Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Theory Vs. Experiment: I

A popular tactic in crank science communities is the claim that if you haven't demonstrated some process, or particle, etc. under strict laboratory conditions, then you cannot claim it is science. I have encountered this tactic from many creationists and electric universe advocates.

This rationalization is often used when science utilizes some type of extrapolation that generates a prediction that supporters of the crank science do not like. The use of the extrapolation gives them a convenient excuse to ignore some implications of the science that contradicts their claims.

Paraphrases of some examples I've encountered:

1) “You can't reproduce the Big Bang in a laboratory so therefore it can't be science.”
2) “You can't experiment with dark matter in the laboratory, therefore it can't be science.”
3) “You haven't produced thermal synchrotron radiation in the laboratory, therefore all calculations of it's spectra are just meaningless mathematics.”

Suppose you have a theory “A” that at some given time, makes 12 independent predictions. Suppose experiments based on eight of the predictions work very well in the laboratory and later repetitions of the experiments under slightly different environments work well also. But suppose four of the experiments are beyond your current level of technical capability. Do you accept the theory until the additional tests can be done, or do you abandon it?

Suppose you have a theory “B” that makes a number of observational predictions but none that you can test under laboratory conditions. Many of the observations (say 99.9%) work very well, matching your theoretical predictions to as many decimal places of precision as you can measure. Do you accept the theory until the laboratory tests can be done, or do you abandon it?

Note that the experiments you can't do are not returning a negative result, just that the measurements predicted by the theory are below the sensitivity of your current technology.

Suppose you choose to abandon theory “A” or “B”. What do you do if ten, twenty, fifty years later, someone else who accepted those theories you abandoned, improves their technology sufficiently (perhaps even aided by the theories you abandoned) to perform the missing experiments and the measurements match the theory? Suppose the 'someone else' is another nation who is an economic competitor?

What is your specific criteria for (provisionally) accepting or abandoning theory “A” and/or “B”?

And yes, I have some interesting examples to challenge the respondents.

3 comments:

OilIsMastery said...

This is exactly what happened with cold fusion.

The fact that inept mainstream scientists cannot repeat an expermiment does not falsify anything.

Does the fact that mainstream scientist can't reproduce a 100 mile per hour fastball mean that Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens are myths?

Now as far as your examples are concerned, they are terrible. You can't observe the Big Bang. You can't experiment on the Big Bang. And according to Big Bangers you can't falsify the Big Bang. So how is that scientific? Same for Dark Matter. I'll sooner believe in invisble pink unicorns than believe in Dark Matter.

Gravitation is a myth.

rspeir said...

I'll go ahead and risk a wrong answer, but I favor B. I like a theory backed up by observation, especially to the point of precision you detail here. As more data arrives, we can simply tweak the theory as needed. As for example A, I would be suspect if the experiments and lab results were for the purpose of trying to define the universe. When it comes to that "monster" I more favor the approach of keeping the lab "out there" as much as possible.

Anaconda said...

@ W.T. "Tom" Bridgman:

Spoken like a pure mathematcian, the underlying contempt for empiricle observation & measurement that interfers with with the pure mathematician's equations drips from the comment.

Bridgman states: "This rationalization is often used when science utilizes some type of extrapolation that generates a prediction that supporters of the crank science do not like."

Extrapolation is fine, when it is extrapolation from actual observation & measurement.

But when it is extrapolation from pure abstract mathematical equations based on a priori assumptions then that is when you get into trouble.

Bridgman states: "The use of the extrapolation gives them a convenient excuse to ignore some implications of the science that contradicts their claims."

What observations & measurements does "modern" astronomy base its "extrapolations" on?

Let's take Bridgman's examples:

1) “You can't reproduce the Big Bang in a laboratory so therefore it can't be science.”

The conception of the so-called "big bang" predicted numerous points of measurement that did not come to pass, i.e., the background temperature originally predicted by "big bangers" was orders of magnitude higher than the acutal background temperature of about 3 degrees K. If memory serves me right, Gamow predicted around 50 degrees K.

Actually, steady state theorists' predictions were much closer, in the range of 3-6 degrees K. This failure of prediction was sucked down the "memory hole" and quicky the correct figure was back-filled into "big banger's" equations (rejigger the equations).

2) “You can't experiment with dark matter in the laboratory, therefore it can't be science.”

Here, "dark" matter has no observations & measurements at all, other than the "but for" construction: But for the failure of the gravity "only" model, no one would have even thought of "dark" matter.

