Uncertainty and Physics

A short interview with the Director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (H/T Arts & Letters Daily) raises the issues of the boundaries of scientifically derived knowledge from a perspective that gets little attention from the usual U.S. sources of science policy noise.  I mention it because I think it might be useful in debates that involve science and uncertainty.

In the interview, Rolf-Dieter Heuer discusses the work going on at CERN to find the Higgs Boson and complete the Standard Model that currently defines particle physics.    Towards the end of the interview Heuer covers the interplay between theory and experiment, and how theory does not necessarily precede experiment.

“But the interplay between theory and experiment is very interesting. Sometimes the theory is indeed ahead of the experiment and we must later try to find proof for the validity of the theory through data analysis. But when the analysis yields results that could not be expected from the theory, then it must follow the experiment and devise new formulas to explain our observations.”

He also goes on to discuss how theories may never be proven in the sense of full proof.

If all experimental evidence points to a given fact, that you can say that within certain boundary conditions the theory is correct. Take Newton’s law of gravity: Within our velocity regime, it is correct. But when you apply the logic of relativity theory, it loses its validity.

Would this discussion of relevant boundary conditions help in other debates where scientific uncertainty makes it easier to consider things messy?  I think these discussions stand a better chance of moving anywhere in debates that don’t involve policy choices.  Invoking boundary conditions for proof isn’t likely to persuade opponents, primarily because they aren’t primarily concerned about the science, but about the choices that could be supported by that science.

In other words, in policy fights involving settled science, the issue isn’t usually the science or whether its settled.