In recent years, the public have been more eager than ever to learn about new research being carried out. Rarely a week goes by where one of the headline news stories doesn’t involve something from the world of science, with scientists now in the limelight for better or worse (as Dr Matt Taylor can attest). With this new responsibility to public engagement however, it does beg the question: how far along the research phase should scientists “go public” with their results?
Looking back to September 2011, physicists at CERN released some extraordinary data claiming to show neutrinos travelling at a speed greater than light, disproving Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Tabloid papers began printing sensational headlines such as “EINSTEIN PROVED WRONG”, and discussing the possibility of time travel thanks to this revelation. Nine months later, the data was found to be anomalous, being put down to faulty wiring.
While the reaction to this blunder from the public was one of mirth, fellow scientists were scrambling to understand these results. Many were trying to find any possible mistakes, whilst others were developing new hypothesis that could possibly explain them. The time – and money – wasted on this could have been put to better use developing other concrete scientific research.
The affair at CERN certainly won’t be the last to occur. The ease with which news can proliferate via social media allows impulsive individuals to put forward their idealistic beliefs in their research before sufficient scrutinising. In fact, just a few days ago one of the top posts on reddit – the 31st most popular site in the world – concerned an astronomer discovering a giant “alien megastructure” orbiting a star in the Milky Way – this despite the data not being published yet.
With the impending cuts to scientific funding under austerity in the UK, it is also likely this sort of behaviour will increase as researchers compete to grab the attention of fellow scientists, hoping to improve their chances of gaining one of the many dwindling research posts.
For me, it is more important than ever a check system is in place to prevent dubious information being released. It maintains integrity in all data produced, and prevents the public from being misled. More importantly, it prevents any pseudo-science from being produced.