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.
This is a wise truth that has often been poorly interpreted. I despise some of the results that this sports quote has had in American culture. It has fostered a culture of bad sportsmanship in some places: an acceptance, even a dictum, that the ends justify the means – up to and including cheating, provided you can get away with it.
Winning every time is an impossible standard. In any competitive event, someone will win a particular game, and someone else will lose. Every participant will be on the losing side some of the time. Learning to lose gracefully despite a great effort is an essential aspect of sportsmanship that must be taught and learned, because it sure as hell isn’t part of human nature.
But there is wisdom here. The quote originates with a football coach. Football is a sport where there is a lot of everything – to even have a chance of winning, you have to do everything right. Not just performance on the field, but strategic choices made before and during the game, and mundane but essential elements like getting the right personnel on the field for each play. What? We’re punting? I thought it was third down!
You can do everything right and still lose. And that’s what I interpret the quote to really mean. You have to do everything to compete. But people will only judge you to be successful if you win.
To give a recent example, the Kansas City Chiefs won this year’s Superbowl. It was only a few months ago, though it seems much longer in pandemic time. The Chiefs dominated the Superbowl, but they nearly didn’t make it past the AFC Championship game.
The Tennessee Titans dominated the early part of the AFC Championship game. They had done everything right. They had peaked at the right time as a team in the overly long and brutal NFL season. They had an excellent game plan, just as they had had in handily defeating the highly favored New England Patriots on the way to the Championship game. Their defense admirably contained the high octane Chiefs offense. It looked like they were going to the Superbowl.
Then one key injury occurred. The Titans lost the only defender who could match up one on one with tight end Travis Kelce. This had an immediate impact on the game, as they Chiefs quickly realized they could successfully throw to Kelce over and over after not having been able to do so at all. The Titans were obliged to double-cover, which opened up other opportunities. The Chief’s offense went from impotent to unstoppable.
I remember this small detail because Kelce is a local boy. He attended the same high school as my daughters, playing on the same field they would (only shortly later) march on with the marching band during half times. If it weren’t for this happenstance of local interest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this detail of the game, much less remember it.
The bigger point is that the Titans did everything right as a team. They lost anyway. All most people will remember is that the Chiefs won the Superbowl, not that the Titans almost made it there. Hence the quote:
“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
The hallmark of science is predictive power. This is what distinguishes it from other forms of knowledge. The gold standard is a prediction that is made and published in advance of the experiment that tests it. This eliminates the ability to hedge: either we get it right in advance, or we don’t.
The importance of such a prediction depends on how surprising it is. Predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow is not exactly a bold prediction, is it? If instead we have a new idea that changes how we think about how the world works, and makes a prediction that is distinct from current wisdom, then that’s very important. Judging how important a particular prediction may be is inevitably subjective.
It is rare that we actually meet the gold standard of a priori prediction, but it does happen. A prominent example is the prediction of gravitational lensing by General Relativity. Einstein pointed out that his theory predicted twice the light-bending that Newtonian theory did. Eddington organized an expedition to measure this effect during a solar eclipse, and claimed to confirm Einstein’s prediction within a few years of it having been made. This is reputed to have had a strong impact that led to widespread acceptance of the new theory. Some of that was undoubtedly due to Eddington’s cheerleading: it does not suffice merely to make a successful prediction, that it has happened needs to become widely known.
It is impossible to anticipate every conceivable experimental result and publish a prediction for it in advance. So there is another situation: does a theory predict what is observed? This has several standards. The highest standard deserves a silver medal. This happens when you work out the prediction of a theory, and you find that it gives exactly what is observed, with very little leeway. If you had had the opportunity to make the prediction in advance, it would have risen to the gold standard.
Einstein provides another example of a silver-standard prediction. A long standing problem in planetary dynamics was the excess precession of the perihelion of Mercury. The orientation of the elliptical orbit of Mercury changes slowly, with the major axis of the ellipse pivoting by 574 arcseconds per century. That’s a tiny rate of angular change, but we’ve been keeping very accurate records of where the planets are for a very long time, so it was well measured. Indeed, it was recognized early that precession would be cause by torques from other planets: it isn’t just Mercury going around the sun; the rest of the solar system matters too. Planetary torques are responsible for most of the effect, but not all. By 1859, Urbain Le Verrier had worked out that the torques from known planets should only amount to 532 arcseconds per century. [I am grossly oversimplifying some fascinating history. Go read up on it!] The point is that there was an excess, unexplained precession of 43 arcseconds per century. This discrepancy was known, known to be serious, and had no satisfactory explanation for many decades before Einstein came on the scene. No way he could go back in time and make a prediction before he was born! But when he worked out the implications of his new theory for this problem, the right answer fell straight out. It explained an ancient and terrible problem without any sort of fiddling: it had to be so.
The data for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury were far superior to the first gravitational lensing measurements made by Eddington and his colleagues. The precession was long known and accurately measured, the post facto prediction clean and irresolute. So in this case, the silver standard was perhaps better than the gold standard. Hence the question once posed to me by a philosopher of science: why we should care if the prediction came in advance of the observation? If X is a consequence of a theory, and X is observed, what difference does it make which came first?
In principle, none. In practice, it depends. I made the hedge above of “very little leeway.” If there is zero leeway, then silver is just as good as gold. There is no leeway to fudge it, so the order doesn’t matter.
It is rare that there is no leeway to fudge it. Theorists love to explore arcane facets of their ideas. They are exceedingly clever at finding ways to “explain” observations that their theory did not predict, even those that seem impossible for their theory to explain. So the standard by which such a post-facto “prediction” must be judged depends on the flexibility of the theory, and the extent to which one indulges said flexibility. If it is simply a matter of fitting for some small number of unknown parameters that are perhaps unknowable in advance, then I would award that a bronze medal. If instead one must strain to twist the theory to make it work out, then that merits at best an asterisk: “we fit* it!” can quickly become “*we’re fudging it!” That’s why truly a priori prediction is the gold standard. There is no way to go back in time and fudge it.
An important corollary is that if a theory gets its predictions right in advance, then we are obliged to acknowledge the efficacy of that theory. The success of a priori predictions is the strongest possible sign that the successful theory is a step in the right direction. This is how we try to maintain objectivity in science: it is how we know when to suck it up and say “OK, my favorite theory got this wrong, but this other theory I don’t like got its prediction exactly right. I need to re-think this.” This ethos has been part of science for as long as I can remember, and a good deal longer than that. I have heard some argue that this is somehow outdated and that we should give up this ethos. This is stupid. If we give up the principle of objectivity, science would quickly degenerate into a numerological form of religion: my theory is always right! and I can bend the numbers to make it seem so.
Hence the hallmark of science is predictive power. Can a theory be applied to predict real phenomena? It doesn’t matter whether the prediction is made in advance or not – with the giant caveat that “predictions” not be massaged to fit the facts. There is always a temptation to massage one’s favorite theory – and obfuscate the extent to which one is doing so. Consequently, truly a priori prediction must necessarily remain the gold standard in science. The power to make such predictions is fundamental.
Predictive power in science isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
As I was writing this, I received email to the effect that these issues are also being discussed elsewhere, by Jim Baggot and Sabine Hossenfelder. I have not yet read what they have to say.
This Thanksgiving, I’d highlight something positive. Recently, Bob Sanders wrote a paper pointing out that gas rich galaxies are strong tests of MOND. The usual fit parameter, the stellar mass-to-light ratio, is effectively negligible when gas dominates. The MOND prediction follows straight from the gas distribution, for which there is no equivalent freedom. We understand the 21 cm spin-flip transition well enough to relate observed flux directly to gas mass.
In any human endeavor, there are inevitably unsung heroes who carry enormous amounts of water but seem to get no credit for it. Sanders is one of those heroes when it comes to the missing mass problem. He was there at the beginning, and has a valuable perspective on how we got to where we are. I highly recommend his books, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective and Deconstructing Cosmology.
In bright spiral galaxies, stars are usually 80% or so of the mass, gas only 20% or less. But in many dwarf galaxies, the mass ratio is reversed. These are often low surface brightness and challenging to observe. But it is a worthwhile endeavor, as their rotation curve is predicted by MOND with extraordinarily little freedom.
Though gas rich galaxies do indeed provide an excellent test of MOND, nothing in astronomy is perfectly clean. The stellar mass-to-light ratio is an irreducible need-to-know parameter. We also need to know the distance to each galaxy, as we do not measure the gas mass directly, but rather the flux of the 21 cm line. The gas mass scales with flux and the square of the distance (see equation 7E7), so to get the gas mass right, we must first get the distance right. We also need to know the inclination of a galaxy as projected on the sky in order to get the rotation to which we’re fitting right, as the observed line of sight Doppler velocity is only sin(i) of the full, in-plane rotation speed. The 1/sin(i) correction becomes increasingly sensitive to errors as i approaches zero (face-on galaxies).
