Thursday, February 23, 2012

The difficulty of science

As reported in Science Insider yesterday, apparently the faster than light neutrinos may have been caused by a loose fiber optics cable. To me this also begs the question, were other results impacted by this loose fiber opitc cable?

This is where the difficulty in science lies. First, CERN had to admit that there was a faulty detector which could have caused the result invalidating what likely was the greatest finding in physics recently. Secondly, they are going to have to run the same tests again to make sure the results were bad. Finally, a bunch of other locations invested in their capabilities and will be able to test the results for themselves too. I think the last two are important. At one point Fermi lab indicated that they had seen faster than light neutrinos but it was beyond their capabilities to reach the required level of statistical significance.

I think that this does show an important factor within science. First, scientists have the ability to referee themselves on important earth (speed of light) shattering results. It indicates that the system works. Secondly, it shows there is integrity in scientists, as something like this essentially will make careers and set this group up for the rest of their lives somewhere. As they admitted what caused the error and are working to correct it in testing, it indicates they care more about the results than about their career. Although, lying about this after finding it would have ruined their careers just as quickly.

Why is that important though? Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Most scientists are trained in a very similar fashion. You are taught the basics during high school, moving to more advanced topics in college and finally many become experts by pursuing a PhD. All are taught about the idea of falsifiablity of hypothesis and theories as the cornerstone for scientific progress. Of course there are debates of if this is how things actually work in science, but typically it is. There are points where a major shift in scientific discourse but this can take a long time and must answer questions of the previous scientific perspective and answer questions the other perspective could not. A perfect example of this is Newtonian physics and Relativistic physics. Newtonian physics gives you Force = Mass x Acceleration, it's not really fully accurate, but it works well enough for daily activity. Under certain circumstances it's simply wrong. That's where Einstein came in and fixed it. It took a while for the shift of acceptance for this theory, but it's now the prevailing theory.

From a scientists point of view their incentives are oriented towards yearly output of papers that are accepted into high quality peer reviewed journals, such as Science and Nature and whatever is the best in their field. There are no incentives for making hoax theories. They would lose funding and eventually be jobless.

I think that this error at CERN can bring that into the discourse over topics such as evolution and climate change. It's indicative of the ethics that prevail in science today and that when theories are wrong work is done to find out why or how. Once that has been answered, new theories are suggested and eventually accepted. Understanding how this works will make topics like climate change and evolution less threatening.


  1. I've been casually following this topic. What sucks about it is that other groups wasted their time (and money and brainpower) experimenting to try to duplicate the results first seen at CERN.
    As I always say, when troubleshooting with normal people: ask them if they've restarted their computer.
    With scientists/engineers: ask them if it's plugged in.

    1. Well put man. It must have been a seriously massive feat to even find the fiber optic cable.

      As for wasting that money, well it may have increased other detection capabilities that might be good for those labs in the long run... i hope or they wasted money.