The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.
attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895)A group of scientists from Italy and Switzerland have reported that neutrinos can travel a bit faster than the speed of light [Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam]. If true, it will change our understanding of general relativity.
So how do the knowledgeable scientists deal with this ugly little fact"? Are they ready to abandon general relativity? No, they aren't. The typical response is skepticism combined with a "wait and see" attitude while the result is confirmed. Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles has a nice analysis of the experiment: Faster Than a Speeding Photon: "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam". Chad concludes with,
So, if you had money to bet on it, bet that this result is wrong. But these guys aren't complete chumps, and if something is wrong with their experiment, it's something pretty subtle, because they've checked all the obvious problem areas carefully.Victor Stenger expresses similar skepticism in an article published on Huff Post [No Cause to Dispute Einstein].
As someone who worked in neutrino physics for thirty years before retiring from research in 2000, I should be more excited than most by the report from CERN that neutrinos have been observed moving faster than light. And I am. The experiment looks very well done and the scientists involved are saying all the right things -- that their result is very preliminary and must be independently replicated before accepting it as scientific fact. If the observation is confirmed, it may be the most important discovery in science in the last 100 years.These responses are typical. Instead of immediately rewriting the textbooks in light of a new discovery, scientists initially express skepticism of results that conflict with well-established models. They do this because history has convinced them that most of those discoveries will never be confirmed and the standard model remains intact. [See alos Sean Carroll: Can Neutrinos Kill Their Own Grandfathers?]
However, a big fly in the ointment is the supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which sits just outside our galaxy 168,000 light-years from Earth. It was first seen by the naked eye on February 24, 1987. Three hours before the visible light reached Earth, a handful of neutrinos were detected in three independent underground detectors. If the CERN result is correct, they should have arrived in 1982. So, if I were a wagering man, I would bet the effect will go away because of some systematic error no one has yet been able to think of.
Thomas Huxley was wrong. That's not how science works.
Stenger's response is informative because he gives us an example of how the new result conflicts with data from other experiments. Those conflicts aren't usually reported in the press releases so the general public is unaware of the true nature of the scientific conflict. In this case, it's not only the model of general relativity that's being challenged but also several decades of scientific data that conflict with the new result.
It's very difficult for the general public to appreciate how science is done. Just the other morning, for example, my local radio station announced that drinking red wine may cure breast cancer. The public is used to hearing of scientific breakthroughs that overthrow existing "theories"—it happens every week. What they're not used to is hearing from those who urge skepticism concerning the latest "breakthrough" and they're certainly not used to hearing about the follow-up studies that fail to substantiate the "breakthrough."
This false view of science, which I blame on scientists and science journalists, plays right into the hands of kooks and quacks who are only too eager to point out the fallibility of modern scientific reasoning. It should come as no surprise to you to learn that the Intelligent Design Creationists are exploiting the neutrino result to discredit science. After all, if general relativity can be overthrown by a simple experiment then why should we believe an even more outlandish "theory" like evolution?
Here's an example from David Klinghoffer: Another One Bites the Dust.
If you think Darwin's theory of evolution is as secure as Einstein's theory of special relativity, well...maybe you're right.The creationists are quite fond of quoting every science paper that raises questions about how we interpret evolution. In some cases, they publish whole books with long lists of such papers (e.g. The Myth of Junk DNA). They never make any attempt to inform their audience about how science actually works and they never mention that most of these papers turn out to be wrong or irrelevant. In most cases those "breakthrough" papers are never heard from again.
On the other hand, as soon as there's a paper or a blog posting that criticizes creationism, the IDiots close ranks and tell their followers that most scientific papers are wrong and, besides, the scientists have ulterior motives. Isn't that strange behavior? I think so.