The mass-to-light ratio is a physical fit parameter that tells us something meaningful about the amount of stellar mass that produces the observed light. In contrast, for our purposes here, distance and inclination are “nuisance” parameters. These nuisance parameters can be, and generally are, measured independently from mass modeling. However, these measurements have their own uncertainties, so one has to be careful about taking these measured values as-is. One of the powerful aspects of Bayesian analysis is the ability to account for these uncertainties to allow for the distance to be a bit off the measured value, so long as it is not too far off, as quantified by the measurement uncertainties. This is what current graduate student Pengfei Li did in Li et al. (2018). The constraints on MOND are so strong in gas rich galaxies that often the nuisance parameters cannot be ignored, even when they’re well measured.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at one famous example, DDO 154. This galaxy is over 90% gas. The stars (pictured above) just don’t matter much. If the distance and inclination are known, the MOND prediction for the rotation curve follows directly. Here is an example of a MOND fit from a recent paper:
This is terrible! The MOND fit – essentially a parameter-free prediction – misses all of the data. MOND is falsified. If one is inclined to hate MOND, as many seem to be, then one stops here. No need to think further.
If one is familiar with the ups and downs in the history of astronomy, one might not be so quick to dismiss it. Indeed, one might notice that the shape of the MOND prediction closely tracks the shape of the data. There’s just a little difference in scale. That’s kind of amazing for a theory that is wrong, especially when it is amplifying the green line to predict the red one: it needn’t have come anywhere close.
Here is the fit to the same galaxy using the same data [already] published in Li et al.:
Now we have a good fit, using the same data! How can this be so?
I have not checked what Ren et al. did to obtain their MOND fits, but having done this exercise myself many times, I recognize the slight offset they find as a typical consequence of holding the nuisance parameters fixed. What if the measured distance is a little off?
Distance estimates to DDO 154 in the literature range from 3.02 Mpc to 6.17 Mpc. The formally most accurate distance measurement is 4.04 ± 0.08 Mpc. In the fit shown here, we obtained 3.87 ± 0.16 Mpc. The error bars on these distances overlap, so they are the same number, to measurement accuracy. These data do not falsify MOND. They demonstrate that it is sensitive enough to tell the difference between 3.8 and 4.1 Mpc.
One will never notice this from a dark matter fit. Ren et al. also make fits with self-interacting dark matter (SIDM). The nifty thing about SIDM is that it makes quasi-constant density cores in dark matter halos. Halos of this form are not predicted by “ordinary” cold dark matter (CDM), but often give better fits than either MOND of the NFW halos of dark matter-only CDM simulations. For this galaxy, Ren et al. obtain the following SIDM fit.
This is a great fit. Goes right through the data. That makes it better, right?
Not necessarily. In addition to the mass-to-light ratio (and the nuisance parameters of distance and inclination), dark matter halo fits have [at least] two additional free parameters to describe the dark matter halo, such as its mass and core radius. These parameters are highly degenerate – one can obtain equally good fits for a range of mass-to-light ratios and core radii: one makes up for what the other misses. Parameter degeneracy of this sort is usually a sign that there is too much freedom in the model. In this case, the data are adequately described by one parameter (the MOND fit M*/L, not counting the nuisances in common), so using three (M*/L, Mhalo, Rcore) is just an exercise in fitting a French curve. There is ample freedom to fit the data. As a consequence, you’ll never notice that one of the nuisance parameters might be a tiny bit off.
In other words, you can fool a dark matter fit, but not MOND. Erwin de Blok and I demonstrated this 20 years ago. A common myth at that time was that “MOND is guaranteed to fit rotation curves.” This seemed patently absurd to me, given how it works: once you stipulate the distribution of baryons, the rotation curve follows from a simple formula. If the two don’t match, they don’t match. There is no guarantee that it’ll work. Instead, it can’t be forced.
As an illustration, Erwin and I tried to trick it. We took two galaxies that are identical in the Tully-Fisher plane (NGC 2403 and UGC 128) and swapped their mass distribution and rotation curve. These galaxies have the same total mass and the same flat velocity in the outer part of the rotation curve, but the detailed distribution of their baryons differs. If MOND can be fooled, this closely matched pair ought to do the trick. It does not.
Our failure to trick MOND should not surprise anyone who bothers to look at the math involved. There is a one-to-one relation between the distribution of the baryons and the resulting rotation curve. If there is a mismatch between them, a fit cannot be obtained.
We also attempted to play this same trick on dark matter. The standard dark matter halo fitting function at the time was the pseudo-isothermal halo, which has a constant density core. It is very similar to the halos of SIDM and to the cored dark matter halos produced by baryonic feedback in some simulations. Indeed, that is the point of those efforts: they are trying to capture the success of cored dark matter halos in fitting rotation curve data.
Dark matter halos with a quasi-constant density core do indeed provide good fits to rotation curves. Too good. They are easily fooled, because they have too many degrees of freedom. They will fit pretty much any plausible data that you throw at them. This is why the SIDM fit to DDO 154 failed to flag distance as a potential nuisance. It can’t. You could double (or halve) the distance and still find a good fit.
This is why parameter degeneracy is bad. You get lost in parameter space. Once lost there, it becomes impossible to distinguish between successful, physically meaningful fits and fitting epicycles.
Astronomical data are always subject to improvement. For example, the THINGS project obtained excellent data for a sample of nearby galaxies. I made MOND fits to all the THINGS (and other) data for the MOND review Famaey & McGaugh (2012). Here’s the residual diagram, which has been on my web page for many years:
These are, by and large, good fits. The residuals have a well defined peak centered on zero. DDO 154 was one of the THINGS galaxies; lets see what happens if we use those data.
The first thing one is likely to notice is that the THINGS data are much better resolved than the previous generation used above. The first thing I noticed was that THINGS had assumed a distance of 4.3 Mpc. This was prior to the measurement of 4.04, so lets just start over from there. That gives the MOND prediction shown above.
And it is a prediction. I haven’t adjusted any parameters yet. The mass-to-light ratio is set to the mean I expect for a star forming stellar population, 0.5 in solar units in the Sptizer 3.6 micron band. D=4.04 Mpc and i=66 as tabulated by THINGS. The result is pretty good considering that no parameters have been harmed in the making of this plot. Nevertheless, MOND overshoots a bit at large radii.
Constraining the inclinations for gas rich dwarf galaxies like DDO 154 is a bit of a nightmare. Literature values range from 20 to 70 degrees. Seriously. THINGS itself allows the inclination to vary with radius; 66 is just a typical value. Looking at the fit Pengfei obtained, i=61. Let’s try that.
The fit is now satisfactory. One tweak to the inclination, and we’re done. This tweak isn’t even a fit to these data; it was adopted from Pengfei’s fit to the above data. This tweak to the inclination is comfortably within any plausible assessment of the uncertainty in this quantity. The change in sin(i) corresponds to a mere 4% in velocity. I could probably do a tiny bit better with further adjustment – I have left both the distance and the mass-to-light ratio fixed – but that would be a meaningless exercise in statistical masturbation. The result just falls out: no muss, no fuss.
Hence the point Bob Sanders makes. Given the distribution of gas, the rotation curve follows. And it works, over and over and over, within the bounds of the uncertainties on the nuisance parameters.
One cannot do the same exercise with dark matter. It has ample ability to fit rotation curve data, once those are provided, but zero power to predict it. If all had been well with ΛCDM, the rotation curves of these galaxies would look like NFW halos. Or any number of other permutations that have been discussed over the years. In contrast, MOND makes one unique prediction (that was not at all anticipated in dark matter), and that’s what the data do. Out of the huge parameter space of plausible outcomes from the messy hierarchical formation of galaxies in ΛCDM, Nature picks the one that looks exactly like MOND.
It is a bad sign for a theory when it can only survive by mimicking its alternative. This is the case here: ΛCDM must imitate MOND. There are now many papers asserting that it can do just this, but none of those were written before the data were provided. Indeed, I consider it to be problematic that clever people can come with ways to imitate MOND with dark matter. What couldn’t it imitate? If the data had all looked like technicolor space donkeys, we could probably find a way to make that so as well.
Cosmologists will rush to say “microwave background!” I have some sympathy for that, because I do not know how to explain the microwave background in a MOND-like theory. At least I don’t pretend to, even if I had more predictive success there than their entire community. But that would be a much longer post.
For now, note that the situation is even worse for dark matter than I have so far made it sound. In many dwarf galaxies, the rotation velocity exceeds that attributable to the baryons (with Newton alone) at practically all radii. By a lot. DDO 154 is a very dark matter dominated galaxy. The baryons should have squat to say about the dynamics. And yet, all you need to know to predict the dynamics is the baryon distribution. The baryonic tail wags the dark matter dog.
