News outlets make neutrino hash
December 9, 2002 12:33 PM   Subscribe

What's the real story here? "An international team researching particle physics at Tohoku University has observed a new kind of neutrino." BZZT! Try again."Sun is ok, says latest neutrino experiment." BZZT. Wrong answer. The media sure made a hash out of this one. [more inside]
posted by ptermit (17 comments total)
The KamLAND experiment in Japan released some interesting results on Friday. They measured the number of electron antineutrinos coming from nuclear reactors and saw about 40% of those electron antineutrinos disappear, presumably turning into other flavors of antineutrinos. A very nice experiment, and rather important for (a) confirming that antineutrinos behave the same way neutrinos do and (b) pinning down the nature of these mysterious particles.

The press doesn't see it that way. They're reporting that new types of neutrinos have been found (they haven't), that the standard model is falling apart (it isn't), that it solves the solar neutrino paradox (it doesn't -- Sudbury Neutrino Observatory did), and that it provides the first solid evidence for neutrino oscillation (it doesn't -- Super-K did in the late 90s.) Even the New York Times article seems to have missed the fact that KamLAND measures antineutrinos instead of neutrinos, and the Washington Post account is incoherent.

With even technical stories like this one, I usually see one or two news organizations getting it right, but not in this case. Has anyone seen the worldwide press make such a universal hash out of a story before?
posted by ptermit at 12:45 PM on December 9, 2002

aha! thank-you. i read the bahcall paper from a few months(?) ago (about why solar studies were important and why it had taken so long for people to acknowledge that it was a problem with theory), but it made little sense because i hadn't realised that the neutrino problem was solved!

given the info in your post i've just been reading here and everything is now much clearer. i guess that explains the nobel prizes too. duh!

but on your original point - i think people simply don't think much. when it's politics, economics or whatever, it's not so clear that most of what most people say is pretty confused. when it's science, it's just more obvious.

it sounds arrogant, i know, but if you're a science grad you're probably in the top few percent as far as thinking goes. it takes a long time - especially if you're working in academia - before you realise how relatively little the rest of the population actual thinks (look at the arguments on mefi!). if you move from academia to industry, for example, it's a big shock to find so many people doing jobs poorly because they simply don't/can't think straight...

now i need to find out what the masses are and what the implications are for cosmology - presumably it turns out that they're non-zero but nothing like enough to give omega=1 (forgive my poor cosmology - i stopped doing astronomy just as vacuum pressure (delta(?) etc) was starting to became fashionable!)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:09 PM on December 9, 2002

It's interesting to read such different accounts of the same experiment. With my 20-year-old undergraduate physics education, they all sound like plausible accounts, although typically oversimplified for public consumption.

So where do you go for reasonably reliable accounts of recent research, in terms accessible to a layperson with a science background?
posted by fuzz at 1:21 PM on December 9, 2002

andrew cooke: Don't take these numbers as definitive, but I think that the absolute masses of the neutrinos have an upper limit of 2 eV or so. (This is more from cosmological observations and beta decay than from neutrino observatories; observatories give you delta m^2 rather than m, because they're measuring the oscillation parameters, which depend on mass differences rather than absolute masses.) IIRC, omega_neutrino is about 0.05 or so. (May not sound like a lot, but its about as much as the visible stars and galaxies.) You're right -- it's not nearly enough to account for the dark matter that has to be out there.

As for muddled thinking, I agree with you; one of the great benefits about scientific training is that it forces you to make logical arguments and think straight -- something that surprisingly few people can do. Nevertheless, I'm still surprised that nobody in the media got the story correct. For any physics story, I expect some of the lesser papers and the wire services to get it wrong on some level, but the NYT or Washington Post, or LA Times or somebody should get the story essentially right. That hasn't happened here as far as I can tell.

(On preview: good question, fuzz, and I wish I had a good answer. I usually go to Science or Nature or Physics Today, but they're not really layperson outlets. Usually the NYTimes and LATimes are pretty good -- they usually don't get things outright wrong, but I was disappointed this time.)
posted by ptermit at 1:41 PM on December 9, 2002

New Scientist and Scientific American are more accessible than Nature or Science, but also more frequently incorrect, unfortunately. When written by someone in their own field, such as E.O. Wilson on creepy-crawlies, Scientific American can be brilliant, but when written by a staffer, all bets are off.

