If one is to agree with Lee Smolins that physics is in trouble and if that would imply, as Lee proposes, that we need to complete the revolution that has been started by Einstein and his contemporaries — go back and fill in the gaps that was left empty — then one would find oneself in a bit of a dilemma. Mmm, it now occurs to me that Lee Smolins neglected to discuss a rather pertinent aspect in his otherwise excellent book. Perhaps the omission was accidental, then again perhaps not.
What am I rambling on about? In short, it is something called pseudo science — that all to common activity where people produce `theories’ with an appearance of science, but which is not science. The dilemma is that if one would spend one’s time pondering those gaps and eventually come up with some proposals, how would one distinguish this from pseudo science?
I can almost hear the sneering chorus. For most physicists it is easy to identify a pseudo scientist. The hard part is to convince pseudo scientists that their theories are nonsense. If you want to pin it down, then one can simply impose the pinnacle of the scientific method: falsifiable experimental predictions.
This is however precisely where the problem lies. Having read The Trouble with Physics, with all its examples of modern day physicist that are proposing extravagant theories, I came to look on people that I would have identified as pseudo scientists with a new perspective. Although Lee makes a strong case for falsifiable experimental predictions, not all these extravagant theories can make such predictions, at least not right from the start. What then distinguishes these extravagant theories from pseudo science? I can propose two possible criteria:
- Often a pseudo scientist would not only be unable to use their theories to make falsifiable predictions, but they don’t understand the concept of a falsifiable prediction, and they deliberately design their theories in such a way that it is impossible to falsify.
- Pseudo scientific theories usually don’t contain much technical depth. The mathematical formulation is often borrowed from existing theories and usually applied in a way the reveals a rather superficial understanding.
Both these criteria are on shaky ground. As for the first criterion, to determine whether some theoretical endeavour may one day be able to make falsifiable predictions could be rather difficult and may turn out to be a subjective judgement. And as for the second criterion, it is said that genius lies in simplicity. One can not require a profound mathematical formulation to be a prerequisite for true science.
In fact, string theory is mathematically quite complicated. Yet, due to its lack of falsifiable predictions and the lack of any prospect ever to be able to make such falsifiable predictions it is a good candidate for being judged a pseudo science. Not very flattering I confess. Perhaps that is why Lee Smolins did not address this aspect in his book.
So why do I address this issue? It occurred to me that much of the discussions that I intend to have on the fundamental issues of physics will look very much like pseudo science. There won’t be any new predictions, at least not at first and I do not intend to use complicated mathematics in these discussions.
So all that is left for me is to appeal to the possible reader to please bare with me.