Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies

Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies
The BICEP2 telescope at twilight at the South Pole. The supporting data for the inflation of the universe have also gone off into the sunset. Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University , CC BY-NC-SA

Last March, the BICEP2 collaboration announced that they had used a microwave telescope at the South Pole to detect primordial gravitational waves. These tiny ripples in spacetime would be the first proof of the theory known as "inflation," an astonishingly rapid expansion of the universe in the instants after the Big Bang.

The result was announced in a paper, a press conference, and a viral video of BICEP2 member Chao-Lin Kuo visiting cosmologist Andrei Linde, one of the inventors of inflation, at his home with a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Last week, a new paper was released backtracking on last March's announcement. The BICEP2 team joined with rivals on the European Space Agency's Planck experiment, and found that their results were contaminated by dust. The signal is not large enough to constitute proof of inflation, so cosmology returns to its prior uncertain state. Rather than revolutionizing our understanding, the BICEP2 result is just the latest in a long line of highly public flops.

Did the hype hurt or help science?

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.

Refining real science versus phony controversies

Real scientific controversies are widespread and mainstream. The BICEP2 results were publicly challenged within weeks, by other scientists working in the field, who quickly identified dust as a trouble spot. While few of the participants were disinterested—most complaints came from scientists associated with BICEP2's competitors and theorists who prefer alternatives to inflation—they were active and respected members of the community.

Phony controversies, on the other hand, can usually be traced to a handful of opponents, often outside their fields of expertise. Challenges to the scientific consensus on climate change mostly come from engineers and economists, not working climate scientists, and tend to originate in think tanks and lobbying groups, not university research labs. Fears about vaccines can be traced to a handful of thoroughly debunked studies, and are stoked by politicians and celebrities, not medical researchers.

Real scientific controversies play out in the scientific literature, through papers drawing on many other sources of data. Within months of the original announcement, a detailed re-analysis of the data was posted to the physics arxiv (the online repository physicists and astronomers use to share their results), using multiple alternative models to show how dust could explain the results. Others drew on previous measurements to show that BICEP2's claims were difficult to reconcile with existing data.

Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies
Oh, those gravitational waves we detected…? Yeah, that could have just been dust. Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration, CC BY-NC-ND

Phony controversies tend to play out in the media, through press releases, stump speeches, and polemical writing reshared via social media. Reliable reports from scientific journals are difficult to find, even after chasing back long chains of references.

And most importantly, real are self-correcting. The final nail in the gravitational-wave coffin was a joint paper by both BICEP2 and Planck, combining their data to settle the question. The end result is professionally embarrassing for scientists involved in the original announcement, but they were at the forefront of the effort to resolve the controversy because for real science reputation is less important than the truth.

Phony controversies, on the other hand, are endless, with proponents clinging stubbornly to the same positions year after year. Even as their sources are discredited, their conclusions remain unchanged, because phony science is less interested in truth than in selling a conclusion.

Rather than weakening the standing of science, then, the BICEP2 saga should serve to enhance it. While few of us can follow all the technical details on which the controversy turns, everyone should be able to follow the broad outlines of the process. By providing a clear example of real science done the right way, the controversy over BICEP2 exposes politically motivated phony controversies as hollow frauds.

Explore further

Cosmic inflation: Dust finally settles on BICEP2 results

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
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Feb 10, 2015
Another example of bad govt science being corrected:

"The nation's top nutrition advisory panel has decided to drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food, a move that could undo almost 40 years of government warnings about its consumption.

The group's finding that cholesterol in the diet need no longer be considered a "nutrient of concern" stands in contrast to the committee's findings five years ago, the last time it convened. During those proceedings, as in previous years, the panel deemed the issue of "excess dietary cholesterol" a public health concern."

But they still get it wrong:
"The greater danger, according to this line of thought, lies in foods heavy with trans fats and saturated fats."

Sugar and carbohydrates are the real culprit.

Feb 10, 2015
Sugar and carbohydrates are the real culprit.

So, it's the bread on my philly cheese steak sandwich, not the loads of cheese and high-fat-content cuts of meat in the middle that's clogging my arteries?

Man, how do you even put your socks on in the morning without help? Or am I assuming too much with that statement?

I would point out the government's reversal on its position on cholesterol is stupid, but I'm here to talk about the claim you just made, not the one they did.

Feb 10, 2015
So, it's the bread on my philly cheese steak sandwich,


Try eating only the meat and cheese for a few weeks and have your cholesterol checked.

" Low-carbohydrate weight loss diets have an edge over low-fat diets for improving HDL cholesterol levels long term, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. "

" The relationship between low-carb diets and LDL cholesterol is more complex than with triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. There are some studies in which LDL is reduced on a low-carb diet, some in which it doesn't change, and some in which it goes up. But there is one thing about LDL changes which
is consistent with low-carb diets, and that is that it causes a change in cholesterol particle size. "

Feb 10, 2015
@Chad Orzel. Your above article is a lame 'apologist' piece which only adds to the loss of credibility for the scientific method as 'practiced' by 'modern' cosmologists/physicists who put 'publish or perish' imperatives above prudent and responsible science and scientific method practice.

Can't you see that it was NOT 'good' for that BICEP2 'team' to 'kill the messenger' who was pointing out the flaws and confirmation biases which made that 'exercise' the OBVIOUS 'publish or perish' attempt which everyone saw it as soon enough at the time?

Sure, science is self-correcting; but on what TIME FRAME? It took a YEAR of weasel words, evasions, denials, delaying tactics and attacking their critics over the OBVIOUS things pointed out IMMEDIATELY then.

Why pretend that a year was necessary for them to ADMIT they were wrong; and their study flawed in every way; due to obvious BUILT-IN CONFIRMATION-BIAS in ALL CMB 'studies'.

As many recent articles now recognize! NOT 'good', Chad. :(

Feb 11, 2015
Space is a particle, so is mass. How would you know that is Phony ? Let me help you more. The mass particle is exactly the mass of the neutrino and is the difference in mass between the neutrino and the next massive neurtino. And there are 12 space particles, 11 have mass and are only found in what we call a black hole and cauce that hole to be stabe, because those space particles act much like electrons. AND all particles are built from 3 preons. And more help. The particle tables are (LLL)space, (LLH) fermions, (LHH) bosons, (HHH) unit mass; the L and H are properties of the preons. HOW PHONY IS THAT ?

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