For news summaries, Eurekalert isn't bad, but they have a terrible website. For physics news, I get the excellent Physics News Update from the American Institute of Physics: send a message containing "subscribe physnews" with no subject to
posted by bonehead at 3:46 PM on December 9, 2002

Thanks, ptermit. I had the same thoughts after reading your first link.

I get the feeling that if scientists were to issue press releases as well as publish papers, they could convey the excitement of scientific research while keeping the facts straight. A dose of modesty would help too.

On another note, it's good to see Super-Kamiokande getting back on its feet after the accident. AFAIK, there has been no experimental evidence of proton decay to date. It will be interesting to follow their work.
posted by FissionChips at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2002

thanks for the info (now i can impress my - astronomer, but local not high z stuff - partner again! ;-)

for maths related news, i used to read john baez's "finds". i didn't understand everything, but it was usually interesting. unfortunately, it seems to be usenet post only (no email list). hmm. i guess there should be a usenet to email filtering gateway somewhere...
posted by andrew cooke at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2002

The problem with scientists providing their own press releases is that many of them don't know how to communicate with the general public, much less journalists who more than likely took the bare minimum of science necessary to get their journalism degrees.

Take quantum computation for example. You can't understand the importance of new breakthroughs in QC without a basic understanding of quantum mechanics (eg. what a "superposition" means), which almost nobody has-- including some physicists!

So the only way scientists can make the importance of their work palpable to a general audience is to cut corners, make broad analogies, mention Einstein, etc.
posted by starkeffect at 12:02 AM on December 10, 2002

"when it's politics, economics or whatever, it's not so clear that most of what most people say is pretty confused. when it's science, it's just more obvious... it sounds arrogant, i know, but if you're a science grad you're probably in the top few percent as far as thinking goes."
OK, nobody else is taking this bit of nonsense to task, so I will.

This is due to your educational bias. Were you an economics graduate or poli-sci grad, it would be clear when someone was confused on those issues. The obviousness of the scientific faults lies in your own familiarity with the subject. The same goes for any subject - math, history, whatever. The majority of people don't know squat about the majority of subjects, but that has little to do with intelligence. Orson Welles couldn't perform basic math, but he's still considered a genius.

Your statement wasn't arrogance; it was ignorance. Scientific study gives you a particular mindset, one that is locked into a factual, logical progression of thought - A has to lead to B has to lead to C. And there is nothing wrong with that. But it's not the only way the human mind can work, and it doesn't automatically grant you intelligence. I've seen many science degree-wielding idiots spouting utter nonsense. Anybody who studies a particular field will be able to spot fallacies in that field quickly and easily.

Half the people in the world have below-average intelligence, it's true (it's also a tautology). But that's just numbers. You're equating your science background with your intelligence, and they're not connected the way you think they are. People with lower levels of intelligence tend to avoid higher education. It's no surprise, then, that people in academia tend to be smarter than those outside academia. But it's not academia making people smarter; it's smarter people choosing academia. That's not universal, mind you, but it does account for the majority.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:58 AM on December 10, 2002

ok, when i posted earlier i knew that i was pushing the limits of what was reasonable. but i don't think your analysis is perfect either.

first, you're also dealing in cliches. if everything in science were as simple as a leading to b to c then there would be no interesting research.

second, my general argument isn't about science education in particular - anyone working towards a phd is considerably smarter than "above average". it really is a terrible shock to leave academia and start working with "normal" people. they are, comparatively (and with exceptions, of course), quite strikingly stupid. sorry, but it's obvious - i'm just stating personal experience.

third, and here i'm afraid i simply have to offend you and state opinion based on personal experience, there appears to be a certain asymmetry between science and arts: while it's completely normal for a science student to appreciate the arts, it is exception to find an arts student that appreciates the sciences.

at college (that's "university" for americans), for example, i was relatively good friends with someone who studied english. she either got a first or a good 2.1, so she was pretty good at what she did. but when she took some kind of general aptitude test (gre?) for american universities, she faced a question which asked which price, if there were a discount of 7%, would be reduced by the largest amount. calculating 7% of a set of prices took a fair amount of time - when i pointed out that it had to be the largest price, she objected that it was a "trick question".

i don't know about you, but i find that level of numerical incompetence appalling. to lack that kind of skill is to lack basic aptitude in making decisions. i'd be interested to hear your opinion of an equivalent level of incompetence in the arts from a science student. what's the equivalent lack of arts-related knowledge that indicates you're not capable of making basic decisions rationally?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:49 PM on December 10, 2002

1) Everything in science is A leads to B leads to C. That's the whole point of it. But perhaps I should clarify what I mean. The result of a given experiment, for example, will yield the exact same result each time as long as the variables are not changed. Predictable, reproducable results is the cornerstone of science - that's how it differs from faith. Science is interesting simply due to the variety of variables.

