Wrong or Not, the CERN Scientists Didn't Speak Too Soon

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With this week's news that the supposedly Einstein-disproving breakthrough may have resulted from experimental error, is it time to join forces with those critics who thought the CERN scientists touted their research too soon? 

When the experiment first attracted wild headlines in September, Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at Princeton, complained in an email to The New York Times, "There was no need for a press release or indeed even for a scientific paper, till much more work was done. They claim that they wanted the community to scrutinize their result -- well, they could have accomplished that by going around and giving talks about it." This week, University of Chicago physics chair Edward Blucher wondered whether that stance was vindicated, telling Reuters, "maybe they should have waited a few more months." 

Others though, while still expressing skepticism at the results last year, celebrated the heap of media attention it received. Jon Butterworth wrote in The Guardian:

[W]hat should the media have done, ignored it? Gratifyingly, people are interested in physics and this is a proper story. It may have been over-exposed and in some cases over-hyped, but this is a genuine scientific debate, going on now about an intriguing result. It is not a manufactured controversy. So long as people appreciate that, maybe seeing science done in public will become the new spectator sport.

Now that the sport actually has two sides -- the other represented by heaps of media reports declaring the research probably false—Butterworth's analogy still rings true. After the journal Science broke the news that a faulty wire may have caused the neutrino to look like it moved faster than it did, CERN director general Rolf Heuer went on the defensive in a Reuters report, sounding a whole lot like Butterworth. "Last September, the OPERA researchers said clearly the reading of the speed was an experimental result that had to be cross-checked," he said. "They have continued to check and check and check ... This is how science should be done."

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Also, with headlines like The Daily Beast's "Scientists Didn't Break Speed of Light," this news cycle threatens to be just as overstated as the original one. David Wark, a physics professor at Rutherford, tells Reuters, "Just as it would have been unwise to jump to the conclusion that the initial results were the result of an anomaly, it would be unwise to make any assumptions now." As professor and ubiquitous popularizer of science Michio Kaku  wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year, "Unlike religion or politics, science is ultimately decided by experiments, done repeatedly in every form." Now that the media is following through on its initial hype by continuing to publicize the follow-up experiments, and the more responsible among them are continuing to preach caution that even new reports of error might be false, it feels like news organizations are doing the right thing by airing out the scientific process. Though skeptics like Kaku who doubted the results may have been proven right with this week's revelations, their promotion of the scientific process played out in the media also feels like a vindication of the researchers' decision to go public.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.