Model Choice and Crucial Tests. On the Empirical Epistemology of the Higgs Discovery
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Abstract: Our paper discusses the epistemic attitudes of particle physicists on the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It is based on questionnaires and interviews made shortly before and shortly after the discovery in 2012. We show, to begin with, that the discovery of a Standard Model (SM) Higgs boson was less expected than is sometimes assumed. Once the new particle was shown to have properties consistent with SM expectations – albeit with significant experimental uncertainties –, there was a broad agreement that ‘a’ Higgs boson had been found. Physicists adopted a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, they treated the particle as a SM Higgs boson and tried to establish its properties with higher precision; on the other hand, they searched for any hints of physics beyond the SM. This motivates our first philosophical thesis: the Higgs discovery, being of fundamental importance and establishing a new kind of particle, represented a crucial experiment if one interprets this notion in an appropriate sense. By embedding the LHC into the tradition of previous precision experiments and the experimental strategies thus established, underdetermination and confirmational holism are kept at bay. Second, our case study suggests that criteria of theory (or model) preference should be understood as epistemic and pragmatic values that have to be weighed in factual research practice. The Higgs discovery led to a shift from pragmatic to epistemic values as regards the mechanisms of electroweak symmetry breaking. Complex criteria, such as naturalness, combine epistemic and pragmatic different values, but are coherently applied by the community.