What Separates A Good Scientific Theory From A Bad One?
“It’s why an idea like dark matter is so powerful. By adding just a single new species of particle — something that’s cold, collisionless, and transparent to light and normal matter — you can explain everything from rotating galaxies to the cosmic web, the fluctuations in the microwave background, galaxy correlations, colliding galaxy clusters, and much, much more. It’s why ideas with a huge number of free parameters that must be tuned to get the right results are less satisfying and less predictively powerful. If we can model dark energy, for instance, with just one constant, why would we invent multi-field models with many parameters that are no more successful?”
You’ve often heard, when discussing competing scientific ideas, of appealing to Occam’s razor. Often paraphrased as “all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually best,” it seems to open the door for people to argue over which explanation is simplest. This should not, however, be a point of contention: the explanation that’s simplest is the one that introduces the fewest number of new, additional free parameters. And when it comes to all things being equal, the things in question ought to be the number of new phenomena the novel idea can explain, along with the number of discernible predictions as compared with the old, prevailing idea. The best scientific ideas are the ones that explain the most by adding the least, while the worst ones unnecessarily add additional parameters on top of what we observe for no good reason other than personal bias. Ideas may be a dime-a-dozen, but a good idea is hard to find.
The next time you encounter an interesting, wild idea that someone throws out there, use this criteria to evaluate it. You just might be surprised at how quickly you can tell whether an idea is good or bad!