It’s September 2011 and the headlines read: “EINSTEIN PROVED WRONG”. CERN’s OPERA experiment results, claiming their neutrinos had travelled faster than the speed of light, sent a shock wave through international media, arousing a worldwide interest in physics. After careful scrutiny from other researchers, the results were falsified, the theory of special relativity held strong, and in June 2012 OPERA declared their findings incorrect, due to nothing more than loose wiring.
March 2014 and the story is much the same. The BICEP2 cosmologists announced their detection of gravitational waves, and with it, evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation. Celebration ensued. Some hailed it as the most important scientific discovery of the century, many thought (myself included) that the Nobel Prize was on its way to Harvard. Not for long. The champagne bottles were quickly recorked and the revelry brought to a halt, it again transpired that the researchers had made some serious blunders; their ground-breaking discovery now appears to be the consequence of something as uninspiring as space dust.
Underlying both of these mistakes is a serious issue. Ideally, we would like scientists to be able to pursue their goals independently, free from outside control, but sadly this is not the case at all. Experiments of this kind are expensive, and with expense comes institutional influence. Funding is subject to political whim and the need for attention-grabbing results is unavoidable – I suspect that this adds to temptation to ‘go public’ prematurely. It is clear that, despite external pressure, teams need to apply much more scrutiny before ‘major discoveries’ are brought into the public eye.
The big difference nowadays is social media. I think that the scientific community has yet to appreciate that with the arrival of Twitter; ‘speculative findings’ can whip around the world in seconds, becoming ‘established fact’ without any glimpse of peer review. Extra care must obviously be taken during this digital age. Even after their results have been fastidiously prodded and poked, researchers need to be more particular with the wording of any public broadcast. Admittedly, these exaggerations can often be the fault of eager university PR departments, but if papers and statements are carefully written, there can be little room left to sensationalise. We would surely do well to remember Carl Sagan’s famous words, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.
You might argue that these affairs show the scientific process in action, that we should be proud of the field’s humility in openly admitting its mistakes. When viewed as a collective process over time, science very rarely makes mistakes, despite individual experiments and experimenters sometimes being wrong. Nevertheless, I feel scientists must learn that the internet has changed things; they must take more time before ‘going public’. If not, commentators will continue to ask – what will episodes like this do to the public’s trust in science?