Is physics being sensationalized?

John Horgan is the latest voice in a chorus of voices that is warning that scientific popularizers and would be mystics are going too far in their speculations based on quantum phenomenon. His particular ire this week is shared in Scientific American and is directed at popular author Brian Greene:

“My beef with Greene is this: He has become a cheerleader for the descent of theoretical physics into increasingly fantastical speculation, disconnected from the reality that we can access empirically. Greene has argued eloquently for the plausibility of string theory, which (as I pointed out in a previous post) postulates the existence of particles that are far too small to be detected in any conceivable experiment.

[…]My tone was lightly mocking, because cosmologists themselves seemed to be kidding—even embarrassed—when they talked about all these alternate universes. But now Greene—as well as Stephen Hawking, Leonard Susskind, Sean M. Carroll and other prominent physicist/popularizers—want us to take multiverses seriously.

In Hidden Reality Greene notes that different theories of modern physics yield many different multiverse theories. One of the oldest is the many-worlds theory, which conjectures that all of the possible histories of our world allowed for by quantum mechanics are realized in other universes. Greene also touts the inflationary multiverse, which holds that new universes are constantly springing into existence via a mysterious antigravity force called inflation. String theory yields the brane multiverse; strings plus inflation produces the landscape multiverse; and that still leaves us with the quilted, cyclic, holographic and simulated multiverses, all of which Greene cheerfully elucidates.

These multiverse theories all share the same fundamental defect: They can be neither confirmed nor falsified. Hence, they don’t deserve to be called scientific, according to the well-known criterion proposed by the philosopher Karl Popper. Some defenders of multiverses and strings mock skeptics who raise the issue of falsification as ‘Popperazis’—which is cute but not a counterargument. Multiverse theories aren’t theories—they’re science fictions, theologies, works of the imagination unconstrained by evidence.”

Read the full article here.

This has been a worry of mine for a while now. It’s too tempting for people, especially for people in religion, to lust after a scientific patina for their latest enthusiasm. And quantum physics makes a particularly comfortable vehicle in which to go searching. The problem is, and always has been, that quantum phenomenon don’t scale to the macroscopic world (similar to the way that all the interesting stuff in Relativity doesn’t show up in our regime either.)

It’s one thing to speculate, it’s another thing to claim your pet metaphysical idea as settled.

Hat tip to slashdot, where there is more, including links to the way that Greene’s writing is influencing mainstream conversation.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

One thought on “Is physics being sensationalized?”

  1. Nick,
    Part of the problem, I think, is that science is often taken out of context. The scientific method is by nature conservative. People say evolution is “just a theory” when it is the working assumption of all biology. While is has not been PROVEN by scientific standards, it is so overwhelmingly compelling (and there are no competing theories that even come close) that is has to be considered canon.
    The issue is the confusion of philosophy and science. Greene is indulging in philosophical speculation BASED on science. There is nothing wrong with that. Augustine and Aquinas both did that with the science of their day. Almost all philosophers rely on the science of their day. The problem occurs when you indulge in philosophical speculation and fail to acknowledge that you are leaving the area that is scientifically provable behind. This is my main issue with Dawkins and Hitchens.
    David+

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