A Philosophical Approach to MOND is a new book by David Merritt. This is a major development in the both the science of cosmology and astrophysics, on the one hand, and the philosophy and history of science on the other. It should be required reading for anyone interested in any of these topics.
For many years, David Merritt was a professor of astrophysics who specialized in gravitational dynamics, leading a number of breakthroughs in the effects of supermassive black holes in galaxies on the orbits of stars around them. He has since transitioned to the philosophy of science. This may not sound like a great leap, but it is: these are different scholarly fields, each with their own traditions, culture, and required background education. Changing fields like this is a bit like switching boats mid-stream: even a strong swimmer may flounder in the attempt given the many boulders academic disciplines traditionally place in the stream of knowledge to mark their territory. Merritt has managed the feat with remarkable grace, devouring the background reading and coming up to speed in a different discipline to the point of a lucid fluency.
For the most part, practicing scientists have little interaction with philosophers and historians of science. Worse, we tend to have little patience for them. The baseline presumption of many physical scientists is that we know what we’re doing; there is nothing the philosophers can teach us. In the daily practice of what Kuhn called normal science, this is close to true. When instead we are faced with potential paradigm shifts, the philosophy of science is critical, and the absence of training in it on the part of many scientists becomes glaring.
In my experience, most scientists seem to have heard of Popper and Kuhn. If that. Physical scientists will almost always pay lip service to Popper’s ideal of falsifiablity, and that’s pretty much the extent of it. Living up to applying that ideal is another matter. If an idea that is near and dear to their hearts and careers is under threat, the knee-jerk response is more commonly “let’s not get carried away!”
There is more to the philosophy of science than that. The philosophers of science have invested lots of effort in considering both how science works in practice (e.g., Kuhn) and how it should work (Popper, Lakatos, …) The practice and the ideal of science are not always the same thing.
The debate about dark matter and MOND hinges on the philosophy of science in a profound way. I do not think it is possible to make real progress out of our current intellectual morass without a deep examination of what science is and what it should be.
Merritt takes us through the methodology of scientific research programs, spelling out what we’ve learned from past experience (the history of science) and from careful consideration of how science should work (its philosophical basis). For example, all scientists agree that it is important for a scientific theory to have predictive power. But we are disturbingly fuzzy on what that means. I frequently hear my colleagues say things like “my theory predicts that” in reference to some observation, when in fact no such prediction was made in advance. What they usually mean is that it fits well with the theory. This is sometimes true – they could have predicted the observation in advance if they had considered that particular case. But sometimes it is retroactive fitting more than prediction – consistency, perhaps, but it could have gone a number of other ways equally well. Worse, it is sometimes a post facto assertion that is simply false: not only was the prediction not made in advance, but the observation was genuinely surprising at the time it was made. Only in retrospect is it “correctly” “predicted.”
The philosophers have considered these situations. One thing I appreciate is Merritt’s review of the various takes philosophers have on what counts as a prediction. I wish I had known these things when I wrote the recent review in which I took a very restrictive definition to avoid the foible above. The philosophers provide better definitions, of which more than one can be usefully applicable. I’m not going to go through them here: you should read Merritt’s book, and those of the philosophers he cites.
From this philosophical basis, Merritt makes a systematic, dare I say, scientific, analysis of the basic tenets of MOND and MONDian theories, and how they fare with regard to their predictions and observational tests. Along the way, he also considers the same material in the light of the dark matter paradigm. Of comparable import to confirmed predictions are surprising observations: if a new theory predicts that the sun will rise in the morning, that isn’t either new or surprising. If instead a theory expects one thing but another is observed, that is surprising, and it counts against that theory even if it can be adjusted to accommodate the new fact. I have seen this happen over and over with dark matter: surprising observations (e.g., the absence of cusps in dark matter halos, the small numbers of dwarf galaxies, downsizing in which big galaxies appear to form earliest) are at first ignored, doubted, debated, then partially explained with some mental gymnastics until it is Known and of course, we knew it all along. Merritt explicitly points out examples of this creeping determinism, in which scientists come to believe they predicted something they merely rationalized post-facto (hence the preeminence of genuinely a priori predictions that can’t be fudged).
Merritt’s book is also replete with examples of scientists failing to take alternatives seriously. This is natural: we have invested an enormous amount of time developing physical science to the point we have now reached; there is an enormous amount of background material that cannot simply be ignored or discarded. All too often, we are confronted with crackpot ideas that do exactly this. This makes us reluctant to consider ideas that sound crazy on first blush, and most of us will rightly display considerable irritation when asked to do so. For reasons both valid and not, MOND skirts this bondary. I certainly didn’t take it seriously myself, nor really considered it at all, until its predictions came true in my own data. It was so far below my radar that at first I did not even recognize that this is what had happened. But I did know I was surprised; what I was seeing did not make sense in terms of dark matter. So, from this perspective, I can see why other scientists are quick to dismiss it. I did so myself, initially. I was wrong to do so, and so are they.
A common failure mode is to ignore MOND entirely: despite dozens of confirmed predictions, it simply remains off the radar for many scientists. They seem never to have given it a chance, so they simply don’t pay attention when it gets something right. This is pure ignorance, which is not a strong foundation from which to render a scientific judgement.
Another common reaction is to acknowledge then dismiss. Merritt provides many examples where eminent scientists do exactly this with a construction like: “MOND correctly predicted X but…” where X is a single item, as if this is the only thing that [they are aware that] it does. Put this way, it is easy to dismiss – a common refrain I hear is “MOND fits rotation curves but nothing else.” This is a long-debunked falsehood that is asserted and repeated until it achieves the status of common knowledge within the echo chamber of scientists who refuse to think outside the dark matter box.
This is where the philosophy of science is crucial to finding our way forward. Merritt’s book illuminates how this is done. If you are reading these words, you owe it to yourself to read his book.