Today’s Open Reading Frame comes to us from the Nature editorial pages, and serves as a good reminder to those of us who drink science with our morning coffee – scientists and laypeople alike! – that we should be especially cautious when we are met by those claims we most desperately wish to believe.
Earlier this year, a team of collaborators from a number of different research universities reported an exciting result from the South Pole: the BICEP2 experiment had produced solid proof of the theory of cosmic inflation. Within hours, the interwebs were abuzz, as the interwebs are wont to do when Physics of Great Import makes its way into the news (less so biology – a story for another time, there, perhaps?). We (well, I) watched press footage of one of the BICEP2 researchers surprising one of the Fathers of Inflation, Dr. Andrei Linde, at his home with the findings. We celebrated the clarity of Jorge Cham’s excellent visual explanation of the research. Perhaps we even tried to pore over more rigorous science in our efforts to understand. We, the lovers of science, the writers and learners and teachers and doers, let out a collective cheer at a longstanding and beautiful theory proved right.
…but did we celebrate too quickly? The preliminary report was released amidst a media circus. The findings have not been confirmed, and now come with increasing caveats; there is even a question as to whether one of the biggest recent discoveries in cosmology may be reduced to dust. As skeptical, analytically-minded folk, as science writers, even as scientists – were we too quick to see the work as a finished product, rather than a “work in progress”?
“Dust to dust” was published as last week’s Nature editorial in advance of an upcoming meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, at which the lessons of the overblown BICEP2 media hype will be discussed. I confess that I’m as culpable as anyone; I was just as excited about the BICEP2 data as any other universe-loving non-cosmologist. While the article is written from the perspective of science writers who were, perhaps, a little overzealous at the time the findings were reported, the caution the editors advise is more generally applicable. They remind us that, as intelligent producers and consumers of science, we must always be prepared to question those theories most dear to us; that even when we have good cause to be optimistic, we should retain that measure of practiced skepticism that characterizes a good logical thinker. Ultimately, the article recalls one of the best-known messages of beloved astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
TL; DR – Look for the evidence.
This relatively high-level blog post from mathematician Dr. Peter Woit, at Columbia University, details some of the controversy surrounding the BICEP2 findings.
If you’d rather go whole hog on the physics, check out BICEP2’s interwebs home here.