But How Can It Be Science If They’re Wrong?

by PhysicsJenn

This comes up every so often, most recently in regards to global warming. I’ve discussed the fallibility of scientists in the past, but now I want to talk about scientists being wrong about their own scientific findings. Specifically, what do you do when science gets disproved? And what does that really mean anyway?

The most recent example I can think of is the faster-than-light neutrinos, and the popular articles declaring “Einstein was wrong!” because he said that the speed of light was the cosmic speed limit. And then, it was discovered that these faster-than-light neutrinos weren’t that fast after all. It was an error. In layman’s terms, “error” means “mistake.” “Error” means “scientists were wrong.” But the reality is more nuanced than that.

Science is a practice of inquiry, not of being right. The best experiments are those that can be reproduced by another group (Although that’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of large, complicated collaborations that aren’t getting reproduced anytime soon. The LHC comes to mind). And, when you’re on the cutting edge of science, sometimes you end up producing results that end up being disproven later. Anyone who followed the supersolid helium debates know about this. Science is a process by which we approach the truth, not a way to prove truth once and for all and get to just forget about it once you’re done.

And, yes, there are biases and opinions that pepper the scientific debate. Take advanced particle physics theories, for example. The Standard Model is one way to describe how sub-atomic particles combine to make the world we live in and observe everyday. But, even though it’s been very useful to a lot of people, there are those that believe it doesn’t describe everything. So what’s the better model? What’s the real science?

Well, the answer is, we don’t really know. But there are a lot of very smart people who have some ideas. Some beliefs. And, yes, they are beliefs because most of these theories have basically zero evidence to show that they are valid, just evidence that some other theory isn’t valid. So there is an element of belief, even among the most analytical of scientific minds. Heck, even Einstein tried to backpedal on the theory of quantum mechanics. The EPR paradox, which was originally conceived to critique quantum mechanics, gave rise to the theory of quantum entanglement, which has now been observed.

So now we’re back to “Einstein was wrong!” But it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about the journey.