A Rant on Science and the Media

I like the media, at least in principal.  They tell me what’s going on in the world, and do research that I am too lazy to do but still care about.  They do have their uses and their good sides.

But jesus FUCK they can’t report on science, and it’s hurting the public appreciation for science in this country.

I don’t think they understand how science works.  Generally speaking, there isn’t a “Eureka!” moment when theories are rewritten, old knowledge tossed aside, and mass celebration in the streets.  It’s a nice thought, certainly exciting but real science is a lot more slow and boring than that.

The biggest difference between what scientists say and what the media reports, though, is the difference between “We measured X” and “Scientists say X”.  Which one sells more headlines?  The latter, clearly.  It’s also wrong.

Take the recent faster-than-light (FTL) neutrino experiments.  The scientists measured neutrinos arriving 60 ns before light would have (moving faster than the speed of light, in other words).  They checked their calibrations, accounted for all sources of error and inaccuracy, analyzed (and, I believe, repeated) their results, and got the same thing.

Now, things moving faster than the speed of light would be a BIG deal.  There was this guy Einstein; he was pretty smart, and he said that shouldn’t be able to happen.  When the scientists couldn’t figure out what went wrong, they published their results and experimental procedures to the scientific community, to try to get their help on figuring out whether or not their results were legit, or if they had overlooked something.

They said, “We measured neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light.”

The media said, “Neutrinos moving faster than light! Did Einstein have it wrong?”

What’s the difference?  Uncertainty.  The scientists say what they measure, what the observed happening, but that isn’t necessarily what actually happened, and the media reported it like it did.

When a source of error came to light (a bad cable), and other experiments didn’t replicate the results, the media printed stories about that, too.  Of course, what the public heard was “Neutrinos move faster than light!  Oh wait, no they don’t.  Sorry guys.”, as opposed to what the scientists said, which was “We measured neutrinos moving FTL.  We found the source of our error.  Carry on.”

So what does this have to do with the public?  What they see is scientists saying they made a big breakthrough, and then going back on it.  They see big progress, and then big mistakes, even though to the scientists, nothing was ever certain.  So they don’t trust the pronouncements of science (they’ll probably take it back next week).

That’s not the only reason, of course (the pathetic state of science education in this country contributes more), but it is a piece of the puzzle.

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