Monday, November 21, 2011

The End of Science?

A few months ago, researchers in Europe thought they had discovered particles called neutrinos going faster than light, something that is impossible according to Einstein and every other physicist working in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The notion that nothing moves faster than light is the underlying principle of physics and one that is put to use in technology every day. So obviously, the researchers had to be given a do-over. So they refined their measurements, sent the neutrinos outward through hundreds of miles of rock to their detectors in another country, confident that their earlier experiment would be verified. And, much to the amazement of the skeptics, they got the same results. Their neutrinos did appear to be moving slightly faster than the speed of light.

Of course, that is not the final word on the matter - nowhere near it. In science, experimental results must be corroborated by other scientists working in different laboratories. This is especially true if the initial results run contrary to expectations. So are the neutrinos really moving faster than light or did the good folks at CERN, where the experiment took place, overlook something? The next few years will probably reveal a definitive answer on that. But there's a larger question lurking in the background. If, indeed, it is eventually discovered that the CERN researchers were correct that some neutrinos do move faster than light, then does that new fact open a gash in science itself. Does it mean that science can no longer be trusted? Could it mean that other scientific theories are also incredibly wrong, even the theory of evolution? Will it herald the end of science?

Obviously, those who are already naysayers with regard to scientific facts will have a field day with the discovery. They will not only ask those tough questions about the fallibility of science, they will answer them. Their answers will be that, no, science cannot always be trusted, that science does not have all the answers, and more importantly, doing science may not even be the best way to find the answers. And, unfortunately, the lay public will eat this stuff up. The average American's knowledge of how science works leaves much to be desired, so the more sure-sounding answers of the religious fundamentalists are easier to swallow. Most Americans are not fundamentalists, but with the feeble public relations initiatives coming from the scientific community, the tiger in the room will be the voice of the religious right.

Has science suffered a major blow, especially if the particle physicists at CERN are right after all? The resounding answer is no. The process of science is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Let's compare: In a situation where the religious conservatives are shown absolute and corroborated proof that one of their religious theories is wrong, say that the earth is only 6,000 years old, would they, A) accept the answer and change their theory to comply with the new data, B) ask for even more corroboration before deciding to change their theory, or C) reject the proof and stand firmly behind their old, discredited theory? Well, the answer, of course, is C. I know this because that is not a hypothetical situation. It has already happened.

But with science, even before anything is corroborated by independent research, when something unexpected is discovered, it makes world headlines. Instead of being distraught, most scientists are eager to find out what's going on. And, instead of throwing out the results, shoving them under a rock, or rationalizing them away, they embrace the results that seem to disconfirm long-held principles and attempt to explain them within the methods that science uses for discovery. As the science deniers will often say, science is sometimes wrong. But without the acceptance that sometimes science gets it wrong, science could not progress. It would be stuck in the mud with no chance of making real progress, much like conservative religion.

And another important point that will be overlooked by the religious zealots is that even if it is proved that some neutrinos can travel faster than light, it doesn't mean that the old theory of light is completely wrong. It just means it is wrong in certain, special circumstances. Did we throw out all of Newton's laws of motion when Einstein came along and reinvented physics? Of course we didn't. Newton's laws are still the mainstay of most physics textbooks. They work, all the time, within the parameters of everyday life, or even within all conceivable circumstances outside the very fast or very large. When quantum mechanics came along and showed that it was impossible to measure the exact position and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time, did that mean we could no longer use ballistics to calculate the trajectory of a missile or a football in play? Obviously it did not. It just meant that physicists, working under very special circumstances that deal with the incredibly small, had to start thinking differently about subatomic particles.

Unlike religion, science has no dogma. Granted, sometimes an individual scientist will hold an almost dogmatic view of a pet hypothesis. A famous example of that is Einstein. For the first half of his life Einstein made brilliant discoveries that changed physics forever. But during the last half of his life he worked doggedly to disprove quantum theory. He could not reconcile in his own mind the implications of quantum physics, so he spent the last years of his life looking for a theory of everything that did not include quantum physics. He would have died a miserable failure had it not been for his earlier brilliance. But even someone as popular, brilliant, and persuasive as Einstein couldn't stop scientific progress with dogmatic ideas. Physics moved on and left Einstein behind.

So even if it is proved that some neutrinos can travel faster than light it doesn't mean that your GPS will suddenly stop working. The science that went into making that GPS work is still valid. But under very special circumstances that so far has not affected our daily lives, physicists might have to revise their predictions based on the speed of light. And in the same way, it doesn't mean that the theory of evolution might be wrong. It has nothing at all to do with evolution, but since evolution is also a part of science, those who already deny evolution will make the connection. Evolution, like the theories of physics, is also a scientific theory. And as such, it is always open to scientific scrutiny. No scientist worth his salt will say that the theory of evolution is set in stone and cannot be revised. But what is exceedingly unlikely is for everything that has already been proved about evolution to turn out to be wrong. Just like the speed of light is a constant when it comes to our everyday world, regardless of the CERN discoveries, it will remain a fact that all living organisms on Earth have a common ancestor. Every species, including humans, has evolved into what it is today. And, in practical terms, that's as much a fact of science as the speed of light.

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