Shadows on the Cave Wall

This article has a lot of food for thought, about how science works and the vexed relationship between theory and experiment.

It was not theory but experiment that plucked the quark idea from near oblivion. Aided and abetted by theory, experiments made quarks real, transforming them from a wayward hypothesis into concrete objects of experience. Experiments are what ultimately discarded the science fashions of the sixties and turned quarks into hard scientific fact.

It’s interesting to think of science and physics as being centers of fashion. Who knew that quarks were a fashion until experiments provided evidence that they were actually there, were not just Platonic physics, as Riordan calls it, but ‘hard scientific fact’? Well of course in a sense anybody who’s read Thomas Kuhn knew, that’s who, but you have to admit, paradigm sounds a good deal more serious than fashion. But the point is, whether paradigm or fashion, if the experiments don’t support them that’s what they stay, and otherwise they become knowledge.

One of the great strengths of scientific practice is what can be called the “withering skepticism” that is usually applied to theoretical ideas, especially in physics. We subject hypotheses to observational tests and reject those that fail…[G]ood experimenters are irredeemable skeptics who thoroughly enjoy refuting the more speculative ideas of their theoretical colleagues. Through experience, they know how to exclude bias and make valid judgments that withstand the tests of time.

There you are, they reject those that fail. No pausing to worry about the poor little theories’ self-esteem, just Here’s your hat and there’s the door, good bye. Mathematical beauty is all very well, but Riordan points out that it’s not an adequate standard for science.

Without such a rigorous standard of truth, science will have little defense against the onslaughts of the creationists and postmodernists, for whom it is just one of many ways to grasp the world. How could we ever hope to defend science against such attacks if it were based only on the opinions of its leading practitioners? Mathematics is not enough, no matter how beautiful. Even Einstein, who helped foster this theoretical style, insisted his ideas had to have observable consequences. The essence of scientific truth rests in the requirement that it should have strong accordance with the natural world that exists outside our minds and beyond human artifice.

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