Friday, 4 November 2011

Replication and big toys

A simulation of a Higgs discovery. Allegedly.
The recent kerfuffle about faster-than-light neutrinos has stirred an old concern in my mind. One of the essentials of good science is being able to replicate the results. Any particular experimental setup can always mislead those using it because they get something wrong that they don't realize. This is why the neutrino guys have asked other experimenters to try to confirm what they have found.

A classic lesson in the dangers of relying on a single experimental setup is the one that emerges from the work of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. They were the people behind the cold fusion debacle in 1989. This was, as far as I can tell, a serious experiment by good scientists. They got some amazing results from their single experimental setup then did something stupid. Instead of attempting to publish in a journal and get peer review, they went straight to the press.

There are two reasons this was stupid. It was partly because it missed the opportunity for critical suggestions from reviewers. And it was partly because the science community hates a show-off and is always suspicious of going directly to the press. It meant that the rest of the community was much heavier on the pair, who had a perfectly legitimate idea that turned out not to be particularly good, than they otherwise would be. Most ideas in science fall by the wayside. There's no problem with this, if you go about it the right way. But once other labs tried to duplicate cold fusion and got nothing, the suspicions started to rise and Pons & Fleischmann were torn to pieces. (Not literally. Scientists aren't that bad. Not quite.)

But here's the concern I have. Just imagine the LHC gang announce that they've found the Higgs boson. Whoops and hurrahs all round. But who is going to duplicate this result? If theirs is the only toy big enough to do the job, who can say that this isn't another cold fusion? Of course they'll check it and do all they can to ring the changes - but the fact is it's the same experimental setup with the same people, and that always carries a risk. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade - but I do think particle physicists need to be really careful about exactly what they announce when their experiments can't be duplicated.

Image from Wikipedia
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