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I have an uneasy feeling about how things are going.
Years ago I was involved in clinical studies that examined the effectiveness of treatments for acute stroke. I participated in four of these. Each one took years and enrolled thousands of patients. We were one of hundreds of centers worldwide that did this work. All in all dozens of different medications for the treatment of acute stroke were tested. The idea was that people who had a stroke would receive one of these medications, and this would reduce the disability the stroke caused. They were supposed to work in various ways — reducing toxicity, reducing inflammation, inhibiting oxidation, etc. — all of them having been tested in labs and found to work in tissue cultures and animals prior to being tried in patients. At the end of it, not a single one of these medications worked when they were tried on human beings.
It was an incredible disaster. Billions of dollars were spent by drug companies trying to develop these drugs, and it was a total bust.
Looking back we can still only guess at what went wrong, but a big part of it was poor methods in the lab. When studies were rigorously controlled and blinded the positive results in the lab often disappeared. Some of the fundamentals of lab science had been forgotten. We already knew there were problems and results were inconsistent, but this was ignored in the rush to be the first to come up with a proven treatment.
Now I think there’s not a single drug company anywhere that would ever trust the claims made by academic scientists doing this sort of work. Pharma is doing all the basic research themselves, in their own labs, if at all.
So it didn’t surprise me when I learned that most scientists don’t trust more than half of what is reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals to be true. This is true of all fields of science, even the hard sciences like physics.
Sabine Hossenfelder, a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics, dissected the situation in her own field of science in her book “Lost in Math”. Particle physics is concerned with the most fundamental of nature’s building blocks, fundamental particles, like the electron, photon, and quark, some of which can only be studied by smashing atoms together in powerful accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and examining the debris. Fundamental particles are particles that can’t be smashed into smaller particles but combine to make other larger particles like protons. (Three quarks combine with gluons to make a proton.) Particle physics is in crisis, she says, because no advances have been made in particle physics in 40 years. The LHC was built at a cost of billions to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson but was expected to also uncover a whole host of other new fundamental particles. The discovery of these particles would confirm the new theory of particle physics, called Supersymmetry, most widely expected to replace the Standard Model of particle physics. The LHC did indeed find the Higgs Boson as expected, but not a single one of the other hoped-for particles was found. It was an almost total bust.
This happened, thinks Hossenfelder, because the physicists stopped being strictly scientific. They started putting the cart before the horse. Science is supposed to proceed by first gathering data and information, then coming up with a theory to explain it, then testing the theory against new data. Because new data are so hard to come by in particle physics the physicists started coming up with theories in advance of any data. They based these theories on hunches and aesthetics. They tended to be attracted by theories that looked good, simple, elegant, even beautiful. But beauty and elegance are not scientific criteria. When the theories are finally tested they usually fall flat. Scientists basing their ideas on aesthetics have historically often been wrong.
But these physicists have often refused to give up on the theories even in the face of contrary data or absence of data Some of them have even militated for the abolishment of the need for testing, thinking that theories can be validated on the basis of aesthetics alone.
Some of the theories other physicists are talking about can never be tested and will never have anything to do with the real world. These include such ideas as the existence of a multiverse, i.e., multiple universes that exist in parallel to our own; the many worlds theory, the idea that all possible outcomes of an event exist in an infinite number of worlds parallel to ours; and ideas about what came before the Big Bang. It’s all perfectly useless, and yet it’s showing up in scientific journals.
To be sure, a lot of senior members of the physics community view these developments with disgust and alarm. “We’re taking a 2,000-year step back,” said one. To paraphrase another, we are in the process of forgetting the fundamentals of science.
Proponents of the Supersymmetry theory want an accelerator even bigger than the LHC to be built to search further up the energy ladder for the missing particles, convinced without much evidence that their theory is right. They have forgotten the non-scientific source of the whole supersymmetry thing. Hossenfelder cringes to think what might happen if billions more are spent just to come up with nothing. Will theoretical particle physicists ever be trusted again?
It’s time to step back and take a hard look at our ideas, she thinks.
Hossenfelder goes on to point out how the same malady is affecting other fields, like economics, where economists have become over enamored with the elegance of their math over against accurate descriptions of the real-world economy.
All across the West people are forgetting the fundamentals that made the West so great. Not just in science but in other areas as well.Published in