Reaction to Faster Than Light Claims Expose Anti-Skeptic Myth

September 23, 2011

The physics world is abuzz this week over the claim that researchers may have found evidence that particles can exceed the speed of light. According to an Associated Press report,

“Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them. Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein. “To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team. Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light – 186,282 miles per second – has long been considered a cosmic speed limit. The team – a collaboration between France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory – fired a neutrino beam 454 miles underground from Geneva to Italy. They found it traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than light.”

Already there are many questions and skeptics. Will the findings hold up under repeated experiments? Could this team have proven Einstein wrong about the speed of light?

I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Certainly, if the findings are accurate then physicists will need to take a fresh new look at many of their previous conclusions and assumptions. But if Einstein was wrong about this, it does not affect me at all.

I mention this because one of the most common charges leveled against skeptics and scientists is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon (psychic abilities, ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, etc.) because it would destroy their worldview. Skeptics and scientists, they say, are deeply personally and professional invested in defending the scientific “status quo.” This claim is heard over and over again, often from New Age writers, UFO buffs, and the like.

It is, of course, a myth. The scientists and researchers who are skeptical of the new faster than light claims are not skeptical because accepting that Einstein was wrong about something would lead to a nervous breakdown, or that their whole worldview would crumble beneath them, or that they would have to accept that science doesn’t know everything. The reason scientists are skeptical is because the new study contradicts all previous experiments. That’s what good science does: When you do a study or experiment-especially one whose results conflict with earlier conclusions, you study it closely and question it before accepting the results.

Scientific testing is incredibly difficult work. Designing a well-controlled experiment can take months (or years), and no experiment is perfect. There are always some variables beyond the experimenter’s control that must be accounted for. The goal is to design better and better studies as time goes on, fixing problems in previous studies and refining the methodologies.

What has been the reaction from scientists? “Burn the witch, this is heresy and cannot be true?” No, it’s, “Well, that’s interesting… Let’s take a closer look at the experiment to make sure the results are valid.”

Furthermore, the very fact that this experiment was conducted in the first place proves that scientists are hardly afraid of challenging the dominant scientific beliefs and paradigms. If scientists were truly reluctant to rock the scientific boat (“Maybe we shouldn’t do this because we need preserve Einstein’s legacy”), they wouldn’t have done the study. In science, those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Disproving one of Einstein’s best-known predictions would earn the scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel prize.

Whether Einstein will be vindicated or debunked remains to be seen, but either way science will find the answer.