Light-speed doubt

February 27, 2012

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.


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