Science progresses through hypothesis testing. The primary mechanism for distinguishing between hypotheses is predictive power. The hypothesis that can predict new phenomena is “better.” This is especially true for surprising, a priori predictions: it matters more when the new phenomena was not expected in the context of an existing paradigm.

I’ve seen this happen many times now. MOND has had many predictive successes. As a theory, it has been exposed to potential falsification, and passed many tests. These have often been in the form of phenomena that had not been anticipated in any other way, and were initially received as strange to the point of seeming impossible. It is exactly the situation envisioned in Putnam’s “no miracles” argument: it is unlikely to the point of absurdity that a wholly false theory should succeed in making so many predictions of such diversity and precision.

MOND has many doubters, which I can understand. What I don’t get is the ignorance I so often encounter among them. To me, the statement that MOND has had many unexpected predictions come true is a simple statement of experiential fact. I suspect it will be received by some as a falsehood. It shouldn’t be, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should try reading the relevant literature. What papers about MOND have you actually read?

Ignorance is not a strong basis for making scientific judgements. Before I criticize something, I make sure I know what I’m talking about. That’s rarely true of the complaints I hear against MOND. There are legitimate ones, to be sure, but for the most part I hear assertions like

  • MOND is guaranteed to fit rotation curves.
  • It fits rotation curves but does nothing else.
  • It is just a fitting tool with no predictive power.

These are myths, plain and simple. They are easily debunked, and were long ago. Yet I hear them repeated often by people who think they know better, one as recently as last week. Serious people who expect to be taken seriously as scientists, and yet they repeat known falsehoods as if they were established fact. Is there a recycling bin of debunked myths that gets passed around? I guess it is easy to believe a baseless rumor when it conforms to your confirmation bias: no need for fact-checking!

Aside from straight-up reality denial, another approach is to claim that dark matter predicts exactly the same thing, whatever it is. I’ve seen this happen so often, I know how the script always goes:

• We make a new observation X that is surprising.
• We test the hypothesis, and report the result: “Gee, MOND predicted this strange effect, and we see evidence of it in the data.”
• Inevitable Question: What does LCDM predict?
• Answer: Not that.
• Q: But what does it predict?
• A: It doesn’t really make a clear prediction on this subject, so we have to build some kind of model to even begin to address this question. In the most obvious models one can construct, it predicts Y. Y is not the same as X.
• Q: What about more complicated models?
• A: One can construct more complicated models, but they are not unique. They don’t make a prediction so much as provide a menu of options from which we may select the results that suit us. The obvious danger is that it becomes possible to do anything, and we have nothing more than an epicycle theory of infinite possibilities. If we restrict ourselves to considering the details of serious models that have only been partially fine-tuned over the course of the development of the field, then there are still a lot of possibilities. Some of them come closer to reality than others but still don’t really do the right thing for the following reasons…[here follows 25 pages of minutia in the ApJ considering every up/down left/right stand on your head and squint possibility that still winds up looking more like Y than like X.] You certainly couldn’t predict X this way, as MOND did a priori.
• Q: That’s too long to read. Dr. Z says it works, so he must be right since we already know that LCDM is correct.

The thing is, Dr. Z did not predict X ahead of time. MOND did. Maybe Dr. Z’s explanation in terms of dark matter makes sense. Often it does not, but even if it does, so what? Why should I be more impressed with a theory that only explains things after they’re observed when another predicted them a priori?

There are lots of Dr. Z’s. No matter how carefully one goes through the minutia, no matter how clearly one demonstrates that X cannot work in a purely conventional CDM context, there is always someone who says it does. That’s what people want to hear, so that’s what they choose to believe. Way easier that way. Or, as it has been noted before

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.

J. K. Galbraith (1965)

One thought on “A script for every observational test

  1. I read “Emperor of Scent” earlier this year. It is a similar science story to Mond, and maybe will give you some solace, shared pain.


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