14 October 2011


.... a cloud of dust, and a hearty "Hi-yo, Silver!" Science Friday rides again!

Do you recall the announcement several weeks ago from CERN scientists that "they recorded particles traveling faster than the speed of light ~ a finding that could overturn Einstein's fundamental laws of the universe"? I've been mulling over that statement, in addition to monitoring news and analysis since, and a few things deserve mention.

Point one. "Overturn" may be a too-dramatic choice of words. "Alter" or "refine", certainly. All good science is subject to revision as new data and new insights emerge. Think about Charles Darwin ~ his genius gave us the concept of evolution by natural selection, but he did not have access to the mechanism through which natural selection works, because the study of that mechanism (genetics) had not yet matured. It wasn't until Gregor Mendel published his findings on plant genetics that evolutionary biologists were able to piece it all together. So was Darwin wrong? He was not. What's remarkable is that he was able to look at seemingly disparate phenomena from around the world, begin to see patterns, and allow the data to coalesce into a brilliant scientific theory which has stood the test of time, with only minor adjustments.

Just so with Einstein. As with physicists who went before him, Einstein's understanding of physics, however profound, was limited by the information of the day. Scientific understanding constantly evolves as new insights emerge. A brief essay titled Was Einstein Wrong? That's the Wrong Question makes precisely this point. "Einstein was wrong about many things, and right about others, for a certain value of 'right'. Over a period of centuries, we're all going to turn out to be wrong about most of what we think. Newton was wrong in many ways .... yet much of Newtonian physics is valuable, and essential for handling everyday problems.

"The right question is whether the OPERA results are consistent with what our theories predict, and if not, why not. Relativity has held up under every test so far, so any exception we find is going to be on the hairy edge of what we can do experimentally. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition .... Whatever the ultimate outcome of the OPERA neutrino experiment turns out to be, it's a good illustration of how science actually works ~ scientists eliminating options, testing propositions, and coming out with a clearer picture of our wonderful universe."

Point two. The concept of falsifiability is one of the fundamental differences between science and religion. Both mindsets use the slippery term "belief", so sometimes the waters become muddied by ambiguity. What's the difference between saying "I believe in God" and "I believe that the results of my experiment are valid?" The difference is this ~ the former statement is not falsifiable. It rests on a leap of faith, not on evidence. One can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a deity.

The latter statement, by contrast, is falsifiable. It rests on evidence, not on a leap of faith. Anyone who later comes along and provides more persuasive evidence that the experiment is flawed, advances our understanding by a step. It is the accumulation of these steps, some confirming a hypothesis and some discrediting it, which makes up our ever-growing body of knowledge about the world and ourselves.

Another brief essay, this one written by a science teacher, makes the point. Faster Than Light Story Highlights the Difference Between Science and Religion reminds us that "science, unlike religion, is not dogmatic. It does not say 'this is the way things are, and it can be no other way.' Instead it says something like 'based on the evidence we have so far, this is how things probably are. If clear and solid evidence is discovered that this is not how things are, then we will need to change our minds.'

"Science can seem rather weak in comparison to the certainties religion offers. But it is this very 'weakness', this refusal to issue statements of absolute truth, that allows science to progress, and to come up with increasingly better ways of explaining the world. This is why, even though their existence might mean that 'the foundations of science might crumble', science will not shy away from considering the possibility that faster-than-light neutrinos are real. The issue will not be settled by consulting some supposedly infallible text, but rather by close scrutiny of the controversial data and further experimentation if necessary.

"And anyone who is capable of doing that work is entitled to put forward their conclusions. There are no heirarchies that absolutely must be respected, there is no single person who will have the final say. If, after scientists have done their work, we find that faster-than-light neutrinos do indeed exist, science may go through some kind of crisis, but it will emerge stronger, with even better ideas about the true nature of the universe."

And that, gentle reader, is how the scientific method works.

Point three. The manner in which science news is conveyed to both other scientists and to the lay public is shifting, according to the article Skeptical of Science. "The contemporary science journalist is now working at the confluence of three cultural trends. First, their traditional historical role as the privileged disseminators of science information has been undercut by the emergence of a new science media ecosystem in which science journals, institutions and individuals are producing original science content directly to non-science audiences .... Second, the traditional 'scoop' culture of journalism is being supplanted by other forms of journalistic authority [in which] science journalists need to provide expert interpretations of scientific knowledge, operating similarly to art critics as they evaluate ~ rather than just describe ~ scientific findings. And thirdly, the economic changes in the news industry have meant that science journalists are increasingly working as freelancers, the working life of many split between a portfolio of journalism, teaching, convening science-related events, and writing books .... The dominant way of thinking about the role of science journalists historically was to view them as translators, or transmitters, of information. Now, however, a powerful metaphor for understanding their work as science critics is to see them as cartographers and guides, mapping scientific knowledge for readers, showing them paths through vast amounts of information, evaluating and pointing out the most important stops along the way."

All of which dovetails nicely with my own experience in recent years, particularly with the spread of Internet access. These days my go-to references are not limited to published academics (though they have an important place), but rather are science writers who write blogs, maintain a presence on social media like Facebook and Google+, in addition to pursuing their own research. Science critics as "cartographers and guides." I like that.

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