Why Skepticism in Science isn’t just Politics

The reasons for the intense scepticism about OPERA are both general and specific.  The general reasons stem from the track record of experiments on the frontiers of science, which is pretty dismal.  This is not because experimentalists are careless or foolhardy (well, occasionally this happens) but because doing first-of-a-kind experiments, using new and clever methods and the latest technology, is extremely difficult, and prone to unforeseen problems.  And statistical flukes can always happen, too.  Everyone who has worked in high-energy physics for a while knows that the vast majority of exciting results, even from the best experimentalists, simply don’t hold up over time.  I made an informal list over the weekend of false alarms that have occurred during the nearly 30 years that I’ve been following or actually doing high-energy physics, and came up with nearly two dozen separate incidents — and I keep thinking of new ones.  [I may do some writing later this week about how some of these “discoveries” went awry.]  Meanwhile I can think of only three actual discoveries that survived, one of which (the top quark) was expected, one of which (neutrino oscillations) was pretty exciting but not unexpected, and only one of which really violated the prejudices of my field.  The last — the only real shocker to occur during my career — won this year’s Nobel Prize: the discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating instead of decelerating.

First, read the whole article by Dr. Strassler. I’ll wait.

OK. Prof. Strassler is exactly correct; whenever interesting results come out in physics, it pays to be skeptical. This isn’t because physicists want to protect the current paradigm, but a response born of long experience. Most interesting results have a good chance of being wrong. Nature always has the last say, and if an interesting result can be replicated, well, everyone wants to be part of a physics revolution. But if a result cannot be reproduced… it doesn’t matter how beautiful the math or how much explanatory power a theory has, at the end of the day, we can only accept those explanations that match up with the behavior of Nature. Feynman said it best: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is or how smart you are, if it doesn’t agree with experiment, it is wrong.”

Natural science has this wonderful property that an objective standard exists for judging the correctness of explanations. The behavior of Nature cannot be dismissed.

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