The Bright Side of the BICEP2 Story

I've done yet another piece for The Conversation, this one expanding on something I've been saying in interviews promoting Eureka: that knowing the process of science can help people sort good science from bad. In this particular case, I take the somewhat #slatepitch-y angle that the recent high-profile unraveling of the BICEP2 experiment's claim to detect primordial gravitational waves is a good thing:

Along with general disappointment, the new announcement has prompted discussion of what, if anything, the BICEP2 team did wrong. Many commentators fault them for over-hyping their results to the mass media before peer review. Some even argue that this has dire consequences – astronomer Marcelo Gleiser says the announcement and revision “harms science because it’s an attack on its integrity,” giving “ammunition” to those who raise doubts about politically charged areas of science.

Looked at another way, though, the BICEP2 story may in fact be ammunition for supporters of science. BICEP2 shows how science is properly done, and makes it easier, not harder, to detect the pseudo-science of attempts to discredit science for political gain.

We tend to think of science as a collection of esoteric information, but science is best understood as a process for figuring out the workings of the universe. Scientists look at the world, think of models to explain their observations, test those models with further observations and experiment, and tell each other the results. This process is familiar and universal, turning up in everything from hidden-object books to sports. More importantly, we can recognize the process even in cases where we don’t understand all the technical details, and use that to distinguish real science from phony controversies.

This is worked out at greater length over there. It's a little more explicitly political than I usually go for, but as I said, I've been using basically this line in a lot of the radio and podcast interviews I've done recently, so I jumped at a chance to write it out. So, you know, like the bloggers of old used to say, go read the whole thing.

(I've been really enjoying the process of writing these pieces (which is why I keep doing it)-- doing topical stories with a tight word limit is kind of a fun challenge. I'm likely going to take an enforced break from this for a little bit, though, as I have student papers coming in and need to get to grading them. Which is probably good, lest I wake up one of these mornings and find I've turned into a journalist...)

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Yes, I managed to break the HTML for the link that was supposed to be there. Aargh. I blame Starbucks, who is sold out of the black tea I usually drink when I come here in the morning, wrecking my entire day by making me drink something that claims to be English Breakfast tea but has an awful fruity aftertaste. It's wrecking my entire day.

Link fixed now.

Be careful what you wish for, Chad.

One all too plausible response to the project's demiise is a spate of blog posts blaming global warming on the synergy of cosmic rays and gravitational waves from the galactic center.

And what about the Wavist conspiracy to suppress Soon's bombshell paper on the correlation of giant clam olistostromes and bedsheet thread counts in the Sogdian Warm Period ?

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 10 Feb 2015 #permalink