The alleged data drought

Sabine Hossenfelder has written there is a drought of data in physics:

Nothing is moving in the foundations of physics. One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

I agree that there is a real problem here. There is no particular reason to think that building yet another particle accelerator at enormous expense will produce much progress in fundamental physics. Nor is there any reason to think that theories of new symmetries or particles will produce progress. Current ideas in particle physics are solutions searching for problems. There are a bunch of constants with unexplained values, but there is no particular reason to think those values will be explained by symmetries or whatever.

There are other cases of research programs that exist despite the absence of any serious problems or ideas about solutions. The controversy that is commonly said to be about the “interpretation” of quantum mechanics is a result of physicists refusing to take the theory seriously as a description of how the world works. The standard approach is to assume quantum physics is false and then look for another theory that reproduces its predictions, e.g. – hidden variables, the pilot wave theory, spontaneous collapse and so on. There is a lot of theoretical and experimental effort looking for problems with quantum physics without bothering to refute proposed solutions to those problems: the many worlds interpretation and the decoherence research program. “I don’t like this theory” is not a refutation, but it is the substance of all the complaints.

Scientific progress starts with a problem: an incompatibility between existing theories, or between existing theories and experimental data. There are many such problems in physics as it stands now. The lack of a quantum mechanical theory of gravity is one such problem. In cosmology the fact that supernova brightness deviates from standard models of cosmology is another problem. Physicists need to get back to looking for problems of this sort and to considering a wider range of potential solutions.

In addition, academic physics is in need of some institutional change. Elliot Temple has suggested that physicists should have discussion forums open to the public. I also think that part of the uniformity in physics is a result of the economics of government funding of physics. Academia is a cartel that directs money toward particular fashionable projects because they don’t pay any price for indulging their whims. If government funding of academia was eliminated physicists would have to get funding from elsewhere or change jobs. A wider range of projects might be funded, which I think would be an improvement.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to The alleged data drought

  1. I think government science funding is a big deal. I recently read George Reisman say:

    > (This epistemological breakdown, I might add, radically accelerated starting practically on the very day in the 1960s when the government took over most of the scientific research in the United States and began the large scale financing of statistical studies as a substitute for the discovery of causes.)

    I plan to look into this more. I find it a believable, important claim (from a great, knowledgeable writer) that’d be worth knowing more about. Maybe you’d like to research it too.

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