A fetish for inflexible guidelines holds back science (philosophy of science)

"Demanding that a theory is falsifiable or observable, without any subtlety, will hold science back. We need madcap ideas"

(Adam Becker) EXCERPT: . . . The Danish physicist Niels Bohr was willing to give up energy conservation. But [Wolfgang] Pauli wasn’t ready to concede the idea was dead. Instead, he came up with his outlandish particle. [...] rather than agreeing with Bohr that energy conservation had been falsified, the physics community embraced Pauli’s hypothetical particle: what came to be known as a ‘neutrino’ (the little neutral one), once the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi refined the theory a few years later. The happy epilogue was that neutrinos were finally observed in 1956, with technology that had been totally unforeseen a quarter-century earlier: a new kind of particle detector deployed in conjunction with a nuclear reactor. Pauli’s ghostly particles were real; in fact, later work revealed that trillions of neutrinos from the Sun pass through our body every second, totally unnoticed and unobserved. So invoking the invisible to save a theory from falsification is sometimes the right scientific move.

[...] It’s a basic principle of scientific practice that a new theory shouldn’t invoke the undetectable. [...] These interlocking standards of falsifiability and observability have proud pedigrees: falsifiability goes back to the mid-20th-century philosopher of science Karl Popper, and observability goes further back than that. Today they’re patrolled by self-appointed guardians, who relish dismissing some of the more fanciful notions in physics, cosmology and quantum mechanics as just so many castles in the sky. The cost of allowing such ideas into science, say the gatekeepers, would be to clear the path for all manner of manifestly unscientific nonsense.

But for a theoretical physicist, designing sky-castles is just part of the job. Spinning new ideas about how the world could be – or in some cases, how the world definitely isn’t – is central to their work. Some structures might be built up with great care over many years, and end up with peculiar names such as inflationary multiverse or superstring theory. Others are fabricated and dismissed casually over the course of a single afternoon, found and lost again by a lone adventurer in the troposphere of thought.

That doesn’t mean it’s just freestyle sky-castle architecture out there at the frontier. The goal of scientific theory-building is to understand the nature of the world with increasing accuracy over time. All that creative energy has to hook back onto reality at some point. But turning ingenuity into fact is much more nuanced than simply announcing that all ideas must meet the inflexible standards of falsifiability and observability. These are not measures of the quality of a scientific theory. They might be neat guidelines or heuristics, but as is usually the case with simple answers, they’re also wrong, or at least only half-right.

Falsifiability doesn’t work as a blanket restriction in science for the simple reason that there are no genuinely falsifiable scientific theories. I can come up with a theory that makes a prediction that looks falsifiable, but when the data tell me it’s wrong, I can conjure some fresh ideas to plug the hole and save the theory. The history of science is full of examples of this ex post facto intellectual engineering....

MORE: https://aeon.co/essays/a-fetish-for-fals...ck-science
Nonsense argument. The conservation of energy had a ton evidence, so it was easily recognized that a single exception for nuclei didn't falsify the bulk of observations, and that Pauli's idea was the most parsimonious with everything known. And to be expected, not throwing out the bulk of observations for a single exception was correct.

This guy obviously doesn't understand how falsification is applied. And his ignorant straw man does not justify giving up the criteria that keep untold volumes of crackpot garbage out of science, especially the publicly funded variety. Even theoretical physicists must adhere to established science unless they can demonstrate good reason not to.

Forever tweaking a theory to avoid falsification is called ad hoc hypotheses, and unless and until they ever do "hook back onto reality", it is not science.

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