A retrospective on discoveries

Interestingly, last year saw a number of exciting announcements made of scientific discoveries. Discoveries which were highly relevant to my interests. However, much to my disappointment, it later became apparent that two of the notable discoveries made (and ones which I blogged about) were likely not discoveries at all. The resounding lesson here is that scientists of all fields should be extremely careful about announcing things, particularly things which may cause a splash.

So one such fiasco was the talk of planet Gliese 581g. The announcement of a planet within its host star’s habitable zone was, understandably, met with a tumultuous reaction. A tumultuous reaction which included things like this pretty New Scientist image*. This was exacerbated somewhat by scientists claiming that this planet was “certain to host life”. They should be wiping egg off their faces, then, at the prospect that their planet may not have been a planet at all.

It’s still rather a contentious issue, but essentially it all comes down to how you look at the data. Data is interesting stuff, especially when it’s astronomical data. Basically, what you find can depend on how you pick it apart. The first group to analyse the data imposed a few constraints on the planets they were looking for. Specifically, they were looking for things in perfectly circular orbits. But planets don’t orbit in circles. They orbit in ellipses. Adjust the data to look for any planets which actually act like real planets, and you find nothing where 581g should be. While I stand by any inferences and suppositions I might have made about how such a planet might be, there’s nothing to prove that this one actually exists. Pity.

The other big “discovery” was the arsenic bacteria claim. Now, I’m no expert on much of this. I read the paper, but I’m no biologist. I don’t even work in a lab, per se. However, other people do. The arsenic bacteria have been hotly analysed, and a number of scientists are expressing their disagreement with the finding. The whole topic is covered in far more detail than I’m qualified to go into on RRReasearch.

So what do we make of all this? Well, let me say right now that I’m not saying scientists should go with the safe option and not make bold claims. Allowing things to stagnate is not science. Neither is blindly carrying out some research without thinking about implications or hoping to make discoveries. In effect, what’s happened here is a fantastic example of precisely the way science should work — one person makes a discovery, and others analyse what they’ve done and try to ascertain whether or not it’s true. Contrary to what some people believe, skepticism should be universal. You can’t be selectively skeptical of some ideas and not others. A good skeptic will demand the proof of any ideas. Even those made by other scientists. Perhaps especially those made by other scientists. Even scientists who know better. As Richard Feynman once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Now, science may not be a field for the lighthearted. One should always be prepared to have one’s work scrutinised. Particularly so if that work turns out to be popular or to have deep implications. It’s rather disconcerting to realise that you may be subject to having people across the world pick your work apart. That’s why you should try and save people the trouble and scrutinise your own work harder than anyone else’s.

“Don’t coddle ideas. Crash test them. Slam them into a wall and examine the pieces.
If your theory is sound, the pieces will be those of the wall.”

(Purely because it deserves repeating.)

*Frankly, I still find the Aurelia image more likely than the eyeball. But then, I thought Alien Worlds was awesome. I’m still sad that they only made two episodes…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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