Should Falsifiability Be Put to Rest?

Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)
Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Falsifiability is a beautiful notion in that it allows us to empirically determine the scientific basis for a given theory. In other words, if a theory offers no testable predictions, then that theory has no place in the canon of science. As of late, some scientists have adopted the view that such a criterion is too stifling and actually hinders real progress toward the acquisition of scientific knowledge into the nature of reality. A case in point is string theory, classical physics’ frontrunner for unifying general relativity and quantum physics which posits that all matter is composed of tiny vibrating strings. Currently, the equipment required to test string theory’s predictions is beyond our reach and will be for an indeterminable amount of time, as string theory involves phenomena likely to to manifest themselves only at energies immensely higher than anything we can produce here on Earth. In a controversial essay published in Edge last year, Sean Carroll argued, “Refusing to contemplate [the existence of entities involved in certain theories] on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

Theoretical cosmologists George Ellis and Joe Silk worry, however, that an abandonment of the falsifiability principle will undermine public trust in the scientific method at a time when scientific results concerning topics such as global climate change and evolution, while backed by stacks of solid scientific evidence, are still on trial in the public eye. Furthermore, Ellis and Silk fear that eliminating this standard would allow for unchecked propagation of ideas with very little scientific evidence to support them and make intellectual dispute resolution practically impossible. In their Nature comment, Ellis and Silk point out that even string theory offers some testable predictions, such as supersymmetry, the idea that each kind of particle has a partner, none of which have been detected by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, narrowing the range of energies at which supersymmetry might exist. If these partners continue to elude detection, we may never be certain of their existence, and Ellis believes this uncertainty may simply need to be worked into our current understanding of the universe. “We need to rethink these issues in a philosophically sophisticated way that also takes the best interpretations of fundamental science, and its limitations, seriously,” says Ellis. “Maybe we have to accept uncertainty as a profound aspect of our understanding of the universe in cosmology as well as particle physics.”


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