Thursday, November 12, 2015

Science writers on finding truth

SciAm writer John Horgan reviews the book of fellow science writer George Johnson, contrasting it with his own. They also discuss it in this Bloggingheads video.

I think that the XX century will always be considered the greatest for finding fundamental enduring truths, and Horgan has a similar view:
In 1965 Richard Feynman, prescient as always, prophesied that science would reach this impasse. "The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again." After the great truths are revealed, Feynman continued, "there will be a degeneration of ideas, just like the degeneration that great explorers feel is occurring when tourists begin moving in on a new territory."
They argree on this:
On the issue of superstrings, Johnson and I are in complete agreement. Superstring theory seems to be a product not of empirical investigation of nature but of a kind of religious conviction about reality's symmetrical structure. Some particle physicists have the same view. Sheldon Glashow, one of the architects of the electroweak theory, has ridiculed superstring researchers as the "equivalents of medieval theologians."
Where they disagree is where Johnson seems to be influenced by foolish philosophers who deny truth and treat science as just another social activity driven by fads:
Johnson proposes that science, too, might be "a construction of towers that just might have been built another way." Although he never mentions The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Johnson's view evokes the one set forth in 1962 by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. In that book's coda, Kuhn compared the evolution of science to the evolution of life. Biologists, he noted, have banished the teleological notion that evolution advances toward anything--including the clever, featherless biped known as Homo sapiens. In the same way, Kuhn suggested, scientists should eschew the illusion that science is evolving toward a perfect, true description of nature. In fact, Kuhn asserted, neither life nor science evolve toward anything, but only away from something; science is thus as contingent, as dependent on circumstance, as life is. Johnson espouses a similar view, though more eloquently than Kuhn did. ...

My main disagreement with Johnson is that he plies his doubts too even-handedly. The inevitable result is that all theories, from the most empirically substantiated to those that are untestable even in principle, seem equally tentative. I also cannot accept Johnson's evolutionary, Kuhnian model of scientific progress. ...

Johnson further attempts to undermine the reader's faith in physics by reviewing ongoing efforts to make sense of quantum mechanics.
Johnson's view is probably (unfortunately) the majority among historians, philosophers, social scientists, science writers, and physics popularists.

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