THE BLOG

Messy Science, and Why Everyone Benefits From Showing the Mess

17/10/2014 12:36 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 10:59 GMT

This article in Nature about lessons to learn from the BICEP2 announcement of the discovery of primordial gravitational waves is well-thought and worth the read.

Here are a few of the comments in the article that I found very useful to consider:

As BICEP2 clearly demonstrates, most science is a work in progress.

This is something that I try and put across when discussing science and the scientific method with the general public. Sure, science is a human endeavour. Scientists don't like to be wrong, there are politics involved. However, if sufficient evidence arises, scientists will (eventually) revise their model or claim, or even scrap it all together. There is sufficient historical evidence that this has happened over and over, even though the evidence also shows that it doesn't always happen as fast as it should. With technology comes faster and easier communication and therefore increased scrutiny by peers, which hopefully means that this critical introspection by the scientific community is happening faster than in the past.

What in reality is a long, messy and convoluted process of three steps forward and two steps back is too easily presented as giant leaps between states of confusion and blinding revelation.

This is something I find very frustrating in the portrayal of science in the media, both in the news and especially in films. Giant leaps in science are rare. When they happen, they rely on decades of new technology, and often arise after deep struggles within the scientific community.

However, it is scientists duty to portray science as it is: messy and long-winded. As this article points out, the BICEP2 collaboration was too eager to (literally) pop the champagne bottle, supporting the idea that there had been a giant leap. Similarly, in 2011, the faster-than-light neutrinos controversy was mostly due to the fact that the OPERA team had called for a web cast seminar to announce what they new was probably a bug. Their words were extremely cautious, but then why the advertised web cast seminar?

If scientists entertain the myth that giant leaps are the everyday happening of science, science funders will expect extraordinary claims in return for funding, and everyone will be disappointed with that game.