Avi Loeb has a nice recent post Recalculating Academia, in which he discusses some of the issues confronting modern academia. One of the reasons I haven’t written here for a couple of months is despondency over the same problems. If you’re here reading this, you’ll likely be interested in what he has to say.
I am not eager to write at length today, but I do want to amplify some of the examples he gives with my own experience. For example, he notes that there are
theoretical physicists who avoid the guillotine of empirical tests for half a century by dedicating their career to abstract conjectures, avoid the risk of being proven wrong while demonstrating mathematical virtuosity.Avi Loeb
I recognize many kinds of theoretical physicists who fit this description. My first thought was string theory, which took off in the mid-80s when I was a grad student at Princeton, ground zero for that movement in the US. (The Russians indulged in this independently.) I remember a colloquium in which David Gross advocated the “theory of everything” with gratuitous religious fervor to a large audience of eager listeners quavering with anticipation with the texture of religious revelation. It was captivating and convincing, up until the point near the end when he noted that experimental tests were many orders of magnitude beyond any experiment conceivable at the time. That… wasn’t physics to me. If this was the path the field was going down, I wanted no part of it. This was one of many factors that precipitated my departure from the toxic sludge that was grad student life in the Princeton physics department.
I wish I could say I had been proven wrong. Instead, decades later, physics has nothing to show for its embrace of string theory. There have been some impressive development in mathematics stemming from it. Mathematics, not physics. And yet, there persists a large community of theoretical physicists who wander endlessly in the barren and practically infinite parameter space of multidimensional string theory. Maybe there is something relevant to physical reality there, or maybe it hasn’t been found because there isn’t. At what point does one admit that the objective being sought just ain’t there? [Death. For many people, the answer seems to be never. They keep repeating the same fruitless endeavor until they die.]
We do have new physics, in the form of massive neutrinos and the dark matter problem and the apparent acceleration of the expansion rate of the universe. What we don’t have is the expected evidence for supersymmetry, the crazy-bold yet comparatively humble first step on the road to string theory. If they had got even this much right, we should have seen evidence for it at the LHC, for example in the decay of the aptly named BS meson. If supersymmetric particles existed, they should provide many options for the meson to decay into, which otherwise has few options in the Standard Model of particle physics. This was a strong prediction of minimal supersymmetry, so much so that it was called the Golden Test of supersymmetry. After hearing this over and over in the ’80s and ’90s, I have not heard it again any time in this century. I’m nor sure when the theorists stopped talking about this embarrassment, but I suspect it is long enough ago now that it will come as a surprise to younger scientists, even those who work in the field. Supersymmetry flunked the golden test, and it flunked it hard. Rather than abandon the theory (some did), we just stopped talking about. There persists a large community of theorists who take supersymmetry for granted, and react with hostility if you question that Obvious Truth. They will tell you with condescension that only minimal supersymmetry is ruled out; there is an enormous parameter space still open for their imaginations to run wild, unbridled by experimental constraint. This is both true and pathetic.
Reading about the history of physics, I learned that there was a community of physicists who persisted believing in aether for decades after the Michelson-Morley experiment. After all, only some forms of aether were ruled out. This was true, at the time, but we don’t bother with that detail when teaching physics now. Instead, it gets streamlined to “aether was falsified by Michelson-Morley.” This is, in retrospect, true, and we don’t bother to mention those who pathetically kept after it.
The standard candidate for dark matter, the WIMP, is a supersymmetric particle. If supersymmetry is wrong, WIMPs don’t exist. And yet, there is a large community of particle physicists who persist in building ever bigger and better experiments designed to detect WIMPs. Funny enough, they haven’t detected anything. It was a good hypothesis, 38 years ago. Now its just a bad habit. The better ones tacitly acknowledge this, attributing their continuing efforts to the streetlight effect: you look where you can see.
