More On: Is Science a Victim of its Own Success?

In his December 1996 Back Page article, "Is Science a Victim of Its Own Success," John Horgan continues to parade his fundamental misunderstanding of science. His misconceptions are most clearly evidenced by his use of the concept of "truth" in scientific contexts. In reality, there is no such thing as a "scientific truth" or "scientific fact"; the best that can be found are models that work (for now) and patterns of observation for which no counterexample has yet been found. Science can never make the pronouncement, "Verily, it is so;" all that it can say is, "It is as though."

Eternal truths, which by their very nature are and ever shall be incontrovertible, are the constructs of religion, not of science. Of course, we cannot help but acquire a certain confidence in theories and experiments that have worked for generations, but that does not mean that they are true, or that our confidence is justified. Though we stand indeed upon the shoulders of giants, we have no guarantee that those shoulders provide us a secure footing.

Those who would like to believe that scientific progress consists in the creation of ever-widening circles of certain knowledge would do well to read "A History of Theories of the Aether and Electricity," by Sir Edmund Whittaker, or, for a perspective on phlogiston, "Three Centuries of Chemistry," by Sir Irvine Masson. As concepts, phlogiston and the ether each neatly explained (for a time) all that was known in a particular field, but phlogiston was eventually washed away by a rising tide of contrary experiments, and the ether by a single big wave.

One might have hoped that science would at least prove to be a continually improving succession of approximations to some perfect model of the universe, but even that monotonicity is denied us. Abandoned concepts like the corpuscular theory of light and the transmutability of elements, long thought to be safely buried, must sometimes be resurrected in the light of inconvenient later observations.

Horgan pours scorn once more on what he calls "ironic science." I am in no way qualified to give an opinion on superstring theory, but I would point out that a theory is indeed scientific if, and only if, it is in principle falsifiable. It will not become a model, however, until it is shown that in addition to being as yet unfalsified, it makes novel predictions in accord with observation. It is such considerations that will decide the fate of superstring theory, not Horgan's inability to think in ten dimensions.

As scientists, our most valuable knowledge is the recognition of what we do not know, and our most valuable attitude the willingness to question that which we think we do. Perhaps science writers should study also these aspects of science, as well as the day-to-day nuts and bolts of theory and experiment.

J.B. Gunn
Mount Kisco, New York

Defending The End of Science

I hate to kick someone when they're down, but I must respond to the letters addressing my December 1996 essay, "Is Science a Victim of its Own Success?" In this issue, J.B. Gunn attempts to rebut me with the notorious postmodernism gambit. There is no such thing as absolute truth; therefore science-and, more importantly, funding for science-can never come to an end. How convenient.

What separates science, real science, from philosophy and other less potent modes of knowledge is that science establishes certain facts beyond a reasonable doubt. Does Mr. Gunn think that we lack sufficient evidence to believe in electrons, or thermonuclear fusion, or the recession of galaxies? What about the proposition that the earth is round and not flat?

Gordon Kane and Christopher Koida suggest (APS News, February 1997) that superstring theory may also one day be empirically validated, because it is "testable." Well, sort of. Certain low- energy predictions of superstring theory, such as the existence of supersymmetric particles, are indeed testable. But other less extravagant theories make the same predictions. (The same is true of inflation, which is based on exotic, Planck-scale effects that can never be verified.)

Most prominent superstring proponents, such as Edward Witten and Steven Weinberg, have conceded that particle accelerators will never gain access to the realm that superstrings supposedly inhabit; mathematical consistency and logic rather than direct empirical evidence will have to suffice for "proof."

I suspect that most physicists would agree with Sheldon Glashow that logic and consistency cannot be a substitute for empirical data; the latter is what separates modern physics from philosophy. But of course Glashow is just an "expert," so true believers like F.R. Tangherlini can ignore him and keep their faith intact.

John Horgan
New York, N .Y.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

March 1997 (Volume 6, Number 3)

Table of Contents

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Articles in this Issue
Teacher-Scientist Alliance Workshop
The Units Convoke
Inside the Beltway
Directory of Physics, Astronomy & Geophysics Staff To Be Mailed in March
Electron Centennial Broadcast in April
Physicists to be Honored at 1997 March Meeting
International News
APS Views
The Citizen Scientist: A Model for Professional Survival
Lessons Learned from an Industrial Outreach Program
The Back Page