Category: results

Are Physicists Too Dismissive When Experiments Give Unexpected Results?

“Whenever you do a real, bona fide experiment, it’s important that you don’t bias yourself towards getting whatever result you anticipate. You’ll want to be as responsible as possible, doing everything you can to calibrate your instruments properly and understand all of your sources of error and uncertainty, but in the end, you have to report your results honestly, regardless of what you see.

There should be no penalty to collaborations for coming up with results that aren’t borne out by later experiments; the OPERA, ATLAS, and CMS collaborations in particular did admirable jobs in releasing their data with all the appropriate caveats. When the first hints of an anomaly arrive, unless there is a particularly glaring flaw with the experiment (or the experimenters), there is no way to know whether it’s an experimental flaw, evidence for an unseen component, or the harbinger of a new set of physical laws. Only with more, better, and independent scientific data can we hope to solve the puzzle.”

On the one hand, when experiments don’t agree with theoretical predictions, it offers the fascinating possibility that perhaps we’re about to learn something new about the Universe, perhaps even something big and revolutionary. But on the other hand, most times that experiments don’t line up with theory, it’s because there are errors and flaws with either the experiment or how the results are interpreted, not because the theory is wrong. We have a responsibility to strike the right balance, as scientists and as science communicators, in how we put these unexpected results out into the world.

Are physicists too dismissive of unexpected results? Or, quite possibly, are we not skeptical enough when we advance them to the general public? Here’s where we stand today.