Finding the Higgs boson will have no epistemic value whatsoever. A provocative statement. However, if you believe that science is defined by falsification, it is a true one. Can it really be true, or is the flaw in the idea of falsification? Should we thumb our noses at Karl Popper (1902 – 1994), the philosopher who introduced the idea of falsification?
The Higgs boson, the last remaining piece of the standard model, is the object of an enormous search involving scientists from around the world. The ATLAS collaboration alone has 3000 participants from 174 institutions in 38 different countries. Can only the failure of this search be significant? Should we send out condolence letters if the Higgs boson is found? Were the Nobel prizes for the W and Z bosons a mistake?
Imre Lakatos (1922 – 1974), a neo-falsificationist and follower of Popper, states it very cleanly and emphatically:
But, as many skeptics pointed out, rival theories are always indefinitely many and therefore the proving power of experiment vanishes. One cannot learn from experience about the truth of any scientific theory, only at best about it falsehood: confirming instances have no epistemic value whatsoever (emphasis in the original).
Yipes! What is going on? Can this actually be true? No! To see the flaw in Lakatos’s argument, let’s consider an avian metaphor—this time Cygnus not Corvus. Consider the statement: All swans are white. (Here we go again.) Before 1492, Europeans would have considered this a valid statement. All the swans they had seen were white. Then Europeans started exploring North America. Again, the swans were white. Then they went on to South America and found swans with black necks (Cygnus melancoryphus) and finally to Australia where the swans are black (Cygnus atratus). By the standards of the falsificationist, nothing was learned when white swans were found, but only when the black swans or partially black swans were found. With all due respect, or lack of same, that is nonsense. It is the same old problem: you ask a stupid question you get a stupid answer. Did we learn anything when white swans were found in North America? Yes. We learned that there were swans in North America and that they were white. Based on having white swans in Europe, we could not deduce the colour of swans in North America or even that they existed. In Australia, we learned that swans existed there and were black. Thus, we learned a similar amount of information in both cases—really nothing more or nothing less. The useful question is not, ‘Are all swans white?’ Rather, ‘On which continents do swans exist and what color are they on each continent?’
Moving on from birds to model cars (after all, the standard model of particle physics is a model). What can we learn about a model car? Certainly, not if it is correct. Models are never an exact reproduction of reality. But, we can ask, ‘Which part the car is correctly described by the model? Is it the color? Is it the shape of the head lights or bumper?’ The same type of question applies to models in science. The question is not, ‘Is the standard model of particle physics correct?’ We knew from its inception that it is not the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything. The answer to that is 42 (Deep Thought, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams). We also know that the standard model is incomplete because it does not include gravity. Thus, the question never was, ‘Is this model correct?’ Rather, ‘What range of phenomena does it usefully describe?’ It has long history of successful predictions and collates a lot of data. So, like the model car, it captures some aspect of reality, but not all.
Finding the Higgs boson helps define what part of reality the standard model describes. It tells us that the standard model still describes reality at the energy scale corresponding to the mass of the Higgs boson. But, it also tells us more: It tells us that the mechanism for electroweak symmetry break –a fundamental part of the model—is adequately described by the mechanism that Peter Higgs (and others) proposed and not some more complex and exotic mechanism.
The quote from Lakatos, given above, misses a very important aspect of science–parsimony. The ambiguity noted there is eliminated by the appeal to simplicity. The standard model of particle physics describes a wide range of experimental observations. Philosophers call this phenomenological adequacy. But a lot of other models are phenomenologically adequate. The literature is filled with extensions to the standard model that agree with the standard model where the standard model has been experimentally tested. They disagree elsewhere, usually at higher energy. Why do we prefer the standard model to these pretenders? Simplicity and only simplicity. And the standard model will reign supreme until one of the more complicated pretenders is demonstrated to be more phenomenolgically adequate. In the meantime, I will be a heretic and proclaim that finding the Higgs boson would indeed confirm the standard model. Popper, Lakatos, and the falsificationists be damned.
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