I’ve been incredibly busy this term, but not so busy I couldn’t create more work for myself. Specifically, by writing an opinion piece for Physics World about the FTL neutrino business, that just went live on their web site:
The result quickly turned into one of the most covered physics stories of the year, with numerous articles in magazines, newspapers and on television asking whether “Einstein was wrong”. Just as quickly came numerous physicists denouncing the media frenzy, with Lawrence Krauss from Arizona State University and Cambridge University cosmologist Martin Rees both calling the coverage “an embarrassment”.
“A press conference on a result, which is extremely unlikely to be correct, before the paper has been refereed, is very unfortunate – for CERN and for science,” Krauss told Scientific American. “Once it is shown to be wrong, everyone loses credibility.”
A closer look, however, suggests that the OPERA researchers behaved exactly as scientists should. They did not write a press release, but a technical preprint on the arXiv preprint server; and they did not schedule a press conference, but a seminar at CERN. While some of the media coverage has been regrettable, OPERA scientists are not the architects of overhype, but the victims of a radically changed media landscape.
Click through for the whole article, which should be free to read, but might require registration. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though one bit that I liked got cut for length. I’ll reproduce it below the fold, because I can:
Interestingly, a positive example of science conducted in the open occurred the same week that OPERA made news. On September 27, mathematical physicist John Baez posted an article on his blog about another mathematician’sforthcoming proof that claimed to demonstrate the inconsistency of arithmetic. A spirited and highly technical discussion broke out in his comments, including the author of the proof in question and Fields medalist Terrence Tao. Four days into the discussion, Tao found an error in the proof, which the original author accepted gracefully, withdrawing the claim.
While the far-reaching nature of the original claim made this especially dramatic, the general phenomenon is relatively common in math. Numerous blogging mathematicians regularly carry on high-level discussions of mathematics in blog posts and comment sections. Physicists should study and adapt this model, taking advantage of new media, rather than continuing a hopeless fight.
I agree that removing this doesn’t change the main point, but I do think the contrast between the cases is interesting. They’re not precisely parallel, as a highly technical point of abstract mathematics is less media-friendly than an “Einstein was wrong!” story from particle physics, but the way mathematics has embraced blogdom while physics continues to fight it is striking.
This piece is going to end up doing double duty, by the way, because I’m teaching a writing-based course next term. I’ve been trying to think of ways to get students to take first drafts more seriously, and talking with some colleagues in the humanities made clear that some of the problem is a belief that drafts are only for amateurs– professional scholars who are really good at writing will just think about the subject until they have the entire thing perfect in their minds, and then write finished prose all in one go.
It occurred to me that one way to address this would be to show them how the process actually works. Because I do write in multiple drafts, and the first drafts frequently suck. The problem is, most of what I write is either more technical than they could handle or too long to make them read multiple times. A one-page op-ed article, though, is not unreasonable to make them read over a couple of times, and as a bonus, I have editorial comments both from Mike Banks at Physics World and Kate here in Chateau Steelypips, so they can see not only what I did to improve it, but how other people marked my writing up just as much as I’ll mark theirs up.
So, I get to claim this not only as public intellectualizing, but as ground work for teaching. Which justifies the extra work even at a time when I was crazy busy with other things.