Faster than the speed of light

There are a lot of myths about science, not least that it proceeds in an orderly manner, cool, detached and unemotional. In the 1960s, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn rather put the kibosh on that. Scientists, he said, get attached to paradigms, the orthodoxies of their day. When cracks appear, they paper over them, or rather, find ways to make sense of them within the terms of the paradigm. It’s only when the cracks become unsustainably large that a new paradigm emerges, and even then it tends to be the next, younger generation of scientists who accept the change. Science, mired as it is in the messy world of human affairs, proceeds as a series of revolutions, with all the connotations that word implies.

The news that a group of Italian scientists may have measured neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light seems to have opened the very first crack in the Einsteinian paradigm (in which it is a fundamental truth that nothing travels faster than the speed of light). What I find fascinating is the almost light-speed with which physicists have rushed to defend current orthodoxy. Einstein’s predictions have been proved right time and again, they say. We cannot leap to hasty conclusions. Even the Italian scientists daren’t publish their results, for fear of committing scientific heresy. Instead they’ve invited the scientific community at large to try and find out what they’ve done wrong. Dispassionate? Hardly.

The first cracks in my own faith in science opened while I was still an undergraduate thanks to a brilliantly taught module on its history and philosophy. It heralded my eventual move across the floor to the humanities.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-science. Far from it.

No, my beef is with scientists’ certainty, the swagger with which they typically assume they will eventually understand everything, the confidence that theirs is the one true way. Such hubris, surely, is unfounded by history, in which all scientific theories have eventually been proved if not wrong then not totally right. Neither can it be proved experimentally, by the tools and methods of science. It’s rather a belief, a creed. Science, in spite of its largely (though not exclusively) atheist stance, behaves remarkably like a religion.

Those racing neutrinos may yet prove to be beholden to Einstein’s commandments but I’m sure I’m not alone in willing them across the finish line. If the observations prove correct then we’ll be able to witness first hand the machinations, intrigue and blood-letting of a full blown Kuhnian revolution. And if that injects a little humility into science then so much the better.


  1. "my beef is with scientists’ certainty, the swagger with which they typically assume they will eventually understand everything, the confidence that theirs is the one true way".

    Have you ever met a scientist? I struggle to think of even one that would fit your description (or rather, caricature).

    In my experience scientists are pretty humble creatures, aware more than most of the utter insignificance of their position in the universe and the depths of their ignorance. They spend their lives in the Total Perspective Vortex, you could say. In spite of this they're passionate about not only increasing their understanding where/how they can, but also sharing that understanding with everybody. What's your beef with that?

    As for these results, I'm sure most scientists would be as excited as you if they turn out to show faster than light speeds (but you did read the paper before writing this, so you could see how much room for error there is in the measurement process, right?). However, their excitement would be based on the prospect of extending the understanding of how the world works, rather than misplaced Schadenfreude.

  2. I did meet one or two scientists during my D.Phil at Oxford...

  3. For me, science does seem much like a religion: all possible evidence is collected together and a story told from there. Perhaps the difference is that, whereas in most religions individuals will be accumulating their own evidence around their beliefs and the organisation at the top of that religion will be resisting new information; in science most individuals are largely unable to collect evidence, but the 'central organisation' (global academia) is actively looking for new information. Oddly, this means that a religious person can have a direct relationship with his/her deity, while a scientific person (I am well aware of the overlap between the two) will take almost all scientific theory on faith from those at the 'top' - the actual researchers. Personally, I would like it if there was less coyness about acknowledging the place of faith, hope and myth in science. And maybe these happy little neutrinos will help us with that. But for now, I'm enjoying the ride of the science story.
    Thanks for another interesting post, Andy.

  4. If you want to see the scientifically trained behaving like high priests, then try to have a discussion with a paediatrician about whether or not to have your baby vaccinated. Your heresy will not be well tolerated!

  5. Personally I'd rather a "scientist" than a "person of faith" any day. Scientists are less prone to burning people at the stake over their beliefs.

    As is often the case though, Randall Munroe has the right perspective:


    (p.s. sorry for being anonymous. I keep getting Cookie Errors -whatever they are- when I try to comment via my Google Account...)

  6. Sure the fact that during human history there have been numerous huge paradigm shifts in scientific thinking disproves your point, religions stay the same whatever evidence is presented to them, Human nature is made nervous by change that is natural, scientist are human but change and knowledge is what they essentially seek not dogma. I think your critique is cliched and unmerited.
    but debate is always a good thing so thanks for sharing

  7. Here's an update to this search for faster-than-light Neutrinos:

    The article suggests that there might be a mistake in the calculations around how GPS time gets affected by the motion of the GPS satellites themselves. Faulty stopwatches in other words...

    I think this highlights the main issue behind your blog post. It's not that Scientists are smug and certain about their theories (Ok, they are generally pretty smug... but at least their theories are published specifically to be knocked down by others, not to be taken as gospel. and you do admit that they will let go of a theory if the evidence suggests they should, unlike religion c.f. Gallileo, Copernicus et al!) The problem really is that scientific observation sufficient to tackle current theories is very, very hard to do. it takes a lot of people, kit and money to look at something in sufficient detail to 'prove' whether or not a theory stands up.



  8. @ Martine: Religions do not stay the same no matter what evidence is presented to them - what rubbish! Religions are constantly changing in both practice and belief, partly in response to science. For example, young earth creationism is now a rare stance among moderate Christians (the silent majority); people don't use the Bible to justify slavery any more; hardly anyone believes in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination any more.

    I agree with Andy, there is a scientific orthodoxy. Just look at what happened with the guy who discovered that Helicobacter pylori was the cause of stomach ulcers (OK so he eventually won the Nobel Prize, but before his theory was accepted, he was ridiculed and ostracised).



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