Friday, August 12, 2005

Are science and common sense compatible?

John Horgan has an interesting op-ed in the NYT today arguing that with the rise of counterintuitive theories such quantum mechanics and relativity, scientists have come to regard common sense as anti-scientific:

Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem for a theory, is a measure of its profundity; hence the appeal, perhaps, of dubious propositions like multiple-personality disorders and multiple-universe theories. The other, even more insidious implication is that only scientists are really qualified to judge the work of other scientists.

I agree. But he goes a bit overboard in denouncing any theory that can't be tested experimentally as innately preposterous, focusing on string theory and the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics:

My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

Horgan is a smart fellow, but here he seems to be taking the cliched role of the naysayer whom history eventually proves wrong. Can we really say definitively that no genuine insight exists amid the faddishness and flux of various speculative theories, in physics or any other branch of science? A hundred years from now, maybe 99 percent of the theories du jour will no longer be with us. But I suspect we need that 99 percent to churn up the 1 percent that emerges as the new scientific consensus.

The other odd thing about this piece is that it makes no mention of Intelligent Design, which is of course the one unprovable theory everyone's talking about right now.