But wait, it gets better! If you look closely at the data, you will note a kink at about 1 kpc, another at 2, and yet another around 5 kpc. These kinks are apparent in both the rotation curve and the gas distribution. This is an example of Sancisi’s Law: “For any feature in the luminosity profile there is a corresponding feature in the rotation curve and vice versa.” This is a general rule, as Sancisi observed, but it makes no sense when the dark matter dominates. The features in the baryon distribution should not be reflected in the rotation curve.
The observed baryons orbit in a disk with nearly circular orbits confined to the same plane. The dark matter moves on eccentric orbits oriented every which way to provide pressure support to a quasi-spherical halo. The baryonic and dark matter occupy very different regions of phase space, the six dimensional volume of position and momentum. The two are not strongly coupled, communicating only by the weak force of gravity in the standard CDM paradigm.
One of the first lessons of galaxy dynamics is that galaxy disks are subject to a variety of instabilities that grow bars and spiral arms. These are driven by disk self-gravity. The same features do not appear in elliptical galaxies because they are pressure supported, 3D blobs. They don’t have disks so they don’t have disk self-gravity, much less the features that lead to the bumps and wiggles observed in rotation curves.
Elliptical galaxies are a good visual analog for what dark matter halos are believed to be like. The orbits of dark matter particles are unable to sustain features like those seen in baryonic disks. They are featureless for the same reasons as elliptical galaxies. They don’t have disks. A rotation curve dominated by a spherical dark matter halo should bear no trace of the features that are seen in the disk. And yet they’re there, often enough for Sancisi to have remarked on it as a general rule.
It gets worse still. One of the original motivations for invoking dark matter was to stabilize galactic disks: a purely Newtonian disk of stars is not a stable configuration, yet the universe is chock full of long-lived spiral galaxies. The cure was to place them in dark matter halos.
The problem for dwarfs is that they have too much dark matter. The halo stabilizes disks by suppressing the formation of structures that stem from disk self-gravity. But you need some disk self-gravity to have the observed features. That can be tuned to work in bright spirals, but it fails in dwarfs because the halo is too massive. As a practical matter, there is no disk self-gravity in dwarfs – it is all halo, all the time. And yet, we do see such features. Not as strong as in big, bright spirals, but definitely present. Whenever someone tries to analyze this aspect of the problem, they inevitably come up with a requirement for more disk self-gravity in the form of unphysically high stellar mass-to-light ratios (something I predicted would happen). In contrast, this is entirely natural in MOND (see, e.g., Brada & Milgrom 1999 and Tiret & Combes 2008), where it is all disk self-gravity since there is no dark matter halo.
The net upshot of all this is that it doesn’t suffice to mimic the radial acceleration relation as many simulations now claim to do. That was not a natural part of CDM to begin with, but perhaps it can be done with smooth model galaxies. In most cases, such models lack the resolution to see the features seen in DDO 154 (and in NGC 1560 and in IC 2574, etc.) If they attain such resolution, they better not show such features, as that would violate some basic considerations. But then they wouldn’t be able to describe this aspect of the data.
Simulators by and large seem to remain sanguine that this will all work out. Perhaps I have become too cynical, but I recall hearing that 20 years ago. And 15. And ten… basically, they’ve always assured me that it will work out even though it never has. Maybe tomorrow will be different. Or would that be the definition of insanity?
In the last post, I noted some of the sociological overtones underpinning attitudes about dark matter and modified gravity theories. I didn’t get as far as the more scientifically interesting part, which illustrates a common form of reasoning in physics.
“the only way these theories can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of cold dark matter on cosmological scales.”
Leaving aside just which observations need to be mimicked so precisely (I expect they mean power spectrum; perhaps they consider this to be so obvious that it need not be stated), this kind of reasoning is both common and powerful – and frequently correct. Indeed, this is exactly the attitude I expressed in my review a few years ago for the Canadian Journal of Physics, quoted in the image above. I get it. There are lots of positive things to be said for the standard cosmology.
This upshot of this reasoning is, in effect, that “cosmology works so well that non-baryonic dark matter must exist.” I have sympathy for this attitude, but I also remember many examples in the history of cosmology where it has gone badly wrong. There was a time, not so long ago, that the matter density had to be the critical value, and the Hubble constant had to be 50 km/s/Mpc. By and large, it is the same community that insisted on those falsehoods with great intensity that continues to insist on conventionally conceived cold dark matter with similarly fundamentalist insistence.
I think it is an overstatement to say that the successes of cosmology (as we presently perceive them) prove the existence of dark matter. A more conservative statement is that the ΛCDM cosmology is correct if, and only if, dark matter exists. But does it? That’s a separate question, which is why laboratory searches are so important – including null results. It was, after all, the null result of Michelson & Morley that ultimately put an end to the previous version of an invisible aetherial medium, and sparked a revolution in physics.
Here I point out that the same reasoning asserted by Bertone & Tait as a slam dunk in favor of dark matter can just as accurately be asserted in favor of MOND. To directly paraphrase the above statement:
“the only way ΛCDM can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of MOND on galactic scales.”
This is a terrible problem for dark matter. Even if it were true, as is often asserted, that MOND only fits rotation curves, this would still be tantamount to a falsification of dark matter by the same reasoning applied by Bertone & Tait.
Lets look at just one example, NGC 1560:
MOND fits the details of this rotation curve in excruciating detail. It provides just the right amount of boost over the Newtonian expectation, which varies from galaxy to galaxy. Features in the baryon distribution are reflected in the rotation curve. That is required in MOND, but makes no sense in dark matter, where the excess velocity over the Newtonian expectation is attributed to a dynamically hot, dominant, quasi-spherical dark matter halo. Such entities cannot support the features commonly seen in thin, dynamically cold disks. Even if they could, there is no reason that features in the dominant dark matter halo should align with those in the disk: a sphere isn’t a disk. In short, it is impossible to explain this with dark matter – to the extent that anything is ever impossible for the invisible.
NGC 1560 is a famous case because it has such an obvious feature. It is common to dismiss this as some non-equilibrium fluke that should simply be ignored. That is always a dodgy path to tread, but might be OK if it were only this galaxy. But similar effects are seen over and over again, to the point that they earned an empirical moniker: Renzo’s Rule. Renzo’s rule is known to every serious student of rotation curves, but has not informed the development of most dark matter theory. Ignoring this information is like leaving money on the table.
MOND fits not just NGC 1560, but very nearly* every galaxy we measure. It does so with excruciatingly little freedom. The only physical fit parameter is the stellar mass-to-light ratio. The gas fraction of NGC 1560 is 75%, so M*/L plays little role. We understand enough about stellar populations to have an idea what to expect; MOND fits return mass-to-light ratios that compare well with the normalization, color dependence, and band-pass dependent scatter expected from stellar population synthesis models.
One can also fit rotation curve data with dark matter halos. These require a minimum of three parameters to the one of MOND. In addition to M*/L, one also needs at least two parameters to describe the dark matter halo of each galaxy – typically some characteristic mass and radius. In practice, one finds that such fits are horribly degenerate: one can not cleanly constrain all three parameters, much less recover a sensible distribution of M*/L. One cannot construct the plot above simply by asking the data what it wants as one can with MOND.
The “disk-halo degeneracy” in dark matter halo fits to rotation curves has been much discussed in the literature. Obsessed over, dismissed, revived, and ultimately ignored without satisfactory understanding. Well, duh. This approach uses three parameters per galaxy when it takes only one to describe the data. Degeneracy between the excess fit parameters is inevitable.
From a probabilistic perspective, there is a huge volume of viable parameter space that could (and should) be occupied by galaxies composed of dark matter halos plus luminous galaxies. Two identical dark matter halos might host very different luminous galaxies, so would have rotation curves that differed with the baryonic component. Two similar looking galaxies might reside in rather different dark matter halos, again having rotation curves that differ.
The probabilistic volume in MOND is much smaller. Absolutely tiny by comparison. There is exactly one and only one thing each rotation curve can do: what the particular distribution of baryons in each galaxy says it should do. This is what we observe in Nature.
The only way ΛCDM can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of MOND on galactic scales. There is a vast volume of parameter space that the rotation curves of galaxies could, in principle, inhabit. The naive expectation was exponential disks in NFW halos. Real galaxies don’t look like that. They look like MOND. Magically, out of the vast parameter space available to galaxies in the dark matter picture, they only ever pick the tiny sub-volume that very precisely mimics MOND.
The ratio of probabilities is huge. So many dark matter models are possible (and have been mooted over the years) that it is indefinably huge. The odds of observing MOND-like phenomenology in a ΛCDM universe is practically zero. This amounts to a practical falsification of dark matter.
