Guest essay by Eric Worrall
According to theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, impaired methodology and groupthink is retarding the discovery of new physics.
The present phase of stagnation in the foundations of physics is not normal
Nothing is moving in the foundations of physics. One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.
Some have called it a crisis. But I don’t think “crisis” describes the current situation well: Crisis is so optimistic. It raises the impression that theorists realized the error of their ways, that change is on the way, that they are waking up now and will abandon their flawed methodology. But I see no awakening. The self-reflection in the community is zero, zilch, nada, nichts, null. They just keep doing what they’ve been doing for 40 years, blathering about naturalness and multiversesand shifting their “predictions,” once again, to the next larger particle collider.
I don’t take this advice out of nowhere. If you look at the history of physics, it was working on the hard mathematical problems that led to breakthroughs. If you look at the sociology of science, bad incentives create substantial inefficiencies. If you look at the psychology of science, no one likes change.
Developing new methodologies is harder than inventing new particles in the dozens, which is why they don’t like to hear my conclusions. Any change will reduce the paper output, and they don’t want this. It’s not institutional pressure that creates this resistance, it’s that scientists themselves don’t want to move their butts.
How long can they go on with this, you ask? How long can they keep on spinning theory-tales?
I am afraid there is nothing that can stop them. They review each other’s papers. They review each other’s grant proposals. And they constantly tell each other that what they are doing is good science. Why should they stop? For them, all is going well. They hold conferences, they publish papers, they discuss their great new ideas. From the inside, it looks like business as usual, just that nothing comes out of it.
This is not a problem that will go away by itself.
The suggestion of a tremendous, pointless waste of effort, producing academic papers and good careers but very little advance, seems somehow familiar.
As Willis pointed out in his post The Picasso Problem, for decades there has been no real advance in climate science. Fundamental problems, answers to basic questions such as “how much does the world warm if you add CO2” are no closer to resolution today than they were in the 1980s.
Why is climate science stagnating? One thing we have seen over the years, in Climate Science nobody ever loses. As long as your estimated climate sensitivity is above 1.5C and not too much higher than 4.5C, your estimate will be accepted by the community as reasonable. If your sensitivity estimate is less than 1.5C, you’re a denier. If you make a truly ridiculous claim, such as predicting an ice free Arctic in the next couple of years, you might attract a pithy comment from Gavin Schmidt. But overall everyone’s career is safe, providing you churn out lots of papers which conform to the community view of what your results should be. There is no sense of urgency, no sense of concern, that the field of climate science is not advancing.
Similarly in Physics, according to Lee Smolin and now to Sabine Hossenfelder, your career is fine as long as your research proposal falls within the parameters of what everyone else thinks it should be.
If you want to ask uncomfortable questions like “Since the observable Universe is relativistic, why is most string theory based on the assumption that space and time are immutable?“, you may have trouble getting your grant proposal approved, because your grant proposal will be reviewed by scientists who built their careers writing papers based on flawed assumptions which you want to question.
The point is the malaise we have seen in the mainstream climate community is not limited to climate science, it is far more widespread. From rampant scientific fraud in the medical community, to stagnation in the climate science and physics communities, career scientists appear to be prioritising safety and job security ahead of progress. And nobody seems to have a solution for how to fix this problem.