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End-of-Science Meme Infects Edge Web Site! Again!


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In 1997 the science agent and impresario John Brockman orchestrated a debate about my book The End of Science on his website, Edge.org, a forum where eggheads—let’s call them Edgeheads–chitchat about science-related stuff. I summarized my argument that pure science is bumping up against fundamental limits and hence yielding diminishing returns; science will probably never again yield insights into nature as profound as quantum mechanics and relativity, the Big Bang, natural selection and genetics.

Scientists on Edge, a popular website, are reluctantly beginning to acknowledge that science is bumping up against limits.

As evidence that scientists were hitting the wall, I pointed out the proliferation of what I called “ironic science,” highly speculative ideas—notably string theory, which some proponents called a “theory of everything”–that can never be empirically confirmed.

Edgeheads politely swatted away my meme. “I believe [Horgan] is wrong,” physicist Lee Smolin wrote, because science’s picture of reality is “full of holes, unanswered fundamental questions and, in some cases, basic inconsistencies” that will surely be resolved. Smolin insisted that string theory, contrary to my disparagement of it as science fiction with equations, offers “a growing list of experimental predictions.” Brockman, who’s a funny guy, called the debate “The End of Horgan?

Some Edgeheads have belatedly, tentatively, slipped a foot onto the end-of-science bandwagon. Every year since 1998, shortly after New Year’s Day Brockman has posted Edgeheads’ reactions to a Big Question. Brockman just published more than 170 answers to this year’s question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Physicist Martin Rees, former head of England’s Royal Society, suggests jettisoning the idea that “We’ll Never Hit Barriers To Scientific Understanding.” Although he loads his little essay with caveats, Rees writes: “We humans haven’t changed much since our remote ancestors roamed the African savannah. Our brains evolved to cope with the human-scale environment. So it is surely remarkable that we can make sense of phenomena that confound everyday intuition: in particular, the minuscule atoms we’re made of, and the vast cosmos that surrounds us. Nonetheless—and here I’m sticking my neck out—maybe some aspects of reality are intrinsically beyond us, in that their comprehension would require some post-human intellect—just as Euclidean geometry is beyond non-human primates.”

Yeah, like I said in 1997, we face cognitive limits, because “we are animals, designed by natural selection not for discovering deep truths of nature but for breeding.”

Citing Rees, physicist Peter Woit says on his blog “Not Even Wrong” that some Edgeheads “sound like John Horgan, announcing we’re reaching the limits of science.” Indeed, Woit (a long-time string-basher) and several other physicists, including Marcelo Gleiser, Frank Tipler and Paul Steinhardt, express some of the same frustration with particle physics and cosmology that I did back 17 years ago. Steinhardt’s essay is especially noteworthy, because he is one of the inventors of inflation, a popular theory of cosmic creation.

Steinhardt complains that string theory and inflation have devolved into a “theory of anything,” because they “predict” not only what we observe in our universe but also every other kind of conceivable universe. Unlike other prominent physicists (see for example the Edge essay by Sean Carroll, who wants to retire “falsifiability”), Steinhardt realizes that a theory that predicts everything does not really predict anything.

“Science is useful insofar as it explains and predicts why things are the way they are and not some other way,” Steinhardt writes. “The worth of a scientific theory is gauged by the number of do-or-die experimental tests it passes. A Theory of Anything is useless because it does not rule out any possibility and worthless because it submits to no do-or-die tests.”

Yeah! Like I said!

This is the second year in a row that the end-of-science meme has popped up in the responses to Brockman’s annual question. Last year physicist Lawrence Krauss, among others, fretted over “new limits looming on our ultimate ability to probe nature.”

Back in 1997, Lee Smolin chastised me for my pessimism. But facing the limits of science represents not pessimism but realism.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 10:13 am 01/17/2014

    I am not a scientist so I’d rather not try to refute your “theory of anything” disparagement of (especially) the theory of inflation. To say that inflation isn’t useful in studying this particular universe goes against everything I’ve read (as an amateur reader of science books). I really hope someone more qualified shows up on this forum to take you on regarding this question.

    BTW, I like your blog and enjoy reading it, even though I often suspect you are wrong in your conclusions.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 10:40 am 01/17/2014

    Science, life, and everything will “surely be resolved” since it is constantly running out of energy as it spreads out.
    “No strings attached”.
    Resistance is futile in the end.
    It all is merely whiling away the relative time left.
    Important is what good you do with the means you have, and do as little harm as you can while not allowing yourself to be harmed either.

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  3. 3. rloldershaw 11:14 am 01/17/2014

    I agree with most of what is claimed by Dr. Horgan, except for one big thing.