I’ve never said dark matter is falsified, because I don’t think it is a falsifiable concept. It is like epicycles – you can always fudge it in some way. But at a practical level, it was falsified a long time ago.
That is not to say MOND has to be right. That would be falling into the same logical trap that says ΛCDM has to be right. Obviously, both have virtues that must be incorporated into whatever the final answer may be. There are some efforts in this direction, but by and large this is not how science is being conducted at present. The standard script is to privilege those data that conform most closely to our confirmation bias, and pour scorn on any contradictory narrative.
In my assessment, the probability of ultimate success through ignoring inconvenient data is practically zero. Unfortunately, that is the course upon which much of the field is currently set.
*There are of course exceptions: no data are perfect, so even the right theory will get it wrong once in a while. The goof rate for MOND fits is about what I expect: rare, but more frequent for lower quality data. Misfits are sufficiently rare that to obsess over them is to refuse to see the forest for a few outlying trees.
Here’s a residual plot of MOND fits. See the peak at right? That’s the forest. See the tiny tail to one side? That’s an outlying tree.
Like the Milky Way, our nearest giant neighbor, Andromeda (aka M31), has several dozen dwarf satellite galaxies. A few of these were known and had measured velocity dispersions at the time of my work with Joe Wolf, as discussed previously. Also like the Milky Way, the number of known objects has grown rapidly in recent years – thanks in this case largely to the PAndAS survey.
PAndAS imaged the area around M31 and M33, finding many individual red giant stars. These trace out the debris from interactions and mergers as small dwarfs are disrupted and consumed by their giant host. They also pointed up the existence of previously unknown dwarf satellites.
As the PAndAS survey started reporting the discovery of new dwarf satellites around Andromeda, it occurred to me that this provided the opportunity to make genuine a priori predictions. These are the gold standard of the scientific method. We could use the observed luminosity and size of the newly discovered dwarfs to predict their velocity dispersions.
I tried to do this for both ΛCDM and MOND. I will not discuss the ΛCDM case much, because it can’t really be done. But it is worth understanding why this is.
In ΛCDM, the velocity dispersion is determined by the dark matter halo. This has only a tenuous connection to the observed stars, so just knowing how big and bright a dwarf is doesn’t provide much predictive power about the halo. This can be seen from this figure by Tollerud et al (2011):
This graph is obtained by relating the number density of galaxies (an observed quantity) to that of the dark matter halos in which they reside (a theoretical construct). It is highly non-linear, deviating strongly from the one-to-one line we expected early on. There is no reason to expect this particular relation; it is imposed on us by the fact that the observed luminosity function of galaxies is rather flat while the predicted halo mass function is steep. Nowadays, this is usually called the missing satellite problem, but this is a misnomer as it pervades the field.
Addressing the missing satellites problem would be another long post, so lets just accept that the relation between mass and light has to follow something like that illustrated above. If a dwarf galaxy has a luminosity of a million suns, one can read off the graph that it should live in a dark halo with a mass of about 1010 M☉. One could use this to predict the velocity dispersion, but not very precisely, because there’s a big range corresponding to that luminosity (the bands in the figure). It could be as much as 1011 M☉ or as little as 109 M☉. This corresponds to a wide range of velocity dispersions. This wide range is unavoidable because of the difference in the luminosity function and halo mass function. Small variations in one lead to big variations in the other, and some scatter in dark halo properties is unavoidable.
Consequently, we only have a vague range of expected velocity dispersions in ΛCDM. In practice, we never make this prediction. Instead, we compare the observed velocity dispersion to the luminosity and say “gee, this galaxy has a lot of dark matter” or “hey, this one doesn’t have much dark matter.” There’s no rigorously testable prior.
In MOND, what you see is what you get. The velocity dispersion has to follow from the observed stellar mass. This is straightforward for isolated galaxies: M* ∝ σ4 – this is essentially the equivalent of the Tully-Fisher relation for pressure supported systems. If we can estimate the stellar mass from the observed luminosity, the predicted velocity dispersion follows.
Many dwarf satellites are not isolated in the MONDian sense: they are subject to the external field effect (EFE) from their giant hosts. The over-under for whether the EFE applies is the point when the internal acceleration from all the stars of the dwarf on each other is equal to the external acceleration from orbiting the giant host. The amplitude of the discrepancy in MOND depends on how low the total acceleration is relative to the critical scale a0. The external field in effect adds some acceleration that wouldn’t otherwise be there, making the discrepancy less than it would be for an isolated object. This means that two otherwise identical dwarfs may be predicted to have different velocity dispersions is they are or are not subject to the EFE. This is a unique prediction of MOND that has no analog in ΛCDM.
It is straightforward to derive the equation to predict velocity dispersions in the extreme limits of isolated (aex ≪ ain < a0) or EFE dominated (ain ≪ aex < a0) objects. In reality, there are many objects for which ain ≈ aex, and no simple formula applies. In practice, we apply the formula that more nearly applies, and pray that this approximation is good enough.
There are many other assumptions and approximations that must be made in any theory: that an object is spherical, isotropic, and in dynamical equilibrium. All of these must fail at some level, but it is the last one that is the most serious concern. In the case of the EFE, one must also make the approximation that the object is in equilibrium at the current level of the external field. That is never true, as both the amplitude and the vector of the external field vary as a dwarf orbits its host. But it might be an adequate approximation if this variation is slow. In the case of a circular orbit, only the vector varies. In general the orbits are not known, so we make the instantaneous approximation and once again pray that it is good enough. There is a fairly narrow window between where the EFE becomes important and where we slip into the regime of tidal disruption, but lets plow ahead and see how far we can get, bearing in mind that the EFE is a dynamical variable of which we only have a snapshot.
To predict the velocity dispersion in the isolated case, all we need to know is the luminosity and a stellar mass-to-light ratio. Assuming the dwarfs of Andromeda to be old stellar populations, I adopted a V-band mass-to-light ratio of 2 give or take a factor of 2. That usually dominates the uncertainty, though the error in the distance can sometimes impact the luminosity at a level that impacts the prediction.
To predict the velocity dispersion in the EFE case, we again need the stellar mass, but now also need to know the size of the stellar system and the intensity of the external field to which it is subject. The latter depends on the mass of the host galaxy and the distance from it to the dwarf. This latter quantity is somewhat fraught: it is straightforward to measure the projected distance on the sky, but we need the 3D distance – how far in front or behind each dwarf is as well as its projected distance from the host. This is often a considerable contributor to the error budget. Indeed, some dwarfs may be inferred to be in the EFE regime for the low end of the range of adopted stellar mass-to-light ratio, and the isolated regime for the high end.
In this fashion, we predicted velocity dispersions for the dwarfs of Andromeda. We in this case were Milgrom and myself. I had never collaborated with him before, and prefer to remain independent. But I also wanted to be sure I got the details described above right. Though it wasn’t much work to make the predictions once the preliminaries were established, it was time consuming to collect and vet the data. As we were writing the paper, velocity dispersion measurements started to appear. People like Michelle Collins, Erik Tollerud, and Nicolas Martin were making follow-up observations, and publishing velocity dispersion for the objects we were making predictions for. That was great, but they were too good – they were observing and publishing faster than we could write!
Nevertheless, we managed to make and publisha priori predictions for 10 dwarfs before any observational measurements were published. We also made blind predictions for the other known dwarfs of Andromeda, and checked the predicted velocity dispersions against all measurements that we could find in the literature. Many of these predictions were quickly tested by on-going programs (i.e., people were out to measure velocity dispersions, whether we predicted them or not). Enough data rolled in that we were soon able to write a follow-up paper testing our predictions.
Nailed it. Good data were soon available to test the predictions for 8 of the 10*a priori cases. All 8 were consistent with our predictions. I was particularly struck by the case of And XXVIII, which I had called out as perhaps the best test. It was isolated, so the messiness of the EFE didn’t apply, and the uncertainties were low. Moreover, the predicted velocity dispersion was low – a good deal lower than broadly expected in ΛCDM: 4.3 km/s, with an uncertainty just under 1 km/s. Two independent observations were subsequently reported. One found 4.9 ± 1.6 km/s, the other 6.6 ± 2.1 km/s, both in good agreement within the uncertainties.
We made further predictions in the second paper as people had continued to discover new dwarfs. These also came true. Here is a summary plot for all of the dwarfs of Andromeda:
MOND works well for And I, And II, And III, And VI, And VII, And IX, And X, And XI, And XII, And XIII, And XIV, And XV, And XVI, And XVII, And XVIII, And XIX, And XX, And XXI, And XXII, And XXIII, And XXIV, And XXV, And XXVIII, And XXIX, And XXXI, And XXXII, and And XXXIII. There is one problematic case: And V. I don’t know what is going on there, but note that systematic errors frequently happen in astronomy. It’d be strange if there weren’t at least one goofy case.
