Q: Aren’t physicists just doing experiments to confirm their theories? Couldn’t they “prove” anything they want?

The original question was: When we start investigating particles and effects at the quantum level, it seems we are not really measuring the reality of the particles, but rather, our instruments’ reactions to the particles.  So if we calibrated the instruments differently, wouldn’t we get different, perhaps contradictory, results?  It seems that physicists first construct mathematical models, then devise instruments to find just what they are looking for.  That seems to be the same as saying I’m going to make an instrument to find leprechauns, and lo and behold I did it!  Of course, no one can really see the leprechauns, but my instrument says they are there.  You can even make an identical machine and you will detect leprechauns, too.

Physicist: Every observation is nothing more than our instrument’s reactions (Quantum mechanical, or otherwise).
A measurement device that produces foregone conclusions is useless (it provides no new information) so nobody builds them.
While physicists do construct models, and then construct devices to test those models, the primary purpose of the devices is to tear down the models and equations.  Once done, physicists “close the circle” by coming up with new models.
If all we (scientists and Humans too) did was build machines that verified our crazy theories, we’d still be stuck in the stone age, having proven conclusively that everything is controlled by dead people and shamans.

For example: the early mathematical models behind quantum physics and relativity predicted a wide array of very bizarre things (quantum tunneling, super-position, time dilation, stretched spacetime). In an attempt to prove the model wrong (because no one believed it), dozens of different experiments were set up. Every experiment had at least two possible, different results (either disproving, or corroborating the theory).

In fact, this is one of the most basic results from information theory; the more you can anticipate a result, the less information you gain from it.  This is why 6th grade science experiments are pointless (except for edjucation or whatever), and why botched experiments and accidental discoveries are so useful.
As it happens, both the relativity model and quantum model held up to experiment, and so we still use them today.
Conversely, the theory of “luminiferous eather” (the idea that light is a wave in some kind of hidden material) was very popular and held for decades in the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t supported by experiment and so (despite its popularity) it was abandoned.
Admittedly, it’s easy to get tunnel vision with your subject, and even dismiss actual results as statistical noise.

My favorite example is a group of German scientists in the late 19th century who accidentally discovered electron diffraction (proof of the wave nature of electrons) when they were trying to measure the deflection of electrons off of a crystal.  The diffraction effect caused the electrons to come out of the crystal only at a small set of angles, thus saturating the film being used to detect the outgoing electrons at points, instead of smoothly all over.  The German-tunnel-vision-solution?  Buy a “jiggler” to move the film around so that the overexposed points become reasonably exposed blurry patches.

Electron crystalography. It should be bright in the middle and then get dimmer toward to edges. But then stupid quantum mechanics makes everyting all "pointy".

But tendencies like tunnel-vision or “going with what everyone else thinks” are generally overwhelmed by a positive and contrary result.
For example: You could spend your whole life describing, in detail, the physics of a flat world. But the second someone travels all the way around the planet, all of your theories are instantly useless.

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One Response to Q: Aren’t physicists just doing experiments to confirm their theories? Couldn’t they “prove” anything they want?

  1. Joe says:

    Did you deliberately misspell the word “education”?

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