Faster than light skepticism

What does real skepticism look like?

Recently the field of particle physics provided us with a crystal clear example. A team of researches in Italy, who have been measuring neutrinos produced by the CERN particle accelerator have produced results that, if true, are truly extra ordinary.

Using the OPERA particle detector they measured the length of time it took neutrinos to travel from CERN to their detector in Italy. And what they found is that on average the neutrino particles made the 730km, 2.43 millisecond trip to the OPERA detector roughly 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have if they were traveling at the speed of light.

The OPERA neutrino detector might have detected something extraordinary

This is supposed to be impossible. It violates Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This is a fundamental theory in our understanding of the universe. Which is another way of saying that this result, is a massively big deal. Scientific discoveries don’t get much bigger than this.

So obviously a great deal of skepticism is required. As Carl Sagan famously said”extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. Neutrinos that break the universe’s speed limit are certainly an extraordinary claim.

So naturally the physics community is skeptical of these claims. For example, Chang Kee Jung, a neutrino physicist at Stony Brook University in New York says:

“I wouldn’t bet my wife and kids because they’d get mad,” he says. “But I’d bet my house.”

And his sentiment is not unique. This is real skepticism, but it is also easy skepticism. It is, after all, easy to be skeptical of other people’s work. To say “surely they must have made some mistake. This is easy.

What is not so easy is finding people who are skeptical of their own work.

In fact just recently in the climate sphere we saw a new research paper that falsely claimed to have ‘blown a hole in global warming theory‘. It did no such thing. And while the media did a lot to hype this paper up, so did the lead author Roy Spencer.  So much so that the editor of the journal Wolfgang Wagner where Spencer’s paper was published publicly resigned stating that:

I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.

With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements, e.g., in a press release of The University of Alabama in Huntsville from 27 July 2011 [2], the main author’s personal homepage [3], the story “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” published by Forbes [4], and the story “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” published by Fox News [5], to name just a few.

This is not skepticism, it is the opposite of skepticism. Both the authors of the paper and the media threw any semblance of skepticism out the window because the results of a study that was ultimately flawed were the results they wanted.

Now compare that to the reaction of the scientists who discovered neutrinos that might be traveling faster than light. Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern and spokesperson for the 160-member OPERA collaboration stated publicly that he was not throwing away the theory of relativity, and asked the physics community to look over his team’s results and try to find any errors.

This is real skepticism. It is never easy to be skeptical of your own work, but Antonio Ereditato knows full well that the evidence is not yet extraordinary. And until it is he is avoiding making any extraordinary claims.

This is real skepticism, if only the self-described climate skeptics would employ it more often.


  1. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of "fake" skeptics have latched onto the neutrino results - see a recent WSJ opinion piece, specifically point #5:

    The new talking point is essentially, "If we can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then clearly we can question global warming. Therefore we should do nothing about it."

    They forget that in order to equate the two, we'd need a similar finding in climate science - say, discovering that our understanding of radiative transfer was somehow deeply flawed. Even then, this neutrino experiment is still being scrutinized. Somebody is a little quick on the draw...

    But even if this neutrino experiment turns out to be evidence of FTL motion, relativity will be amended; it's not like it's going to throw out everything that has been discovered in physics. GPS satellites must correct their clocks for the time dilation they experience, as predicted by relativity. Will that prediction change? Probably not.

    As with all human understanding, there are degrees of right and wrong, to paraphrase from Asimov's The Relativity of Wrong. Newtonian mechanics is not as "right" as relativity, but we still use it for a lot of macroscopic phenomena, because to a very good approximation, it works well. Whenever we require a new framework, chances are it will build upon its predecessor.

    • That WSJ article actually starts off decently by doing a decent job of describing the challenges (and there are many), and how so far we have failed to make any real progress.

      But then it goes off the rails trying to convince us that the science is not settled because... well because neutrinos might travel faster than light. A perfect logical argument!/sarcasm

      Both Phil Plait and David Appell have already taken the WSJ op-ed to task.

      David Appell's take is particularly interesting:

      by highlighting the experiment that recently announced a finding of faster-than-light neutrinos, Bryce disproves a main contrarian talking point: that scientists are afraid to buck the consensus and must go along to get along for the sake of funding, peer respect, morning donuts, etc.

      But coherence is a rare thing these days.

  2. Sheldon Glasow pointed out that superluminal neutrinos would "radiate" (maybe an electron-positron pair) and so slow down.

    There are two other laboratories around the world which may now attempt to replicate the work; be patient.

    [-0: tending off topic. +mt]

  3. From my position low on the scientific pecking order, there doesn't seem to be anything amazing about faster than light neutrinos. The only reason FTLT is impossible is because mass increases with motion until at 300,000kps it is infinite and further acceleration can't happen.
    But if a neutrino has no mass, there's no increase... infinity x zero still = zero.
    What I do find hard to comprehend is the thought of something having no mass..... but that's quantum physics!

    [this isn't a particle physics site. If someone has a link to one that is discussing this matter, please provide it. Else, more of this is off topic.

    The point of the article is that a real skeptic doubts their own opinions as much or more as anyone else's. -mt]

  4. An extract from the article
    This is not skepticism, it is the opposite of skepticism. Both the authors of the paper and the media threw any semblance of skepticism out the window because the results of a study that was ultimately flawed were the results they wanted.


    This is a scientific statement. It states that the authors threw out any semblance of scientific skepticism because the results were waht they wanted. It is a statment which cna be true or false. It can be falsified. Do you have any evidence to support this statment?

    • I disagree that it is a Popperian (objectively falsifiable) claim. Suppose that it were true. How would one find evidence to support it? Suppose that it were false. How would one find evidence to refute it?

      It's fairly obvious that excessive claims were made regarding the Spencer paper. While it's less obvious that Spencer himself made excessive claims BEYOND those made in the paper, it's at least arguable that he did, and further, there is considerable confidence that the claims made in the paper itself were excessive.

      The alternative is to suggest that Trenberth et al had so much arm-twisting power (independent of scientific argumentation) that they could get an editor of an engineering journal fired. Now THERE's a claim that needs extraordinary evidence.

    • Why can't this blog just be a blog that discusses the science on the assumption that the IPCC conclusions are valid? Why does it have to be yet another blog that just takes shots at climate skeptics?

    • When asked to comment on the Forbes article which claimed that Spencer's paper "Blew a gaping hole in global warming alarmism", Roy stated "It might have been a little over the top on interpretation (but not necessarily wrong)."

      Clearly Spencer promoted excessive claims beyond those made in the paper. One can only speculate on motive.

    • layzej provides the evidence. As did the letter of resignation of Wolfgang Wagner.

      As to why we cannot just ignore the skeptics? Well partially because the very fact that people call them skeptics illustrates that many people are confused about what skeptisism really is. That was the point of this article.

      We need skeptics, pseudo-skeptics on the other hand...

    • Not quite so fast, there, Dr. T; (pun intended).

      In a blogpost with a title that should also be applied to climate science, Chad Orzel has a skeptical perspective on this explanation.
      Referring to this preprint suggesting an elementary relativistic time error, ... he seems to be assuming that all of the timing information comes from the GPS clocks, which are moving relative to the experiment, when in fact the actual event timing comes from clocks on the ground that are at rest with respect to the source and detector.

      It'd be a little like me saying "Well, I bet your calculation of the vacuum energy is off by 120 orders of magnitude because you forgot to carry the 2 when you added a couple of numbers."

      I note as well that Dr. Orzell has a GSD mix that enjoys quantum physics and chasing bunnies, so he can't be all bad.

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