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The Fate of Tensor-Vector-Scalar Modified Gravity


The 2017 codetection of electromagnetic radiation and gravitational waves was the first of its kind and marked the beginning of multimessenger astronomy. But this event has been treated within recent literature as something of an end as well. The 2017 detection is often regarded as an instance of falsification for all theories of modified gravity which postulate gravitational waves propagate along separate geodesics from electromagnetic radiation, perhaps most notably Jacob Bekenstein’s Tensor-Vector-Scalar gravity (TeVeS). I critically examine this explicit endorsement of falsification by astronomers and astrophysicists. While the current state of multimetric modified gravity theories is dim, recent developments in multimessenger observation do not offer a deductive falsification. Rather such evidence should be regarded as a corroboration of the null hypothesis, following Deborah Mayo's (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018) error-statistical account.

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  1. Zhang et al. [22] also operates within the Lambda-CDM framework.

  2. Wang et al. actually advance the less conservative thesis that “the dark matter model is favored [25],” which does not take careful account of the myriad other MG theories that do not posit multiple metrics. Boran et al. are careful to make this distinction (Boran et al. 2017).

  3. Contrast this with Bertone’s description of TeVeS as a “more fundamental” theory than MOND (Bertone [32], p. 37). This remark is true, as MOND is merely a paradigm and not a full relativistic theory. But it is dubious whether TeVeS is more fundamental in any larger sense.

  4. I’d like to thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this useful name for the account.

  5. The theory cannot rely upon adding an additional field that couples to matter disformally with the Einstein metric, as TeVeS, but rather upon a modification of the field equation itself and hence of the Einstein metric (Sanders 2018, p. 3).

  6. This view of robustness has been criticized by Orzack and Sober [36], but their criticisms are largely orthogonal to the account proposed, as their diagnosis treats only of the outcomes of models, while the proposed collection of accounts is intended to encompass evidence supporting assumptions and retrodiction as well. See [34, 35] for the rebuttal to their objection.

  7. A similar situation arguably obtains for other scalar-tensor theories that posit multiple fields in order to modify the need for dark energy, such as generalized Galileon theories, Gleyzes–Langlois–Piazza–Vernizzi (GLPV) theories, and non-trivial Horndeski theories [37]. Researchers seeking to rule out such theories are much more careful with their terminology and do not claim a falsification has taken place.

  8. I would like to thank Kirk Ludwig and Andrew Smith for emphasizing the persuasiveness of this position.

  9. There were multiple instances of community members, purporting to operate under objective frequentist methodologies, claiming the discovery of gravitational waves in contexts with very low confidence assessments, most notably Joe Weber’s 1969 data manipulation resulting in a false-positive result (Collins [41], pp. 51–53).

  10. Perhaps it would be more apt to think of Boran et al.’s model as a final test, if one sets aside the potential problems in applying the model to TeVeS discussed above.


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For invaluable feedback I would like to thank Elisabeth A. Lloyd, Gary Ebbs, Kirk Ludwig, the Lichtenberg Group for History and Philosophy of Physics, Steven Mischler, Suzanne Kawamleh, Ryan O’Loughlin, Dan Li, Stuart Gluck, and Evan Arnet. This paper is dedicated in memory of David McCarty, who encouraged me to pursue this project.

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Correspondence to Shannon Sylvie Abelson.

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Abelson, S.S. The Fate of Tensor-Vector-Scalar Modified Gravity. Found Phys 52, 31 (2022).

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  • Modified gravity
  • Multimessenger
  • Falsification