mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn

For over a century, Einstein’s theory of relativity has been one of the unimpeachable pillars of science, so much so that the statement “nothing is faster than light” is often taken as a simple fact of life. It is a theory upon which much of modern physics is based.

Several weeks ago, scientists in Europe came across something they shouldn’t have:

…They had measured particles called neutrinos which traveled around six kilometers (3.75 miles) per second faster than the speed of light, determined by Einstein to be the highest velocity possible.

The scientists were cautious. They knew there could have been problems with the experiment and they knew other scientists would question their methods. They promised to continue tests and experiments. From the Washington Post:

A second experiment at the European facility that reported subatomic particles zooming faster than the speed of light — stunning the world of physics — has reached the same result, scientists said late Thursday…

‘If it’s correct, it’s phenomenal,’ said Rob Plunkett, a scientist at Fermilab, the Department of Energy physics laboratory in Illinois, in September. ‘We’d be looking at a whole new set of rules’ for how the universe works.

Of course, more experiments will follow. That’s the thing about science. Theories are theories; any scientific theory or hypothesis can always be challenged by new facts.

What’s interesting, of course, is how much more mature physicists seem to be than climatologists.  Dissent from a scientific paradigm much more firmly established than anything in climate science isn’t greeted with howls of rage, fury and charges of heresy.  Many physicists are skeptical, as well they should be, of evidence that seems contrary to decades of experiment and analysis, but the overwhelming mood seems to be one of curiosity rather than rage.  Could these new results possibly be real?  What would this mean if it is true?  How can we check these results to see how fast these neutrinos are really moving?

This is how real science operates.  While I believe that the climate scientists are broadly correct subject to all the usual qualifications (temperatures are rising, the rise is associated with an accelerated production of greenhouse gasses by human activity, and further increases in greenhouse gas levels look likely to promote continued temperature increases and associated climate change), I continue to think that the heresy-hunting, quack remedy promoting climate change movement is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And challenges to the conclusions of climate science, and questions about computer models and the predictions they generate need to be answered by careful and reasoned debate, not by name calling and ad hominem arguments.

If physicists can control themselves while the most fundamental elements of their worldview are challenged by a handful of researchers with some interesting but quite tricky and potentially flawed results, then the climate world should be able to handle controversy with a little less venom as well.  My guess is that the best climate scientists are more interested by the questions critics are asking rather than infuriated by their temerity in doing so.  The orthodoxy enforcers and the heresy police tend not to be the finest scientific minds; skepticism and curiosity make for good science, not herd thinking and righteous rage.

In any case, as we wait to discover whether some things move faster than light, it’s worth remembering that science is a force that challenges orthodoxies and upends comfortable certainties.  Galileo, not the Inquisition, was the scientist and even when he came up with the wrong answers, he knew that his calling in life was to ask questions.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Kenny

    “What’s interesting, of course, is how much more mature physicists seem to be than climatologists.”

    That’s becasue physicts, chemists, practice a real science where as climatologists, by their deeds of the past generation, are more like [persons whose love of money leads them to disregard normal behavioral constraints] degrading themselves for politically skewed grants.

  • El Gordo

    It comes down to money. Subatomic particle research isn´t driving a multi-billion dollar industry.

    You cannot pour hundreds of billions worldwide into a cause and not create a constituency. Researchers, political hacks, large corporations, pr firms, ngos, journalists, farmers, the otherwise unemployed guy who puts subsidized solar panels on your roof … they are all stakeholders now. And that was entirely predictable. In fact it was the point all along.

  • Anthony

    “…science is a force that challenges orthodoxies and upend comfortable certainties.” WRM, I think we can agree that climate change is real (Global Trends 2025); and yes we must continue to ask questions as well as utilize the careful work done by National Academy of Sciences, scientific academies, research universities, etc. – careful and reasoned debate with tested hypotheses is the way….

  • Luke Lea

    Though measurement error seems the most likely explanation for the results of these experiments, at least in the opinion of most experts, string theorist Lubos Motl is already writing about possible adjustments in the theory of elementary particles to accommodate faster-than-light neutrinos. If you are up on your non-commutative geometry — just kidding, of course — you’ll see what he means.

    At the other extreme Nature is hyping a new paper in physics that challenges Quantum Mechanics at the most fundamental level. Laymen like me are in no position to judge, but Motl finds this a bit scandalous for reasons discussed. I bet he is right.

    The struggle to maintain high intellectual standards in the hard sciences is a never-ending one, even among the smartest guys in the world. You can imagine what it’s like in the fields of Climatology and Economics (assuming Economics is a science).

  • vanderleun

    “While I believe that the climate scientists are broadly correct subject to all the usual qualifications ….”

    You keep saying this even as the ‘usual qualifications’ become steadily more qualified. I wonder how long you will hold onto the ledge with the fingertips. I understand how many friends and associates going rogue for truth will cost you, but still….

  • Andrew Allison

    Well said! There is, by definition, no such thing as “settled science”, and no real scientist would ever make such a claim.

