Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Quickie Comment: The Trouble With Physics

Once upon a time, when I inhabited the world of academia, I published papers dealing with such matters as epistemology and the philosophy of science. That being the case, I was intrigued by Michael Riordan’s recent review of a book entitled The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin. That review can be found here.

Since my academic qualifications are in the social (or “soft”) sciences rather than the physical (or “hard”) ones, I generally approach “hard” scientific texts from a philosophical perspective. One of the first things I seek to do is to understand the author’s epistemological orientation: is the author a realist, an empiricist, a dualist, a constructivist, etc.? As I do that, I also seek to examine the logical integrity and validity of the author’s arguments: are the analogies strong or weak, are the arguments technically sound, etc.? The final set of questions I ask focuses on the experimental design. Was the sample sufficient, was there one control group or were there multiple controls, are the dependent and independent variables clear, etc.? The answers to these three sets of questions are generally enough to allow me to wade through “hard” scientific documents comfortably.

According to Riordan (the reviewer), Smolin argues that the realm of physics is embracing String Theory at its peril. Near the end of his review, Riordan suggests that String Theory and Intelligent Design suffer from a common flaw: neither hypothesis (or theory, to be more generous) is falsifiable via observation or testing. This pairing, let alone the proposition (which is really the more significant matter), is likely to raise the hackles of more than a few physicists! It should be fun to watch the sparks fly in the coming months.

I haven’t yet read The Trouble With Physics, but I think I will do so soon. In the meantime, I just finished reading a book entitled Why Intelligent Design Fails. The editors of this book sought to remove Intelligent Design from its tangled philosophical, theological and political connections and examine it strictly in terms of its scientific claims and bases. I will be posting my review of the book in the next day or two, so keep your eyes open.

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