Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser write in the NY Times that two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, recently published a controversial piece called “Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics,” that criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today’s most ambitious cosmic theories — so long as those theories are “sufficiently elegant and explanatory.” Whether or not you agree with them, Ellis and Silk have identified a mounting concern in fundamental physics: Today, our most ambitious science can seem at odds with the empirical methodology that has historically given physics its credibility.

Quoting: “Chief among the ‘elegance will suffice’ advocates are some string theorists. Because string theory is supposedly the ‘only game in town’ capable of unifying the four fundamental forces, they believe that it must contain a grain of truth even though it relies on extra dimensions that we can never observe. Some cosmologists, too, are seeking to abandon experimental verification of grand hypotheses that invoke imperceptible domains such as the kaleidoscopic multiverse (comprising myriad universes), the ‘many worlds’ version of quantum reality (in which observations spawn parallel branches of reality) and pre-Big Bang concepts. These unprovable hypotheses are quite different from those that relate directly to the real world and that are testable through observations — such as the standard model of particle physics and the existence of dark matter and dark energy. As we see it, theoretical physics risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics and philosophy that does not truly meet the requirements of any.”

Richard Dawid argues that physics, or at least parts of it, are about to enter an era of post-empirical science. “How are we to determine whether a theory is true if it cannot be validated experimentally,” ask Frank and Gleiser. “Are superstrings and the multiverse, painstakingly theorized by hundreds of brilliant scientists, anything more than modern-day epicycles?”

With the difficulties that have arisen in forwarding a naturalistic world-view with the questions of the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the origin of life, and the absence of transitional forms in evolution, is this where science is taking us?