2) That's not what you said originally. "if you're a science grad you're probably in the top few percent as far as thinking goes". Now you're saying educated people are generally smarter. Wow. Next you'll be telling me professional athletes are generally in better physical shape than the public, and they find it striking when they discover how out of shape the average American is. Shocking.

3) You really can't get offended over someone else's personal experience, but you also shouldn't draw conclusions from them, either. I have rarely found a science student with an appreciation for the arts. "Star Trek" is the height of artistic achievement to most of them. With my background (history & literature, currently a creative writer), I suppose I'd be considered an arts person but I have a great appreciation for the sciences. My experience is therefore the inverse of yours. Which is correct? I suspect neither.

Your friend's innumeracy isn't shocking so much as typical. Mathematic knowledge is appalingly bad in the general public. I'm in advertising, and I have to put "half off" as opposed to "50% off" in a commercial or it won't be understood. My morning paper is reporting that my city's third-most-spoken language is Arabic, essentially suggesting we're about to be overrun. Yet when you actually get to the numbers, it's about 1% - hardly an invasion.

An equvalent level of incompetence in the arts from a science student? Not being able to form a coherent sentence. Grammar, spelling, punctuation (and... ahem... capitalization) from a science student is almost universally atrocious. Whereas science emphasizes the rational, the arts emphasize communication. It's not just about making a rational decision; it's just as important to be able to effectively and coherently communicate that decision to others. That's art's yin to science's yang. Both are important. In the reverse, it's also of no use being able to communicate if you have nothing to say.

That's what I meant by your scientific bias. Your background leads you to assume rationality equals intelligence, since rationality is key to understanding science. But rationality can be a hindrance to creativity, which is the key to understanding the arts. Creativity and rationality can indicate intelligence, but neither is a guarantee. Someone can be completely irrational or creatively bankrupt and still be intelligent.

I don't want this to appear to be an argument. Our positions aren't very far apart. Yes, there is an appalling lack of rational thinking in the general public, just as there is an appalling lack of lateral thinking. You initially were inferring (intentionally or not) a scientific education was the only route to intelligence, which you defined as rationality. I trust we can both now agree that intelligence is not just rationality, and that any quality higher education will improve an individual's intellectual ability, either rationally or creatively. The ideal intellectual would have a combination of the two. What say you?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:02 AM on December 11, 2002

"A leads to B leads to C" is not the norm in science. (And if you think that result of a given experiment will be exactly the same each time you perform the experiment, you've never taken an undergraduate lab course. *grin*) It's usually more like: "We know A. What could be causing this? B is a possibility. So is C. So is D." If you're lucky, you get an experiment that immediately eliminates D, and perhaps B and C linger on for years until scientists conculde that B is better than C.

There's lots of room for creativity in science -- you're just constrained by observation and by experiment and by your increasing level of knowledge about the universe. And I don't think rationality is a hindrance to creativity any more than the rules of language are a hindrance to expression.

(Incidentally, in support of andrew's asymmetry argument, I know of a number of scientists and mathematicians who have dabbled in the arts and literature but very few literati and artists who dabbled in science. The only one I can think of is Nabokov.)
posted by ptermit at 10:57 AM on December 11, 2002

Science at a fundamental level IS a therefore b therefore c. Everything is concrete; there is no room in an atom for creativity. If you get a different result from an experiment, you've done it wrong or a variable has changed. As for the changing theories in science, believe me I know a great deal about it. Words like phlogiston, caloric, and epicycles actually have meaning to me. I was not suggesting theories don't change. Theories aren't the a-b-cs I was talking about. I'm saying when you combine two atoms of hydrogen with one atom of oxygen, you get a molecule of water and rarely ever a molecule of gold. There are absolutes in science, at least to the extent we currently understand the universe. When you start getting subatomic or go back to Planck's time things do get a little wonky, but that's due more to our current lack of understanding. C'mon, people, there are certain "knowns" in science. It's not alchemy. The process is understood. It's virtually mathematic in the precise way it operates. Chemicals interact in a clearly predictable way (at least, when we know enough of the variables involved). That's A to B to C. If you ever get a strange result in an experiment, there's an explanation for it. It's not random (chaos theory aside).