    It is still possible that we are largely unaware of fundamental principles of nature that are waiting to be recognized. These new principles for the structure and dynamics of nature would have the potential to unify the current disarray of weakly interrelated theories in physics. A new paradigm might do for physics what Darwin’s principles of evolution did for the whole field of biology – provide a unifying conceptual framework for resolving the enigmas and inconsistencies of the old paradigm.

    The potential for major leaps forward in science should not be completely discounted.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff2 11:37 am 01/17/2014

    “Science is useful insofar as it explains and predicts why things are the way they are and not some other way,” Steinhardt writes…..

    I don’t think most people on the street look to science to predict the mechanics of life, they look to it to explain the magic of life.

    Unfortunately for those people, their life, the Universe, and ourselves are merely driven by mechanics. I believe energy and time are also driven by mechanics. (man is that sticking my neck out, or what?)

    Horgan is right. We do face cognitive limits because the evolutionary pressure is to reproduce. And everything that we ‘do’ perceive is yet in context of that imperative for reproduction (immortality). So we are lucky to see outside the cage at all. When we do get glimpses, we cannot rely on our understanding of what’s happening outside in any other terms than ourselves. Which is very limited.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to mind-meld John Horgan and Stephen Hawking? Ok, David Cummings, come join the party!

    I think the term ‘theory of everything’ was a mistake. It’s kind of lazy language. They should have coined a more specific term to describe a theory that ties the seeming discrepancies of our theories together. Isn’t it kind of like throwing on a coat of paint to cover up construction mistakes?

    But then, science does have many valuable things to offer. Practical things. Feeding people, educating people, healing people. Providing energy, helping the human race thrive and survive. Get us off this planet and into the cosmos.

    Perhaps scientists are not hitting a wall. ‘Crash’ ! That would be too obvious. Perhaps it’s more like reaching the end of a tether. Call it a bungee cord. Maybe we can keep stretching it little by little… Until ‘snap’ or ‘boing’ ! Either way is fruitless after a point.

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  5. 5. Spironis 12:01 pm 01/17/2014

    that can never be empirically confirmed” Only falsification matters. 1) All swans are white. 2) Australia. 3) A theory is ended.

    Quantum gravitation demands the Equivalence Principle (EP)and vacuum symmetries thereupon contingent. Axiomatic systems cannot self-falsify. Euclid is externally dinged by cartography. Any observed and reproducible EP violation falsifies quantum gravitation – and it must occur external to physics. No biggie. Green’s function removes geometric chirality from physics (all terms are squared, chiral mirror images are uncreated).

    Do opposite shoes violate the EP? Do visually and chemically identical, single crystal left-handed versus right-handed alpha-quartz marbles end quantum gravitation? 90 days in a bench top geometric Eötvös experiment ends 40 years of whining. Stop whining validation, start doing falsification.

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  6. 6. rshoff2 2:24 pm 01/17/2014

    “But then, science does have many valuable things to offer. Practical things. Feeding people, educating people, healing people. Providing energy, helping the human race thrive and survive. Get us off this planet and into the cosmos.”

    Okay John Horgan, So those examples of practical applications of science I mentioned in my previous comment contribute to the survival of the human race. So there is a place for evolution to nurture our ability to ‘do science’ to contribute to our long term survival as a special providing that it doesn’t get in the way of reproduction.

    Science, Civilization, and Reproduction.

    Or is it Reproduction, Civilization, Science?

    Link to this
  7. 7. rshoff2 2:25 pm 01/17/2014

    … as a species providing…

    Darned Spell-Uncheck.

    Link to this
  8. 8. curiouswavefunction 5:07 pm 01/17/2014

    I am once again disappointed with John Horgan’s narrow definition of “science”, and that too primarily based on one scientist’s opinion. The end of fundamental physics does not mean the end of all science because there are more things in science than fundamental physics.

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  9. 9. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 5:56 pm 01/17/2014

    curiouswavefunction, thanks for stopping by. I wholeheartedly agree that “there are more things in science than fundamental physics.” If you read my 1997 Edge essay, or the book it summarizes, you’ll see that I critique not just physics but also fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary biology and chaoplexity (my term for chaos and its re-branded successor complexity).

    Link to this
  10. 10. rloldershaw 6:28 pm 01/17/2014

    But John, we have been through this idea and its demise periodically throughout the history of science. It’s like the Phoenix, or the cat that always comes back.

    In 1900 physicists said physics was just about over – just a few details to fill in. Then came special and general relativity, atoms and quantum mechanics.

    In 1980 Hawking said physicists were going to have to look for new jobs because physics was nearly complete.
    I don’t think so!

    Same thing every time. Bold new discoveries disprove those who claim that we have hit a wall.

    Temporarily theoretical physics is bogged down in la-la land, but this will not last. If you listen carefully you can hear the drumbeat of revolution in the distance.

    Link to this
  11. 11. rshoff2 9:47 pm 01/17/2014

    Everything cannot be based on ‘falsification’. There must be posits to falsify!

