An Elegant Theory Is In Trouble

The cover of the May 2014 issue of Scientific American is stark. A simple question, “A Crisis in Physics?” While quantum theory and supersymmetry are both well outside my knowledge set, there is an interesting point within the article. Honest scientists do not try make the data fit their theory.sciam cover 2014 may

Supersymmetry has been a promising theory for about 45 years. It explains a great deal about the deep nature of the universe. The crisis arises because, scientists have not yet found the necessary “super-partners” for the stew of elemental particles that quantum theory provides and which Supersymmetry largely explains.

How do physicists behave in the face of this?

They look for more information. They design new experiments. They revisit the assumptions built in to their theories. Maybe they discard their theory.

They do not assume the theory is right and reality is wrong. That would not be the scientific way. As the article points out, “Particle theorists do admit, however, that the idea of natural supersymmetry is already in trouble and is headed for the dustbin of history unless superpartners are discovered soon.”

Clearly “settled science” does not exist in this realm. One wonders if it exists in any realm.

Throughout history people with an interest in a certain science being true have deemed certain things to be immutable.

In the early 1600’s, the Roman Inquisition determined that any theory of the universe that was not earth-centric was contrary to scripture and therefore wrong. A major Oops for Galileo and Giordano Bruno.

The church apologized to Galileo in 1992 but I can find no apology to Bruno even though his execution rested on essentially the same theory. It would seem that ideological driven beliefs are harder to dispose of than scientifically derived beliefs.

With the outcome of the famous Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887, the “luminescent ether” theory for transmission of light disappeared, never to return. Once it was set aside, Einstein’s relativity theories explained the observations in provable ways.

While science seems to be the leader in theories, they are not the exclusive provider of theories. It will be wise for you to challenge many others.

Almost all economic theories are incomplete or wrong. Like Newtonian physics, once thought to complete and final, they only apply in certain narrow circumstances.

Many finance theories are in the same class of rightness. Beware of Modern Portfolio Theory, the Efficient Market Hypothesis and most of the ways financial information is created and analyzed.

How about child-rearing. Dr. Spock was once a saint, now not so much.

Everything is mostly unknown. There is vastly too much information to assess. We tend to create summaries of the high points and ignore the details. Prejudice for example. Perhaps an icon is a better description.

In either case, they are life simplifying assumptions about reality. In every case, at the time of creation, they represented a reasonable idea of reality. The better ones last longer and eventually become absolutes. Unchallengeable. Like the Catholic Church’s idea that Earth must be the center of the universe.

The risk to us is that we no longer remember the creation context for the icon and we cannot automatically say, “No longer relevant.”

Life is too complicated to ignore summaries, but it is wise to attribute them less than 100% credibility.

In mathematics there is an idea that says there is always more than one way to describe a given dataset. Life is like that too. Be a little skeptical of settled ideas. Be a little more aware. Look for options.  Trust, but if it matters, verify.

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Contact: don@moneyfyi.com  |  Follow Twitter   @DonShaughnessy

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

One Comment on “An Elegant Theory Is In Trouble

  1. Ah yes, my friend. How our theories are re-arranged when they bump up against reality–whether we realize it or not. The key is, to recognize and appreciate reality. No small feat.

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