Delayed Gratification

A post today by PZ Myers nicely expresses something which has been frustrating me about people who, in arguing over what can be a legitimate subject of “scientific” study, play the “untestable claim” card.

Their ideal is the experiment that, in one session, shoots down a claim cleanly and neatly. So let’s bring in dowsers who claim to be able to detect water flowing underground, set up control pipes and water-filled pipes, run them through their paces, and see if they meet reasonable statistical criteria. That’s science, it works, it effectively addresses an individual’s very specific claim, and I’m not saying that’s wrong; that’s a perfectly legitimate scientific experiment.

I’m saying that’s not the whole operating paradigm of all of science.

Plenty of scientific ideas are not immediately testable, or directly testable, or testable in isolation. For example: the planets in our solar system aren’t moving the way Newton’s laws say they should. Are Newton’s laws of gravity wrong, or are there other gravitational influences which satisfy the Newtonian equations but which we don’t know about? Once, it turned out to be the latter (the discovery of Neptune), and once, it turned out to be the former (the precession of Mercury’s orbit, which required Einstein’s general relativity to explain).

There are different mathematical formulations of the same subject which give the same predictions for the outcomes of experiments, but which suggest different new ideas for directions to explore. (E.g., Newtonian, Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics; or density matrices and SIC-POVMs.) There are ideas which are proposed for good reason but hang around for decades awaiting a direct experimental test—perhaps one which could barely have been imagined when the idea first came up. Take directed percolation: a simple conceptual model for fluid flow through a randomized porous medium. It was first proposed in 1957. The mathematics necessary to treat it cleverly was invented (or, rather, adapted from a different area of physics) in the 1970s…and then forgotten…and then rediscovered by somebody else…connections with other subjects were made… Experiments were carried out on systems which almost behaved like the idealization, but always turned out to differ in some way… until 2007, when the behaviour was finally caught in the wild. And the experiment which finally observed a directed-percolation-class phase transition with quantitative exactness used a liquid crystal substance which wasn’t synthesized until 1969.

You don’t need to go dashing off to quantum gravity to find examples of ideas which are hard to test in the laboratory, or where mathematics long preceded experiment. (And if you do, don’t forget the other applications being developed for the mathematics invented in that search.) Just think very hard about the water dripping through coffee grounds to make your breakfast.