23 Sept 2011

Dismissing the speed of light

Are we ready for another scientific revolution?


What do you do when (not if) your experiments 'go wrong'? Well, if you didn't get any 'exciting' results, you might brush that experiment under the carpet and start again (e.g., 'Let's pretend that experiment never happened', wink, wink. Of course, there are never any scientific repercussions from not reporting that we didn't find anything. Are there?*). If you got an even more interesting result than you expected, you might try to publish it in the best possible scientific journals ('best' being defined by what exactly, I hear you ask??**). This pressure to publish 'ground-breaking' research findings in the 'best possible' journals can drive over-worked academics to fabricate data (see for example, http://persistentastonishment.blogspot.com/2011/09/diederik-stapel-and-frequency-of.html), make overstated claims, or do a bit of data "massage" to just push those marginally interesting results over the line of statistical significance. Therefore, it was humbling to read that scientists at CERN, which is often deferred to as the premier laboratory for particle physics (and, fun fact FYI, brought into the public eye through Dan Brown's mystery-thriller novel 'Angels & Demons'), have released a potentially paradigm-shattering result because they think it might be caused by systematic experimental error. They could have published their results in a few dozen high-impact, cited-for-the-foreseeable-future scientific articles and won a few hundred million [insert unit of currency here] in grant funding. Instead, they challenged the rest of the world to find 'the' fault in their research. So, the next few days… or perhaps years will show whether the world is ready to accept CERN's result and allow for a scientific revolution to occur. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote in his famous book, 'The structure of scientific revolutions' that acknowledging the discovery of a new phenomenon requires us to recognise both "that something is and what something is". However, the psychology of the scientific community must be in such a place as to allow this to happen. The question is, are we ready?

*For those who are interested, and are not sure how to read the officiously sarcastic tone here, the answer to this question is, 'YES! There are big repercussions!', by the way.
**Sorry, too big a can of worms to open right now…