How particle physics is eroding the scientific method

Last years’s results of the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) brought the director general of the European Particle Physics Laboratory, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, to comment that “a Higgs boson” had been discovered. He nuanced his statement by saying it was “not necessarily the standard model Higgs boson”. One might wonder whether such a “non-standard Higgs” is a true triumph of the so-called standard model, or has a “non-standard” standard model still to be developed to make use of such a triumph?

Experimental particle physics is deemed as a healthy contrast to the concepts of theoretical physics such as extra dimensions, superstrings and parallel universes. Despite their intellectual appeal, these theories have failed to make a single testable prediction for decades. However, we might ask ourselves why CERN officials – including Heuer, who gives talks at string conferences – do not better demarcate what is science and what is not. Why do they not object more strenuously to string theorists’ occasional claims that something might be found somewhere, trying for a free ride on the unexpected? It seems to us that scientific controversy–though a healthy thing in principle–is not too welcome in an enterprise that depends on the fragile base of public funding and opinion.

Theories that have made no predictions whatsoever may be relatively easy to identify as unscientific. However, a more subtle problem is the lack of quantitative predictions. This is an issue that is certainly present in the standard model of particle physics. Isaac Newton said “God created everything with number, weight and measure.”  Setting aside the issue of God, Newton’s comment points to the danger of a philosophy of predicting particles, even though we do not know their energy (or weight). Consider also the other example of supersymmetry, the popular extensions of the standard model. Though not the slightest hint of evidence for supersymmetry has been found at the LHC, the theory quickly got around that problem by hypothesising still heavier particles.

The move was symptomatic of a field that does not question its very own foundation. “History suggests, however, that if these superparticles don’t turn up, there will be strenuous efforts to save supersymmetry by tinkering with it rather than deciding that the whole thing is a failure,” wrote David Lindley in his book The End of Physics, published twenty years ago.  Perhaps, we should consider the history of science as an empirical activity itself; an approach that few physicists are inclined to adopt. In this case, it is Lindley’s theory about supersymmetry that has yielded excellent empirical results.

There seems to be no chance for physics to get rid of unsuccessful theories once they have settled down and lodged in a comfortable environment. Large institutes and conferences are dedicated to their development. And a review process is guided by the experts in the field who will never threaten their sacred cow. The universal mechanism at work here seems to be that it is easy to make friends when there is a fashionable idea. However, challenging an established concept of a research industry in power means asking for trouble.

The model building will continue until eventually the increasing complication and fragility will cause a crash. And this is how science, in the long term, is supposed to work.


Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones


Alexander Unzicker is a science writer, and Sheilla Jones is a journalist and physics author from Canada, and authors of a recently published book called Bankrupting Physics – How Today’s Scientists Are Gambling Away Scientific Credibility.


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2 thoughts on “How particle physics is eroding the scientific method”

  1. Another example of non-experts writing on topics they know little about.

    Does quantum field theory make predictions? Actually, thats not a good question as there are an infinite number of examples of quantum field theories. The Standard Model is just ONE of these. Quantum Field Theory is a FRAMEWORK for asking questions and investigating, amongst other things, the behaviour of elementary particles. Similarly, String Theory has MANY solutions and provides a framework for addressing, amongst other things, particle physics. If we consider solutions of string theory that describe Universes like ours then we can ask what these solutions say about regimes not yet explored (eg LHC run II) and experiments not yet done. That is a perfectly valid scientific approach adopted by real scientists.

    If you don’t like String theory, maybe you can come up with a better alternative or contribute something positive and/or scientific to the discussion?

    Rolf Heuer has done a tremendous job in directing the CERN laboratory from the start up of the Large Hadron Collider through to the discovery of the Higgs boson and the conclusion of LHC Run I. He should be congratulated for his achievements when the entire world was watching. The discovery of the Higgs boson is one of the pinnacles of human discovery and demonstrates that the title and premise of the article to which I’m responding are completely unfounded. Particle physics is a glowing example of how science should be, and is, done.

    Particle physics, like any field, is not beyond criticism. For instance, I believe it can sometimes be `over-faddish’. However, unconstructive criticism from essentially uninformed non-experts is unhealthy, unproductive and unwanted.

    1. You are a great example of what this article discusses. The EU theory is constantly making successful predictions, yet can’t even get an honest review from physicists and astrophysicists.