Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Picking on everyone's favorite target
I nearly wrote this to Gregg Easterbrook himself, but decided that he'll probably have enough mail saying the same thing (so why, you might ask, do I feel the desire to post it here, when no one's even reading? Well, mostly as a therapeutic thing. Thanks for reading -- hey, where are you going?)

Anyway, the Easterblogg has this entry. For those of you too lazy to follow the link, he basically says that no one has a problem when science postulates all sorts of invisible, unseen dimensions, but if religion goes and theorizes that there's an unseen spiritual dimension, everyone will think that you're crazy.

Fundamentally, there are two big problems with this argument:
1) It is true, so far, that there is no experimental evidence to support the hypotheses of string theory (specifically, the ones about the number of dimensions lying around). This does not mean that scientists are blithely ignoring the need for experimental evidence sooner or later. Easterbrook references research by Maria Spiropolu; the specific article has made its way into the NYT archives, but other things I've read about her have indicated that what she's looking for is precisely that -- evidence of missing energy in certain reactions which could be explained by additional spatial dimensions in which particles could escape. A couple years ago, I went to a colloquium on possible experimental tests of string theory, and the place was packed. It's an issue of great interest, and to imply that physicists don't care about whether string theory can be verified or falsified is simply not the case. Most of the predictions of string theory, unfortunately, are currently well beyond our experimental reach, but as the theory matures and our experimental abilities (hopefully!) increase, the experimental tests will determine whether the theory enters the realm of generally-accepted scientific fact, or is relegated to the proverbial Dustbin of History.

2) To say that bringing up religion among scientists will get you "laughed out of the room" is patently not the case. It is true, however, that attempting to place religion on an equal footing with science will get you a fair share of scorn, and rightly so. Religion is not science, and by its fundamental nature it is extrascientific. It, by definition, can not ever be verified or tested using the scientific method. This is not to say that it is wrong to believe in it, just that such a belief can never be a scientific one.

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