Suddenly, the arxiv was flushed with papers on superluminal propagation. My draft didn't have anything to say about neutrinos, but the last thing I wanted was for it to drown in a flood of papers I was convinced would become rapidly irrelevant. So I sat on the draft, but watched the appearance of papers on the arxiv, and the fate of the "OPERA anomaly" closely. Luckily, none of the papers that appeared had any resemblance with mine.
Now that the anomaly vanished into a loose cable that will probably become a running gag in the history of science, I want to return to a question that we already discussed two years ago: Did the attention of the press on what turned out to be a mistake benefit or harm the public perception of science?
A Nature Editorial from two months ago, titled "No Shame," boldly declared everything that happened went perfectly alright:
OPERA's handling of the incident, at least publicly, was a model for how scientists should behave. Ereditato and Auterio acted responsibly when speaking publicly by sticking close to their data and avoiding over-interpretation. They shared their work with their competitors, and did their best to quickly address outside criticism. In the end, it was OPERA's internal checks that found the loose cable. When the error was discovered, physicists on the team wasted no time in publicly announcing the problem, along with others they had exposed during their review.This elaboration however misses the point that "sharing work" doesn't exactly require to hold a press conference. It would have been perfectly possible for the collaboration to share their results and trouble-shoot without making such a big fuzz about it. The press would probably have heard of it anyway, but the collaboration could have calmly explained them that they're working on it.
The GEO600 collaboration, for example, when faced with their "mystery noise" did not make a secret of it either. They had information on their website and in conference proceedings, and in fact a lot of people knew about it. There were a few reports in the media, but not even NewScientist managed to create a sensation with a collaboration member who just declared that everybody expected the noise to vanish in a rather mundane explanation. Which was exactly what happened.
A lot of my colleagues think that any attention physics receives in the press is good. I don't think so. I understand that it's certainly an ego-boost if you read in the news about a topic on which you are an insider, and suddenly friends and relatives want to hear your opinion. Ah, I'm so knowledgeable, so cool, I'm so up-to date. But there are downsides to this. In my earlier post I listed three points that one should take into account
- First problem is that while it might draw interest in the short run, it erodes trust as well as interest in the long run. Science lives from accuracy more than any other field. The more often people read claims that something maybe was discovered, but then it wasn't, the less attention they'll pay if they read it again. Quantum gravity in cosmic rays! No wait, nothing to find there. Quantum gravity in gravitational wave interferometers! No wait, nothing to find there. Quantum gravity at the LHC. Sorry, nothing there either. This erosion of trust is exactly why I spent so much time on this blog deflating the headlines.
- Second problem is one of principle. If rumors or measurement errors are considered a useful tool to draw attention, and attention is a good thing, why not make up a few?
- Third problem is that these rumors tend to circle around a few presently particularly popular topics or institutions, and if they dominate the news the vast majority of topics remains uncovered. This, I think, is clearly a disadvantage to education in general and also to the way researchers perceive the relevance of their work.
- Fourth problem: The more public attention a topic receives, the more likely scientists in the field are to jump on the train and spend time coming up with contributions, eventually wasting their time and, essentially, taxpayers money.
No, the reason for the post is that I think the above points should be taken into account in similar situations because it's not at all clear more attention is always better. Also, I am interested in your opinion.
Related: I saw coincidentally that Giovanni Amelino-Camelia has a paper on physics.hist-ph that discusses the relevance of the OPERA affair for the philosophy of science. I haven't read it, but if you're interested in the details, it might be worth a look.