Prof. Loeb offers another pertinent example:
When I ask graduating students at their thesis exam whether the cold dark matter paradigm will be proven wrong if their computer simulations will be in conflict with future data, they almost always say that any disagreement will indicate that they should add a missing ingredient to their theoretical model in order to “fix” the discrepancy.Avi Loeb
This is indeed the attitude. So much so that no additional ingredient seems to absurd if it is what we need to save the phenomenon. Feedback is the obvious example in my own field, as that (or the synonyms “baryon physics” or “gastrophysics”) is invoked to explain away any and all discrepancies. It sounds simple, since feedback is a real effect that does happen, but this single word does a lot of complicated work under the hood. There are many distinct kinds of feedback: stellar winds, UV radiation from massive stars, supernova when those stars explode, X-rays from compact sources like neutron stars, and relativistic jets from supermasive black holes at the centers of galactic nuclei. These are the examples of feedback that I can think of off the top of my head, there are probably more. All of these things have perceptible, real-world effects on the relevant scales, with, for example, stars blowing apart the dust and gas of their stellar cocoons after they form. This very real process has bugger all to do with what feedback is invoked to do on galactic scales. Usually, supernova are blamed by theorists for any and all problems in dwarf galaxies, while observers tell me that stellar winds do most of the work in disrupting star forming regions. Confronted with this apparent discrepancy, the usual answer is that it doesn’t matter how the energy is input into the interstellar medium, just that it is. Yet we can see profound differences between stellar winds and supernova explosions, so this does not inspire confidence for the predictive power of theories that generically invoke feedback to explain away problems that wouldn’t be there in a healthy theory.
This started a long time ago. I had already lost patience with this unscientific attitude to the point that I dubbed it the
Spergel Principle: “It is better to postdict than to predict.”McGaugh 1998
This continues to go on and has now done so for so long that generations of students seem to think that this is how science is supposed to be done. If asked about hypothesis testing and whether a theory can be falsified, many theorists will first look mystified, then act put out. Why would you even ask that? (One does not question the paradigm.) The minority of better ones then rally to come up with some reason to justify that yes, what they’re talking about can be falsified, so it does qualify as physics. But those goalposts can always be moved.
A good example of moving goalposts is the cusp-core problem. When I first encountered this in the mid to late ’90s, I tried to figure a way out of it, but failed. So I consulted one of the very best theorists, Simon White. When I asked him what he thought would constitute a falsification of cold dark matter, he said cusps: “cusps have to be there” [in the center of a dark matter halo]. Flash forward to today, when nobody would accept that as a falsification of cold dark matter: it can be fixed by feedback. Which would be fine, if it were true, which isn’t really clear. At best it provides a post facto explanation for an unpredicted phenomenon without addressing the underlying root cause, that the baryon distribution is predictive of the dynamics.
This is like putting a band-aid on a Tyrannosaurus. It’s already dead and fossilized. And if it isn’t, well, you got bigger problems.
Another disease common to theory is avoidance. A problem is first ignored, then the data are blamed for showing the wrong thing, then they are explained in a way that may or may not be satisfactory. Either way, it is treated as something that had been expected all along.
In a parallel to this gaslighting, I’ve noticed that it has become fashionable of late to describe unsatisfactory explanations as “natural.” Saying that something can be explained naturally is a powerful argument in science. The traditional meaning is that ok, we hadn’t contemplated this phenomena before it surprised us, but if we sit down and work it out, it makes sense. The “making sense” part means that an answer falls out of a theory easily when the right question is posed. If you need to run gazillions of supercomputer CPU hours of a simulation with a bunch of knobs for feedback to get something that sorta kinda approximates reality but not really, your result does not qualify as natural. It might be right – that’s a more involved adjudication – but it doesn’t qualify as natural and the current fad to abuse this term again does not inspire confidence that the results of such simulations might somehow be right. Just makes me suspect the theorists are fooling themselves.
I haven’t even talked about astroparticle physicists or those who engage in fantasies about the multiverse. I’ll just close by noting that Popper’s criterion for falsification was intended to distinguish between physics and metaphysics. That’s not the same as right or wrong, but physics is subject to experimental test while metaphysics is the stuff of late night bull sessions. The multiverse is manifestly metaphysical. Cool to think about, has lots of implications for philosophy and religion, but not physics. Even Gross has warned against treading down the garden path of the multiverse. (Tell me that you’re warning others not to make the same mistakes you made without admitting you made mistakes.)
There are a lot of scientists who would like to do away with Popper, or any requirement that physics be testable. These are inevitably the same people whose fancy turns to metascapes of mathematically beautiful if fruitless theories, and want to pass off their metaphysical ramblings as real physics. Don’t buy it.