  • stephen b

    “Climate” is settled. We may learn more about its mechanisms in coming years, but we won’t be able to activate its levers, or even influence them in the way many “climate scientists” think they can, or at least say they can. What is the perfect climate for earth? Do we know what it is? And, having agreed upon this idyllic Eden of perfect climate, what is best method for getting there? Of course some argue they’ve already figured it out and advocate plans for its achievement. They disregard fact that many times in earth’s geologic history, climate has both been hotter and colder, and atmosphere has had both more and less CO2, all long before humans trod the surface. Earth will spin along its axis and around the sun many aeons after humans stop worrying about SUVs. THAT is what bothers environmentalists: they are powerless in face of nature; power over humans they think they can achieve, and they might. Nature won’t care one bit.

  • WigWag

    “What’s interesting, of course, is how much more mature physicists seem to be than climatologists. Dissent from a scientific paradigm much more firmly established than anything in climate science isn’t greeted with howls of rage, fury and charges of heresy.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Professor Mead raises an extremely interesting point but I am not sure that the difference between physicists and climatologists really has anything to do with “maturity.” We might just as easily ask why debates in the field of anthropology are almost always so much more measured than debates in the field of international relations. To ask the question is to answer it; most of the debates anthropologists have are about what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago; most of the debates that foreign policy gurus have are about what’s happening in the world today. It’s all a question of relevance to human beings living right now.

    It seems to me that how contentious the debates in any scientific field get has to do with whether a particular field has an impact on contemporary human existence; if it does, debates in that field are likely to be fierce while if it doesn’t, the debates are likely to be more temperate.

    As interesting as it is to see a paradigm like Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity challenged, nothing about whether a neutrino can travel faster than the speed of light has any direct impact on contemporary human society. Similarly, the validity of string theory may stir the hearts of theoretical physicists but these debates are unlikely to get loud and angry in the public sphere. The debate about the existence of dark matter which can get pretty hot and heavy in the world of cosmology is unlikely to get hot and heavy in the pages of the New York Times.

    Conversely, climatology has a direct and evident relevance to contemporary human society. Whether hurricanes become more or less prevalent, whether the sea level rises or falls and whether some regions grow too hot to support agriculture impacts literally billions of people.

    We can see the same kind of angry debate that climatology inspires in other fields of science. For decades, the settled view has been that dietary fat causes heart disease and probably cancer. The obvious conclusion was that carbohydrate intake should substitute for fat intake. Then comes along a group of scientists who provide data that demonstrates that the connection between heart disease and dietary fat intake seems spurious and the relationship of eating fat to contracting cancer seems practically nonexistent. Scientists espousing this minority view go on to argue that ever since Americans were urged to limit their intake of fat, the incidence of obesity and diabetes (both of which definitely contribute to heart disease) has begun to skyrocket.

    It is little wonder that the debate about this area of science has become vitriolic with the opposing camps accusing each other of perfidy and mendacity. For more on the great debate about the science of human nutrition see Gary Taubes and Michael Pollan

    Other areas of science that have a profound impact on human lives also inspire pitched battles. Is screening for breast and prostate cancer likely to save lives or not? Should insurance companies pay for Avastin to treat breast cancer despite the fact that the evidence that it prolongs life is very weak? Are genetically engineered crops a boon that will help wipe out hunger or a threat to the entire ecosystem? Each of these issues is debated as angrily as climate change is.

    Within any particular subfield, political debates are always likely to be strenuous; that’s human nature. But if the particular area of science is arcane, the arguments are unlikely to spill over and impact the popular imagination. On the other hand when the scientific question involved is directly relevant to human health or human wealth, of course the scientific debates will inevitably be more vigorous.

    It’s not that physicists are nicer, more charming, more diplomatic, more fastidious or more measured than climatologists. It’s that far fewer people care about how fast a neutrino travels than whether they’re about to lose their homes to a deluge caused by the polar ice sheets melting.

    One other point that I would make is that I am not sure that even within the field of climatology that the debates are filled with “rage and fury.” I haven’t actually read any of the climatology journals or attended scientific conferences sponsored by climatologists but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I did, even most of the strong disagreements between climate scientists would be expressed in a placid and professional manner.

    My suspicion is that most of the “rage and fury” about climate science is expressed in the popular press and in the pages of blogs like this one.

    Lumping all or even most climate scientists together as an immature group with anger management issues seems a little angry and perhaps immature in and of itself.

    Let me respectfully pose this question; might this might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

  • aretae

    re: FTL,

    I spent a lot of time in college fighting with Relativity…and if my 20-year old memory can be trusted…relativity says nothing about whether FTL speeds are attainable…it only says you can’t get there from Slower Than Light. If the particles were ALWAYS moving FTL…no issue.

  • John Burke

    I would not be so sure about the supposed observations and data reported by climate scientists being credible.

    First, “climate science” and “earth science” are a hodge podge of scientific disciplines that came into existence in the past 40 years on the tails of, and arguably because of, the growing influence of political
    environmentalism. Who studies these cross-disciplinary subjects at the graduate level besides liberal environmentalists who “want to make a difference.”

