Thursday, February 23, 2012

Scandal! Scientists find error in their own results!

Last September, a group of scientists in Italy got some strange results that made headlines around the world. Their results suggested that neutrinos were traveling faster than the speed of light.

I ask you to consider the following excerpt from a BBC article that came out just after their announcement:
"We tried to find all possible explanations for this," the report's author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration told BBC News on Thursday evening.
"We wanted to find a mistake - trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects - and we didn't.
"When you don't find anything, then you say 'well, now I'm forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this'."
Friday's meeting was designed to begin this process, with hopes that other scientists will find inconsistencies in the measurements and, hopefully, repeat the experiment elsewhere.
"Despite the large [statistical] significance of this measurement that you have seen and the stability of the analysis, since it has a potentially great impact on physics, this motivates the continuation of our studies in order to find still-unknown systematic effects," Dr Ereditato told the meeting.
"We look forward to independent measurement from other experiments."
I now ask you to consider the opening of NPR's article reporting the news that the error has probably been found:
Remember last year, when we reported that Italian scientists claimed to have broken the speed of light?

And this, from a blog post headed "That's Embarrassing" that one of my Facebook friends linked to:
Remember CERN's claim that they found neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light? Weeeeeell now they want to renege, blaming a faulty fiber-optic cable and timing gear for the erroneous results. Jesus -- and we're supposed to trust these people to NOT tear open a black hole and swallow earth?
And this, linked to by another friend

Ridiculous: A Loose Cable Caused Those ‘Faster-Than-Light’ Particles

We know that Einstein always has the last laugh, but this is hilarious: the faster-than-light particles that could have wrecked his relativity theory are no more. It was a mistake in the test results caused by a loose cable.
Didn't anyone from the Genius Bar tell them about the first rule of tech support? Check your cables first! Oh, scientists!

I try not to get to whiny in complaining about the state of American science journalism, as I know it is not going to improve any time soon, but this really quite lamentable. The scientists involved were faced with data that could potentially destroy the theoretical underpinnings of their field. The wrong things to do would have been to ignore the data because they are theoretically heretical, or to make a big deal about their irrefutable and earthshaking discovery. Instead they did exactly what they should have done: They announce the situation to their peers and asked for help in evaluating the situation. They did this with full knowledge that their results would probably be shown to be in error, and that when that happened they would be mocked and insulted. This is an example of science working as it should, despite a dysfunctional press. No one, no matter how well established or well funded (or named Einstein), is the High Priest of science, and everyone's conclusions have to be reexamined and reconsidered. This responsibility to skepticism extends especially to one's own conclusions.

Their results have now been shown, by them, to have probably been an error, and the message the average American is getting is that these goofy Italian so-called-scientists were just too comical to even consider the possibility that Einstein was smarter than they are. NPR's science reporting is actually usually better than most, which is why I read their articles. In this case, they went with the invented scandal.

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