Monday, October 3, 2011

Let's All Just Take a Deep Breath

And then let it out. And in. And out. In. Out.

Shake out all of that tension, and let's do a couple Jack Lalannes while we're at it.

Three incidents have been central in academic circles over the last couple of weeks (and longer, depending).  If you're a biologist, you'll be aware of Judy Mikovits. If you're anyone with a newspaper, you'll know of the faster than light neutrino issue. If you're a mathematician (or a physicist!) you'll know about the issue involving a Peano playing a wrong note.

If you read my blog (and you should read my blog) you know about all three.  These issues taken together cover the bulk of what happens in the enterprise of science. There are three main columns one can find one's self in when doing science: right, wrong, or indeterminate.

What happens when one makes a discovery and it's correct? One publishes and the whole body of the relevant fields goes, "Sweet! Awesome! Thanks! Get back to work."

Perhaps the least favorable position to find one's self in is that pesky indeterminate category. You have data. It seems correct, but it still doesn't add up. What do you do? Well, if you can't find the error, you're really stuck in a pickle since you don't know what's good and what isn't. So, you do what the faster than light neutrino scientists do: you ask the whole community for help.

Say, gang, um, we've got all these data. They all seem correct, but the conclusion is odd. It's not impossible (faster than light travel is allowed in relativity after all) that we're right, but, still. Um, yeah, we just don't know.

This is honest. This is how it works. This is a group of scientists with a result saying, um, look, here it all is and seems to imply this, but it's probably wrong only we don't know why or where. Anyone have a bright idea?

And the world of scientists get excited with "what if" and then they settle into work mode.

And then there's the bread and butter of science: shit, wrong again. Well, let's see what worked right and what didn't and keep what works while changing what doesn't. Then we'll see what that does and go from there.

That happened this past week with a mathematician named Nelson who published a proof that seemed to imply the Peano axioms were inconsistent. If true, this would have presented quite a bit of difficulty in mathematics. So, Nelson, an honest academic by all accounts, no doubt spent a great deal of effort working on this proof. It must have taken him quite a lot of effort, and professional courage to finish it and make it public.

And publish it he did. Then the process starts: all the smart people in the field (and out of it!) start looking at the work to see where it went wrong. (And we were all fairly certain it was wrong as there are independent reasons to think that Peano arithmetic holds true).  And two mathematicians in the world figured it out, and then we all look and go, oh yeah, totally wrong.

And Nelson was informed of the problems of his proof. He no doubt went back over it and thought very, very hard about it and then upon seeing that his proof was irreparable did what an honest person always does: admitted error and withdrew the work. And then the result from the mathematics community is exactly the same as if the paper had proved true: good work, nice try, thanks. Get back to work.

And then there's Judy Mikovits (and more is coming out on her I assure you). She was wrong and published and scientists did what they do: checked. And found she was wrong.  Her response? Fuck you, I'm right, and I'm going to keep saying that no matter what.  Or something.

So, where are they now?

Neutrino group: back to work, none the worse for the wear.

Nelson: back to work, none the worse for the wear.

Mikovits: out on her ass, ruined in science for all time.

We forgive honest mistakes without a second thought.  We know what it feels like to think you have something you don't. We'd rather this never happened, but every scientist understands the all-too-human foible of being misled.  Can't accept that you're wrong though? You're done in science as you've lost all utility.  The next time you'll be useful to science is when the death certificate is signed and you're shipped off to be a cadaver.

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