As for rationality being a hindrance to creativity... ever looked at abstract art? It's not rational, and no perfectly rational person would ever produce it. Sure, they can operate together; I'm not saying that. But thought that is too rational is - your word - CONSTRAINED. Creativity in its purest form has no restraints. Looking at a problem in a creative fashion is imperative to overcoming it, so there is always a place for creativity in science. But too much creativity and you get aliens building pyramids.

It's the same with art. To properly resonate with people, it must have some rational base, some tie to reality. But too much rationality and you end up with a textbook.

(As for artists who dabble in science, how about Azimov, Heinlen, Ellison, Wells, Clarke? Either advancing it in theory or in design, they have all "dabbled" in science. Newton wrote more on philosophy than he did on science, and more on religion than science and philosophy combined. Got another hypothesis in need of a great, big, sharp needle?)
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:11 PM on December 11, 2002

I think we're basically in agreement -- there are certainly absolutes in science -- but I still say that doing science is creative. For example, take quantum mechanics (which is, fundamentally "wonky", not wonky because of our lack of understanding.) Schrodinger and Heisenberg each approached the problem from two drastically different ways. Bohr has one interpretation and Bohm has another. Schwinger used concrete plodding mathematics and Feynman used funky diagrams to help him understand. There are many different approaches and many different *correct* ways of thinking about a problem.

Creativity in its purest form has no restraints.
I don't agree. Yes, you're constrained in science, but you're constrained when you're writing a sonnet. By your definition, typing random words onto the page is closer to pure creativity than writing a sonnet.

If you ever get a strange result in an experiment, there's an explanation for it. It's not random (chaos theory aside).
That's simply not true. Experiments have a large dose of randomness, which is why they need to use sophisticated statistical techniques to figure out whether they've made a discovery or not.

As for artists who dabble in science, how about Azimov, Heinlen, Ellison, Wells, Clarke? Either advancing it in theory or in design, they have all "dabbled" in science.
By dabbling, I mean *doing*. None of these people you mention have done any science; they haven't performed experiments or come up with new theories. Nabokov, on the other hand, contributed to the taxonomy of butterflies, IIRC. That's the sort of dabbling I was referring to -- a concrete contribution to the body of scientific knowledge.

Newton wrote more on philosophy than he did on science, and more on religion than science and philosophy combined.
He was trained as a mathematician, he was employed as an astronomer and a treasurer. That makes him a scientist who wrote (rather badly) about philosophy, alchemy, and religion. He's remembered for his scientific work, though his religious and philosophical tracts are justly forgotten.
posted by ptermit at 1:25 PM on December 11, 2002

Ptermit, Asimov had a Ph.D. in chemistry, and held an associate professorship in biochemistry for about a decade. Last I checked you typically had to make an original contribution to the general body of knowledge in order to get a doctorate.
posted by hattifattener at 10:39 PM on December 11, 2002

First of all, I never said there was no creativity in science. In fact, I've said quite the opposite - it's often necessary to be creative to overcome difficulties in science, to get past problems. But that doesn't make science creative. Creativity doesn't determine the atomic weight of an element. It's predetermined; it's already been decided. It's only up to us to discover. That's what I mean by science being rational and, at its core, without creativity. You're mixing up the actual process of science with the process of understanding science. We need to be creative to understand science at times, but the science itself isn't creative; it's fixed. Quantum mechanics may be wonky, but it also could be wrong (in its specifics rather than its essence, like the evolutionary process). It may be wonky simply because we don't fully understand what's happening at that level.

Yes, a sonnet is constrained. But again, a sonnet isn't pure creativity. It's creativity in a structure (the sonnet form). There is a bit of rationality - the conventions of poetic form - mixed in with the creativity. Hence art needing rationality as much as science needs creativity. It's doubtful we'll ever see an example of pure creative thought, the same way we may never see science in its pure form. You could say Heisenberg takes care of that.

And it's rather disingenuous to dismiss Newton's artistic contributions simply because his scientific achievements were so important. He certainly did not consider himself a scientist, and is probably quite disappointed we don't remember what he considered his far more important work.

(but really, what the heck does all of this have to do with neutrinos and newspapers?)
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:36 AM on December 12, 2002

Sorry to resurrect a dead thread, but I'm back from a trip and figured I had to respond...

hattifattener: I stand corrected.

Ghost in the machine: (but really, what the heck does all of this have to do with neutrinos and newspapers?) Not much. Good point. :)
posted by ptermit at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2002

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