Nevertheless, the failure of And V could be construed as a falsification of MOND. It ought to work in every single case. But recall the discussion of assumptions and uncertainties above. Is falsification really the story these data tell?
We do have experience with various systematic errors. For example, we predicted that the isolated dwarfs spheroidal Cetus should have a velocity dispersion in MOND of 8.2 km/s. There was already a published measurement of 17 ± 2 km/s, so we reported that MOND was wrong in this case by over 3σ. Or at least we started to do so. Right before we submitted that paper, a new measurement appeared: 8.3 ± 1 km/s. This is an example of how the data can sometimes change by rather more than the formal error bars suggest is possible. In this case, I suspect the original observations lacked the spectral resolution to resolve the velocity dispersion. At any rate, the new measurement (8.3 km/s) was somewhat more consistent with our prediction (8.2 km/s).
The same predictions cannot even be made in ΛCDM. The velocity data can always be fit once they are in hand. But there is no agreed method to predict the velocity dispersion of a dwarf from its observed luminosity. As discussed above, this should not even be possible: there is too much scatter in the halo mass-stellar mass relation at these low masses.
An unsung predictive success of MOND absent from the graph above is And IV. When And IV was discovered in the general direction of Andromeda, it was assumed to be a new dwarf satellite – hence the name. Milgrom looked at the velocities reported for this object, and said it had to be a background galaxy. No way it could be a dwarf satellite – at least not in MOND. I see no reason why it couldn’t have been in ΛCDM. It is absent from the graph above, because it was subsequently confirmed to be much farther away (7.2 Mpc vs. 750 kpc for Andromeda).
The box for And XVII is empty because this system is manifestly out of equilibrium. It is more of a stellar stream than a dwarf, appearing as a smear in the PAndAS image rather than as a self-contained dwarf. I do not recall what the story with the other missing object (And VIII) is.
While writing the follow-up paper, I also noticed that there were a number of Andromeda dwarfs that were photometrically indistinguishable: basically the same in terms of size and stellar mass. But some were isolated while others were subject to the EFE. MOND predicts that the EFE cases should have lower velocity dispersion than the isolated equivalents.
And XXVIII (isolated) has a higher velocity dispersion than its near-twin And XVII (EFE). The same effect might be acting in And XVIII (isolated) and And XXV (EFE). This is clear if we accept the higher velocity dispersion measurement for And XVIII, but an independent measurements begs to differ. The former has more stars, so is probably more reliable, but we should be cautious. The effect is not clear in And XVI (isolated) and And XXI (EFE), but the difference in the prediction is small and the uncertainties are large.
An aggressive person might argue that the pairs of dwarfs is a positive detection of the EFE. I don’t think the data for the matched pairs warrant that, at least not yet. On the other hand, the appropriate use of the EFE was essential to all the predictions, not just the matched pairs.
The positive detection of the EFE is important, as it is a unique prediction of MOND. I see no way to tune ΛCDM galaxy simulations to mimic this effect. Of course, there was a very recent time when it seemed impossible for them to mimic the isolated predictions of MOND. They claim to have come a long way in that regard.
But that’s what we’re stuck with: tuning ΛCDM to make it look like MOND. This is why a priori predictions are important. There is ample flexibility to explain just about anything with dark matter. What we can’t seem to do is predict the same things that MOND successfully predicts… predictions that are both quantitative and very specific. We’re not arguing that dwarfs in general live in ~15 or 30 km/s halos, as we must in ΛCDM. In MOND we can say this dwarf will have this velocity dispersion and that dwarf will have that velocity dispersion. We can distinguish between 4.9 and 7.3 km/s. And we can do it over and over and over. I see no way to do the equivalent in ΛCDM, just as I see no way to explain the acoustic power spectrum of the CMB in MOND.
This is not to say there are no problematic cases for MOND. Read, Walker, & Steger have recently highlighted the matched pair of Draco and Carina as an issue. And they are – though here I already have reason to suspect Draco is out of equilibrium, which makes it challenging to analyze. Whether it is actually out of equilibrium or not is a separate question.
I am not thrilled that we are obliged to invoke non-equilibrium effects in both theories. But there is a difference. Brada & Milgrom provided a quantitative criterion to indicate when this was an issue before I ran into the problem. In ΛCDM, the low velocity dispersions of objects like And XIX, XXI, XXV and Crater 2 came as a complete surprise despite having been predicted by MOND. Tidal disruption was only invoked after the fact – and in an ad hoc fashion. There is no way to know in advance which dwarfs are affected, as there is no criterion equivalent to that of Brada. We just say “gee, that’s a low velocity dispersion. Must have been disrupted.” That might be true, but it gives no explanation for why MOND predicted it in the first place – which is to say, it isn’t really an explanation at all.
I still do not understand is why MOND gets any predictions right if ΛCDM is the universe we live in, let alone so many. Shouldn’t happen. Makes no sense.
If this doesn’t confuse you, you are not thinking clearly.
*The other two dwarfs were also measured, but with only 4 stars in one and 6 in the other. These are too few for a meaningful velocity dispersion measurement.
The Milky Way and its nearest giant neighbor Andromeda (M31) are surrounded by a swarm of dwarf satellite galaxies. Aside from relatively large beasties like the Large Magellanic Cloud or M32, the majority of these are the so-called dwarf spheroidals. There are several dozen examples known around each giant host, like the Fornax dwarf pictured above.
Dwarf Spheroidal (dSph) galaxies are ellipsoidal blobs devoid of gas that typically contain a million stars, give or take an order of magnitude. Unlike globular clusters, that may have a similar star count, dSphs are diffuse, with characteristic sizes of hundreds of parsecs (vs. a few pc for globulars). This makes them among the lowest surface brightness systems known.
This subject has a long history, and has become a major industry in recent years. In addition to the “classical” dwarfs that have been known for decades, there have also been many comparatively recent discoveries, often of what have come to be called “ultrafaint” dwarfs. These are basically dSphs with luminosities less than 100,000 suns, sometimes being comprised of as little as a few hundred stars. New discoveries are being made still, and there is reason to hope that the LSST will discover many more. Summed up, the known dwarf satellites are proverbial drops in the bucket compared to their giant hosts, which contain hundreds of billions of stars. Dwarfs could rain in for a Hubble time and not perturb the mass budget of the Milky Way.
Nevertheless, tiny dwarf Spheroidals are excellent tests of theories like CDM and MOND. Going back to the beginning, in the early ’80s, Milgrom was already engaged in a discussion about the predictions of his then-new theory (before it was even published) with colleagues at the IAS, where he had developed the idea during a sabbatical visit. They were understandably skeptical, preferring – as many still do – to believe that some unseen mass was the more conservative hypothesis. Dwarf spheroidals came up even then, as their very low surface brightness meant low acceleration in MOND. This in turn meant large mass discrepancies. If you could measure their dynamics, they would have large mass-to-light ratios. Larger than could be explained by stars conventionally, and larger than the discrepancies already observed in bright galaxies like Andromeda.
This prediction of Milgrom’s – there from the very beginning – is important because of how things change (or don’t). At that time, Scott Tremaine summed up the contrasting expectation of the conventional dark matter picture:
“There is no reason to expect that dwarfs will have more dark matter than bright galaxies.” *
This was certainly the picture I had in my head when I first became interested in low surface brightness (LSB) galaxies in the mid-80s. At that time I was ignorant of MOND; my interest was piqued by the argument of Disney that there could be a lot of as-yet undiscovered LSB galaxies out there, combined with my first observing experiences with the then-newfangled CCD cameras which seemed to have a proclivity for making clear otherwise hard-to-see LSB features. At the time, I was interested in finding LSB galaxies. My interest in what made them rotate came later.
The first indication, to my knowledge, that dSph galaxies might have large mass discrepancies was provided by Marc Aaronson in 1983. This tentative discovery was hugely important, but the velocity dispersion of Draco (one of the “classical” dwarfs) was based on only 3 stars, so was hardly definitive. Nevertheless, by the end of the ’90s, it was clear that large mass discrepancies were a defining characteristic of dSphs. Their conventionally computed M/L went up systematically as their luminosity declined. This was not what we had expected in the dark matter picture, but was, at least qualitatively, in agreement with MOND.
My own interests had focused more on LSB galaxies in the field than on dwarf satellites like Draco. Greg Bothun and Jim Schombert had identified enough of these to construct a long list of LSB galaxies that served as targets my for Ph.D. thesis. Unlike the pressure-supported ellipsoidal blobs of stars that are the dSphs, the field LSBs we studied were gas rich, rotationally supported disks – mostly late type galaxies (Sd, Sm, & Irregulars). Regardless of composition, gas or stars, low surface density means that MOND predicts low acceleration. This need not be true conventionally, as the dark matter can do whatever the heck it wants. Though I was blissfully unaware of it at the time, we had constructed the perfect sample for testing MOND.
