I was chatting with an astronomer recently, and this quote by Arthur Eddington came up:
“Never trust an experimental result until it has been confirmed by theory.”Arthur Eddington
At first, this sounds like just typical theorist arrogance, thinking we’re better than all those experimentalists. It’s not that, though, or at least not just that. Instead, it’s commenting on a trend that shows up again and again in science, but rarely makes the history books. Again and again an experiment or observation comes through with something fantastical, something that seems like it breaks the laws of physics or throws our best models into disarray. And after a few months, when everyone has checked, it turns out there was a mistake, and the experiment agrees with existing theories after all.
You might remember a recent example, when a lab claimed to have measured neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, only for it to turn out to be due to a loose cable. Experiments like this aren’t just a result of modern hype: as Eddington’s quote shows, they were also common in his day. In general, Eddington’s advice is good: when an experiment contradicts theory, theory tends to win in the end.
This may sound unscientific: surely we should care only about what we actually observe? If we defer to theory, aren’t we putting dogma ahead of the evidence of our senses? Isn’t that the opposite of good science?
To understand what’s going on here, we can use an old philosophical argument: David Hume’s argument against miracles. David Hume wanted to understand how we use evidence to reason about the world. He argued that, for miracles in particular, we can never have good evidence. In Hume’s definition, a miracle was something that broke the established laws of science. Hume argued that, if you believe you observed a miracle, there are two possibilities: either the laws of science really were broken, or you made a mistake. The thing is, laws of science don’t just come from a textbook: they come from observations as well, many many observations in many different conditions over a long period of time. Some of those observations establish the laws in the first place, others come from the communities that successfully apply them again and again over the years. If your miracle was real, then it would throw into doubt many, if not all, of those observations. So the question you have to ask is: it it more likely those observations were wrong? Or that you made a mistake? Put another way, your evidence is only good enough for a miracle if it would be a bigger miracle if you were wrong.
Hume’s argument always struck me as a little bit too strict: if you rule out miracles like this, you also rule out new theories of science! A more modern approach would use numbers and statistics, weighing the past evidence for a theory against the precision of the new result. Most of the time you’d reach the same conclusion, but sometimes an experiment can be good enough to overthrow a theory.
Still, theory should always sit in the background, a kind of safety net for when your experiments screw up. It does mean that when you don’t have that safety net you need to be extra-careful. Physics is an interesting case of this: while we have “the laws of physics”, we don’t have any established theory that tells us what kinds of particles should exist. That puts physics in an unusual position, and it’s probably part of why we have such strict standards of statistical proof. If you’re going to be operating without the safety net of theory, you need that kind of proof.
This post was also inspired by some biological examples. The examples are politically controversial, so since this is a no-politics blog I won’t discuss them in detail. (I’ll also moderate out any comments that do.) All I’ll say is that I wonder if in that case the right heuristic is this kind of thing: not to “trust scientists” or “trust experts” or even “trust statisticians”, but just to trust the basic, cartoon-level biological theory.