    Link to this
  12. 12. rloldershaw 10:29 pm 01/17/2014

    Science is based on testability.

    We require that theories generate definitive predictions by which they can be tested.

    That is the crux of the matter.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Bill_Crofut 9:03 am 01/18/2014

    Dr. Horgan,

    Allow me the opportunity to usurp the position of chief egghead.

    Re: “…science will probably never again yield insights into nature as profound as…the Big Bang, natural selection…”

    It’s my sincere hope that future scientists will be insightful enough to recognize the questionable value of at least those proposals.

    Link to this
  14. 14. iPractice 10:32 am 01/18/2014

    Although I am a Mathematician, I would like to share my opinion on this subject. I believe in one thing about science which is: “there is always room for more!”. There are many things about science that still need to be explored. Moore’s law is an evident example of advancement world is making in science. So, we must stay hopeful and wait for another astonishing theory!

    Sana Tayyab
    http://www.ipracticemath.com/

    Link to this
  15. 15. rloldershaw 11:19 am 01/18/2014

    Until we can fully explain the Benford/Newcomb Law which demonstrates that scale-free (and base invariant) power laws are ubiquitous in nature, we can be fairly sure that very big ideas remain to be discovered.

    Wikipedia offers a simple intro to the Law and a good set of more sophisticated references.

    Link to this
  16. 16. rshoff2 2:54 pm 01/18/2014

    rloldershaw, thanks for the explanation of scientific methodology. Perhaps language gets in the way. But before theories can be tested, they must be theories. You cannot test non-existent ideas.

    So something must be proposed before it can be tested agains.

    Philosophically, I see this is probably a key area of disagreement between science and theology. And scientists only stumble when they declare that the only real science it to disprove something.

    Simply lacking the capacity to demonstrate something is enough to determine it does not merit scientific scrutiny.

    So, therefore, I stand firm. Something must be demonstrated to possibly exist before it can be tested against. Surviving that transaction is what makes a hypothesis a theory and a theory a fact. Before it can be demonstrated to possibly exist, we must be able to conceive of it. To be able to conceive of it, we must use our human brain to leverage any input we receive from our senses. Our human brain is a physical tool molded with limited purpose in mind. Reproduction, survival.

    Take religion as an example. Theologians (or their followers) want you to prove them wrong. Which in my mind is backward. They must prove themselves right, or at least demonstrate that the concept is worthy of scientific review. In other words, “generate definitive predictions ” as you say.

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  17. 17. Andrei Kirilyuk 4:02 pm 01/20/2014

    This is all true about the tendency, including former strong believers in never-ending science (unofficial opinions of professional scientists are yet much more impressive – and massive!).

    However, irrespective of one’s personal preferences, there is one logically strange thing with science ending around its current state. It is strange that science definitely stops progressing well below the level of the theory of (reasonably) everything (where “everything” may have some obvious quantitative, e.g. spatial, but not disciplinary limits). Because a quasi-complete (and inevitably unified) “theory of everything” (up to let’s say “strongly hidden realities”) is precisely the natural, logically inevitable point and reason of the true end of (this kind of) science. If this not the case and the “officially recognised” science “ends” well before its natural local completeness (starting already from quite elementary objects), it means that something is seriously wrong with this entire kind of knowledge, even there where it is considered to be a great success of objective knowledge and understanding of reality. It then looks rather as a kind of sophisticated but superficial, intellectually trivial description of purely empirical discoveries, without any genuine, quasi-complete understanding. By a strange coincidence, it is close to the essence of the dominating “positivistic” definition of science…

    So, maybe we deal today with the real end of just that, positivistic kind of science, showing its own fundamental deficiency with respect to genuine, really complete and objective kind of science, which is concretely REALISABLE (satisfying all the criteria) and will also arrive at its local end, but only in the form of the theory of (practically) everything?

    Further details at https://sites.google.com/site/unifiedcomplexity/ .

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  18. 18. ThatsJustDandy 7:39 pm 01/21/2014

    Andrei, perhaps the proverbial wall science is running into is due to the inordinate amount of baggage from an abundance of mistakes made and institutionalized. Many poorly proven ideas may have lead science to these dead-ends. When building a family tree for example, one wrong choice of an ancestor similarly leads you to a dead-end.

    Where these mistakes are made, sometimes after a lifetime of research, one must be able to admit that the path is a dead-end and their ideas were wrong. That’s excruciatingly difficult and painful, I’m sure.

    Secondly, I wonder if there are many scientists that absorb the facts and figures from school without themselves being interested in applying their knowledge. In other words, just because I learned in school about the ‘red’ shift, doesn’t make it so (I’m not really questioning this, it’s just an example). Scientists are people and people often behave like lemmings that jump on a bandwagon and continually repeat what others tell them. At the same time each scientist must accept that their predecessors where correct to an extent. Otherwise they would have to re-create the wheel generation after generation.

