THEORY AND EXPERIMENT IN SCIENCE

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for espousing heliocentricity, which had been proposed by Copernicus on the basis of experimental data by Tycho Brahe, because it contradicted Church dogma. In 1632, Galileo was threatened with the Iron Maiden by the Pope for doing the same thing. Galileo chose discretion over valor, and lived, but under lifelong house arrest. In the 1930’s, anyone in Russia who questioned Lysenko’s (false) genetic theories on experimental grounds was sent to the Gulag to perish. These are examples of dogma overpowering experiment with life-and-death power.

Since the Enlightenment, however, the modern scientific method has held sway in the West. Its core is that one creates theory and does experiments, and when the two clash, primacy is given to experimental data. Since both experiments and theory are fallible, both must be verified by further experimentation. The important thing is that nothing can be believed without experimental support. A famous example comes from Albert Einstein. Regarding general relativity, before Eddington’s results in 1919 on the bending of starlight were known, Einstein courageously declared that if his prediction that starlight would bend near massive objects, was not confirmed, the entire theory must be abandoned. Clearly he regarded experiment, not theory, as the arbiter.

In recent decades, however, we have witnessed some return to pre-Enlightenment attitudes toward science. In “The Trouble with Physics” (2007), the physicist Lee Smolin complained that the world’s top brains in physics were enamored of string theory to the exclusion of other opinions, despite the existence of not one iota of experimental support.

Now (2013) Richard Dawid, in “String Theory and the Scientific Method”, defends string theory and multiverses despite lack of evidence, because they are “the only available route to a unified theory” (i.e., what else can it be?), a.k.a. the no-alternatives argument; and the meta-inductive argument (successful predictions). Successful predictions make a true emotional impact on us, but sooner or later they must be substantiated by experiment or lose sway. The reviewer, George Ellis, summed it up well in describing these indefensible theories as “leaving the realm of science” (Science 342, 934, 2014).

The reason for my interest in the roots of science is that I have been embroiled for many years in a controversy in chemistry between theory and experiment. I have maintained, on the basis of purely experimental data, that many cycloadditions that are permitted by Woodward’s Rules to proceed with both new bonds forming simultaneously, nevertheless proceed with the two new bonds forming one at a time, with a diradical intermediate intervening. The Rules permit, but never compel, concert.

During a half century of papers on both sides of the issue, I frequently had manuscripts rejected by referees, not because my data or my interpretation of them were wrong, but because quantum calculations by the world’s most Eminent Chemists proved that all these cycloadditions were concerted, Q.E.D. My latest (No. 3 above in this blog site) contains 88 irrefutable examples of diradicals, which were all dismissed without discussion because they contradicted the results of the calculations.

Thus Science has returned, at least in part, to the Middle Ages. One consolation at least is that I no longer have to worry about an auto-da-fe.

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