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Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Nigel Warburton. There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. How you react to such headlines likely depends on your familiarity not only with aspects of modern physics, but also with the sensationalist tendencies of much of the popular-science media. Needless to say, the feature in question is rather less sensational than its headline suggests. They claim that the neutrons are actually flitting between parallel universes.
When it comes to grabbing attention, inviting that all-important click, or purchase, speculative metaphysics wins hands down. It would be easy to lay the blame for this at the feet of science journalists or popular-science writers. But it seems that the scientists themselves and their PR departments are equally culpable.
As far as I can tell, Broussard is engaged in some perfectly respectable experimental research on the properties of neutrons. These theories are based on the notion that our Universe is not unique, that there exists a large number of other universes that somehow sit alongside or parallel to our own.
For example, in the so-called Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are universes containing our parallel selves, identical to us but for their different experiences of quantum physics. These theories are attractive to some few theoretical physicists and philosophers, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence for them.
Is this really science? The answer depends on what you think society needs from science. In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda — ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines.
I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all. Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false?
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D espite appearances, science offers no certainty. Theories are underdetermined: choosing between competing theories that are equivalently accommodating of the facts can become a matter for personal judgment, or our choice of metaphysical preconceptions or prejudices, or even just the order in which things happened historically. This is one of the reasons why arguments still rage about the interpretation of a quantum theory that was formulated nearly years ago.
Yet history tells us quite unequivocally that science works. It progresses. We know and we think we understand more about the nature of the physical world than we did yesterday; we know more than we did a decade, or a century, or a millennium ago. The progress of science is the reason we have smartphones, when the philosophers of Ancient Greece did not. Successful theories are essential to this progress. Each of these satellites carries a miniaturised atomic clock, and transmits precise timing and position data to your device that allow you to pinpoint your location and identify the fastest route to the pub.
This suggests a rather handy metaphor for science. And this brings us to one of the most challenging problems emerging from the philosophy of science: its strict definition. This is the demarcation problem, and it has an illustrious history. The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data.
In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong. Astrology makes predictions, but these are intentionally general and wide open to interpretation. But, even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect.
Those who, like Prince Charles, continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.
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But it was never going to be as simple as this. It might be that the theory is false, but it could simply be that one of the auxiliary assumptions is invalid. The prediction was wrong. John Adams and Urbain Le Verrier independently proposed that there was an as-yet-unobserved eighth planet in the solar system that was perturbing the orbit of Uranus. Neptune was duly discovered, in , very close to the position predicted by Le Verrier. A few years later, Le Verrier tried the same logic on another astronomical problem.
The planetary orbits are not exact ellipses. But today the observed precession is rather more, about arc-seconds per century, a difference of 43 arc-seconds. Le Verrier ascribed this difference to the effects of yet another unobserved planet, lying closer to the Sun than Mercury, which became known as Vulcan.
Astronomers searched for it in vain. This brief tale suggests that scientists will stop tinkering and agree to relegate a theory only when a demonstrably better one is available to replace it.
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We could conclude from this that theories are never falsified, as such. But rather than seek an alternative, in the philosopher Larry Laudan declared that the demarcation problem is actually intractable, and must therefore be a pseudo-problem. But, for me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit. Demarcation is not some kind of binary yes-or-no, right-or-wrong, black-or-white judgment. We have to admit shades of grey.
Popper himself was ready to accept this the italics are mine :. It makes no presumptions about what we might do in light of the evidence. If the evidence fails to support the theory, then we might ponder for a while or tinker with the auxiliary assumptions. This is science. The first is quantum mechanics. Men of the Zodiac Boxed Set. Amy Andrews. Hot Texas Days Boxed Set. Jessie Evans. Judy Angelo.
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