By now, many of you have read about the shocking discovery at CERN that muon neutrinos might travel faster than light, a fact that, if confirmed, would upturn much of the theoretical basis for modern physics.
Does this mean we can’t trust scientists? Of course not. If anything, this shows how awesome the scientific method truly is.
My readers and friends know that I struggle constantly with the claim that people who accept scientific method as a basis for understanding the universe (usually in contrast to doctrinal faith or intutitive spiritualism) is as much ‘faith’ as the ‘knowledge’ that believers in Jehovah or Vishnu profess. This misunderstanding is often the irritating conclusion of any rational conversation about evolution or cosmology with folks who prefer to believe in religious teachings and fail to understand how science is different. I believe this discovery will show once again how science is a process to uncover knowledge, and that its fundamental difference with religious dogma is its constant pursuit of verifiable truth, and its zeal to revolutionize itself in the face of new evidence. This is squarely not faith, and understanding how a method works and trusting its outcome is not tantamount to religious belief, any more than trusting your pilot to fly your plane is not an implicit adherence to a fascist sky government.
That nothing can travel faster than light has been a useful principle that has helped to fine-tune our understanding of how the universe works, how it was formed, and how we came to be on Earth. But if it turns out to be wrong, does that mean ALL of science is wrong? No, but the math is. Does it mean we don’t live on a planet or that the Earth is flat? No, but it could mean things travel through time. Or that the universe is MUCH older than we though, or MUCH younger. (not 6000 years young, but I digress…)
Regardless of these changes, science is not threatened by the introduction of new evidence – it is fueled, it is defined by it. Asimov famously said that the most exciting utterance indicating a scientific discovery isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘Huh, that’s weird.’ The reason for that is simple – science sets out to verify hypotheses through experiment. When those hypotheses are confirmed, nothing progresses except our sureness that we were right in the first place. But when things go differently than expected, THAT’S when we know the process is working to peel away our preconceptions of the universe and inject real fact into the model. That’s what science is. Granted, there is an institutional tendency to protect ideas that have made the careers of influential people, but the natural competition – dare I say, selection – of scientists working to be the best by examining data and reproducing experiments works to counter this social tendency.
Religion and intuitive revelation has no systemic counter-balance to individual delusion or confirmation bias. Groupthink and herd mentality does not paint an accurate picture of the world. The scientific method is not perfect, but it is so much more accurate and useful than its (somehow) rival world views that it baffles the mind to how people could be so opposed to its findings.
Revelations like the one at CERN do not show that scientists are frequently wrong and therefore can’t be sure of anything. It shows that they are so committed to being ‘sure’ that no theory, no matter how doctrinal and central to the careers of the entire profession, is more sacred than the raw data of empirical observation and experimentation. Science is a method, not a dogma, and although we all can’t send neutrinos through miles of conduits to confirm these discoveries, we absolutely can rest assured knowing that scientists will seek the truth, no matter how wrong it makes them look.