“Post-empirical science”

The informed reader will know that the title represents an oxymoron. Without its empirical character science would not be science. It is very much what defines the cultural activity that we call “science” to be what it is.

Why then this glaring contradictory notion? It has popped up in the literature related to a recent “publicity stunt” where a simulation of a wormhole in a toy model was blown out of all proportions by being deemed to have created an actual wormhole. The simulation was done on a puny quantum computer incorporating merely 9 qubits.

Although this story has been hyped by various sources (and I am not going to give any links because I don’t want to mislead more people), many people have strongly criticized the story, including John Horgan, Scott Aaronson, Ethan Siegel, and Peter Woit. I can go on to try and clarify, but these posts are doing a much better job than I can.

Of course it is nonsense. A simulation is a numerical calculation of the physical process under study. It is not the real thing. And it does not matter whether the simulation is done with a classical digital computer or with a quantum computer. It is still just a simulation. Moreover, the amount of information that one can extract from 9 qubits is 9 bits, which is barely enough to specify one single ASCII character in a text document. So, no wormholes were created.

Perhaps the result they obtained from their simulation agreed well with what they expected to see, but that does not mean that it qualifies as being an experiment. Simulations and experiments are different things. Usually simulations are used when the direct calculations are too difficult. However, there is almost no limit on what one can simulate. It does not have to be something that can actually exist. If I have a set of equations that describe some weird imagined process that cannot exist in our universe, I can still program those equations into a computer and simulate it. For this reason, the results of a simulation can never take the place of an actual experiment.

What does this have to do with the notion of post-empirical stuff? Well, the problem lies in fundamental physics where it becomes progressively more difficult to perform experiments to learn about how things work. As a result, people are trying to motive that we start to learn about these things without having to do the experiments. That would have been great if it could work. Unfortunately, it has been tried before and found not to work. That was what the philosophers did before the advent of the scientific method. The nonsense they came up with still bounces around in the cultures of the world.

No! the day we cannot perform experiments to learn how this universe works is the day we stop learning more about our universe. A lot of people may go on coming up with stuff, but for sure, that stuff is worth nothing if it cannot be shown to work that way in our universe.

Unfortunately, there is already a lot of this going on, as this hyped wormhole nonsense demonstrates. It is related to several such non-scientific ideas that people work on and call physics, even though they don’t have much or any hope ever to show that it actually works that way through a scientific process.

The annoying thing is that there are prominent people in the physics community that are driving the hype. They’ve been doing this with other similar stories. Apparently, the reason for this hype is to induce funding agencies to give them more funding. Well, I think that if funding agencies can be led by their noses so easily, then the situation is more hopeless than I thought. These prominent people are not prominent for having done any solid scientific work. There are also other ways to become prominent. Well, I’ve ranted enough about people being prominent for the wrong reasons and don’t want to do it again.

7 thoughts on ““Post-empirical science”

  1. We agree at the general view, incl. that the fundamental-physics community has tendencies to go full-steam against a reef just because powers that be praise that.
    Regarding particular items in the bordering region, different people have different opinions, and that is ok. Thus I’m not willing to argue on that.

  2. Yes, it is reasonable that the region between what is scientific or not would be murky, but then the confidence on any knowledge lying in this region should be treated with a similar level of skepticism. It is in this region where things like vacuum fluctuations lie and look how much has been based on this idea as if it is established knowledge. As a result, I am convinced that the physics community has misled itself. You’ve probably read the post I’ve written about that.

  3. I guess that we differ in the sharpness of splitting all the theories into scientific ones vs. the rest. I see the border region as having a lot of shades, set by varying indirect support.

    Regarding black holes, they are a good example. I consider our current knowledge of BHs on the level of the understanding of atoms before the advent of QM.
    And even though it seems that we will never measure the innards of BHs (I hope that we will at some point), any theory of gravity has to incorporate BHs, thus working on BHs is a part of scientific endeavor.
    Well, I agree that we should label descriptions of inner parts of BHs as hypotheses, since our current views on that can quite well be beyond the limits of validity of GR.

  4. To be sure, I am all for using whatever idea or justification to come up with new theories. My only condition is that such theories only be considered as scientific theories once they have passed experimental testing. It does imply that theories with no hope of ever being experimentally tested are not very useful and can therefore never be considered scientific.

    For example, GR again. We know that black holes can exist and we have seen some objects that fit the bill. But that does not mean everything about black holes are as advertised. For instance, the notion that there is a singularity inside the black hole is beyond science. It can never be confirmed. Some people may argue that since GR is confirmed and black holes have been observed, the mathematical consequence is that the singularities must also exist. I say that is wrong thinking, the situation with this singularity may just be more complicated than the simple solutions. Without the direct observations, which is not possible in this case, you can never be sure it exists.

  5. Well, since I consider this stuff subtle, I feel it like thin-ice skating. Thus please consider my comments as an attempt to clarify my thoughts, rather than trench-building for dying on a hill. There are other things worth of dying, or better yet, living for.
    Every theory has some limits of its validity, and of course we cannot be sure when we reach those limits even in a case of a successful theory. I know it, and my previous comment was apparently too inept when it suggested to the contrary.
    Regarding GR, it admits an amount of weird phenomena, like closed timelike curves, etc. It does not stipulate that those phenomena have to occur though. Those phenomena require strange forms of matter and/or have other strange requirements. And thus GR could be understood as asking us to implement those requirements first; and only in the case of success to consider those weird phenomena as plausible.
    I feel it like various weird phenomena have different requirements for them to occur, and by that having different barriers to be considered plausible. I still suppose that when it happens that the requirements of a weird phenomenon get fulfilled, we have a good chance to make it real. That chance is never certainty though.

  6. “… once a basis of a theory gets empirically proved, it makes other parts of it more reliable, even when the proofs of the other parts are out of reach for a long time.”

    Therein lies a danger. An example may explain the problem. GR has passed empirical testing quite successfully. Does that mean we should believe that wormholes can exist? I don’t think so. Unless the notion of wormholes also passed empirical testing successfully, they are, and will remain, speculations.

    There are numerous such examples, many in the field of quantum physics where the tested notions of quantum mechanics are stretched to conjure up quantum phenomena that have never been confirmed experimentally. It is important that the scientific process is followed every step of the way, especially when things become complicated as it does in quantum physics.

  7. Hi, I understand what you mean and I have felt myself that this affair states clearly that it is necessary to leave the Western civilization if one wants to do fundamental physics as a serious endeavor. Yet having an addition, since the whole stuff is somewhat subtler.
    First, while many theoretical proposals are wrong, some get it right occasionally. A terrible thing is that the hyped stuff is clearly unreal, and it puts all the other attempts, some of which are reasonable, into bad light.
    Second, once a basis of a theory gets empirically proved, it makes other parts of it more reliable, even when the proofs of the other parts are out of reach for a long time. Of course it has to start with a firm contact with reality, and the hyped stuff lacks that.
    Regarding the involved persons, they act more like criminal ringleaders than scientists. Instead into progress of science, they are into keeping their positions. And I would add that their relation to science is similar to the relation of Russian rulers to democracy. Both of that looks superficially alike the imitated ways, but the differences are crushing.
    Well, to end somewhat lighter, finishing with an anecdote. At the beginning of widespread use of computers there were situations with people claiming that something is true, because it was on a display of a computer. We enter a period when alike claims are made when something is an output of a quantum computer.

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