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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: On being wrong

For those of you who weren’t keeping up with the faster-than-light neutrinos story after it hit the news sites, it was revealed about a month and a half ago that the reading was likely due to a messed-up cable. A week ago, the team leader of the experiment resigned from the OPERA project.

The reason the original announcement of their finding (as well as their less-publicized caveat that they were seeking replication for) was so shocking was because it would overturn one of the biggest theories in physics — that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. It looks like Einstein’s theory of relativity is safe, at least for now.

The whole story seems like a fiasco of modern science. How can we trust anything scientists say if such a world-changing result could come from something as simple as a wonky cable?

The wonder shouldn’t be at how such a huge mistake could have happened, but at how quickly it was corrected. As soon as the story came out there was about an hour of breathless coverage by mainstream news sites before the scientists and science bloggers began asking serious questions and highlighting contradictions.

Scientists have a long tradition of proving each other wrong; it just happens much more quickly today than it ever did in the past.

Before the theory of evolution by natural selection, there was Lamarckian evolution as described by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the early 1800s. The basic idea was that organisms naturally become more complex over time but will lose some of these characteristics if they aren’t used in their own environment. These were the “complexifying force” and the “adaptive force,” respectively.

The classic example, one that biology students are probably familiar with, is the giraffe. According to Lamarckian theory, one giraffe (hypothetically named Jeffrey) was born with a short neck. As Jeffrey tries to reach the leaves on the tall trees, the neck becomes longer and longer until it’s as long as the giraffes we see today. When Jeffrey then has offspring, they will be born with long necks.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight and another two centuries of biological discoveries, any college student and most high school students could tell you that evolution doesn’t work like that. Lamarck, however, was working before the discovery of DNA and before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published their theories of evolution.

For the first cohesive evolutionary theory, he didn’t do that badly. The fact that he happened to be wrong doesn’t mean that he should be ridiculed. His explorations of the natural world, as well as his classification of species (he was one of the first to recognize that spiders and insects belonged to different groups) were essential to later scientists. The story of Lamarck teaches us that being wrong can be important to the process of science.

It’s difficult to apply this lesson to the faster-than-light neutrinos story until we have the hindsight of the future and can see how particle physics proceeds. At the very least, it does teach us the importance of checking all equipment (which isn’t a small lesson, as there are so many things that can go wrong with such delicate yet huge amounts of technology).

There are so many differences between the science of Lamarck’s time and our own, but we need to accept that sometimes we will still be wrong. As our scientific observations become more and more detailed, we will be relying on computers to make those observations; however, as long as there are people interpreting the results, mistakes are going to be made.

One issue that Lamarck didn’t have to deal with that scientists today do is the 24-hour media. These scientists resigned not because they were wrong in the experiment, but because they dealt poorly with the media. Lamarck spent about 20 years outlining his theory in his books so that people could become gradually aware of his theories; the OPERA team publicized their findings in a single press conference.

A bright side to this as-fast-as-light communication is that we became aware of the problem with the finding very quickly. Science is moving incredibly fast today and don’t be surprised if it gets faster in the future. However, we always need to slow down, take a deep breath and remember:

We could be wrong.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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