Having studied the properties of our sample of LSB galaxies, I developed strong ideas about their formation and evolution. Everything we had learned – their blue colors, large gas fractions, and low star formation rates – suggested that they evolved slowly compared to higher surface brightness galaxies. Star formation gradually sputtered along, having a hard time gathering enough material to make stars in their low density interstellar media. Perhaps they even formed late, an idea I took a shining to in the early ’90s. This made two predictions: field LSB galaxies should be less strongly clustered than bright galaxies, and should spin slower at a given mass.
The first prediction follows because the collapse time of dark matter halos correlates with their larger scale environment. Dense things collapse first and tend to live in dense environments. If LSBs were low surface density because they collapsed late, it followed that they should live in less dense environments.
I didn’t know how to test this prediction. Fortunately, fellow postdoc and office mate in Cambridge at the time, Houjun Mo, did. It came true. The LSB galaxies I had been studying were clustered like other galaxies, but not as strongly. This was exactly what I expected, and I thought sure we were on to something. All that remained was to confirm the second prediction.
At the time, we did not have a clear idea of what dark matter halos should be like. NFW halos were still in the future. So it seemed reasonable that late forming halos should have lower densities (lower concentrations in the modern terminology). More importantly, the sum of dark and luminous density was certainly less. Dynamics follow from the distribution of mass as Velocity2 ∝ Mass/Radius. For a given mass, low surface brightness galaxies had a larger radius, by construction. Even if the dark matter didn’t play along, the reduction in the concentration of the luminous mass should lower the rotation velocity.
Indeed, the standard explanation of the Tully-Fisher relation was just this. Aaronson, Huchra, & Mould had argued that galaxies obeyed the Tully-Fisher relation because they all had essentially the same surface brightness (Freeman’s law) thereby taking variation in the radius out of the equation: galaxies of the same mass all had the same radius. (If you are a young astronomer who has never heard of Freeman’s law, you’re welcome.) With our LSB galaxies, we had a sample that, by definition, violated Freeman’s law. They had large radii for a given mass. Consequently, they should have lower rotation velocities.
Up to that point, I had not taken much interest in rotation curves. In contrast, colleagues at the University of Groningen were all about rotation curves. Working with Thijs van der Hulst, Erwin de Blok, and Martin Zwaan, we set out to quantify where LSB galaxies fell in relation to the Tully-Fisher relation. I confidently predicted that they would shift off of it – an expectation shared by many at the time. They did not.
I was flummoxed. My prediction was wrong. That of Aaronson et al. was wrong. Poking about the literature, everyone who had made a clear prediction in the conventional context was wrong. It made no sense.
I spent months banging my head against the wall. One quick and easy solution was to blame the dark matter. Maybe the rotation velocity was set entirely by the dark matter, and the distribution of luminous mass didn’t come into it. Surely that’s what the flat rotation velocity was telling us? All about the dark matter halo?
Problem is, we measure the velocity where the luminous mass still matters. In galaxies like the Milky Way, it matters quite a lot. It does not work to imagine that the flat rotation velocity is set by some property of the dark matter halo alone. What matters to what we measure is the combination of luminous and dark mass. The luminous mass is important in high surface brightness galaxies, and progressively less so in lower surface brightness galaxies. That should leave some kind of mark on the Tully-Fisher relation, but it doesn’t.
I worked long and hard to understand this in terms of dark matter. Every time I thought I had found the solution, I realized that it was a tautology. Somewhere along the line, I had made an assumption that guaranteed that I got the answer I wanted. It was a hopeless fine-tuning problem. The only way to satisfy the data was to have the dark matter contribution scale up as that of the luminous mass scaled down. The more stretched out the light, the more compact the dark – in exact balance to maintain zero shift in Tully-Fisher.
This made no sense at all. Over twenty years on, I have yet to hear a satisfactory conventional explanation. Most workers seem to assert, in effect, that “dark matter does it” and move along. Perhaps they are wise to do so.
As I was struggling with this issue, I happened to hear a talk by Milgrom. I almost didn’t go. “Modified gravity” was in the title, and I remember thinking, “why waste my time listening to that nonsense?” Nevertheless, against my better judgement, I went. Not knowing that anyone in the audience worked on either LSB galaxies or Tully-Fisher, Milgrom proceeded to derive the MOND prediction:
“The asymptotic circular velocity is determined only by the total mass of the galaxy: Vf4 = a0GM.”
In a few lines, he derived rather trivially what I had been struggling to understand for months. The lack of surface brightness dependence in Tully-Fisher was entirely natural in MOND. It falls right out of the modified force law, and had been explicitly predicted over a decade before I struggled with the problem.
I scraped my jaw off the floor, determined to examine this crazy theory more closely. By the time I got back to my office, cognitive dissonance had already started to set it. Couldn’t be true. I had more pressing projects to complete, so I didn’t think about it again for many moons.
When I did, I decided I should start by reading the original MOND papers. I was delighted to find a long list of predictions, many of them specifically to do with surface brightness. We had just collected fresh data on LSB galaxies, which provided a new window on the low acceleration regime. I had the data to finally falsify this stupid theory.
Or so I thought. As I went through the list of predictions, my assumption that MOND had to be wrong was challenged by each item. It was barely an afternoon’s work: check, check, check. Everything I had struggled for months to understand in terms of dark matter tumbled straight out of MOND.
I was faced with a choice. I knew this would be an unpopular result. I could walk away and simply pretend I had never run across it. That’s certainly how it had been up until then: I had been blissfully unaware of MOND and its perniciously successful predictions. No need to admit otherwise.
Had I realized just how unpopular it would prove to be, maybe that would have been the wiser course. But even contemplating such a course felt criminal. I was put in mind of Paul Gerhardt’s admonition for intellectual honesty:
“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”
Ignoring what I had learned seemed tantamount to just that. So many predictions coming true couldn’t be an accident. There was a deep clue here; ignoring it wasn’t going to bring us closer to the truth. Actively denying it would be an act of wanton vandalism against the scientific method.
Still, I tried. I looked long and hard for reasons not to report what I had found. Surely there must be some reason this could not be so?
Indeed, the literature provided many papers that claimed to falsify MOND. To my shock, few withstood critical examination. Commonly a straw man representing MOND was falsified, not MOND itself. At a deeper level, it was implicitly assumed that any problem for MOND was an automatic victory for dark matter. This did not obviously follow, so I started re-doing the analyses for both dark matter and MOND. More often than not, I found either that the problems for MOND were greatly exaggerated, or that the genuinely problematic cases were a problem for both theories. Dark matter has more flexibility to explain outliers, but outliers happen in astronomy. All too often the temptation was to refuse to see the forest for a few trees.
The first MOND analysis of the classical dwarf spheroidals provides a good example. Completed only a few years before I encountered the problem, these were low surface brightness systems that were deep in the MOND regime. These were gas poor, pressure supported dSph galaxies, unlike my gas rich, rotating LSB galaxies, but the critical feature was low surface brightness. This was the most directly comparable result. Better yet, the study had been made by two brilliant scientists (Ortwin Gerhard & David Spergel) whom I admire enormously. Surely this work would explain how my result was a mere curiosity.
Indeed, reading their abstract, it was clear that MOND did not work for the dwarf spheroidals. Whew: LSB systems where it doesn’t work. All I had to do was figure out why, so I read the paper.
As I read beyond the abstract, the answer became less and less clear. The results were all over the map. Two dwarfs (Sculptor and Carina) seemed unobjectionable in MOND. Two dwarfs (Draco and Ursa Minor) had mass-to-light ratios that were too high for stars, even in MOND. That is, there still appeared to be a need for dark matter even after MOND had been applied. One the flip side, Fornax had a mass-to-light ratio that was too low for the old stellar populations assumed to dominate dwarf spheroidals. Results all over the map are par for the course in astronomy, especially for a pioneering attempt like this. What were the uncertainties?
Milgrom wrote a rebuttal. By then, there were measured velocity dispersions for two more dwarfs. Of these seven dwarfs, he found that
“within just the quoted errors on the velocity dispersions and the luminosities, the MOND M/L values for all seven dwarfs are perfectly consistent with stellar values, with no need for dark matter.”
Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? I determined to repeat the analysis and error propagation.