But since the gravity "only" model has to be right -- it just has to be right! There must be (bang your fist on the table), must be "dark" matter. (Don't worry we can back-fill later and claim it was predicted all along.)

Even many mainstream astronomers balk at that kind of naked, fiat "pure mathematical" claim.

It's pathetic that Bridgman would even attempt to pull that off, but pure mathematicians, unless rooted in a empirical scientific background, are not used to having their ideas challenged on a empirical basis. Sure, they are used to having their equations challenged for internal consistency ("your equation could be more 'elegant'"), by other pure mathematicians, but they are wholly unused to having their basic assumptions challenged.

And judging by Bridgman's reactions and poor reasoning skills wholly unprepared to defend their positions or ideas because they are so disconnected from actual observation & measurement; and their "community" is so incestuous and back scratching.

Nobody inside the community dares challenge the basic assumptions -- those that have got banished. Talk to Halton Arp or the Burbidges. And how many others have kept silent after seeing their example of what happens if you are labelled a heretic?

Their treatment makes a mockery of the scientific ideal of fair and open inquiry.

But Bridgman and many of his peers aren't embarrassed, rather they're grimly satisfied to enforce the party-line.

Observation & measurement are to be "back-filled" into the equations by rejiggering the equations and then pretending the equation predicted the event all along.

3) “You haven't produced thermal synchrotron radiation in the laboratory, therefore all calculations of it's spectra are just meaningless mathematics.”

The above statement should truly revolt and disgust any empirical scientist worth his salt who reads this missive.

Science can generate thermal energy just fine in a laboratory, there's nothing to stop "modern" astrophysicists from doing actual experiments, to see if synchrotron radiation can be generated by thermal energy alone, but no, let's just assume we can do it, then craft mathematical equations saying we did do it, or think it's possible, that way we can avoid the conclusion that magnetic fields in tandem with synchrotron radiation is evidence of electric currents in space.

It's pure arrogance and contempt for the scientific method or anybody who would present the scientific method as an obstacle to their pure mathematical speculations, not even speculations, but pure conjuring.

What it boils down to is this: "If We (the royal 'We') don't like the scientific results or non-results of experiments, how dare you remind us of the empirical scientfic method, we take our cue from Einstein, 'if the facts don't agree with the theory, change the facts.'"

I tell you Bridgman's attitude is that of the emperor has no clothes, fame.

Bridgman states: "Suppose you have a theory “A” that at some given time, makes 12 independent predictions. Suppose experiments based on eight of the predictions work very well in the laboratory and later repetitions of the experiments under slightly different environments work well also. But suppose four of the experiments are beyond your current level of technical capability. Do you accept the theory until the additional tests can be done, or do you abandon it?"

Give us some hard, concrete examples of this.

Bridgman, this is a strawman argument if ever there was one. If in fact this was the case, few if any, Plasma Universe theory supporters would make you abandon your theory.

Also, it's a 'red herring' argument because I bet you there isn't an example in "modern" astronomy's menagerie of exotics that fits this example.

What it is, is an example of Bridgman making up something out of whole cloth and having the arrogance and contempt -- what do I mean by contempt, I mean Bridgman doesn't feel he has any obligation to be honest because he holds us, who would challenge his world view/gig, as not worthy of honest, reasonable communication. We are savages that he can blythly say anything he wants to at.

Only Bridgman's peers can pull him back from this reckless course of deceit.

Bridgman states: "Suppose you have a theory “B” that makes a number of observational predictions but none that you can test under laboratory conditions. Many of the observations (say 99.9%) work very well, matching your theoretical predictions to as many decimal places of precision as you can measure. Do you accept the theory until the laboratory tests can be done, or do you abandon it?"

Same criticism as above.

Bridgman states: "Note that the experiments you can't do are not returning a negative result, just that the measurements predicted by the theory are below the sensitivity of your current technology."

How long does this kind of "keep searching" until "infinity" argument hold up?

Bridgman is making an allusion to the seach for "gravitational waves" which has recieved nothing, but nil results, even though multiple rounds of detection technology with magnitudinal increases in sensitivity have been employed in the hunt.

This was a major prediction of General Relativity and the detector equipment has been directed at objects that theoretically should have produced copious "gravitational waves", i.e. colliding so-called "black holes", still nil results.

Bridgman states: "Suppose the 'someone else' is another nation who is an economic competitor?"

Again, this is revolting.

How long do we keep going down a rat hole because they can't bear to look at other alternative hypothesis or theories?

The only "holes" around here are the "memory hole" and the "rat hole".

At least we know both of those 'holes' are real.