MEASUREMENT IN DATA INTENSIVE SCIENCES
This research project has included a collaboration with Professor Kent Staley, from Saint Louis University, where we examine how circularity and holism resulting from data analysis practices is evaded through evaluations of uncertainty and sensitivity, ensuring the robustness of measurement results. We examine high energy physics measurements in which a measurement result depends upon a type of assumption for which that very same result may be evidentially relevant, thus raising a worry about potential circularity in argumentation. We demonstrate how the practice of evaluating measurement uncertainty serves to render any such circularity epistemically benign. Our analysis shows how the evaluation and deployment of uncertainty evaluation constitutes an in practice solution to a particular form of Duhemian underdetermination that improves upon Duhem’s vague notion of “good sense”, avoids holism, and reconciles theory dependence of measurement with piecemeal hypothesis testing.
EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
This research project focuses on the epistemology of high-energy experimental particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. High-energy physics is currently in the curious situation of widespread agreement that the very successful theoretical description of high-energy physics (the standard model) is both incomplete and has conceptual problems. For decades, theorists have attempted to extend the standard model with beyond the standard model (BSM) approaches to accommodate these problems. Following the lack of a confirmed prediction from any of these approaches, the LHC experimentalists are now entering into a data driven phase in their searches for new physics. The data driven phase, as opposed to the model driven phase, is characterised by a change from searching for ‘known unknowns’ predicted by theory models, to searching for ‘unknown unknowns’ using data analysis techniques.
In this context I have examined novelty and creativity in data driven sciences. In a recent publication I introduced a notion of novelty as disruption and showed that the positive appraisal of disconfirmation and disruption, in the current epistemic context of high-energy physics, is based on forward looking assessments of future fertility. Within the context of concerns of a lack of available promising future directions in high-energy physics, disruption is a generator of alternative futures. I have also explored creativity as a condition for knowledge formation in massive collaborative experiments and the role of machine learning. More specifically I have shown how creativity is required, given the epistemic conditions of the LHC experiments, for a measurement of the self-coupling of the Higgs boson. Creative and non-empirical transformations to the model of the measurement process, coming from collaborative efforts and novel machine learning techniques, result in the positive transformation of the epistemic value of the measurement outcome.
Ritson, S. (2019) “Probing Novelty at the LHC: heuristic appraisal of disruptive experimentation” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 51 pp. 44-56 (Open access)
THE STRING THEORY CONTROVERSY
String theory is widely regarded by many of its practitioners as the only viable option for extending the standard model and constructing a unified theory of gravity and elementary particle physics. It has attracted several high-profile researchers, including many Nobel Laureates, and has been instrumental in opening up new areas at the intersection of mathematics and physics. Yet, since the 1980s, string theory has been continuously mired in controversy where critics have called into question the scientific status of string theory, its institutional dominance, and its likelihood of success. For my PhD project I completed the first study of the string theory controversy and showed that the string theory controversy has novel aspects which highlight how contemporary science continues to evolve. Those novel aspects formed the subject of my research and included: non-empirical methodologies and appraisal; a negotiation of the boundary between science and non-science where the dominant group is forced to defend its authority; and a potentially new form of peer review. With the controversy yet to be settled, at stake is how science is understood within high-energy physics, acceptable methods for generating theoretical science and the optimal organisation of expert communities.
This project also included a collaboration with Dr Kristian Camilleri at the University of Melbourne which drew on the work of Thomas Gieryn and Lawrence Prelli, to bring to light the way in which protagonists appeal to, and rhetorically construct, different views about the scientific method and the scientific ethos, in an effort to legitimise or delegitimise string theory. We further showed that while it has become commonplace to construe the string theory debate as stemming from different attitudes to the absence of testable predictions, this presents an overly simplified view of the controversy, which ignores the critical role of heuristic appraisal.
Ritson, S. (2021) “Constraints and Divergent Assessments of Fertility in Non-empirical Physics in the History of the String Theory Controversy” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 90 pp. 39-49
Camilleri, K. & Ritson, S. (2015) “The Role of Heuristic Appraisal in Conflicting Assessments of String Theory” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 51 pp. 44-56
Controversies over string theory (collectively termed the ‘string wars’) intensified in 2005. Also in that year, the open-access preprint publisher arXiv instituted a new feature called a ‘trackback’. This research project examined this new feature which enabled authors of blog posts discussing a paper on arXiv to leave a trackback (a link) to the post on the paper’s abstract page on arXiv. The determination of which specific bloggers would have access to the feature generated a public controversy that was played out in the blogosphere. Although the community was in almost unanimous agreement that so-called ‘crackpots’ should not have access to the trackback feature, it was unable to reach a consensus as to how to define a ‘crackpot’ or an ‘active researcher’. Blogs may provide a window into science in the making, yet this study showed that blogs confound categorisation as permanent or ephemeral scholarly communication. The trackback feature was originally conceived to develop certain blog discourse as an alternative or complementary form of peer review. However, the high-energy physics community as a whole questioned the ongoing function of the blog.