Angry science

Typically, there is more to a scientific fact than meets the eye and that extra something is the scientific theory.  Of course, all theories begin as speculative and sometimes emotive interpretations of observation.   But no fact becomes ‘a fact of science’ unless it is wrapped up in a theory.  And as it happens, there is nothing more theoretical than our attempts to explain the ‘beginning of the universe’.

Scientists are firstly human beings who relish peer support and it is only natural for them to defend the validity of their ‘pet’ theories by citing the extent of their confirmation.  But theories remain theoretical whilst the principle job of the scientist is, in fact, to seek disconfirmation – though it is not uncommon to see ‘dispassionate scientists’ becoming passionately attached to ‘their’ favoured theories.

For instance, a high-level dispute has recently broken out over the validity of the dominant theory of ‘The Big Bang and inflation’ as the explanation of the beginning of the universe.  Suffice it to say that scientific theories rise to dominance on the back of the amount of support they receive, especially when they are confirmed by observation.  But the observable facts are always open to revision and according to the late Karl Popper, who remains a respected authority on this topic, the weight of evidence is no guarantor of the truth.

In addition, this fracas has all the elements of a classic scientific dispute of the type predicted by the late Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The proponents of the dominant theory of inflation are acting as though their take on the facts has the status of a ‘paradigm’ – in short, it overrules any facts to the contrary and in so doing stands for an accord that preserves its version of ‘normal science’ as the official view of reality.

But science depends on its revolutionaries – the problem being that it’s all theory at the end of the day; and the speculation remains fallible, especially when the theory is so broad-based in its ambitions as to claim the status of a ‘theory of everything’.

Mike Laidler

Further Reading: Hannah Osborne’s article on 13.5.17: ‘Hawking Pens Angry Letter about How the Universe Began’

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