What does real skepticism look like?
Recently the field of particle physics provided us with a crystal clear example. A team of researches in Italy, who have been measuring neutrinos produced by the CERN particle accelerator have produced results that, if true, are truly extra ordinary.
Using the OPERA particle detector they measured the length of time it took neutrinos to travel from CERN to their detector in Italy. And what they found is that on average the neutrino particles made the 730km, 2.43 millisecond trip to the OPERA detector roughly 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have if they were traveling at the speed of light.
This is supposed to be impossible. It violates Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This is a fundamental theory in our understanding of the universe. Which is another way of saying that this result, is a massively big deal. Scientific discoveries don’t get much bigger than this.
So obviously a great deal of skepticism is required. As Carl Sagan famously said”extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. Neutrinos that break the universe’s speed limit are certainly an extraordinary claim.
So naturally the physics community is skeptical of these claims. For example, Chang Kee Jung, a neutrino physicist at Stony Brook University in New York says:
“I wouldn’t bet my wife and kids because they’d get mad,” he says. “But I’d bet my house.”
And his sentiment is not unique. This is real skepticism, but it is also easy skepticism. It is, after all, easy to be skeptical of other people’s work. To say “surely they must have made some mistake. This is easy.
What is not so easy is finding people who are skeptical of their own work.
In fact just recently in the climate sphere we saw a new research paper that falsely claimed to have ‘blown a hole in global warming theory‘. It did no such thing. And while the media did a lot to hype this paper up, so did the lead author Roy Spencer. So much so that the editor of the journal Wolfgang Wagner where Spencer’s paper was published publicly resigned stating that:
I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.
With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements, e.g., in a press release of The University of Alabama in Huntsville from 27 July 2011 , the main author’s personal homepage , the story “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” published by Forbes , and the story “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” published by Fox News , to name just a few.
This is not skepticism, it is the opposite of skepticism. Both the authors of the paper and the media threw any semblance of skepticism out the window because the results of a study that was ultimately flawed were the results they wanted.
Now compare that to the reaction of the scientists who discovered neutrinos that might be traveling faster than light. Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern and spokesperson for the 160-member OPERA collaboration stated publicly that he was not throwing away the theory of relativity, and asked the physics community to look over his team’s results and try to find any errors.
This is real skepticism. It is never easy to be skeptical of your own work, but Antonio Ereditato knows full well that the evidence is not yet extraordinary. And until it is he is avoiding making any extraordinary claims.
This is real skepticism, if only the self-described climate skeptics would employ it more often.