Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Perpetual Question -- Theory vs Experiment

The last couple of posts have brought up a couple questions that I'd like to throw out there to get some commentary on. How does science move forward? Specifically, what is the relationship between theory and experiment in the advancement of science? In just the last couple posts, we have looked at two ideas about nature. I will add to the list some examples including Flat Earth ideas, the experience of Fresnel, Poisson and Argo in discovering the "Poisson Spot", the experience of Alfred Wegener related to continental drift, Galileo promoting Copernican Cosmology, and "Brane Cosmology". All these ideas have been initially dismissed outright as false or at least unscientific. All appeared to be so at the outset. Under further investigation, some showed no scientific merit, some were shown to be correct and only later was a theoretical explanation discovered, and on some the jury is still out.
  • In the case of the Poisson Spot, Fresnel's theory of light gave an unbelievable, but testable, prediction. The prediction was tested experimentally and was shown to be correct. The theory led the experiment.

  • In the case of Continental Drift, Wegener's observations required mechanisms that seemed impossible. It was only decades later that his observations were vindicated, a theoretical explanation was given, and he was shown to be correct. The observations led the theory.

  • In the case of the Flat Earth ideas, observations by various people made predictions that appear impossible. The hypothesis even gives testable predictions that appear to be verified by experiment! The ideas are still not accepted (obviously). (I have never actually done the experiment that I just referenced in the link. I'll take the guy's word for it, because it would be all-too-easy to check his experiment and refute it, so I doubt he'd give an easily falsifiable prediction. It is actually non-trivial to show why the referenced experiment is not valid. If you have a good explanation, give it in the comments.) The theory (along with a bunch of other experiments and observations) dismissed the experiment.

  • In the case of Brane Cosmology, and even String Theory or the Holographic Principle, the theories are mathematically beautiful and explain many things, but make few (if any) testable and falsifiable predictions. (I'll avoid too much discussion here, because I am stepping way outside my area of expertise among others who are vastly more familiar with the details of the theories.) Their acceptance among the scientific community is mixed due to lack of experimental evidence. The experimental uncertainty (partially) dismissed the theory. The jury is still out.

  • In the case of things like the Mpemba effect, the experimental results are mixed and the theoretical foundation is ambiguous. It does not really challenge modern scientific theory, just common sense. Its acceptance is mixed. (Mostly it is ignored.) The jury is still out.

My question is, in your view, how does/should science confidently accept or dismiss an idea about the world? Many ideas that contradict then-modern scientific understanding, or at least common sense, are at first discarded, but later shown to be correct. Many other ideas that contradict scientific understanding are discarded despite what may appear to be sound experimental verification, and then only later were the experiments shown to be invalid or improperly interpreted. Still other ideas are established based on a few experiments or theoretical predictions, and immediately accepted. There are examples of this type that have met both fates -- continued acceptance or eventual falsification.

I just want to get some views on how does/should this all play out. The scientific method is rigorous, but what other factors come into play? Comments.


  1. If you subscribe the the idea that "basic science" is simply technology development for the next century, then it really does no good to have theory without experiment or vice versa. If you can do it without understanding why or understand something you can't do, it can't be used by some future engineer to power a car, build a bridge, or predict insurance premiums for Florida or California.

  2. What a great post. In my program, aerospace engineering, we clearly value theory over experimental. My research group does UAV research and we're about the most experimental group in the dept. (and we're not nearly as experimental as the MAGICC lab at BYU).

    I really think both are needed. Sometimes one precedes the other as you pointed out. I'm not sure we should derive any significant meaning from this except that smart people make science move forward in very interesting ways.

    For me, observation from experimentation almost ALWAYS precedes the theory. For me, theory is a necessary evil (probably why I'm an engineer) and one I rather begrudgingly engage in. But I recognize the need. There are some researchers in my lab who are the opposite. They barely know a car from an airplane, but they can do theory like it's nobody's business.

    Ultimately, I think we need to be grateful that good science comes out of both mechanisms. I don't worry much about our rejection of possibilities in science mostly because, IMHO, science has a way of eventually coming to the right thing anyway (even if it takes a few decades longer than it should).

    May Truth carry the day!!

  3. Theory is a mental experiment.

    Watch: Theory vs. Model/Simulation.

  4. Radhasoami Faith View of Modus Operandi of Creation of Universe

    Yes,Universe existed before Big Bang please.

    Stephen Hawking writes in The Grand Design, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” Hawking said the Big Bang was merely the consequence of the law of gravity. In A Brief History of Time, Hawking had suggested that the idea of God or a divine being was not necessarily incompatible with a scientific understanding of the Universe.

    Although Hawking is very close to Truth yet he is not perfect in his views while discarding the role of divine being. I consider the role of eternal gravity uppermost but I strongly differ with Hawking on the role of divine being. I consider Divine Ordainment is the cause of Creation of Universe.

    Now I give Radhasoami Faith view of Creation Theory. In Sar Bachan (Poetry) composed by His Holiness Soamiji Maharaj the August Founder of Radhasoami Faith the details of creation and dissolution has been described very scientifically. It is written in Jeth Mahina (name of Hindi moth) in this Holy Book: Only He Himself (Supreme Father)and none else was there. There issued forth a great current of spirituality, love and grace (In scientific terminology we may call this current as gravitational wave). This is called His Mauj (Divine Ordainment). This was the first manifestation of Supreme Being. This Divine Ordainment brought into being three regions, viz., Agam, Alakh, and Satnam of eternal bliss. Then a current emerged with a powerful sound (this was the first Big Bang). It brought forth the creation of seven Surats or currents of various shades and colours (in scientific terminology we may call it electromagnetic waves). Here the true Jaman or coagulant was given (in scientific terminology this coagulant may be called as weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force). Surats, among themselves, brought the creation into being.

    These currents descended down further and brought the whole universe/multi verse into being i.e. black holes, galaxies etc. were born.
    I would like to add further that sound energy and gravitational force current are non polar entity and electromagnetic force is bi-polar. Hence spiritual polarization, if occurred, is occurred in the region of Sat Lok and region below to it only.


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