More heat than light

Another week, another row about particle-physics methodology involving the field's latest engagingly controversialist internal critic -- older readers may feel a pang of deja vu from the "Not Even Wrong" years. But this time, the maelstrom has somehow escaped Twitter and been platformed in Guardian Science.

I feel a pang of guilt about criticising this article. After all, as scientists we are meant to question ourselves constantly -- the Royal Society, with a decent claim to being the leading grouping of natural philosophers as scientific method established itself in the mid 1600s, after all adopted a Latinised "Take nobody's word for it" as a motto. And within the field, I'd be lying if I claimed never to have felt frustration at perceived timidity and herd instinct. There's also a good practical reason not to comment, since that's probably what is hoped for, all publicity being good publicity when you have wares to promote.

But this really is a terrible piece, and on the whole I think better to engage than let such things slide and enter public consciousness unopposed. It starts with quirkily hypothesised portmanteau animals and the cunning plan of an invented group of zoologists to travel the world in search for them -- then asserts that this is what particle physicists, or at least beyond-Standard-Model (BSM) theoretical physicists do with their days. Experimentalists don't get let off easy: we are apparently slack-jawed rubes, so uneducated or uncritical about physics that we hang on every theorist's word. I get the feeling Sabine has not tried selling any theories to a CERN experimentalist audience recently.

This is deeply disingenuous stuff. First off, it's a gross mischaracterisation of the model-building process. Even as a non-expert, I know that the majority of models are proposed not just willy-nilly, but to solve a perceived problem -- or ideally, more than one. Where most of us differ from Sabine's value system is in what we consider an above-threshold modelling problem. She has asserted many times that the Standard Model can accommodate everything that has been observed, which is not true: neutrino masses require a mechanism not established in the SM, cosmological matter-antimatter asymmetry requires a mechanism of CP violation far stronger than achievable in the SM quark sector, and so-on. These seem fairly unambiguous areas where new mechanics are needed, and I've not even mentioned her preferred touchstone of dark-matter particle vs. MOND.

But most of us also take seriously, though perhaps not as seriously, vaguer questions of model stability (the hierarchy problems) and of why our model contains the components it does in the form it does. If we should take nobody's word for it, we should also be sceptical of fringe calls to just give up and accept the world as it seems to be. It is an entirely reasonable scientific endeavour to try and understand why things are the way they are. To deny that this is rational requires either a particularly naive take on philosophy of science, or bad faith. Just because the likes of the anthropic principle (things are the way they are because we're here to see it) have some intellectual merit doesn't mean that fundamental scientists must Eeyorishly resign ourselves to not even trying.

Most "organising" theories that might solve big conundrums of this sort -- ranging from more technical data-model discrepancies to the borderline-philosophical -- have consequences that could potentially be measured, and so we should search for them and cut away the models that fail to appear. And, to give us some credit, some such organising principles have borne fruit before, in the forms of the W, Z, and Higgs bosons, and various exotic hadrons. This is a long way from hypothesising acontextual flying cave-worms: it's more like -- to extend an analogy in a field I know as little of as Sabine does -- observing several separate evolutionary responses to selection pressures, hypothesising that they could interact interestingly, and proposing to look for them in places with the appropriate conditions. Maybe that's the sort of thing zoologists should be funding, maybe it's not, but it's not a category error to consider it.

This brings me to the final, and I think most offensive, aspect of the article, which is the argument that we either pursue these hypothetical hints of organising principles through clueless herd instinct or through rampant careerism. And the reason this annoys me so much is that there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth here. I think everyone in the field has at some point encountered a physicist who can't explain why they're interested in what they're doing, but it's what the group or their PI is interested in, or because they just like the process, or because it's an area publishing lots of papers and they'd like to ride that bandwagon (cf. the absolutely correct criticism of LHC 3sigma-anomaly chasing). Pin the blame for that on our intrumentalised version of research-performance measurement, a superheated academic job market (guess what, folks want a job in a stimulating area they spent their intellectually formative years mastering), and the raging bin-fire that is the rentierist academic publication business. By overextending this reasonable criticism to the sort of gasp-inspiring cartoon that gets one a Guardian splash, the whole argument jumps the shark and we learn nothing.

But, by-and-by, most of us know about this problem. Most research-active academics are trying to find areas where they can do something impactful, not just be a cog in the machinery... and actually, proposing or searching for unmotivated exotic new particles is not a rational bet. I've seen properly cynical, unmotivated models, and no-one outside the proposer's group works on them or pays the blindest bit of attention. Blunderbuss criticism in a very public forum also risks destabilising institutional support for the whole field. Funding agencies generally recognise particle physics as mostly worthwhile and balance their involvement across its facets, but this could become harder to do if populist tales of careerist physicists cynically living it up on taxpayer funds find purchase in the wrong ears.

So, not everything said is wrong. But it is dressed up in such a pantomime-dame version of the critique that it can't be taken seriously. And that's a shame: there are conversations here which could perhaps usefully be made more open and explicit. There are horrifying degrees of rentierism and perverse incentive in academic careers, publishing, and conferences -- let's talk about them, too. But straw-man arguments about modelling whimsy and bad faith distract from these real problems and more nuanced questions of scientific value; as quintessentially rational people, we need to reject them and platform the valuable discussions instead.


Comments powered by Disqus