Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Way Forward in Science

It's been more than a year since my last post. This is not because I've had no thoughts; it's because my last two posts were speculative to the point of being pseudo-science and that bothered me. I hold an engineering degree, and although that makes me an applied scientist rather than a researcher, it means I'm skeptical of pseudo-science and I found myself ashamed of having posted such and I have resisted posting other scientific speculation since then.

But I find myself drawn to continue. To do so comfortably, I need a set of ground rules for myself, and that's the subject of this post. The way forward in science.

Science is a great tool, perhaps the greatest tool humanity has ever developed, and it will always be preferable to less scientific methods, but it has limitations. Not everything we'd like to understand is amenable to careful examination in a laboratory. Without some way to temporarily silence the critics, scientific exploration of the apparently absurd will never get accomplished.Without the ability to make a leap forward, scientific progress will be limited to incremental advances over what is already known and great insights like those of Einstein could become increasingly rare.

But science would cease to be science if too much speculation were left unquestioned for too long, So a leap forward is only complete when it passes muster in the peer-reviewed world of science.

So where does the scientific method need help? Particle physics requires ever bigger and more expensive experiments to meet the repeatable, testable rules of science today. Studying black holes would be easier if one could be brought into the lab. And consciousness is a subjective experience, perhaps unmeasurable. Because these phenomena do not fit into a conventional science lab, the rules must be relaxed somewhat. However, it makes sense to stray from the scientific method as little as possible.

Here are some thoughts on when to bend the rules without stepping over the line into pseudo-science:

1) Some experiments cannot be repeated and that's okay. We can deduce much about physics from cosmology even though we cannot repeat the experiment.

2) Science is a social enterprise but reality doesn't care. Sometimes the lone wolf is correct even though it's hard for social humans to accept that.

3) Big science can bend to political pressures. I believe in anthropogenic climate change, but both sides accuse the other of political motives.

4) Larger perspectives must always be considered. Today's science, because it originated in the lab, works well at our scale. But it is wrong to assume that what is true at our scale must be true at other scales. For example, Newtonian mechanics works fine until you get to atomic scales where quantum effects become noticeable. Newtonian mechanics could be just as wrong at very large scales

5) Occam's razor can help bridge the gap to an otherwise wild leap. If a speculative theory has explanatory power across multiple disciplines, then perhaps it's worth considering. For example there are dubious theories of consciousness that invoke quantum theory. But if this link is real, it would shed light on both consciousness and quantum theory.

Within reasonable bounds, I will post my thoughts on some speculative scientific ideas in the near future. I believe they are worthy of consideration.