    I stumbled upon the close association of politics and this so-called science when I had occasion to attend the 2001 Yale Commencement at which the newly installed President George W. Bush was to speak. Many faculty and students carried anti-Bush signs as they processed in, not surprisingly.

    But the group that stood out among all the rest (including such liberal bastions as the Law and Divinity Schools) were the masters and Ph.D candidates from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science (used to be just forestry but boarded the environmental gravy train decades ago).

    This group had by far the most signs — a sea of them — with most of the harshest words of the day. What’s more, they were the most disruptive, continuing to shout slogans, taunts and insults when the rest of the audience had quieted down.

    This wasn’t accidental. Green is the new Red. Environmentalism is the principal refuge of anti-capitalist axe-grinding. I suspect that a conservative would be made extremely uncomfortable at such a graduate school (if admitted).

    A decade later, those raucous graduates are the scientists churning out studies purporting to show impending climate and other environmental disasters.

  • Charles R. Williams

    Confidence in science is one thing. Faith in the scientific community is something else entirely. The behavior of the climate science community and the economic incentives under which these people operate cast doubt on their integrity. And their integrity is everything.

    So I ask Professor Mead on what basis he believes “the climate scientists are broadly correct subject to…” if not faith in the integrity of the scientific community? The number of people who are in a position to evaluate the climate science research would probably fit in a small lecture hall and I seriously doubt that anyone in that lecture hall understands much about history or economics. They do understand who butters their bread.

    This is what I know. 1) It is very difficult to establish as fact a claim that the globe is warming in the sense that the climate has changed in a statistically significant way. 2) It is an order of magnitude more difficult to establish that CO2 emissions from human activity is the cause. 3) It is certain that steps to reduce CO2 emissions would cause immediate and grave human suffering. 4) It is unclear what the costs would be for humans to adjust to hypothesized climate changes. There may even be benefits. 5) Global political elites have a huge stake in this game as any credible program to reduce CO2 emissions would vastly increase their power. 6) There is no prospect of any significant action being taken on a global scale to reduce CO2 emissions and any actions taken on a local scale are just a waste of time and money.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I on the other hand think the manipulated data, incestuous peer reviews, stonewalling of information release, hiding the decline, name changing from “Global Warming” to “Climate Change”, and dozens of other violations of the scientific method, add up to a portfolio of lies that set off my BS Detector, and lead me to believe the Truth is the exact opposite of what the liars say it is, otherwise why all the lies?

  • Kris

    A more positive headline: “Science!”

    Which obviously leads us to the classic

  • ellisa

    Science is the search for objective truth through the rigorous process of testing, and incrementally eliminating what is not true. Interested parties, financial stakeholders, who claim a special exemption from the scientific method for their ‘truth’ are thus suspect from the word go.

    Here is the latest on how reporting is bought off for the warmists over at the bbc:

    And on this side of the Atlantic, Dr. Hansen’s growing financial scandal

    These people interested in the intellectually passionate search for objective truth, wherever that search may lead? please.

  • elisa

    Please read and consider this recent talk by Matt Ridley on the hallmarks of pseudoscience in ‘climate science:’

  • Ken Marks

    I find it disappointing that you would make this statement: “While I believe that the climate scientists [which climate scientists?] are broadly correct subject to all the usual qualifications (temperatures are rising [not according to measurements over the past 15 years], the rise is associated with an accelerated production of greenhouse gasses by human activity [see statement at bottom], and further increases in greenhouse gas levels look likely to promote continued temperature increases and associated climate change [says who? How many say yes to this? Answer: a handful, and how many say no: thousands]’. There is little or no scientific basis for this statement. Just google the subject and you will see that thousands of climate scientist contest these assertions you have made. The globe has been either cooling or staying the same for the last 15 years; not only that, temperatures have been much higher over the past several thousand years than now with much less CO2 in the atmosphere; recently cloud cover has been discovered to have more effect on global temperature than CO2; the models used are totally unreliable, as are the inputs to them. In fact chaos theory tells us that predicting climate change is impossible because our climate is by nature chaotic. Finally, doesn’t the fact that these so-called climate scientists who are pushing this theory have refused to divulge their data? That fact in and of itself disqualifies their climate-change pronouncements in total.

    How can you, a very educated and thoughtful man, make this statement? You need to get more educated on this topic, obviously.

  • AMcguinn

    If these neutrino results are believed by the public to be correct, how many politicians will benefit over their rivals? How many laws will be changed? How many trillions of dollars will be spent differently?

    In short-term political terms, this question doesn’t matter. Therefore the scientists involved, whatever their opinions, can behave like scientists. That’s the distinction from climate science.

    To imply that the problem with climate science is that mainstream climate scientists are _bad_ is to miss the point. It is, unfortunately, quite impossible to address such a politically loaded issue in a scientific way. I don’t know what the answer is, but I fear that name-calling is worsening the problem.

  • Augusto

    Don’t know who caceonttd Steve Goddard. He and Steve Mosher managed to reconcile their differences by the end though, which was good to see. Steve Goddard is a keen cyclist and all round clean living kinda guy, so his eco credentials but co2 sceptical outlook may have flagged him up as a non-stereotypical contributor to the debate.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service