Davide Castelvecchi in Scientific American:
Is string theory science? Physicists and cosmologists have been debating the question for the past decade. Now the community is looking to philosophy for help.
Earlier this month, some of the feuding physicists met with philosophers of science at an unusual workshop aimed at addressing the accusation that branches of theoretical physics have become detached from the realities of experimental science. At stake is the integrity of the scientific method, as well as the reputation of science among the general public, say the workshop’s organizers.
Held at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany on December 7-9, the workshop came about as a result of an article in Nature a year ago, in which cosmologist George Ellis, of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and astronomer Joseph Silk, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, lamented a “worrying turn” in theoretical physics (G. Ellis and J. Silk Nature 516, 321–323; 2014).
“Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe,” they wrote, some scientists argue that “if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally”.
First among the topics discussed was testability. For a scientific theory to be considered valid, scientists often require that there be an experiment that could, in principle, rule the theory out — or ‘falsify’ it, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper put it in the 1930s. In their article, Ellis and Silk pointed out that in certain areas, some theoretical physicists had strayed from this guiding principle — even arguing for it to be relaxed.
The duo cited string theory as the principal example.