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Science Is Not About Certainty

All physicists have to look nerdy. It’s part of the job description. has a conversation with theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli:

Science is not about the data. The empirical content of scientific theory is not what is relevant. The data serves to suggest the theory, to confirm the theory, to disconfirm the theory, to prove the theory wrong. But these are the tools that we use. What interests us is the content of the theory. What interests us is what the theory says about the world. General relativity says space-time is curved. The data of general relativity are that Mercury perihelion moves 43 degrees per century, with respect to that computed with Newtonian mechanics.

Who cares? Who cares about these details? If that was the content of general relativity, general relativity would be boring. General relativity is interesting not because of its data, but because it tells us that as far as we know today, the best way of conceptualizing space-time is as a curved object. It gives us a better way of grasping reality than Newtonian mechanics, because it tells us that there can be black holes, because it tells us there’s a Big Bang. This is the content of the scientific theory.

I just discovered Edge.  They have some good shit melding philosophical questions with scientific inquiry.  The kind of stuff I want to write if I ever make it through my formal education.  Totes subscribing.


I have to add commentary on this particular post. I can see what Rovelli is getting at, but I don’t like the rhetoric. It’s too dismissive of the importance of data, of the relationship between reason and theory. The arrogance in the rhetorical question, “Who cares about these details?” is particularly grating.

Physicists often try to play with “deep” writing and often fail. (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is the other example that immediately comes to mind.) The nature of their occupation involves describing reality, and reality is undoubtably complex. But if you’re a scientist that wants to do metaphysics, you had better choose your language very carefully or risk sounding like a tool.