Tuesday, June 03, 2014
One lesson a scientist should learn is not to announce too loudly a discovery. Future facts might humiliate. This is what is happening now to the gravitational wave study that was bruited globally earlier this year. Doubts are creeping in about the meaning of the data. Did the astronomers see polarization in the cosmic microwave background or in cosmic dust? If it was dust then the discovery was not so earth-shaking. Scientists may have to change the experiment to allow for the fine particles of deep space then try again. Meanwhile, news of their discovery becomes an embarrassment. One can't blame scientists for being excited and convinced of what they have detected. Years of instrument building, searching, and interpretation of data prepare one for finding something. It is hard to stand back and examine evidence objectively, even with safeguards built in. How will the searchers answer the argument that what they have seen is dust? We shall find out in the days to come, but we're seeing now peer-review in action and doubt growing. Science should, but often does not, confer humility.