This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere…

23 September 2011


The Further Pleasures of Model Drift Revealed

In the Emergence of Novel Anomalies

More than a year ago in The Pleasures of Model Drift I discussed how the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe constituted an anomaly in contemporary models of cosmology. Predictably, attempts have been made the tamper with the existing model to accommodate this accelerating expansion, but these attempts are largely dissatisfying. In Kuhnian philosophy of science, this is the first stage of departure from “normal science,” and “model drift” is followed by “model crisis,” “model revolution,” and “paradigm change.” After the paradigm shift, a new era of normal science begins, and the process repeats itself.

Since I wrote the above-mentioned post, a couple of new anomalies have emerged that are of great interest. Just yesterday it was reported that CERN researchers had publicized data that suggests some subatomic particles may have traveled faster than the speed of light (cf. Speed-of-light results under scrutiny at Cern). Just prior to that, there was Dwarf galaxies suggest dark matter theory may be wrong, in which it was announced that the formation of dwarf galaxies may defy the cosmological standard model as it exists today.

Now, these interesting anomalies could go somewhere, or they could go absolutely nowhere. We don’t know yet. There isn’t yet enough data, independently arrived at, and it hasn’t yet be subject to sufficient scrutiny to determine whether or not these are the true and verifiable deliverances of the natural world, or whether they are, on the contrary, artifacts of the instruments or the methodology of experimentation. These latter scenarios are entirely possible, as earlier anomalies have been shown to be flukes. But they can’t be dismissed out of hand. They may be shown to be flukes, but they must be shown; we cannot simply decide that the cosmological standard model is just fine as it is.

However, it ought to be pointed out that the cosmological standard model is quite young, in relative historical terms. We sometimes lose sight of that, because of the breadth of its explanatory power and the rapidity at which revisions have been absorbed into the model and improved it in the process. The Ptolemaic cosmological model served Western civilization for a thousand years; the cosmological standard model has not even been in place for a hundred years, even by the most charitable estimate of its beginnings.

The emergence of the Cosmological Standard Model also coincides with the emergence of what has been called “Big Science” — large research projects administered by universities, staffed with professors, and funded by government grants. This has resulted a systematic application of the most advanced technology to scientific problems. It is to be expected that the higher energies continuously being employed in high energy physics will result in the emergence of profound anomalies, but some researchers seem to be genuinely surprised that things have not quite gone as planned with the gradual and seamless revelation of the truth of the subatomic world as well as the world of cosmological times and distances.

The date at which the cosmological standard model begins is an interesting question that points to important presuppositions. Are we to date it from Einstein, or from the advent of quantum theory, or from the emergence of the standard model in particle physics, or from some more recent date of scientific synthesis? The question is not irrelevant. For those within the community, developments that appear to be epochal revolutions appear to outsiders as subtle shifts in theoretical models that can only be understood by initiates. There is a real theoretical question here at stake as to what constitutes gradualism and what constitutes a theoretical revolution.

This is important because it speaks to the role of uniformitarianism in science. In several recent posts in which I have discussed the philosophical presuppositions of science, I always mention uniformitarianism, but uniformitarianism, while it still has some normative role to play in science, has been under siege both in terms of theory and practice.

On the theoretical side, there is the great interest in revolutionary science that has emerged since the publication of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence that this book has had on the philosophy and history of science. In fact, its influence as been such that it may have changed the practice of science itself by changing the philosophical presuppositions of science. This would be an interesting line of research that I will not pursue at present.

On the side of scientific practice, the emergence of punctuated equilibrium in paleontology has also had a profound influence that has reverberated far beyond the bones of dinosaurs and fossils of trilobites. S. J. Gould, who with Niles Eldridge, was a pioneer of punctuated equilibrium, wrote an early essay carefully parsing four different senses of uniformitarianism. I have been meaning to get a copy of this essay in order to study is carefully (“Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?”), but I haven’t done this yet.

Uniformitarianism, of course, was disproportionately influential and geology and related sciences, because it was the basis of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and Lyell was a major influence on Darwin in turn. Darwin’s gradualism is an expression of uniformitarianism, and this is one reason that punctuated equilibrium made such a splash when it was first proposed. It looked like a revolutionary development in evolutionary systematics. Was it? Or was it a minor adjustment in the overall model of evolution as laid down by Darwin, so that we can say that evolution since 1859 has been “normal science,” and at no point interrupted by a revolutionary development?

It could similarly be argued that physics has been “normal science” since Einstein, or it could be plausibly argued that the discipline has been rocked by one revolution after another.

Darwin and Einstein both perfectly exemplify several important features of science that stand out in particularly sharp outline because of the revolutionary influence of their own work. Both were aware of the revolutionary character of their work and downplayed it in order to minimize the challenge to the normal science of their day. I discussed this in Radical Theories, Modest formulations.

Darwin and Einstein also both exemplify something that has almost become extinct. In a couple of posts I made a distinction between The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. Civilizations are the context in which science is pursued, and so there is a heroic conception of science and an iterative conception of science. Darwin and Einstein perfectly exemplify the heroic conception of science — working alone, essentially isolated from the larger scientific community, because their work was so radically different than that which preceded it, but managing despite this isolation to complete a theoretical masterpiece that would transform human thought.

In the past, before the industrial revolution, even “normal science” was practiced as heroic science, and it is a credit to Western history that many of the greatest men of European history have been scientists. Even those without any knowledge of the history of science can name Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, among others.

Today, almost all science is practiced according to the iterative conception of science. And a great deal is at stake: millions of dollars, thousands of scientists, hundreds of universities, scores of nation-states. It is no wonder that people think twice before presenting theories or data that contravene this institution (or, rather, institutions). Foucault once wrote that physicians are the strategists of life and death, and that is why they play the role that they do in contemporary life. We could also say that scientists are the strategists of the life and death of industrial-technological civilization…

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere…”

  1. djmarsay said

    Ideally, science would select the best from between a wide variety of models. But in Physics, for example, it is relatively easy to find out the standard model and to propose variations, but hard to find out what the key experiments were in sufficient detail to be able to propose radically different models. Hence the naturally tendency to gradualism.

    In some areas the web is helping, but progress seems slow. From a theoretical viewpoint there is no real reason to suppose that Physics has reached such a mature state that a radically new experiment might not throw up an anomaly.(Fingers crossed.)

    Uniformitarianism is related to Bayesian practice, which tends to go further and to assume that probability distributions are stable. Some have conjectured that this belief is behind the paradoxes (i.e. anomalies) in quantum mechanics. They have been around a long time without leading to a crisis or revolution. I blog on this.

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