Does Science have Fads?

97% of climate scientists agree that global warming exists, and is most probably human-caused. On a more controversial note, string theorists vastly outnumber adherents of other approaches to quantum gravity, such as Loop Quantum Gravity.

As many who disagree with climate change or string theory would argue, the majority is not always right. Science should be concerned with truth, not merely with popularity. After all, what if scientists are merely taking part in a fad? What makes climate change any more objectively true than pet rocks?

Apparently this wikipedia’s best example of a fad.

People are susceptible to fads, after all. A style of music becomes popular, and everyone’s listening to the same sounds. A style of clothing, and everything’s wearing the same thing. So if an idea in science became popular, everyone might…write the same papers?

That right there is the problem. Scientists only succeed by creating meaningfully original work. If we don’t discover something new, we can’t publish, and as the old saying goes it’s publish or perish out there. Even if social pressure gets us working on something, if we’re going to get any actual work done there has to be enough there, at least, for us to do something different, something no-one has done before.

This doesn’t mean scientists can’t be influenced by popularity, but it means that that influence is limited by the requirements of doing meaningful, original work. In the case of climate change, climate scientists investigate the topic with so many different approaches and look at so many different areas of impact (for example, did you know rising CO2 levels make the ocean acidic?) that the whole field simply wouldn’t function if climate change wasn’t real: there’d be a contradiction, and most of the myriad projects involving it simply wouldn’t work. As I’ve talked about before, science is an interlocking system, and it’s hard to doubt one part without being forced to doubt everything else.

What about string theory? Here, the situation is a little different. There aren’t experiments testing string theory, so whether or not string theory describes the real world won’t have much effect on whether people can write string theory papers.

The existence of so many string theory papers does say something, though. The up-side of not involving experiments is that you can’t go and test something slightly different and write a paper about it. In order to be original, you really need to calculate something that nobody expected you to calculate, or notice a trend nobody expected to exist. The fact that there are so many more string theorists than loop quantum gravity theorists is in part because there are so many more interesting string theory projects than interesting loop quantum gravity projects.

In string theory, projects tend to be interesting because they unveil some new aspect of quantum field theory, the class of theories that explain the behavior of subatomic particles. Given how hard quantum field theory is, any insight is valuable, and in my experience these sorts of insights are what most string theorists are after. So while string theory’s popularity says little about whether it describes the real world, it says a lot about its ability to say interesting things about quantum field theory. And since quantum field theories do describe the real world, string theory’s continued popularity is also evidence that it continues to be useful.

Climate change and string theory aren’t fads, not exactly. They’re popular, not simply because they’re popular, but because they make important contributions and valuable to science. And as long as science continues to reward original work, that’s not about to change.

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8 thoughts on “Does Science have Fads?

  1. Wyrd Smythe

    To even call climate change a “fad” seems a bit like calling plate tectonics a fad. Or the idea of wearing clothing a fad. At some point these things become mainstream and “the way it is.”

    String theory is still speculation, and the faddish part is the focus on it to the exclusion of LQG and other theories. Funding is a zero-sum game, so that focus has an impact on research into other areas. (I’m not intending any slam towards ST here! The basic idea sounds wonderfully elegant, although I’m not sure what to make out of all the branes and different kinds of strings. Plus ST has advanced the field of mathematics a great deal, AIUI.)

    Fortunately, “Science proceeds despite scientists (and fads).” 🙂

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Honestly, I’m skeptical that the funding situation is really a good explanation of the dominance of string theory. After all, funding agencies don’t actually have a very good idea about what they’re funding, since generally they don’t have experts evaluating things. You don’t actually need to work on whatever field is trendy, you just have to sound like it, and LQG doesn’t have that much trouble sounding like string theory to non-experts (https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=100988903257246).

      My impression, again, is that the difference is really one of available projects: there’s more to do with string theory (especially, more that’s clear enough that grad students can do it), so more grad students pick up projects in it, making it more ubiquitous and continuing the cycle. And while that doesn’t tell you anything about how well it represents reality, I think it tells you a lot about whether it’s a worthwhile topic of research. But a lot of that is sociological speculation, which is admittedly not at all my field, and besides I still don’t have a good intuition of just how much deception you can pull on a funding agency. 😉

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        I see what you’re saying! I wonder if funding agencies resort to what seems popular in terms of deciding what to fund?

        (To be honest, I’m probably just channeling what people like Smolin and Woit have been writing about for a while. They have their own axes to grind, of course. I started off very enthused about ST after reading Greene’s books. Then I learned about the “landscape problem” and read Smolin’s book. Getting it all second-hand from sources with their own agenda, so — to channel Sargent Schultz — “I know nothing!”)

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  2. David Bartell

    A current fad that bugs me is using computing terminology when discussing things like brain function or quantum states. While the brain may be like a computer in some respects, it is unlike it in others – but rather than compare and contrast, people tend to just equate them. The idea that when matter falls into a black hole “information” is lost (or conserved) is really misleading. Information means what we know, not what state a bunch of particles are in. It smells like a fallacy like Schroedinger’s cat, applying tiny effects to an enormous system. Oops, there I went and said “system”.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Eh, in the context of black holes they’re using a technical definition of information. It may annoy you because it’s similar to CS terms, but it allows them to talk and exchange results more easily with Quantum Computing people (for whom it really is information in the CS sense). In any case, they do have something precise they’re talking about, they’re not merely applying an analogy, so I don’t think it’s really fair to criticize the language used.

      With brain function, it definitely depends. There are a lot of popular takes on the subject that bring in computing terms without really using them properly. On the other hand, there’s a whole discipline of Cognitive Science for whom the analogy is quite precise and who tend to specify exactly what they’re talking about. So again it varies.

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      1. David Bartell

        Fair enough. Can you point me to this technical definition? See, the media loves to glom onto anything that makes sense in a broader context, but the metaphors are often inapt.

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