’s what most theorists and phenomenologists in high energy physics live from today.
There are so many of these made-up theories now that the chances any one of them is correct are basically zero. There are infinitely many “hidden sectors” of particles and fields that you can invent and then couple so lightly that you can’t measure them or make them so heavy that you need a larger collider to produce them. The quality criteria are incredibly low, getting lower by the day. It’s a race to the bottom. And the bottom might be at asymptotically minus infinity.
This overproduction of worthless predictions is the theoreticians’ version of p-value hacking. To get away with it, you just never tell anyone how many models you tried that didn’t work as desired. You fumble things together until everything looks nice and then the community will approve. It’ll get published. You can give talks about it. That’s because you have met the current quality standard. You see this happen both in particle physics and in cosmology and, more recently, also in quantum gravity.
This nonsense has been going on for so long, no one sees anything wrong with it. And note how very similar this is to the dismal situation in psychology and the other life-sciences, where abusing statistics had become so common it was just normal practice. How long will it take for theoretical physicists to admit they have problems too?
Some of you may recall the book of philosopher Richard Dawid who claimed that the absence of alternatives speaks for string theory. This argument is wrong of course. To begin with there are alternatives to string theory, just that Richard conveniently doesn’t discuss them. But what’s more important is that there could be many alternatives that we do not know of. Richard bases his arguments on Bayesian reasoning and in this case the unknown number of unknown alternatives renders his no-alternative argument unusable.
But a variant of this argument illuminates what speaks against, rather than for, a theory. Let me call it the “Too Many Alternatives Argument.”
In this argument you don’t want to show that the probability for one particular theory is large, but that the probability for any particular theory is small. You can do this even though you still don’t know the total number of alternatives because you know there are at least as many alternatives as the ones that were published. This probabilistic estimate will tell you that the more alternatives have been found, the smaller the chances that any one of them is correct.
Really you don’t need Bayesian mysticism to see the logic, but it makes it sound more sciency. The point is that the easier it is to come up with predictions the lower their predictive value.
Duh, you say. I hear you. How come particle physicist think this is good scientific practice? It’s because of upside-down Popper! They make falsifiable predictions – and they believe that’s enough.
Yes, I know. I’m well on the way to make myself the most-hated person in high energy physics. It’s no fun. But look, even psychologists have addressed their problems by introducing better quality criteria. If they can do it, so can we.
At least I hope we can.