The net result: they were both right. M/L was still too high for Draco and Ursa Minor, and still too low for Fornax. But this was only significant at the 2σ level, if that – hardly enough to condemn a theory. Carina, Leo I, Leo II, Sculptor, and Sextans all had fairly reasonable mass-to-light ratios. The voting is different now. Instead of going 2 for 5 as Gerhard & Spergel found, MOND was now 5 for 8. One could choose to obsess about the outliers, or one could choose to see a more positive pattern. Either a positive or a negative spin could be put on this result. But it was clearly more positive than the first attempt had indicated.
The mass estimator in MOND scales as the fourth power of velocity (or velocity dispersion in the case of isolated dSphs), so the too-high M*/L of Draco and Ursa Minor didn’t disturb me too much. A small overestimation of the velocity dispersion would lead to a large overestimation of the mass-to-light ratio. Just about every systematic uncertainty one can think of pushes in this direction, so it would be surprising if such an overestimate didn’t happen once in a while.
Given this, I was more concerned about the low M*/L of Fornax. That was weird.
Up until that point (1998), we had been assuming that the stars in dSphs were all old, like those in globular clusters. That corresponds to a high M*/L, maybe 3 in solar units in the V-band. Shortly after this time, people started to look closely at the stars in the classical dwarfs with the Hubble. Low and behold, the stars in Fornax were surprisingly young. That means a low M*/L, 1 or less. In retrospect, MOND was trying to tell us that: it returned a low M*/L for Fornax because the stars there are young. So what was taken to be a failing of the theory was actually a predictive success.
And Gee. This is a long post. There is a lot more to tell, but enough for now.
*I have a long memory, but it is not perfect. I doubt I have the exact wording right, but this does accurately capture the sentiment from the early ’80s when I was an undergraduate at MIT and Scott Tremaine was on the faculty there.
As soon as I wrote it, I realized that the title is much more general than anything that can be fit in a blog post. Bekenstein argued long ago that the missing mass problem should instead be called the acceleration discrepancy, because that’s what it is – a discrepancy that occurs in conventional dynamics at a particular acceleration scale. So in that sense, it is the entire history of dark matter. For that, I recommend the excellent book The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective by Bob Sanders.
Here I mean more specifically my own attempts to empirically constrain the relation between the mass discrepancy and acceleration. Milgrom introduced MOND in 1983, no doubt after a long period of development and refereeing. He anticipated essentially all of what I’m going to describe. But not everyone is eager to accept MOND as a new fundamental theory, and often suffer from a very human tendency to confuse fact and theory. So I have gone out of my way to demonstrate what is empirically true in the data – facts – irrespective of theoretical interpretation (MOND or otherwise).
What is empirically true, and now observationally established beyond a reasonable doubt, is that the mass discrepancy in rotating galaxies correlates with centripetal acceleration. The lower the acceleration, the more dark matter one appears to need. Or, as Bekenstein might have put it, the amplitude of the acceleration discrepancy grows as the acceleration itself declines.
Bob Sanders made the first empirical demonstration that I am aware of that the mass discrepancy correlates with acceleration. In a wide ranging and still relevant 1990 review, he showed that the amplitude of the mass discrepancy correlated with the acceleration at the last measured point of a rotation curve. It did not correlate with radius.
I was completely unaware of this when I became interested in the problem a few years later. I wound up reinventing the very same term – the mass discrepancy, which I defined as the ratio of dynamically measured mass to that visible in baryons: D = Mtot/Mbar. When there is no dark matter, Mtot = Mbar and D = 1.
My first demonstration of this effect was presented at a conference at Rutgers in 1998. This considered the mass discrepancy at every radius and every acceleration within all the galaxies that were available to me at that time. Though messy, as is often the case in extragalactic astronomy, the correlation was clear. Indeed, this was part of a broader review of galaxy formation; the title, abstract, and much of the substance remains relevant today.
I spent much of the following five years collecting more data, refining the analysis, and sweating the details of uncertainties and systematic instrumental effects. In 2004, I published an extended and improved version, now with over 5 dozen galaxies.
Here I’ve used a population synthesis model to estimate the mass-to-light ratio of the stars. This is the only unknown; everything else is measured. Note that the vast majority galaxies land on top of each other. There are a few that do not, as you can perceive in the parallel sets of points offset from the main body. But that happens in only a few cases, as expected – no population model is perfect. Indeed, this one was surprisingly good, as the vast majority of the individual galaxies are indistinguishable in the pile that defines the main relation.
I explored the how the estimation of the stellar mass-to-light ratio affected this mass discrepancy-acceleration relation in great detail in the 2004 paper. The details differ with the choice of estimator, but the bottom line was that the relation persisted for any plausible choice. The relation exists. It is an empirical fact.
At this juncture, further improvement was no longer limited by rotation curve data, which is what we had been working to expand through the early ’00s. Now it was the stellar mass. The measurement of stellar mass was based on optical measurements of the luminosity distribution of stars in galaxies. These are perfectly fine data, but it is hard to map the starlight that we measured to the stellar mass that we need for this relation. The population synthesis models were good, but they weren’t good enough to avoid the occasional outlier, as can be seen in the figure above.
One thing the models all agreed on (before they didn’t, then they did again) was that the near-infrared would provide a more robust way of mapping stellar mass than the optical bands we had been using up till then. This was the clear way forward, and perhaps the only hope for improving the data further. Fortunately, technology was keeping pace. Around this time, I became involved in helping the effort to develop the NEWFIRM near-infrared camera for the national observatories, and NASA had just launched the Spitzer space telescope. These were the right tools in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, the high accuracy of the deep images obtained from the dark of space by Spitzer at 3.6 microns were to prove most valuable.
Jim Schombert and I spent much of the following decade observing in the near-infrared. Many other observers were doing this as well, filling the Spitzer archive with useful data while we concentrated on our own list of low surface brightness galaxies. This paragraph cannot suffice to convey the long term effort and enormity of this program. But by the mid-teens, we had accumulated data for hundreds of galaxies, including all those for which we also had rotation curves and HI observations. The latter had been obtained over the course of decades by an entire independent community of radio observers, and represent an integrated effort that dwarfs our own.
On top of the observational effort, Jim had been busy building updated stellar population models. We have a sophisticated understanding of how stars work, but things can get complicated when you put billions of them together. Nevertheless, Jim’s work – and that of a number of independent workers – indicated that the relation between Spitzer’s 3.6 micron luminosity measurements and stellar mass should be remarkably simple – basically just a constant conversion factor for nearly all star forming galaxies like those in our sample.
Things came together when Federico Lelli joined Case Western as a postdoc in 2014. He had completed his Ph.D. in the rich tradition of radio astronomy, and was the perfect person to move the project forward. After a couple more years of effort, curating the rotation curve data and building mass models from the Spitzer data, we were in the position to build the relation for over a dozen dozen galaxies. With all the hard work done, making the plot was a matter of running a pre-prepared computer script.
Federico ran his script. The plot appeared on his screen. In a stunned voice, he called me into his office. We had expected an improvement with the Spitzer data – hence the decade of work – but we had also expected there to be a few outliers. There weren’t. Any.
All. the. galaxies. fell. right. on. top. of. each. other.
This plot differs from those above because we had decided to plot the measured acceleration against that predicted by the observed baryons so that the two axes would be independent. The discrepancy, defined as the ratio, depended on both. D is essentially the ratio of the y-axis to the x-axis of this last plot, dividing out the unity slope where D = 1.
This was one of the most satisfactory moments of my long career, in which I have been fortunate to have had many satisfactory moments. It is right up there with the eureka moment I had that finally broke the long-standing loggerhead about the role of selection effects in Freeman’s Law. (Young astronomers – never heard of Freeman’s Law? You’re welcome.) Or the epiphany that, gee, maybe what we’re calling dark matter could be a proxy for something deeper. It was also gratifying that it was quickly recognized as such, with many of the colleagues I first presented it to saying it was the highlight of the conference where it was first unveiled.
Regardless of the ultimate interpretation of the radial acceleration relation, it clearly exists in the data for rotating galaxies. The discrepancy appears at a characteristic acceleration scale, g† = 1.2 x 10-10 m/s/s. That number is in the data. Why? is a deeply profound question.
It isn’t just that the acceleration scale is somehow fundamental. The amplitude of the discrepancy depends systematically on the acceleration. Above the critical scale, all is well: no need for dark matter. Below it, the amplitude of the discrepancy – the amount of dark matter we infer – increases systematically. The lower the acceleration, the more dark matter one infers.
The relation for rotating galaxies has no detectable scatter – it is a near-perfect relation. Whether this persists, and holds for other systems, is the interesting outstanding question. It appears, for example, that dwarf spheroidal galaxies may follow a slightly different relation. However, the emphasis here is on slighlty. Very few of these data pass the same quality criteria that the SPARC data plotted above do. It’s like comparing mud pies with diamonds.
