How to “Science” When Theories are Un-Testable

Modern science has reached an interesting conundrum – top fields in theoretical physics and evolutionary biology often seem untestable. That is to say, scientists lack methods for generating empirical data to answer real questions in science. How do we cope with this when funding decisions often require the incorporation of real data into proposals? The answer is that scientists are continuing their research in the form of logical thought experiments – arguments that are logically valid, but usually end arriving at unrealistic scenarios that are either too expensive or too impractical to garner scientific funding. While it seems like this might be a negative direction to move scientific research into, it is actually very important. Allowing science to exist in a more free-form pattern, unrestricted in some cases (e.g., string theory) by the requirement of empirical data, might allow for scientists to make the inevitable logical “leap” into methods for generating that empirical data. In other words, thinking philosophically about science allows scientists to test the logically validity of their ideas before even beginning the design phases of experiments.

Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.

Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

One of the most important fields of science where this is occurring is theoretical physics. Recently, scientists have begun to incorporate ideas regarding multiverse theories into standard physics problems, albeit with negative reactions outside of the scientific community. String theory, for example, has been called all myriad of terrible things, and yet remains at the forefront of theoretical physics research. What does this mean for the advancement of the science? Well, on the one hand, it’s a great example of where a scientific field can proceed to generate major breakthroughs in mathematically methodology, it’s also an example of where the over emphasis of a single methodology can drown out other equally plausible ideas. In other words, in a scientific field where no empirical data exists, scientists tend to throw their hand in with the most accepted “non-empirical” method instead of investigating other non-empirical methods equally. This highlights the need for a broader discussion on how scientists should approach problems that do not yield empirical data.

Evolutionary biology is another great example. Popular science and non-scientists harshly criticize theoretical evolutionary biology as lacking empirical data much the same way as string theory is criticized. And so we arrive at a point where scientists know that something is intuitively correct (that evolution occurs), and logically correct (we have data to support evolution occurs), evolution is not a process that is directly observable or measurable in the same way that temperature and electrical charge are measurable. One of the ways that scientists get around this problem is the development of measurable metrics that reflect what we intuitively think of as an evolutionary process (e.g., Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium). And so the field of evolutionary biology is largely able to generate empirical data using these metrics, whereas theoretical physics is still unable to create measurable metrics to generate empirical data reflecting the predictions of string theory.

This is where I believe the downfall of physics is the hesitation of scientists to accept plausible metrics that intuitively reflect what scientists want to measure. A major step forward in this thinking was made by Ranga-Ram Chary of the Planck Institute in 2015 when he suggested that perturbations in the cosmic background microwave radiation are indeed a way to measure and test multiverse theories. But does this idea stand up to other forms of scientific rigor, that is, the principle of falsifiability? Perhaps not, since there are more than one other possibility for the perturbations we see in the background radiation. However, in my opinion, this is a great step forward in the type of thinking that we need to employ to dig out of the theoretical hole of string theory. The acceptance and subsequent debate of intuitive ideas like this might lead to the development of more rigorous, falsifiable, metrics that relate to the predictions of the string theory and an important step forward in the modern application of the scientific method.

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