Measured Against Reality

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Scientists Are Not Dogmatic

Anyone who read my previous post, Science is Not Dogmatic and disagreed with me will probably be interested in this article (subscription required). It’s about the fine structure constant, alpha, experiments determining it, and what they mean for science and physics. The physics is cool, but not what I want to talk about. The article contained these gems:

"It [Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), the quantum field theory of electromagnetism] was just patched together out of bits and pieces, in order to explain some experiments," says Freeman Dyson, one of the theory's architects, now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. "We didn't expect it to last," he adds. "Every time there was a new experiment, we all expected that the theory would be proved wrong in some interesting way. Instead, each experiment still agrees with the theory. That's sort of a disappointment."

"There is no wiggle room if theory and experiment disagree," Kinoshita says. Some fundamental aspect of QED - quantum mechanics, say, or special relativity - might have to be modified. "If quantum electrodynamics is wrong, that would be a fantastic discovery," says Gabrielse. "The stakes are really high here."

"It has worked so remarkably well for a number of years that it has made it into all of our textbooks as if it's the gospel truth," Gabrielse says. "Most of us would be surprised if it breaks down, just because we've failed to make it break down after trying so hard." He adds, "We're in a rut, for very good reason, in using these field theories. They have been wildly successful. But it seems to me sort of part of the human experience to always ask, 'Is that the whole story? Or is there something more to it?'"

Yup, that’s dogmatic all right. Because if anything’s dogmatic, it’s wanting your supposed “cherished theories”, which are now “gospel truth” to be wrong. One of the principle architects of QED wants the theory, which he helped create to be wrong! They want to have to change it! These are not nut-jobs, out of synch with the majority of scientists. The fact is that science only really progresses when we don’t understand things, so if we knew everything about the universe scientists would be out of jobs!

One of the most important ways science progresses is by actively trying to find flaws in our theories and models. The only way a hypothesis can develop into a theory is by withstanding the unrelenting scrutiny of scientists. No incorrect hypothesis survives long under this intense pressure. As an example, disproving current theories is one of the biggest things going in particle physics right now, and the first team to find what’s wrong with the Standard Model will get a Nobel Prize, probably the same year they do it. If any of our current theories (except wholly theoretical ones like String Theory) could be proven wrong with what we have on hand, then they would have been proven wrong by now.

When a scientist says that a theory is right all that they mean is that all evidence gathered has supported it or its predictions. Everything could be wrong, but many theories have so much evidence behind them that it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need anything other than tweaking. The simple fact is that these thousands of scientists aren’t part of some grand dogmatic conspiracy, they just want to understand the way the world works; they want the truth. And currently, the scientific method is the only thing that gets us reliably to the truth. It might be a rocky, uneven, and bumbling ride, but it works. Which is far more than can be said about anything else.

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  • Welcome to Atheism Online! I am approving your directory entry, but I'm going to move your blog into the "Off Topic Blogs by Atheists" category since this appears to be a better fit than "Atheist Blogs."

    By Blogger vjack, at 6:16 AM, September 17, 2006  

  • Again, it isn't the theories themselves that encourage dogmatic belief, but the dogmatic belief that science and science alone will reveal all immutable truths.

    I think it's selfish to think that human effort is all it takes. I just think there is something more, a source to all of this knowledge that, whether through philosophy or science or anything else, man is constantly revealing.

    It's not creation, it's more nuanced than that. I also object to your assertion that the believer is a simpleton. Perhaps I simply have a greater faith in the intelligence of mankind than you do.

    By Anonymous Nick Coutis, at 10:26 AM, September 19, 2006  

  • Nick, scientists are aware that only those parts of the universe that can be observed and tested can be explained by science. It's entirely possible that there are "immutable truths" beyond the reach of sense and science, but why waste time considering something that is, for practical purposes, non existant?

    When God reveals himself to man in a tangible, measurable form, I'm sure science will seek to explain him. Until he decides to come out of hiding, scientists will have to be content with those things that are accessible to it, i.e. real.

    By Blogger caligata, at 12:46 PM, September 26, 2006  

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