Whether the scatter in the radial acceleration relation is zero or merely very tiny is important. That’s the difference between a new fundamental force law (like MOND) and a merely spectacular galaxy scaling relation. For this reason, it seems to be controversial. It shouldn’t be: I was surprised at how tight the relation was myself. But I don’t get to report that there is lots of scatter when there isn’t. To do so would be profoundly unscientific, regardless of the wants of the crowd.
Of course, science is hard. If you don’t do everything right, from the measurements to the mass models to the stellar populations, you’ll find some scatter where perhaps there isn’t any. There are so many creative ways to screw up that I’m sure people will continue to find them. Myself, I prefer to look forward: I see no need to continuously re-establish what has been repeatedly demonstrated in the history briefly outlined above.
A research programme is said to be progressing as long as its theoretical growth anticipates its empirical growth, that is as long as it keeps predicting novel facts with some success (“progressive problemshift”); it is stagnating if its theoretical growth lags behind its empirical growth, that is as long as it gives only post-hoc explanations either of chance discoveries or of facts anticipated by, and discovered in, a rival programme (“degenerating problemshift”) (Lakatos, 1971, pp. 104–105).
The recent history of modern cosmology is rife with post-hoc explanations of unanticipated facts. The cusp-core problem and the missing satellites problem are prominent examples. These are explained after the fact by invoking feedback, a vague catch-all that many people agree solves these problems even though none of them agree on how it actually works.
There are plenty of other problems. To name just a few: satellite planes (unanticipated correlations in phase space), the emptiness of voids, and the early formation of structure (see section 4 of Famaey & McGaugh for a longer list and section 6 of Silk & Mamon for a positive spin on our list). Each problem is dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, often by invoking solutions that contradict each other while buggering the principle of parsimony.
It goes like this. A new observation is made that does not align with the concordance cosmology. Hands are wrung. Debate is had. Serious concern is expressed. A solution is put forward. Sometimes it is reasonable, sometimes it is not. In either case it is rapidly accepted so long as it saves the paradigm and prevents the need for serious thought. (“Oh, feedback does that.”) The observation is no longer considered a problem through familiarity and exhaustion of patience with the debate, regardless of how [un]satisfactory the proffered solution is. The details of the solution are generally forgotten (if ever learned). When the next problem appears the process repeats, with the new solution often contradicting the now-forgotten solution to the previous problem.
This has been going on for so long that many junior scientists now seem to think this is how science is suppose to work. It is all they’ve experienced. And despite our claims to be interested in fundamental issues, most of us are impatient with re-examining issues that were thought to be settled. All it takes is one bold assertion that everything is OK, and the problem is perceived to be solved whether it actually is or not.
That is the process we apply to little problems. The Big Problems remain the post hoc elements of dark matter and dark energy. These are things we made up to explain unanticipated phenomena. That we need to invoke them immediately casts the paradigm into what Lakatos called degenerating problemshift. Once we’re there, it is hard to see how to get out, given our propensity to overindulge in the honey that is the infinity of free parameters in dark matter models.
Note that there is another aspect to what Lakatos said about facts anticipated by, and discovered in, a rival programme. Two examples spring immediately to mind: the Baryonic Tully-Fisher Relation and the Radial Acceleration Relation. These are predictions of MOND that were unanticipated in the conventional dark matter picture. Perhaps we can come up with post hoc explanations for them, but that is exactly what Lakatos would describe as degenerating problemshift. The rival programme beat us to it.
In my experience, this is a good description of what is going on. The field of dark matter has stagnated. Experimenters look harder and harder for the same thing, repeating the same experiments in hope of a different result. Theorists turn knobs on elaborate models, gifting themselves new free parameters every time they get stuck.
On the flip side, MOND keeps predicting novel facts with some success, so it remains in the stage of progressive problemshift. Unfortunately, MOND remains incomplete as a theory, and doesn’t address many basic issues in cosmology. This is a different kind of unsatisfactory.
In the mean time, I’m still waiting to hear a satisfactory answer to the question I’ve been posing for over two decades now. Why does MOND get any predictions right? It has had many a priori predictions come true. Why does this happen? It shouldn’t. Ever.
Note: this is a guest post by David Merritt, following on from his paper on the philosophy of science as applied to aspects of modern cosmology.
Stacy kindly invited me to write a guest post, expanding on some of the arguments in my paper. I’ll start out by saying that I certainly don’t think of my paper as a final word on anything. I see it more like an opening argument — and I say this, because it’s my impression that the issues which it raises have not gotten nearly the attention they deserve from the philosophers of science. It is that community that I was hoping to reach, and that fact dictated much about the content and style of the paper. Of course, I’m delighted if astrophysicists find something interesting there too.
My paper is about epistemology, and in particular, whether the standard cosmological model respects Popper’s criterion of falsifiability— which he argued (quite convincingly) is a necessary condition for a theory to be considered scientific. Now, falsifying a theory requires testing it, and testing it means (i) using the theory to make a prediction, then (ii) checking to see if the prediction is correct. In the case of dark matter, the cleanest way I could think of to do this was via so-called “direct detection”, since the rotation curve of the Milky Way makes a pretty definite prediction about the density of dark matter at the Sun’s location. (Although as I argued, even this is not enough, since the theory says nothing at all about the likelihood that the DM particles will interact with normal matter even if they are present in a detector.)
What about the large-scale evidence for dark matter — things like the power spectrum of density fluctuations, baryon acoustic oscillations, the CMB spectrum etc.? In the spirit of falsification, we can ask what the standard model predicts for these things; and the answer is: it does not make any definite prediction. The reason is that — to predict quantities like these — one needs first to specify the values of a set of additional parameters: things like the mean densities of dark and normal matter; the numbers that determine the spectrum of initial density fluctuations; etc. There are roughly half a dozen such “free parameters”. Cosmologists never even try to use data like these to falsify their theory; their goal is to make the theory work, and they do this by picking the parameter values that optimize the fit between theory and data.
Philosophers of science are quite familiar with this sort of thing, and they have a rule: “You can’t use the data twice.” You can’t use data to adjust the parameters of a theory, and then turn around and claim that those same data support the theory. But this is exactly what cosmologists do when they argue that the existence of a “concordance model” implies that the standard cosmological model is correct. What “concordance” actually shows is that the standard model can bemadeconsistent: i.e. that one does not require differentvalues for the same parameter. Consistency is good, but by itself it is a very weak argument in favor of a theory’s correctness. Furthermore, as Stacy has emphasized, the supposed “concordance” vanishes when you look at the values of the same parameters as they are determined in other, independent ways. The apparent tension in the Hubble constant is just the latest example of this; another, long-standing example is the very different value for the mean baryon density implied by the observed lithium abundance. There are other examples. True “convergence” in the sense understood by the philosophers — confirmation of the value of a single parameter in multiple, independent experiments — is essentially lacking in cosmology.
Now, even though those half-dozen parameters give cosmologists a great deal of freedom to adjust their model and to fit the data, the freedom is not complete. This is because — when adjusting parameters — they fix certain things: what Imre Lakatos called the “hard core” of a research program: the assumptions that a theorist is absolutely unwilling to abandon, come hell or high water. In our case, the “hard core” includes Einstein’s theory of gravity, but it also includes a number of less-obvious things; for instance, the assumption that the dark matter responds to gravity in the same way as any collisionless fluid of normal matter would respond. (The latter assumption is not made in many alternative theories.) Because of the inflexibility of the “hard core”, there are going to be certain parameter values that are also more-or-less fixed by the data. When a cosmologist says “The third peak in the CMB requires dark matter”, what she is really saying is: “Assuming the fixed hard core, I find that any reasonable fit to the data requires the parameter defining the dark-matter density to be significantly greater than zero.” That is a much weaker statement than “Dark matter must exist”. Statements like “We know that dark matter exists” put me in mind of the 18th century chemists who said things like “Based on my combustion experiments, I conclude that phlogiston exists and that it has a negative mass”. We know now that the behavior the chemists were ascribing to the release of phlogiston was actually due to oxidation. But the “hard core” of their theory (“Combustibles contain an inflammable principle which they release upon burning”) forbade them from considering different models. It took Lavoisier’s arguments to finally convince them of the existence of oxygen.
The fact that the current cosmological model has a fixed “hard core” also implies that — in principle — it can be falsified. But, at the risk of being called a cynic, I have little doubt that if a new, falsifying observation should appear, even a very compelling one, the community will respond as it has so often in the past: via a conventionalist stratagem. Pavel Kroupa has awonderful graphic, reproduced below, that shows just how often predictions of the standard cosmological model have been falsified — a couple of dozen times, according to latest count; and these are only the major instances. Historians and philosophers of science have documented that theories that evolve in this way often end up on the scrap heap. To the extent that my paper is of interest to the astronomical community, I hope that it gets people to thinking about whether the current cosmological model is headed in that direction.
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.