Science: Speculative Directions

It probably needs to be highlighted from the outset that the goal of this section is simply to review what may initially appear to be some highly speculative ideas. Almost by definition, most speculative ideas do not generally have any initial mainstream acceptance. Therefore, the first obvious question to address following such a statement may be:

Why bother with such ideas?

First, it is simply interesting to consider a wider spectrum of ideas. Second, it seems unscientific to reject an idea without taking some trouble to understand its basic arguments. Third, the idea might just have a good case for further consideration. Of course, the weight of authority normally suggests that most speculative ideas will eventually be proved wrong, although once in a while, history suggests that one or two may come to represent a paradigm shift in the way we look at the world. However, we might also consider another more basic question:

What is the role of speculation in modern science?

In the summary of quantum physics, the issue of the methodology of science was raised in terms of the growing dependency on 'deductive' rather 'inductive' reasoning. As a generalisation, deductive reasoning was defined as proceeding from premise to some logical conclusion, although in the absence of substantiated proof, the conclusion might still be questionable. In contrast, inductive reasoning was defined as proceeding from observation to conclusion and therefore might be more reflective of a methodology anchored in verification. While deductive reasoning can be grounded in mathematical consistency, it has a tendency to be more speculative in scope than inductive reasoning grounded observation. Therefore, the next question to be tabled might simply be:

How much of theoretical physics has actually been verified?

In the last 100 years, three major theories have been developed, i.e. relativity, quantum physics and cosmology, which many will argue represents the pinnacle of human thinking. However, if you ask most physicists whether any these theories are truly reflective of physical reality, you might get a somewhat more circumspect answer.

So what is the problem or concern?

In practice, many of the underlying assumptions in support of these theories have only been subject to limited verification, such that the overall conclusion may primarily rest on a mathematical premise, i.e. deductive reasoning. As indicated, while this does not implicitly mean that any associated conclusion is wrong, it must still remain an unsubstantiated conclusion. So while initially reflecting on such issues, let us table the next question:

Who determines what is and isn’t accepted scientific knowledge?

In the present era, it might be assumed that no single individual can determine the acceptance of scientific knowledge; although the opinions of some individuals might carry more weight than others. It might also be recognised that acceptance of certain scientific theories may differ along religious and/or cultural lines. For example, Christian or Islamic fundamentalists might well challenge, not only basic assumptions, but also what many may already consider to be proven facts. However, there may be more subtle distinctions in the philosophical approach to science across different cultures. For example, western society is much more orientated towards a structural view of science, which is to  some extent reflected in its language being orientated towards nouns, i.e. Westerners like to give things names. In contrast, many eastern cultures are far more process orientated, which is reflected in their language being more verb-orientated.  From a somewhat retrospective view, we might also cite the development of different philosophical approaches within science itself, where determinism initially argued that every event has to be causally determined, while reductionism argued that any complex phenomena or object can be explained in terms of simpler phenomena or objects. However, it might be argued that neither of these positions actually addressed the problem that the Greeks identified as the ‘prime-mover. Of course, given the more fundamental debate regarding the epistemological versus ontological nature of reality within quantum physics, it is unclear whether the arguments of determinism and reductionism are still reflected in any sort of global consensus. However, such divisions moved us on to the next question:

What is the scope of any global scientific consensus?

Despite the range of perspectives outlined, it might still be true to say that the current scientific consensus  is broadly secular in its position in that it no longer makes any explicit reference to a deity in its description of cause and effect. It might also be argued that any global consensus is now broadly aligned to a western philosophy due to the spread of western culture over the last 100 years; although we might now debate whether this state of affairs will continue for the next 100 years. However, maybe we should separate any notion of a global consensus into the applied and theoretical disciplines, as it is possible that much of applied science still effectively operates on the basic assumptions of determinism and reductionism. In this respect, much of particle physics might still be described as an applied science, i.e. most concepts are still subject to reductionism and determinism, while only its most fundamental ideas may be challenged by quantum field theory. If so, the scope of any global scientific consensus may be far from universal, not only due to differences in culture and application, but also in the fundamental questioning of its methodology.

So what aspect of the scientific methodology might be challenged?

Again, as another generalisation, it might be said that any consensus of scientific knowledge starts with the peer review of its research papers, which are often subject to only limited experimental verification before being published. However, the following quote by David Colquhoun may cast even more doubt on the effectiveness of the current peer review process.

"Peer review is the process that decides whether your work gets published in an academic journal. It doesn't work very well any more, mainly as a result of the enormous number of papers that are being published, an estimated 1.3 million papers in 23,750 journals in 2006. There simply aren't enough competent people to do the job. The overwhelming effect of the huge, and unpaid, effort that is put into reviewing papers is to maintain a status hierarchy of journals. Any paper, however bad, can now get published in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed."

Of course, the peer review process only represents the first step along the path of scientific acceptance, as there is still the key requirement rooted in empirical verification, i.e. experimental data. However, while the methodology of experimental verification may still be the bedrock of applied science, it is less clear whether verification is always a viable option in some branches of theoretical physics. For example, in the preceding section on ‘ accepted sciencewe appear to have come across a number of examples where theoretical physics may have exceeded the ‘limits of inference and the ability of empirical verification, such that a theory may essentially hinge on the strength of a mathematical premise. This is not necessarily a criticism in itself, as most accepted theories will have originally started out as little more than speculation supported, in some degree, by only mathematical logic.

