Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Is falsifiability a scientific idea due for retirement?

Sean Carroll argues that it is.

He characterises the belief that "theories should be falsifiable" as a "fortune-cookie-sized motto"; it's a position adopted only by "armchair theorizers" and "amateur philosophers", and people who have no idea how science really works. He thinks we need to move beyond the idea that scientific theories need to be falsifiable; this appears to be because he wants to argue that string theory and the idea of the multiverse are not falsifiable ideas, but are still scientific.

This position is not just wrong, it's ludicrous. 

What's more, I think deep down Sean – who is normally a clear, precise thinker – realises that it is ludicrous. Midway through his essay, therefore, he flaps around trying to square the circle and get out of the corner he has painted himself into: a scientific theory must, apparently, still be "judged on its ability to account for the data", and it's still true that "nature is the ultimate guide". But somehow it isn't necessary for a theory to be falsifiable to be scientific.

Now, I'm not a philosopher by training. Therefore what follows could certainly be dismissed as "amateur philosophising". I'm almost certain that what I say has been said before, and said better, by other people in other places. Nevertheless, as a practising scientist with an argumentative tendency, I'm going to have to rise to the challenge of defending the idea of falsifiability as the essence of science. Let's start by dismantling the alternatives.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A new start to blogging in 2014

Well, Blank On The Map has been sadly silent for rather longer than I intended.

There were several reasons for this. I mentioned one of them in the last post on here a few months ago – the need to put my nose to the postdoc research grindstone in order to try to avoid being scooped. As it turns out, we were scooped after all, but there is still more to be said on the matter and in any case the result we were gunning for turned out to be not quite so exciting as we were hoping. More news on that in some future posts perhaps.

Another reason for radio silence was that I found that quite a lot of my work over the last couple of months has turned out to involve more intensive writing – including a lot of time worrying over the careful choice of words, precise phrasing and tone of my written output – than I'd have liked, and almost more of that than actual research. This was mostly because of a recent paper I wrote which led to a bit of a bad-tempered spat ... anyway, the upshot of this was that I did not feel much in the mood for more writing on here.

It also turns out that any kind of a break from blogging is sort of self-sustaining. When you haven't have much time for writing, the simple fact of its scarcity makes you start to place unreasonably high expectations on your output: is this topic really more interesting than that other topic I didn't have time to write about last week?

Ah well. I'll start the new year with this simple post, which also serves as a way of mentioning that I've moved universities and countries: I now live in Helsinki, and work at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki Institute of Physics. As a result, I now have a new webpage! (Indeed, for complicated reasons, I actually have a second one as well, but it's got the same content.)

When I arrived here in October, Helsinki looked like this:

Now it looks like this:

The next post of this year will deal with more interesting topics!