Is that right? How do we know?

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.

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