So what restrictions does/should science put on speculation in terms of who and how?

As a starting point, we might consider a person’s qualifications in terms of their ability and knowledge in a given field. For example, most people will have been exposed to some foundation physics in school, albeit only anchored in the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics and particle physics. These foundation ideas are sometimes complemented by some initial wave mechanics and the general idea of electromagnetic waves; only later to be quantified in terms of Maxwell’s equations and then subsequently challenged in terms of the quantum description of a photon. However, in truth, most people have to abandon their questioning of the underlying nature of physical reality, sooner rather later, due not only to the mounting pressure of their own adolescent reality, but the emerging practical reality of earning a living in their ‘day job’. Of course, a small percentage of people will continue their education into science through university, although in many cases, this education will be focused on the applied sciences and the hope of gainful employment at the end of the course. As such, only an ever-smaller percentage will progress their education into theoretical physics with the implicit need for an equally strong grounding in advanced  mathematics. Clearly, at this point, we might have to accept that a person’s ability to successfully follow this path cannot just reflect a casual interest in theoretical physics, as it appears to  demand an appropriate intelligence quotient (IQ) in order to understand what appears to be an exponential growth in theoretical complexity.

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If  we were to take an IQ score of 145, as a purely arbitrary threshold, then a developed country like America, with a population of 300 million, might have 300,000 people potentially smart enough to qualify as a theoretical physicist. Of course, this is not to say that all theoretical physicists have an IQ of 145+ or that all people with an IQ of 145+ will necessarily have any interest in theoretical physics. Therefore, we might wish to immediately qualify the number of people employed as professional physicists, in America, by noting the estimate of  some 15,600 jobs in physics in 2008. We might also crudely breakdown this number as 33% residing in private firms, another 33% in government posts with the remainder in faculty positions at colleges and universities.

So might these professional physicists be the only people qualified to speculate?

While the actual number can only be guessed, this assessment might suggest that only a small percentage of even professional physicists may actually have the necessarily academic ability and background knowledge outside their own specialised field. Therefore, a more reasonable position might be to simply state that anybody is allowed to speculate on anything, although we reserve the right to question the ‘weight of authority of an apparently unqualified person to speculate on any paradigm-shifting new theory. As such, in 1905, any reasonable person might have rightly questioned the authority of a 26-year-old patent clerk called Albert Einstein to publish 4 papers outlining his ideas on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and the equivalence of  matter and energy. We might also want to put Einstein’s speculative ideas into some context of the time, when just a few years before, in 1900, Lord Kelvin had stated that:

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.
All that remains is more and more precise measurement."

At the time, Lord Kelvin was a renowned  mathematician,  physicist and engineer, whose weight of authority had already been firmly established based on his work on the mathematical analysis of electricity, the formulation of the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics and his general involvement in unification of physics at that time. However, despite his undoubted intellect and knowledge, both as a mathematician and physicists, he was to be proved to be very wrong in his speculative calculation of the age of the Earth and the prospects for heavier-than-air flight. In these cases, it would appear that the weight of authority of Lord Kelvin’s reputation, in isolation, was not enough to reflect the true level of certainty of the science to come.

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So, in the absence of any obviously contradicting information, it is possible that an accepted theory in the present era may also acquire an unjustified level of certainty based on the weight of authority of its supporters, which may not differ so much from Lord Kelvin’s quote above. However, in hindsight, whenever we look back into the past, we come to the realisation that virtually all accepted theories are eventually showed to have a much lower level of certainty than originally assumed at the time. From this perspective, it may not be unreasonable to assume that our present level of certainty in some theories may also be somewhat inflated when eventually viewed in retrospect from the future.

OK, but what point is this introduction really trying to make?

At one level, it might appear that only those who are both academically gifted and knowledgeable in some specialised field are qualified to develop or judge the validity of a speculative, but possibly paradigm-shifting theory. However, history suggests that this rarely, if ever, happens as Leo Tolstoy’s quote may explain:

"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."

In this context, history may suggest that radically new ideas invariably come from ‘mavericks’ outside the establishment. However, it is unclear whether the complexity and scope of modern science now leaves much room for the isolated maverick and therefore science has the right to be suspicious of the hundreds of speculative theories that are now published without an accepted level of peer review. While many of these speculative papers are simply ignored and buried beneath the next wave of speculative publications, it seems that those mavericks with some scientific credentials often come under specific attack and simply dismissed as crackpots. While, in many cases, the label might not be that far from the mark, it often seems that the rebuttal of an idea in this category is not necessarily accompanied by any obvious scientific ‘critique’ other than the fact that the proposal does not align to established thinking. However, what then often accompanies the initial rebuttal is a series of affirmation of the implied ‘crackpot’ status by people, who in all probability are not qualified to make any further comment, such that we might wish to reflect on the words of Plato:

Wise men talk because they have something to say;
fools because they have to say something

Therefore, with this thought in mind, it is suggested that we should not lose sight of all the open questions that current science seems ill-equipped to explain or simply side-steps based on some debatable philosophical interpretation. So while the following series of discussions being planned will explore the speculative ideas of a number of people, it will do so within a duty of inquiry’ of the issues that mainstream science does not appear to address, at least, in terms of my own present understanding. As always, any constructive arguments that undermine any speculation being forwarded will be welcomed.