David Merritt recently published the article “Cosmology and convention” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. This article is remarkable in many respects. For starters, it is rare that a practicing scientist reads a paper on the philosophy of science, much less publishes one in a philosophy journal.
I was initially loathe to start reading this article, frankly for fear of boredom: me reading about cosmology and the philosophy of science is like coals to Newcastle. I could not have been more wrong. It is a genuine page turner that should be read by everyone interested in cosmology.
I have struggled for a long time with whether dark matter constitutes a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. It straddles the border: specific dark matter candidates (e.g., WIMPs) are confirmable – a laboratory detection is both possible and plausible – but the concept of dark matter can never be excluded. If we fail to find WIMPs in the range of mass-cross section parameters space where we expected them, we can change the prediction. This moving of the goal post has already happened repeatedly.
I do not find it encouraging that the goal posts keep moving. This raises the question, how far can we go? Arbitrarily low cross-sections can be extracted from theory if we work at it hard enough. How hard should we work? That is, what criteria do we set whereby we decide the WIMP hypothesis is mistaken?
There has to be some criterion by which we would consider the WIMP hypothesis to be falsified. Without such a criterion, it does not satisfy the strictest definition of a scientific hypothesis. If at some point we fail to find WIMPs and are dissatisfied with the theoretical fine-tuning required to keep them hidden, we are free to invent some other dark matter candidate. No WIMPs? Must be axions. Not axions? Would you believe light dark matter? [Worst. Name. Ever.] And so on, ad infinitum. The concept of dark matter is not falsifiable, even if specific dark matter candidates are subject to being made to seem very unlikely (e.g., brown dwarfs).
Faced with this situation, we can consult the philosophy science. Merritt discusses how many of the essential tenets of modern cosmology follow from what Popper would term “conventionalist stratagems” – ways to dodge serious consideration that a treasured theory is threatened. I find this a compelling terminology, as it formalizes an attitude I have witnessed among scientists, especially cosmologists, many times. It was put more colloquially by J.K. Galbraith:
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.”
Boiled down (Keuth 2005), the conventionalist strategems Popper identifies are
- ad hoc hypotheses
- modification of ostensive definitions
- doubting the reliability of the experimenter
- doubting the acumen of the theorist
These are stratagems to be avoided according to Popper. At the least they are pitfalls to be aware of, but as Merritt discusses, modern cosmology has marched down exactly this path, doing each of these in turn.
The ad hoc hypotheses of ΛCDM are of course Λ and CDM. Faced with the observation of a metric that cannot be reconciled with the prior expectation of a decelerating expansion rate, we re-invoke Einstein’s greatest blunder, Λ. We even generalize the notion and give it a fancy new name, dark energy, which has the convenient property that it can fit any observed set of monotonic distance-redshift pairs. Faced with an excess of gravitational attraction over what can be explained by normal matter, we invoke non-baryonic dark matter: some novel form of mass that has no place in the standard model of particle physics, has yet to show any hint of itself in the laboratory, and cannot be decisively excluded by experiment.
We didn’t accept these ad hoc add-ons easily or overnight. Persuasive astronomical evidence drove us there, but all these data really show is that something dire is wrong: General Relativity plus known standard model particles cannot explain the universe. Λ and CDM are more a first guess than a final answer. They’ve been around long enough that they have become familiar, almost beyond doubt. Nevertheless, they remain unproven ad hoc hypotheses.
The sentiment that is often asserted is that cosmology works so well that dark matter and dark energy must exist. But a more conservative statement would be that our present understanding of cosmology is correct if and only if these dark entities exist. The onus is on us to detect dark matter particles in the laboratory.
That’s just the first conventionalist stratagem. I could given many examples of violations of the other three, just from my own experience. That would make for a very long post indeed.
Instead, you should go read Merritt’s paper. There are too many things there to discuss, at least in a single post. You’re best going to the source. Be prepared for some cognitive dissonance.