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6 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Have to agree basically with Van Berg, 8 Aug 2009
This review is from: How the Laws of Physics Lie (Paperback)
Whilst one gets the distinct impression he is a bitter ex-pupil, there seems to be a few rather basic assumptions that are made in the book that are held to be "obvious":

1) For any set of phenomena there is multiple explanations all as "good" as each other. If one takes as the criteria that the predictions match experiment and also don't predict something that doesn't match experiment then this statement is clearly false. For people who claim it is true, I give this challenge, come up with a consistent theory of the four forces that predict the ALL experimental data that has been built up over the last 400 odd years. So far nobody has managed even one let alone "multiple".

2)That somehow all these different branches have no theoretical linkage. So we have physics of lasers somehow being "special" when in fact it is simply a specific case of quantum mechanics. This like claiming that Pythagoras's theorem doesn't hold because when we look at reality each triangle has a different, specific hypotenuse.

3) That open problems somehow mean there is a fundamental problem with Physics. This is not a million miles away from the religious people's critique of evolution, just there are open problems means it must be false. Just like religion, philosophical critiques of science skim round the fact that science has been spectacularly successful over the last 400 years and the other approaches have been abject failures. Philosophers in particular have either been wrong or not made any statements that could face the test of reality.

4) There is also the assumption that there is a some sinister reason certain problems aren't being tackled. The reality in most cases is a mix of that problem being very hard or irrelevent. An example is the measurement problem in quantum mechanics - it is simply hard problem to solve, quite a few very bright people have made no headway and so people work where it is possible to make progress and one will notice it is established people who work on these topics. As a side note it is interesting that Cartwright fails to deal with the very serious and genuine issues of data analysis and statistical methods in experiment design given this is apparently one of her current areas of interest.

5) The fact there are multiple explanations within a theory is somehow a sign of weakness. In fact we have two cases to deal with; either the two theories under all circumstances predict exactly the same result - in this case they are not really different explanations, the S-matrix and path integral approach in Quantum Field Theory would be an example of this - or they under circumstances they predict different results in which case an experiment can pick one vs the other.

I can't understand why philosophers find these concepts so hard. The only reason i can think of - and this is based on personal experience - is they simply aren't terribly bright.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 Feb 2013 21:37:47 GMT
Olly Buxton says:
We meet again, Danny.

There is not much in the way of detailed comment on Cartwright's book in your review. Rather, you seem to argue (a little ineffectively, if I might say so) against five straw men which are vaguely attributed to Cartwright. Does she really say any of this? It doesn't sound much like the Nancy Cartwright whose The Dappled World I read a few years ago.

I remember that being a very difficult, but very considered book.

Posted on 11 Mar 2013 23:25:39 GMT
Olly Buxton says:
Follow up - I have written a blog on the subject of Kuhn you may be interested in.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 May 2013 11:16:46 BDT
Again, you seem to have a fundamental difficulty with understanding that each theory contains the previous theory as a limit case. So in a very precise sense, physics is "progressing" towards a single goal. 600 years ago, the "physics" wasn't even logically correct let alone consistent with experiment. After Newton, we got a physics that explained day to day life with precise numerical accuracy. You'd have to go to objects the size of the sun, speeds close to the speed of light or sizes comparable to an atom to find discrepancies. Now you'd have to go to objects the density of black holes and sub-sub-sub atomic particles to find issues with the current theories.

400 yrs ago, a bit of thought and an apple could disprove the theories of the day. Today if you can find error in the Standard Model, global fame and Nobel Prize await you.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 May 2013 16:43:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 May 2013 16:43:22 BDT
Olly Buxton says:
It's funny because I happen to be reading Paul Feyerabend's seminal "Against Method" on the tube at the moment. A point he makes very clearly is precisely the idea that you articulate - "that each theory contains the previous theory as a limit case" - is fundamentally wrong. If we were so constrained, there would be no scientific progress at all:

"The idea of a method that contains firm, unchanging, and absolutely binding principles for conducting the business of science meets considerable difficulty when confronted with the results of historical research. We find, then, that there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other. It becomes evident that such violations are not accidental events, they are not results of insufficient knowledge or of inattention which might have been avoided. On the contrary, we see that they are necessary for progress. Indeed, one of the most striKng features of recent discussions in the history and philosophy of science is the realization that events and developments, such as the invention of atomism in antiquity, the Copernican Revolution, the rise of modern atomism (kinetic theory; dispersion theory; stereochemistry; quantum theory), the gradual emergence of the wave theory of light, occurred only because some thinkers either decided not to be bound by certain 'obvious' methodological rules, or because they unwittingly broke them.

"This liberal practice, I repeat, is not just a fact of the history of science. It is both reasonable and absolutely necessary for the growth of knowledge. More specifically, one can show the following: given any rule, however 'fundamental' or 'rational', there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule, but to adopt its opposite. For example, there are circumstances when it is advisable to introduce, elaborate, and defend ad hoc hypotheses, or hypotheses which contradict well-established and generally accepted experimental results, or hypotheses whose content is smaller than the content of the existing and empirically adequate alternative, or self-inconsistent hypotheses, and so on."

The idea that science is progressing towards a goal is as misconceived (and fundamentally religious, and Platonic) as the idea that homo sapiens is evolving towards a perfect form. Just as the conundrums that present us in our daily lives adjust, so do the rules of thumb we use to deal with them.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 May 2013 21:12:07 BDT
Firstly, the quote you posted is basically gibberish tarted up to sound like something clever.

The closest thing I can see to "self-inconsistent hypotheses" is the current case with General Relativity and the Standard Model, both of which are highly successful and which at a deep level seem to be incompatible with each other. Most scientists believe fundamentally there is some super-theory that includes both but that is compatible and when people try to come up with a solution, guess what the first thing they try to show is.... that it boils down to GR or SM in a limit.

As you are clearly not a moron, I have difficulty seeing why you can't grasp a very simple concept. Fundamental in science is that a theory cannot make a prediction that conflicts with experiment. As classical mechanics passed experimental muster millions of times, the first thing Relativity and QM had to show was that they would not suddenly break that agreement. Now one could either repeat all those millions of experiments to check or one could show in a limit, the new theories give the same predictions as the old ones, ie in a limit the solutions are the same. This is not a terribly difficult concept to grasp and I can only guess you have a reason for not wanting to get it.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 May 2013 22:51:00 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 May 2013 22:53:38 BDT
Olly Buxton says:
Well, I'm obliged to know you don't think I'm a moron. I don't have an agenda but I do find people who claim to have privileged access to the truth odious, whether they're Christians, scientists, marxists or capitalists.

Calling the Feyerabend quote gibberish is a bit of a giveaway: it isn't gibberish at all (if it were, I wouldn't have quoted it).

With respect I think you'd do yourself a favour if you tried to understand the argument rather than immediately dismissing it out of hand. In a way, this was precisely Feyerabend's point.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 May 2013 08:06:01 BDT
What he is saying is either trivial, ie that in trying to solve a problem people do though experiments such as what if i assume X or I assume not X, or that people try X and when it doesn't work try not X and this is somehow "not being bound by methodological rules" and dressing this up as some deep comment or critique. Or he is talking pure gibberish.

As for being dismissive, I should remind you of your tendency to claim large swatches of physics have no testable consequences and are just arbitrary, which they clearly are not. And you agenda is to try and show that scientists are just as arbitrary - yet somehow vastly more successful - as marxists or christians and trying to dress your deep ignorance as clever intellectual skepticism.
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