a note on how new discoveries *should* be announced to the public

Given all of the debunking and criticism of pseudoscientific claims and sensationalist headlines I do on this blog, I thought I’d take a moment to mention a recent discovery and the team of real scientists who released their discovery to the public the correct way. In particular, I’d like to highlight two things: 1) the team’s reaction to a potentially earth-shattering discovery, and 2) how they presented it to the media.

A monitor showing the first ultra high-energy collisions is seen at the CMS experiment control room at CERN in 2010. Courtesy CNN.

A team of scientists are reporting that a recent experiment conducted as a part of the so-called “Opera experiment,” based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, appears to show that neutrinos (electrically neutral sub-atomic particles) potentially traveled at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light – a result that would defy the laws of nature and undermine Einstein’s long accepted Theory of Relativity. The laws of physics state that nothing is supposed to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. The experiment challenges that assumption.

This discovery is potentially HUGE, and would force every physics textbook to be rewritten, as well as force us to rethink our entire universe.

But rather than rush out and leak their tentative results to the media, and write a press release, and sign a book or documentary deal to capitalize on their latest “discovery” as so many pseudoscientists, archaeological hucksters, amateur ark hunters, and relic seeking religious zealots do before scholars can critique and refute their obviously bogus claims, this team did two things that all scholars and real scientists always do.

First, they opened up their peculiar findings to other scholars. Rather than rush to the press with their unexpected discovery to make a quick buck (and potentially soil their names and reputations forevermore), they asked other trained scholars to examine their findings and attempt to explain or refute their conclusions.

And when this scholarly review was offered, other scholars gave their cautious input:

“It is premature to comment on this,” Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most well-known physicist, told Reuters. “Further experiments and clarifications are needed.”

Professor Jenny Thomas, who works on neutrinos at CERN’s friendly rival Fermilab near Chicago in the United States, commented: “The impact of this measurement, were it to be correct, would be huge.”

That is, the research team maintained a disposition of skepticismeven toward their own research methods and conclusions – and invited academic peers to review their work. In doing so, they made their potential academic rivals into collaborators, and allowed them some confirmatory participation in the discovery. (Many of them are even named as co-authors on the paper.)  What’s more, they did this before they went public.

Second, when the research team finally did reveal their findings to the public, they reported their findings with an abundance of caution. While the media usually gives potentially game changing stories like these sensational headlines (to attract eyeballs with the hopes of selling papers and attracting advertisers), proper scholarly dissemination of research and findings to the media can do much to prevent journalists from misunderstanding or intentionally twisting the findings into saying something that they do not. By downplaying the discovery, the research appears far more credible, and therefore will be received far more readily if the results are confirmed and the research turns out to be the real deal.

Here is a scientific research team in Switzerland that did it properly: they opened their odd findings to scholars and asked them to refute the findings, researched their findings further and published an academic article on the findings, and only then did they go to the media with an abundance of caution.

This is how real scholars present real evidence to the public. Devoid of academic peer review, openness, transparency, and careful, cautious scholarship, any new claim of “lead codices” or “nails of Jesus’ cross” or “Noah’s Ark” should be viewed with complete skepticism, and those making these so-called “discoveries” should be thoroughly scrutinized with increasingly suspicious eyes.

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One Response

  1. [...] a note on how “new” discoveries should be announced to the public [...]

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