There Are Things That Erode Public Trust in Science. Primordial Gravity Waves Aren’t One of Them.


I had to laugh just a little when I read this last night:

Jan Conrad, an astroparticle physicist, claims that “The field has cried wolf too many times and lost credibility,” and he worries that false discoveries are undermining public trust in science. He lists some dubious results which have caused a stir amongst physicists and the general public over the past couple of years, including the faster-than-light-neutrinos that weren’t, the primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust, and several Dark Matter candidates which remain shrouded in uncertainty and contradiction.

When nutritionists constantly change their minds about what’s good or bad for us, that undermines public trust in science. This is because everyone eats, and stories about diet and nutrition are plastered all over TV, social media, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and every other form of human communication.

But those primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust? I’m here to assure you that 99.9 percent of the world doesn’t give a shit. Most people have never heard of it. Most of the ones who have heard of it don’t understand it. And almost by definition, most of the ones who do understand it have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the conditional nature of delicately measured new results in fields like astrophysics.

So put me in the camp with Jon Butterworth, who wrote the linked article, and Chad Orzel, who argue that the very fact of releasing preliminary results and then correcting them if they turn out to be wrong is what distinguishes science from pseudoscience. Nor, as Butterworth points out, would it help to keep results under wraps until everything is neat and tidy. “As I said at the time regarding the false faster-than-light neutrinos, imagine the conspiracy claims if the data had been suppressed because it didn’t fit Einstein’s theory.”

All true. But really, the most important thing is simply that controversies on the bleeding edge of physics are of interest to only a tiny fraction of humanity, and most of them already know when and how to be skeptical. As for the rest of us, we just turn on our cell phones every day and marvel at how cool science is. Nothing about neutrinos or gravitational waves is going to change that.

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