    This problem is only amplified by capitalistic interest (yes, I’m a capitalist, but also a realist -maybe). eg., the energy industry, pharmaceutical industry, medical industry, I’m sure even highly respected places such as CERN.

    I’m sure this is all more applicable and interesting discussed amongst the scientific elite, however, may I point out that out of the mouths of babes can come honesty and truth.

    So hopefully, everyone as a human with a human brain and a little interest can contribute (not lead, define, facilitate, arbitrate, etc) to honest science. If the human scientist bother to listen and reflect, that is.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have tremendous respect for those that dedicate their lives to knowledge. Tremendous. But that knowledge, I fear, is as you mentioned: “a kind of sophisticated but superficial, intellectually trivial description of purely empirical discoveries, without any genuine, quasi-complete understanding.”

    btw, I’m reviewing your website in hopes I can understand a little and learn. Thank you for putting your ideas out there!

    Link to this
  19. 19. rshoff2 7:42 pm 01/21/2014

    Sorry Andrei, that last comment was made by me, I just logged-in incorrectly! Please don’t read anything into the name….

    Link to this
  20. 20. Andrei Kirilyuk 8:21 am 01/22/2014

    Thank you too, rshoff2, for your interest in science in general and my results in particular.

    In sum, one can say that today (exact) science has completely lost its main, distinctive property of objectivity, which used to make it so different (at least since Galileo and Newton) with respect to other, more subjective, “religious” and “artistic” kinds of knowledge. Modern (purely subjectively) “leading” scientists would talk in terms of “my model”, “your model”, “his model” (implying actually “my, your, his career, income, celebrity”), whereas it’s the objectively least contradictory (including most unified) model and explanation that should win, quickly and unambiguously, irrespective of its authorship and “affiliation”. It is supposed to be ensured by mathematics and general logic, but it’s still people who make judgments, and today their subjective, egoistic interests win absolutely, irrespective of any logic and math, which are not really analysed and often are simply ignored.

    And the “general public”, even “interested in science”, is actually forced to pay infinitely for this corruption (including CERN super-expensive but misleading and vain exercises, along with many others), whereas unsolved and urgent problems only accumulate. Such situation evokes, by the way, the underlying more general problem: why do we need a kind of “advanced knowledge”, which even in principle is truly accessible (can ever be really understood, attract and induce progress) to ridiculously (and ever more) narrow circles of self-chosen “sages”, without any link to real, fundamental or practical, problem solution? Should not the fundamental science enterprise as such serve the real, well-specified progress of the entire humanity and at least every its “educated” member, par excellence?

    Therefore, we deal today not with that somewhat sad, but generally golden “end of science” due to its huge, now saturated previous successes, as assumed by John Horgan, but with the true CRISIS in science (with the following revolution!), including the “saturation” part, but implying also huge deficiencies, to be completed on the way towards the fundamentally saturated, objective end of the truly objective science (if ever there can be any), the real theory of everything (everything known empirically at the current level, but in all fields of knowledge, not only in physics). This “true end of science” should also be only relative, but its further extension will be possible only by way of qualitatively new empirical discoveries of some “strongly hidden” realities, beyond that “apparently sufficient”, “natural” set of today’s observable entities (as opposed to overflowing postmodern fantasies artificially imposing arbitrary new entities only in order to hide the glaring inconsistencies of the glorified but superficial and intrinsically blind positivism).

    See also http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.4562 .

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  21. 21. David Brown 8:28 am 01/24/2014

    “… highly speculative ideas—notably string theory …”
    Google “space roar dark energy”. Milgrom is the Kepler of contemporary cosmology — fact, not opinion. Google “milgrom weizmann institute”.
    What is measurement and why does it exist? Measurement might be the natural process that separates the boundary of the multiverse from the interior of the multiverse. Measurement might exist because there is a 26-dimensional model for bosonic string theory. What might be the empirical predictions of string theory? Wolfram suggested that nature has a model consisting of 4 or 5 simple rules that define a finite automaton — if Wolfram’s idea is correct then string theory might be the intermediary between the automaton and the automaton’s predictions. Mathematical considerations indicate that some form of string theory is nature’s way of unifying quantum field theory and general relativity theory. There might be 3 basic possibilities for nature’s fundamental model: (1) string theory with the infinite nature hypothesis, implying the string landscape, superpartners, and eternal cosmological inflation; (2) string theory with the finite nature hypothesis, implying the Fernández-Rañada-Milgrom effect, the Space Roar Profile Prediction, and the existence of a modified Standard Model with precisely 64 fundamental particles; or (3) string theory replaced by a much more complicated generalization of string theory, implying the existence of dark energy stars or other unknown phenomena.

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