Science flexes its Bicep – perhaps prematurely

You may get an idea how science really works from an article by Boston science writer Kate Becker in today’s Boulder Daily Camera. (I think the column is exclusive to the Daily Camera.)

Becker describes the Bicep2 experiment, which looked for evidence of cosmic inflation by examining the polarization of the cosmic background radiation. The authors of the paper announced its conclusion before the paper had been submitted for review; since then, others have criticized their method and thrown the conclusion of the paper into doubt. Specifically, some think that cosmic dust may polarize the radiation in such a way as to give a false positive, in this case a polarization that mimics that of the cosmic background. The researchers have considered cosmic dust and disagree. At any rate, their article has finally been published, and you may find the abstract here. I read the abstract, but as Casca said, it was Greek to me, and I have no opinion concerning the conclusion. We will, as Becker notes, wait until other telescopes weigh in or the Bicep2 data are further evaluated.

Thus, if I understand correctly, cosmic inflation is still a theoretical concept, and scientists are trying to demonstrate its reality; no theory is presumed to be true in the way that certain religious texts are presumed to be true. However much the Bicep2 team would like to demonstrate the reality of cosmic inflation, they will ultimately go where the evidence leads them, in stark contrast to those who reject evidence because it does not appear to agree with their interpretation of a religious text. Indeed, that is why scientists immediately seized upon the data in order to see whether they could falsify it.

Becker concludes her article,

Some commentators are calling this [a] cautionary tale, a story of over-eager physicists rushing to make results public without sufficient scrutiny. These critics argue that the episode undermines public trust in science and scientists.

But I disagree.

After all, science isn’t just a series of right answers. (How boring that would be!) Science is a process. And now, we all have a front-row seat to watch it happen.

Unhappily, it seems to me, the commentators have a point. Whether or not the physicists were over-eager, and whether or not their results are upheld, it seems likely that episodes such as this one in fact undermine “public trust in science and scientists.” That is, even if science is working the way it is supposed to, people accustomed to having the “right answers” may not recognize the process and instead fixate on the uncertainty. Not all journals will accept a paper that has been previously published, even in a press release. I think it is better not to go public with a new result until the experiment has been thoroughly reviewed. If that means that the team was over-eager, then the team was over-eager.