Cargo cult science

From my last post, which talks about movies and space travel, it is obvious I am in a rather meditative mood. Besides movies, I have also been watching Richard Feynman’s 1979 Auckland lectures (video link here) which were ultimately transcribed into what might well be Feynman’s most popular book: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. I wrote quite a few posts on that (the link on the title will get you to one, or you can also use the search facility on this blog: just type ‘strange theory of light and matter’ and off you go).

In those posts, I do not argue with the story Feynman tells us about how QED ‘works’: I only try to show it is all far less mysterious than both he as well as the author of that little booklet make it out to be. Amplitudes and the coupling constant (which is nothing but the fine-structure constant) are not mysterious: we get them from Nature’s constants (the electron charge and its energy, basically), and then we just need to combine it with an idea of what photons actually are: lightparticles that carry the electromagnetic force. So QED is just electrodynamics but, yes, you need quantum theory because – at the smallest of scales – electromagnetic waves resolve into photons. Real photons. Not virtual ones.

The interesting thing about these lectures – which he gave in last decade of his life (he died in 1988, at a relatively young age) – is that Feynman also explains the basics of QCD: quantum chromodynamics. He explains quark flavors and colors in a rather lighthearted way. I wonder whether he truly believed the QCD theory was any good. We wrote a rather hard-hitting critique of it in our first paper on ResearchGate, in which I refer to the theory as ‘smoking gun physics’, my term for what Feynman referred to as ‘cargo cult science’: something “which has the semblance of science, but is only pseudoscience due to a lack of “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty” on the part of the scientist.” My critique focused on what empirical evidence we actually have for the theory, and did not mention two more fundamental theoretical objections:

(1) the fact that Feynman’s ‘one-color’ parton model offer an equal number of ‘variables’ to explain what might be going on in the field of QCD (so the theory does not respect Occam’s Razor principle: alternative models are possible and the model must, therefore, have too many ‘degrees of freedom’); and

(2) those weird quark mass numbers: why would we ‘invent’ particles that have larger masses than the particles we are trying to explain?

I debunked quite a few ‘mysteries’ in Feynman’s presentations (e.g., his explanation of the boson-fermion dichotomy, or his explanation of 720-degree symmetries in quantum physics), so I think of him as a bit of a ‘mystery wallah‘ as well. Maybe I should bring it all together, one day. But I am not sure if I have the energy and time, and if people are actually still interested in it. We all seem to have more pressing worries now: that war in Ukraine is not good. :-/ We are all being misled on it.

That is probably why it makes me think scientists can be misled on a large scale too, which is why my qualification of the Standard Model of physics as ‘cargo cult science’ may now, perhaps, sound somewhat less offensive to those reading me here. 🙂

Post scriptum (19 March 2023): I wrote out a few things – on how and where things went wrong in the history of thought in this field – in a new paper: The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Non-Standard Model of Quantum Physics. Check it out! 🙂


One thought on “Cargo cult science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s